Claudia Jones speaks at a Communist Party event in the 1940s. Seated behind her is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Claudia Jones (1915–1964), an Afro-Caribbean woman born in Port of Spain, British West Indies (Trinidad), was a Communist activist in the U.S., holding several responsible positions within the Communist Party and for its publications until her deportation in 1955 to Great Britain. There, based in London, she played a leading role in the West Indian community, editing the left-wing West Indian Gazette, and founding (in 1959) the Caribbean Carnival, a cultural event now attracting some two million people each year. The following biographical article originally appeared in Political Affairs in 2007.
Claudia Jones was born Claudia Cumberbatch in 1915 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, a British colony. Though her family was well off, the economic crisis after World War I forced the family to migrate to the Harlem section of New York City in 1922 to seek work. Jones’s mother, Sybil, worked in the garment industry to support the family but died in 1927. Jones’s father, Charles, lost his job as an editor of a West Indian newspaper with the onset of the Great Depression and took meager-paying work as a building superintendent. Poverty and poor living conditions caused Claudia to contract tuberculosis in 1932 at the age of 17, which would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Claudia was a brilliant student, earning academic awards and high honors. But career choices for a Black immigrant woman were severely limited. Instead of going to college after high school, Jones took work in a laundry, then a factory, and a variety of other jobs in Harlem stores. Jones joined a drama group sponsored by the National Urban League and began to write a column called “Claudia Comments” for a Harlem periodical.
In the mid-1930s, Jones joined with thousands of Harlemites to protest the injustice surrounding the case of the Scottsboro Nine. In 1931, nine Black youths had been accused of raping a white woman. Tried without adequate counsel and before an all-white jury, the nine youths were quickly convicted. The International Labor Defense, a civil rights legal group organized by the Communist Party USA, took over the case and tied the appeal process to a global campaign to free the nine and to expose the racist criminal justice system prevailing in the U.S.
As a result of these experiences, Jones joined the Young Communist League in 1936. Soon after, Jones took a position on the staff of the Daily Worker, a forerunner of today’s People’s World. Jones became politically active in the youth movement, becoming the YCL’s Harlem organizer and an activist in both the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Her eloquence as a writer and speaker, her effectiveness as an organizer and leader, and her understanding of Marxist theory speeded her advancement through the party ranks.
In the early 1940s, she served on the National Council of the YCL, headed its educational section, and sat on the editorial board of its periodical, Weekly Review. In 1943, Jones took over as editor of Spotlight, the monthly journal of the American Youth for Democracy. Throughout this period, Jones’ political work focused on organizing unemployed youth in the struggle for jobs and equality. She worked closely with Harlem youth clubs, civil rights and religious groups, and immigrant organizations.
In the summer of 1943, according to government documents, the FBI included Jones among those subversives they felt may be “considered for custodial detention.” Under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s direct orders, bureaucratic processes to have Jones eventually detained were begun. It is important to note that when this order was handed down, the FBI appeared to know nothing of Jones’ birthplace and believed her to be a natural-born U.S. citizen. The documents do not seem to reflect that Jones’ application for citizenship several years earlier had been denied because of her political beliefs. Orders for Jones’ detention at this point were drawn up purely because she was an important figure in the communist movement.
Other than her political activities gathered by informants, FBI agents knew precious little about her except that she had “good teeth,” a “neat appearance,” and “attractive dimples on her cheeks.” At this point, records indicate the FBI was unsure about her address, and, until several months later, they failed to record that she was married to Abraham Scholnick. By 1947, the FBI labeled Jones a “top functionary” of the Communist Party and demanded “continuous, active, and vigorous investigation” of Jones from its informants and agents.
In 1945, Jones was appointed “Negro Affairs” editor of the Daily Worker as the paper’s youngest staff person. That same year, she helped found and was assigned to the National Negro Commission of the Communist Party by the party’s National Committee. She worked closely with organizations such as the New Jersey Labor School, taught symposia at the Jefferson School for Social Research, and worked with inter-faith groups on the issue of civil rights and racial equality. In 1946, Jones helped organize a mass demonstration in Albany, N.Y., to protest the slaying of two Black youths in Freeport, Long Island in New York.
In the post-war period, Jones published numerous articles criticizing the emerging Cold War mentality offered by the likes of Winston Churchill, rejected the anti-Semitism of the ultra-right and the anti-Communists, called for an end to lynching and terrorism against African Americans, and opposed the anti-labor Taft-Hartley law. In 1947, Jones accepted the position of chair of the National Women’s Commission of the Communist Party.
