The Communist Party in Harlem

In the early to mid-twentieth century, the Communist Party played an important role in the struggle to establish civil rights for African Americans. Though the Party concentrated its efforts in the South, it also organized Black communities in the North. As early as the 1930s, when the Harlem Renaissance was flourishing, the Communist Party had a presence in the Harlem neighborhood. One aspect of the Party’s work there was to temper white working-class discrimination against Black people as they moved to Northern cities in increasing numbers. As the Party worked to unify these communities, it also sought to establish unemployment benefits, put an end to evictions, and stop police brutality. In the late 1930s, many Black artists and intellectuals aligned themselves with the Communist Party. Ralph Ellison, who moved to New York in 1936, numbered among the Party’s Black supporters, alongside Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Ellison’s close friend and mentor Richard Wright. But by the mid-1940s Ellison grew disillusioned with Party leaders, who increasingly emphasized social reform at the expense of class-based organization. Shortly after breaking with the Party, Ellison began writing Invisible Man, where he depicts a similar form of treachery on the part of the Brotherhood.