“The Crime of Being Born Black on American Soil”: Claudia Jones’s Statement Before Being Sentenced, February 2, 1953

The Black Agenda Review
MANIFESTO: “The Crime of Being Born Black on American Soil”: Claudia Jones’s Statement Before Being Sentenced, February 2, 1953 Claudia Jones and fellow targeted comrades

Claudia Jones’s arrests and eventual deportation were part of the expansion of the US government’s Cold War attacks on immigrants—Black immigrants included—who were affiliated with the Communist Party.

“The Negro witness [William Garfield] Cummings laughed at the thought of his $10,000 Judas gold jingling in his pocket when he said he would turn informer on his own mother for a mess of the prosecutor’s pottage.”

Claudia Jones  was one of the most important Black radical thinkers and organizers of the twentieth century. Born Claudia Cumberbatch on February 21, 1915 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, British West Indies, Jones immigrated to the United States, to Harlem, in 1924. Inspired by the Communist Party USA’s (CPUSA) defense  of the Scottsboro  “boys,” and by their efforts to forge a link between this miscarriage of justice in Alabama and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Jones joined the Party and the Young Communist League in 1936. She began writing for Party publications including the Daily WorkerSpotlight, and the Weekly Review, becoming editor of the latter journal in 1941. Although her communist affiliations prompted the denial of her application for U.S. citizenship in 1940, Jones remained committed to the CPUSA and, by 1946 was elected to its National Committee and would later serve as secretary of its Women’s Commission.

Jones’ prominence within the Party led to the intensification of her surveillance and harassment by the FBI —and, ultimately, to the criminalization of her politics. On January 19, 1948, Jones was arrested with several other CPUSA leaders and indicted  under the Alien Registration Act of 1940 , commonly known as the Smith Act. Released on bail, Jones was re-arrested and held on Ellis Island for a second time on October 23, 1950 under the Internal Security Act of 1950 , also known as the McCarran Act. She was arrested again on June 29, 1951, this time under the Smith Act. Her specific offense was that she had given a speech and written an article  on the role of women in the struggle for peace, which violated the conditions of her bail. On January 21, 1953, Jones was convicted of a variety of charges associated with purportedly advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. government. She was sentenced to one year and one day in prison and a $200 fine. After the Supreme Court refused to hear her appeals, Jones was imprisoned in the Women’s Penitentiary  in Alderson, West Virginia. On December 9th, 1955 Jones was deported to London, England. In England she continued her activism and journalism, editing the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Caribbean News  and organizing the first London Caribbean Carnival , which would plant the seeds for the founding of the famous Notting Hill Carnival .

“Jones’ specific offense was that she had given a speech and written an article  on the role of women in the struggle for peace, which violated the conditions of her bail.”

Jones’s arrests and eventual deportation were part of the expansion of the US government’s Cold War attacks on immigrants—Black immigrants included—who were affiliated with the Communist Party. By February 1947, for example, 124 people had been deported from the United States because they were communists. In effect, anti-communism had become a key tool for discipling radicals, like Jones, who challenged U.S. imperialism, capitalist exploitation, anti-Black racism, and war. Reflecting on the punishment she endured in the United States, Jones stated in a 1956 interview  that she was a “victim of McCarthyite hysteria against independent political ideas in the U.S.A., a hysteria which penalizes anyone who holds ideas contrary to the official pro-war, pro-reactionary line of the white ruling class of that country.” Likewise, she argued that as a “Negro woman communist,” she had been targeted by the United States government for opposing Jim Crow, for urging unity between Black and white workers, and for insisting upon the prosecution of white supremacists instead of communists. This echoed a statement she had made nearly a decade earlier about her persecution. “I have become ‘dangerous’ to the Truman administration,” she wrote after her release on bail in 1948, “because as a Negro woman, I have dared to challenge the civil rights lip-service cry of his reactionary administration which is yet to lift a finger to prosecute the lynchers, the Ku Klux Klan or the anti-Semites.”