It was during her tenure at this post that Jones first formulated the theory of the “triple oppression” of working-class women of color who represent a “vital link” to a “heightened sense of consciousness” of the need for a common, united struggle against oppression and exploitation. In her report to the Communist Party’s 1950 national convention, Jones asserted the need to “demonstrate that the economic, political, and social demands of Negro women are not just ordinary demands, but special demands, flowing from special discrimination facing Negro women as women, as workers, and as Negroes.” Jones also viewed racial oppression as a strong motivation and justification for proponents of U.S. imperialism and aggressive wars, making international solidarity, a strong peace movement, and a vigorous movement for equality more necessary than ever.
In January 1948, Jones was arrested on immigration charges, despite the fact that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had told the FBI just a few months before that it did not view Jones as in violation of immigration law. Jones was held at Ellis Island and awaited deportation. The American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born came to her aid, providing legal assistance and $1,000 bail. The Communist Party immediately launched a large campaign to prevent Jones’ deportation. Marches were held in Harlem and at federal offices downtown, and thousands of readers of the Daily Worker sent letters of protest to President Truman.
With able legal counsel from George Crockett, Jr., a prominent African-American lawyer and future member of Congress from Detroit, Jones was not deported at this point. But in 1951, Jones was arrested again with several other Communist Party leaders, including James E. Jackson, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Simon Gerson, and others, for violating the Smith Act, which outlawed “advocating” the overthrow of the U.S. government. Government agents and prosecutors ignored the fact that the Communist Party never taught or advocated such a thing.
Jones was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay a heavy fine. Meanwhile, she continued to advocate for equality. Working with the Congress of American Women, Jones protested the exclusion of women from juries, police brutality against people of color, and full employment for African American youth. Along with the Civil Rights Congress, she led protests against McCarthyism and the imprisonment of Communist Party leaders.
Jones remained free while her case was under appeal until 1955. That year, the Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal, and she was sent to federal prison in West Virginia. While behind bars, Jones suffered a heart attack and was weakened by a cardiovascular disease from which she would never fully recover. Released in October 1955 after a campaign led by the Civil Rights Congress to have her sentence reduced, Jones was forced into exile to Britain.
There, Jones continued to advocate for racial equality and the liberation of Britain’s colonial possessions. She published the West Indian Gazette, founded London’s Caribbean Carnival (now called the Notting Hill Carnival), and traveled to the Soviet Union and China in the early 1960s. Jones may have even visited Vietnam during her trip to the East, though the details remain unknown. Diseases she had contracted while in U.S. prisons plagued her in her remaining years. In and out of hospitals, Jones finally succumbed to heart disease and died on Christmas Eve 1964. Her remains were buried near the grave of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery.
In an article that appeared in the journal Masses and Mainstream just months before her prison term would begin, Jones denounced the U.S. government’s continued imprisonment of Communist Party leader Benjamin Davis. In Jones’ view, Davis had been arrested and imprisoned for the views he advocated, not simply for his party affiliation and certainly not for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. Davis had called for peace, workers’ rights, full equality for African Americans, all racial, ethnic, and national minorities, and women, and for the rights of the poor and exploited.
In a statement that would foreshadow her own future and even our own time, Jones wrote:
“They’ve jailed Ben Davis. But his ideas are still abroad. It is Ben Davis himself who can best express his ideas from ladders on the streets of Harlem, in the broad arena of political and legislative struggle, in unity meetings with his people, Negro and white, and with white allies, and in the councils of his own Party. Until he can do so, the McCarthyites and the racists will have a strong weapon with which to spread fear and subversion.”
In her autobiography, Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn published a poem dedicated to Jones, with whom she had spent several months in federal prison. In it she celebrated Jones’ role in the struggle and her new freedom:
Farewell to Claudia
By Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Nearer and nearer drew this day, dear comrade,
When I from you must sadly part,
Day after day, a dark foreboding sorrow,
Crept through my anxious heart.
No more to see you striding down the pathway,
No more to see your smiling eyes and radiant face.
No more to hear your gay and pealing laughter,
No more encircled by your love, in this sad place.
How I will miss you, words will fail to utter,
I am alone, my thoughts unshared, these weary days,
I feel bereft and empty, on this gray and dreary morning,
Facing my lonely future, hemmed in by prison ways.
Sometimes I feel you’ve never been in Alderson,
So full of life, so detached from here you seem.
So proud of walk, of talk, or work, of being,
Your presence here is like a fading fevered dream.
Yet as the sun shines now, through fog and darkness.
I feel a sudden joy that you are gone,
That once again you walk the streets of Harlem,
That today for you at least, is Freedom’s dawn.
I will be strong in our common faith, dear comrade,
I will be self-sufficient, to our ideals firm and true,
I will be strong to keep my mind and soul outside a prison,
Encouraged and inspired by ever loving memories of you.
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