Harry Haywood

Harry Haywood

Harry Haywood was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898. The son of sharecroppers and former slaves, Haywood did well at school and became an ardent admirer of Booker T. Washington. However, his views became more radical after his family were attacked by a white mob and ordered to leave town.

Haywood joined the United States Army during the First World War and in 1918 served for six months on the Western Front in France. On his return to the United States Haywood became a railroad waiter in Chicago.

In 1919 a white mob killed a black teenager for swimming in Lake Michigan near a white beach. This resulted in a six-day race riot that resulted in the deaths of 38 people. During the riot Haywood joined other First World War veterans in setting up an armed group to defend black communities in the city. The events of Red Summer helped to radicalize Haywood.

Haywood became active in the civil rights movement and was a member of the African Blood Brotherhood and Young Communist League before joining the American Communist Party in 1925. Later that year he travelled to the Soviet Union and studied Marxism at the Lenin International School in Moscow. Haywood became an important political figure and was influential in the decision of the Comintern in 1928 to state that "American blacks as an oppressed nation".

In the late 1920s he was a supporter of the faction led by William Z. Foster and approved of the way that the followers of Leon Trotsky, such as Jay Lovestone, Benjamin Gitlow, Bertram Wolfe and Charles Zimmerman, were removed from the American Communist Party in 1929.

In 1930 Haywood returned to the United States where he became a prominent figure in the party. He also formed the League for Negro Rights which campaigned against lynching. Haywood was also active in the attempts to free the Scotsboro Boys.

In 1936 Haywood joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a unit that volunteered to fight for the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War. Haywood arrived in Spain in May 1937 and was appointed adjutant commissar of the Fifteenth Brigade.

During the Second World War Haywood served in the Merchant Marine. He also published Negro Liberation (1948) and his memoirs, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (1978).

According to William Eric Perkins: Haywood continued to be one of the most astute observers of the civil rights and black power movements from an independent standpoint during the later 1950s and 1960s. His work on the insurrectionary potential of the black masses in the long, hot summers of 1965-1968; his work on the revolutionary implications of black nationalism with the emergence of Malcolm X, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers."

Harry Haywood died in 1978.

Primary Sources

(1) Steve Nelson explained why Oliver Law was promoted to company commander when he was interviewed by Peter N. Carroll on 9th June 1990.

The idea was that we do something about advancing a black. But the thing that mattered most was that he had military experience. Law was the guy who had the most experience and was the most acquainted with military procedures on the staff.

(2) Canute Frankson, member of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, letter from Albacete (6th July, 1937)

I'm sure that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed explanation of what has this international struggle to do with my being here. Since this is a war between whites who for centuries have held us in slavery, and have heaped every kind of insult and abuse upon us, segregated and Jim-crowed us; why I, a Negro who have fought through these years for the rights of my people, am here in Spain today?

Because we are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part of, a great progressive force, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here we'll save our people in America, and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment, and slaughter which the Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Hitler's Fascist heels.

All we have to do is to think of the lynching of our people. We can but look back at the pages of American history stained with the blood of Negroes; stink with the burning bodies of our people hanging from trees; bitter with the groans of our tortured loved ones from whose living bodies ears, fingers, toes have been cut for souvenirs - living bodies into which red-hot pokers have been thrust. All because of a hate created in the minds of men and women by their masters who keep us all under their heels while they suck our blood, while they live in their bed of ease by exploiting us.