“Jones argued that she had been targeted for opposing Jim Crow, for urging unity between Black and white workers, and for insisting upon the prosecution of white supremacists instead of communists.”

The statement Jones gave to the court on February 2, 1953, following her nine-month-long Smith Act trial , is reprinted below. In the statement, Jones argued that the court, the judge, and the trial itself were steeped in injustice for finding her guilty of being a Communist, for misconstruing the advocacy of ideas as violent acts against the government, and for relying on trumped-up charges and the testimony of paid informants to convict her. She insisted that she was being punished for protesting the Korean War, demanding racial equality, and challenging the steady rise of fascism in the United States. Jones further pointed out that the Smith Act trials represented a “desperate fear of the people” and that the US government had a long history of punishing poor and working-class African Americans for “the crime of being born black on American soil.” Jones concluded the statement by expressing faith that working people would be inspired by the trial to struggle even harder for peace, equality, and freedom.


Statement Before Being Sentenced to One Year and a Day Imprisonment by Judge Edward J. Dimock after a nine months trial of 13 Communist leaders at Foley Square, New York, 1953

Claudia Jones

Your Honour, there are a few things I wish to say. For if what I say here serves even one whit to further dedicate growing millions of Americans to fight for peace and to repel the fascist drive on free speech and thought in our country, I shall consider my rising to speak worthwhile indeed.

Quite candidly Your Honour, I say these things not with any idea that what I will say will influence your sentence of me. For, even with all the power your Honour holds, how can you decide to mete out justice for the only act to which I proudly plead guilty, and one, moreover, which by your own prior rulings constitutes no crime—that of holding Communist ideas; of being a member and officer of the Communist Party of the United States?

Will you measure, for example, as worthy of one year’s sentence, my passionate adherence to the idea of fighting for full unequivocal equality for my people, the Negro people which as a Communist I believe can only be achieved allied to the cause of the working class?

“How can you decide to mete out justice for the only act to which I proudly plead guilty — that of holding Communist ideas; of being a member and officer of the Communist Party of the United States?”

A year for another vital Communist belief, that the bestial Korean War is an unjust war? Or my belief that peaceful coexistence of nations can be achieved and peace won if struggled for?

Another year for my belief that only under socialism will exploitation of man by man be finally abolished and the great human and industrial resources of the nation be harnessed for the well-being of the people?

Still another year’s sentence for my belief that the denial of the exercise of free speech and thought to Communists only precedes, as history confirms, the denial of the exercise of these rights to all Americans?

Et cetera, Honourable Judge?

Of course your Honour might choose still another path for sentence.

You will no doubt choose as the basis for sentence the concocted lies which flowed so smoothly from the well-paid tongues of stool pigeons and informers who paraded before you here and gave so-called evidence which the Court has asserted was “amply justified.”

“Amply justified” your Honour? What has been amply justified? The lies of degenerate witnesses like [Thomas Aaron] Younglove who can only be compared to Van Der Lubbe of the Reichstag Trial? The despicable forced admission of the Negro witness [William Garfield] Cummings who laughed at the thought of his $10,000 Judas gold jingling in his pocket when he said he would turn informer on his own mother for a mess of the prosecutor’s pottage?

The ill-practiced and unspeakable droning of the other Negro informer [Louis] Rosser, who blurted out his well-memorized script, and even, on your Honour’s prodding, would drift off into half-intelligible intonations, “I don’t know what you are talking about,” to name but a few examples!

“The denial of the exercise of free speech and thought to Communists only precedes, as history confirms, the denial of the exercise of these rights to all Americans.”

“Amply justified!” Indeed! This “evidence!”

There was no official stamp powerful enough, your Honour, to dignify the obscenity of this trial of ideas. Hence, for me to accept the verdict of guilty would only mean that I considered myself less than worthy of the dignity of truth, which I cherish as a Communist and as a human being and also unsuitable to the utter contempt with which I hold such sordid performances.

