“We never capitulated on our right to dissent, to be Communist, socialist, left, and radical:” An Interview with Jarvis Tyner on W. E. B. Du Bois, the DuBois Clubs, and Black Liberation
Philip Luke Sinitiere and Edward Carson: What is your first memory of hearing the name W. E. B. Du Bois? What of his books and writings did you find most meaningful before your work began with the W. E. B. DuBois Clubs?
Jarvis Tyner: I was a black working-class kid from Philadelphia, a trade unionist who came from very modest circumstances. We didn’t have a home library. I had heard the name Du Bois growing up. I can’t tell you when or how. I think it was from our friend and neighbor who had made it to college. My minister may have referenced him also.
W. E. B. Du Bois was an esteemed figure for many of the leaders in our community. For me, as a black worker, trade unionist, and civil rights activist when I joined the Communist Party in 1961 there was a lot of talk about him because he joined the same year. When I joined the Party, I was active with the Socialist Youth Union, a Party-led youth group. It was important and inspiring for me working against racism for unity and peace. It was a real transitional moment in my life.
The significance of everything we were fighting for really hit me in 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Our group organized three busloads of black, brown and white youth to go to the big March. At the March, Roy Wilkins announced the death of W. E. B. Du Bois—the founder, the great originator of the modern civil rights movement—and the whole place went silent. To stop the whole proceeding and recognize Du Bois was incredible. At the time, I didn’t know he was the father of modern sociology, and the originator of the scientific analysis of the history and life of African American people. I didn’t know about his leadership in the Pan-African movement, his sociological study of Philadelphia, and his fight against lynching. I was on a real learning curve. In time, I would of course understand all of this. Because of the March I was learning in a very profound way about W. E. B. Du Bois. By the time I became the chairman of the DuBois Clubs about four years later in 1967, I had more knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for him and for scholarship in general. The Party had a good system of Marxist-Leninist schools. I studied Party history, the national question, political economy, and labor history.
Sinitiere and Carson: Tell us about your work with the DuBois Clubs. What were some of its most important accomplishments with respect to freedom and liberation, to socialism and democracy? Where do you see the DuBois Clubs’ legacy most clearly today? Relatedly, how did Du Bois’s writings and radical thought inform the philosophy and vision of the DuBois Clubs? Any books or publications in particular?
Tyner: In 1964, we held the founding convention of the W. E. B. DuBois Clubs of America in San Francisco. We chose the Bay Area because the young comrades there and a lot of independent youth had successfully built a very active DuBois Club that was carrying out a number of important mass demonstrations against discrimination in housing and employment. The local car dealerships in Oakland, for example, were selling vehicles to black customers, but refused to hire black salespeople. So the local socialist-oriented DuBois Club became our model and the convention decided to call the new national organization the DuBois Clubs of America. From the beginning the DuBois Clubs were multi-racial and made up of party and non-party youth.
Bettina Aptheker, a good friend and the daughter of Herbert Aptheker was one of the founding members.2 Her father had edited and published Du Bois’s final autobiography, The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century, which International Publishers put out in 1968. Du Bois’s autobiography was the first survey of his life that I read. I got a sense of the scope of his life, what he was about, and what he stood for. Of course, I read The Souls of Black Folk, The World and Africa, the ground-breaking sociological study The Philadelphia Negro. I read everything of his I could get my hands on. I didn’t go to college, so there was something about Du Bois’s prose that was hard to understand at times but I just plowed through it. It was inspirational.