That is why I find now, as throughout this trial of the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, that it is we, the defendants, who are morally free and conversely it is the prosecutors and the Court itself that stands naked before the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and the people of our country.

It is this, your Honour, that explains the not-so-strange reason that you yourself observed that we feel no guilt. For true though it is that the prosecutor has its framed-up verdict on a framed-up indictment and trial, it is not we Communist defendants who tremble at this final stage of these trial court proceedings, but the very prosecutors of our ideas.

Truly, the prosecution’s victory sits shakily. For our ideas were confirmed in the course of this trial itself.

It was the world-renowned Karl Marx, founder of the Marxist-Leninist science, for which application to American and world historical conditions we were so fearfully convicted, who long ago predicted that “The time would come when the powers that be would no longer live by the very laws they themselves have fashioned.”

 In the libraries and great institutions of learning and yes, your Honour, particularly in the homes of Negro and white workers, will not such reading—which will not stop with this or any other Smith Act trial—will not men, women and youth think and ponder that such a time is here?

“It is we, the defendants, who are morally free and conversely it is the prosecutors and the Court itself that stands naked before the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and the people of our country.”

The thinking process, as your Honour well knows, is a process that defies jailing. When it is all boiled down what shows is not the strength of the policies and practices of our prosecutors—which are akin to police-state practices—but their desperate fear of the people. Nothing shows this more, your Honour, than our exposure of the biased jury drawn from a system which virtually excludes Negros [sic], Puerto Rican and manual workers. This virtual exclusion exists not because of lack of qualifications or even financial hardship, but because of deliberate discrimination based on consciously cultivated white supremacist ruling class prejudice which sullies our boasted Western culture.

This conscious white supremacist prejudice, which Mr. [Pettis] Perry  so well pointed out , was shown in the gingerly handling by the prosecutors and ofttimes, the Court of the Achilles heel of this alleged “force and violence” charge against us in relation to the Negro question.

Introduce a title page to show Claudia Jones wrote an article during the indictment period, but you dare not read even a line of it, even to a biased jury, on which sat a lone Negro juror, there by mere accident, since he was an alternate well through most of the trial. You dare not, gentlemen of the prosecution, assert that Negro women can think and speak and write!

Moreover, you dare not read it because the article not only refutes the assertion that the ruling class will ever grant equality to 15,000,000 Negro Americans, but shows that what we are granted is unrequited force and violence not only in the unpunished barbaric crime of lynching, but in eating, in everyday existence, in living, in the armed forces, in jails, in the denial of land, in recreation—yes, even in the nation’s cemeteries.

The prosecution also cancelled out the overt act which accompanied the original indictment of the defendant Jones entitled “Women in the Struggle for Peace and Security .” And why, your Honour? It cannot be read, your Honour—it urges American mothers, Negro women and white, to emulate the peace struggles of their anti-fascist sisters in Latin America, in the new European democracies, in the Soviet Union, in Asia and Africa to end the bestial Korean war, to stop “operation killer,” to bring our boys home, to reject the militarist threat to embroil us in a war with China, so that their children should not suffer the fate of the Korean babies murdered by napalm bombs of B-29s, or the fate of Hiroshima.

“You dare not, gentlemen of the prosecution, assert that Negro women can think and speak and write!”

Is all this not further proof that what we were also tried for was our opposition to racist ideas, so integral a part of the desperate drive by the men of Wall Street to war and fascism?

One thought pervaded me throughout this trial and pervades me still, and it is this: In the nine and one-half months of this trial, millions of children have been born. I speak only of those who live. Will the future of those children, including those of our defendants and even your Honour’s grandchildren, be made more secure by the jailing of 13 men and women Communists whose crimes are not criminal acts but advocacy of ideas? Is this not a tyrannical violation of the American dream of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

It was in an American junior high school where I first learned of the great traditions of popular liberty of American history, for which I then received the Theodore Roosevelt Award for good citizenship.

That I have learned to interpret that history and to work to influence its change for the betterment of the people with the indispensable weapon of Marxist-Leninist ideas, that is the real crime against me.

Of all other charges I am innocent.

It was here on this soil (and not as Mr. [Myles J.] Lane would depict to the Court, as a young child of eight years of age waving revolutionary slogans), that I had early experienced experiences which are shared by millions of native-born Negroes—the bitter indignity and humiliation of second-class citizenship, the special status which makes a mockery of our Government’s prated claims of a “free America” in a “free world” for 15 million Negro Americans.

It was out of my Jim Crow experiences as a young Negro woman, experiences likewise born of working-class poverty that led me in my search of why these things had to be that led me to join the Young Communist League and to choose at the age of 18 the philosophy of my life, the science of Marxism-Leninism—that philosophy that not only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them.

“Will the future of those children be made more secure by the jailing of 13 men and women Communists whose crimes are not criminal acts but advocacy of ideas?”

In this courtroom there has often flashed before me the dozens of meetings of Negro and white workers in the great auto plants at the Rouge, of New England textile workers, of students and of women active in the peace struggle which I have addressed on behalf of my Party. Just as now, there flashes in my mind’s eye those young Negro women I have seen at the Women’s House of Detention, almost children, of whom, but for my early discovery of Marxism-Leninism, I might have had to say now, “There might I have been.”

For what crimes? Petty crimes born of poverty, of the ghetto, of Jim Crow living, the crime of being born black on American soil, of resisting treatment, rebellion against which un-channeled, became lawless against the very Jim Crow society that perpetuates their lawlessness.

One need only be a Negro in America to know that for the crime of being a Negro we are daily convicted by a Government which denies us elementary democratic rights, the right to vote, to hold office, to hold judgeships, to serve on juries, rights forcibly denied in the South and also in the North. And I want to concur with Mr. Perry’s proposal to Mr. Lane that he recommend to the Department of Justice that they show more zeal, since they have not ever prosecuted a single anti-Semite or a Klu Kluxer in these United States with its total of 5,000 lynched Negro men, women and children since the 1860s.

I am aware that these things are not to the liking of the prosecution or even of this Court, but that cannot be helped, for one of the historical truths of all history is that the oppressed never revere their oppressors.

Now I come to a close. The probation official who interrogated me was a Negro official. Your Honour undoubtedly has his reports before you. One of the questions that he asked me was did I ever believe in any religion. I told him then that this was a personal, private matter and was guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution. I wonder now, your Honour, if he somehow falsely reckoned, as many officials falsely reckon, that a change of belief or conviction in one’s mature life is like putting on a new dress or a new hat? I could have quoted Scripture to him, the Scripture applied by a leading Negro religious figure in tribute and in observation of the Smith Act jailing of one of the outstanding sons of the Negro people, Ben Davis , now incarcerated in the Jim Crow Federal Penitentiary of Terre Haute, Indiana. The Scripture runs: “Smite down the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.”

And this, Honourable Judge, is exactly what is the purpose of all Smith Act trials, this one in particular. I share the faith of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Pettis Perry and all my co-defendants that America’s working people, Negro and white, will surely rise, not like sheep, but with vigilance towards their liberty, to assure that peace will win, and that the decadent Smith Act, which contravenes the Bill of Rights, will be swept from the scene of history.

It was the great Frederick Douglass who had a price on his head, who said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.” And echoing his words was the answer of the great abolitionist poet, James Russell Lowell: “The limits of tyranny is proscribed by the measure of our resistance to it.”

If, out of this struggle, history assesses that I and my co-defendants have made some small contribution, I shall consider my role small indeed. The glorious exploits of anti-fascist heroes and heroines, honoured today in all lands for their contribution to social progress, will, just like the role of our prosecutors, also be measured by the people of the United States in that coming day.

I have concluded, your Honour.

First published in 13 Communists Speak to the Court  (New York: New Century Publishers, 1953) and reprinted as  “…[Black] women can think and speak and write!” In Carole Boyce Davies, ed., Claudia Jones Beyond Containment (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011), 6-10.

Transcription by Jessica Newby.