At the same time, I worked with people who knew him, people like James and Esther Cooper Jackson. In the late 1930s and 40s they were leaders of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), a forerunner of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and had worked closely with Du Bois in the South. SNYC considered Du Bois “the senior statesman of negro liberation.” The Jacksons provided a verbal history of Du Bois that helped me to understand his work and his ideas better. I particularly remember reading Du Bois’s speech “Behold the Land.” In 1946, he delivered this address in Columbia, South Carolina at the youth congress. In it he outlined the path of struggle ahead.3
The Jacksons’ personal accounts of the role of W. E. B Du Bois where inspiring. They explained his long years of working with the Party, with people close to the Party, and how it was his decision and his decision alone to join the Party, and to do it openly and without restraint or fear. That’s the kind of person he was; he didn’t cave in to the anticommunist hysteria, he challenged it. This knowledge of Du Bois and other greats, was one of the big reasons that the Party became so important in my life.4
I also learned that he and Paul Robeson edited the newspaper Freedom. I discovered that these two towering figures and of course numerous others in many ways had been influential in the Party’s expanding vision of African American liberation and the fight for socialism. Black freedom in the United States was not enough; people of color had to be free across the globe. Full political, economic, social equality. This is the perspective, along with anti-imperialism, and the bold and courageous commitment to global socialist revolutionary thought and practice that played a role in the overthrow of Jim Crow. Despite attempts to red-bait and isolate Robeson, and of course the arrest Du Bois in 1951 during the McCarthy period, both of these freedom fighters possessed an instinctive, democratic progressive viewpoint that was hard to stop.
Sinitiere & Carson: State repression of radicals is something with which the DuBois Clubs and other freedom organizations had to contend, especially during the 1960s. State repression continues today on many fronts, especially with the intense militarization of local police departments, the broad reach of electronic surveillance, and the maligning of so-called “Black identity extremists” with Black Lives Matter. All the while, neo-confederate symbols and language pulsate more visibly from Washington, D. C. out across the nation, and to the far reaches of the planet. These contemporary realities demand a reckoning with history, especially a revisiting of Du Bois’s encounters with state repression during the 1950s. On February 23, 1968—the day of what would have been Du Bois’s 100th birthday—you invoked this very example in a DuBois Clubs’ press release responding to the impending threat of the Subversive Activities Control Board to the Clubs’ work. You stated: “As the organization which holds his name, we are proudly fighting in his great tradition.”5 In light of current conditions, what about Du Bois’s “great tradition” of political insurgency is most important for freedom struggles today?
Tyner: That tradition is his high level of integrity, honesty, and principle. I would say also his ability to analyze a situation, produce a solution, and move forward with it. And the fact that the U.S. government persecuted him—in his 80s—but he never gave up the struggle for black liberation.
Shortly after our founding, a right-wing group bombed our San Francisco office. When the Subversive Activity Control Board began holding hearings with paid informants testifying across the country, we did not fold, we fought. We launched a national campaign to protest this McCarthyism by joining the DuBois Clubs and we doubled our membership. Like the 83-year-old Dr. Du Bois facing imprisonment, we fought on. Some of us, myself and my family included, where victims of disruption, arrest, and threats from the FBI and COINTELPRO but we continued the struggle. Following the example of Du Bois, Robeson, victims of the Smith and McCarran Acts, and inspired by so many civil rights fighters who risked everything for the cause, we pushed on. We never capitulated on our right to dissent, to be Communist, socialist, left, and radical.
Du Bois had to be an optimist. He knew that history was on the side of the people. He knew that racism could be defeated. He knew that war could be eliminated as a means of settling international conflicts. He knew that racial and gender equality could be achieved. He never gave up his great vision.
Furthermore, the fact that he was a socialist all his life, and then a Communist, was a huge influence on those of us in the DuBois Clubs. J. Edgar Hoover must have had a fit when Du Bois joined the CPUSA and we named our organization after him. They spread rumors that we were trying to dupe young people by using a name that sounded like the Boys Club.6 They pushed the idea that Du Bois was senile when he joined the Party. Imagine “senile” on his way to coordinate the enormous intellectual project of writing of the Encyclopedia Africana.
Because of our anti-imperialist principles we also organized, as did groups like the Students for a Democratic Society, SNCC, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference against racism and war. When there were only U.S. “advisors” in Vietnam, after leaving our founding convention in San Francisco in June 1964, our Pittsburgh Club led the way and organized a picket line against the war. New York City followed suit. That work was in the true spirit of Du Bois. Du Bois was a great scholar and activist.
The DuBois Clubs were a multiracial organization by design. Not every radical youth group reach the level of racial and gender unity that we were able to achieve in both leadership and membership. The same goes for working-class and trade-union youth. We achieved this through a deep understanding and respect for theory and practice – like Comrade Du Bois. At the time, not everybody understood the importance of that kind of organization—a socialist organization that united black, brown and white youth to fight for their rights and a better world for all. A youth group that was pro-working class, rejected anticommunism (including its anti-Soviet variety), racism, and male supremacy at time when McCarthyism still influenced a majority of Americans.
Of course we had problems, and we did make mistakes, but we were going down a path of liberation with an understanding of class struggle and the national question. We were an integrated organization, and our insignia of a black hand and white hand reaching for a peace dove symbolized that.
Later, in 1970, we decided it was possible to build a Communist Youth organization with public fraternal ties to the Communist Party. That organization, which carried on the Du Bois tradition, was the Young Workers Liberation League and I was elected its founding chairperson.
Sinitiere and Carson: In a 1968 issue of Insurgent, one of the DuBois Clubs’ publications, you wrote:
Dr. Du Bois has left the youth of the world many valuable treasures – in his writings and in his struggles. There is one profound aspect of his life—of his character which must forever be remembered. Dr. Du Bois was a man of unshakable integrity and honesty. Through all of his 95 years he kept fighting—he never gave up . . . He stood alone many times pioneering in the peace and anti-imperialist struggles. Many of his concepts were far ahead of his time. He was clearly the architect of today’s modern peace and freedom movements.7
What does the name W. E. B. Du Bois mean to you today after many decades of activism and work with the CPUSA? What of Du Bois’s legacy is most urgent at this particularly historical moment, especially on the 150th anniversary of his birth?
Tyner: I think the thing about Du Bois was his integrity and courage. I also think that the conceptual, philosophical, and ideological analysis that he brought to the problems of race and class facing the world was profound: from the early work of his debates with Booker T. Washington, to the Niagara Movement, his anti-lynching efforts, and Pan-Africanism to the activism of his later years in Ghana and working on the Encyclopedia Africana. He lived so long, he lived through so much, and he lived to change his mind. He was a great leader. He deserves all of the accolades and appreciation he gets.
1 Phil Sinitiere and Edward Carson conducted this interview in Chicago and via conference call on November 18, 2018. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
2 For Bettina’s work with the DuBois Clubs, and for memories of her developing political consciousness in relation to Du Bois and the Communist Party USA, see Bettina Aptheker, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2006), 87-154 and Bettina Aptheker, “The Weight of Inheritance,” in Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, eds., Red Daipers: Growing Up in the Communist Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 278-285.
3 For a thorough analysis of the SNYC, which includes an Appendix of Du Bois’s “Behold the Land” speech, see Lindsey R. Swindall, The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anticolonialism, 1937-1955 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014).
4 On the historical background that Tyner references about the Jackson’s political work, see David Levering Lewis, Michael H. Nash, and Daniel J. Leab, eds., Red Activists and Black Freedom: James and Esther Jackson and the Long Civil Rights Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2010) and Sara Rzeszutek Haviland, James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).
5 Jarvis Tyner, “Government Moves for Postponement of SACB Hearings vs. DuBois Clubs,” Box 119, Folder 40, Communist Party of the United States of America Records, Tamiment Library, New York University.
6 On this tactic, see Douglas Robinson, “Du Bois ‘Duplicity’ Decried by Nixon,” New York Times, March 9, 1966, http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/11/05/specials/dubois-nixon.html.
7 Jarvis Tyner, “Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois” Insurgent (January-March 1968): 25-26, Box 56, Folder 48, Billy James Hargis Papers, University of Arkansas.