Throughout her lifetime, Claudia Jones organized where she lived, at the point where multiple struggles and forms of oppression came together. Her activism embraced the fight against colonialism, agitation for workers’ rights (and especially the rights of black women workers), and opposition to racism both domestic and international. She asserted the right of black women to play a role in those struggles as theorists and intellectuals.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1915, Jones joined the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in the 1930s and was the only black woman ever elected to its central committee. In 1952–53, the US authorities put her on trial for being a communist.
She became a political prisoner in 1955 for the stated offense of having delivered a speech entitled “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace” on International Women’s Day in 1950. Having served ten months of a one-year sentence in the women’s penitentiary at Alderson, West Virginia, Jones was released in October 1955 after numerous petitions on her behalf for health reasons.
Despite having come to the United States as a child, Jones was technically still a British subject on account of her origins in the colonial Caribbean, where most countries did not achieve limited independence until the 1960s. She had been denied US naturalization because of her early CPUSA membership.
Jones was deported from the United States in December 1955 and left for Britain, arriving in London before the end of the year. The deportation brought a premature end to her work in the United States, but not to her wider political legacy.
A Target of McCarthyism
Her organizing activity in working-class communities through CPUSA had made Jones a target for surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She had already been imprisoned three times before she was deported. Jones defended her political position well in a courtroom speech that was later published in Thirteen Communists Speak to the Court.
The legal basis for imprisoning Jones came from the Smith Act of 1940 and the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. These pieces of legislation made it a criminal offense to advocate the violent overthrow of the US government and obliged foreign nationals to register with the authorities.
There were two groups of communists tried under these acts, with Jones forming part of the second group. In the case of Yates v. United States (1957), the Supreme Court eventually ruled that it was unconstitutional to convict people under the Smith Act merely for the opinions that they expressed. However, the demonization of communism remained deeply embedded in US political culture.
Becoming a Communist
Jones had first entered the United States in February 1924, shortly before her ninth birthday on the twenty-first of that month. She experienced the effects of Jim Crow racial segregation and US racial capitalism directly and saw the condition of her own family as being linked to that of other struggling black people who had borne the brunt of rural white-supremacist terrorism in the South and urban poverty in the North.
New York was the crucible of her educational and political formation. The range of her activity is indicated by the various labels that have been attached to her: advocate for black rights, anti-imperialist, community organizer, journalist, women’s rights activist. She joined the Young Communist League during the Great Depression after listening to Harlem street-corner lecturers deliver their analyses of the issues facing black people in the United States.
For Jones, it was particularly important that Communist Party speakers gave the best explanations for racial trials such as those of the Scottsboro Boys. The Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine teenagers, aged between thirteen and nineteen years old, who were falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women in the boxcar of a train travelling through the US South.
The CPUSA provided legal defense for these young men and boys that prevented them from being the victims of a physical or judicial lynching. Jones was thus influenced by young activists who were providing a materialist analysis of the nature of US capitalism.
As well as subsequently becoming a member of the CPUSA’s central committee, she also served as secretary of the party’s women’s commission. Her responsibilities in this role included traveling to forty-three US states to recruit new members and put on rallies to bring more women into the organization. Her work affirmed the right of black women to be participants and leaders in the CPUSA’s activities.
Theorizing Black Women’s Oppression
The strand of activism for woman’s rights that Jones brought to the CPUSA stressed the necessity to incorporate questions of race and gender into the largely class-based framework of Marxism. Jones was not merely an activist: she was also one of the Communist Party’s leading theorists. She became a pioneer thinker in articulating a place for black women as intellectual and organizational contributors. For Jones, they combined three identities that were kept subordinate in the United States and other European and American societies: as workers, women, and black people.
Jones put forward these arguments in several CPUSA discussion papers and in a public column titled “Half the World.” It became her theme in the party newspaper, the Daily Worker, and in a range of published essays on women’s rights. The best known of those essays is “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women” (1949).
“An End to the Neglect” offered a wonderful documentation of the social position of black women in the mid-century United States and is still relevant to the discussion about their socioeconomic status today. It has become recognized as one of the most important essays on black women in that period. Jones laid out the statistics on a range of issues and economic hardships that confronted (and still confront) black women.
She also provided historical background and information on their status as women, as black people, and as workers. Jones ended the essay by challenging the combination of white supremacist and male supremacist thinking which produced the callousness in the treatment of black women. She suggested that the responsibility for dealing with this problem rested squarely with white people.
Another 1949 essay by Jones, “We Seek Full Equality,” outlines her positions on the status of black women in relation to dominant systems of oppression. She consistently argued that the position of black women combined three social identities through which they were super-exploited. Yet for Jones, the entire population would benefit once the issues affecting black women were addressed.
Jones took the classic Marxist theory of super-exploitation and extended it to the condition of black women. The black woman was located in society among the most exploited and underpaid workers — the ones whose labor was exploited by other workers.
Using the example of the black domestic worker, she demonstrated how the black woman’s labor was never remunerated in any way commensurate with her labor power or the labor she delivered in and out of her home. Jones argued that the liberation of black women was only possible under communism, which would bring about a complete redistribution of resources.
Jones never identified as a feminist and criticized what she called “bourgeois feminism” in some of her essays. However, she used the language of women’s rights in different forms. Along with a number of other black women activists who joined the CPUSA from its foundation to the 1950s, she advocated a pathbreaking approach to politics committed to black liberation, women’s rights, decolonization, economic justice, peace, and international solidarity. She insisted that the party would have to include women in leadership roles if it wanted to build a mass movement.
The concern of Jones and her fellow activists with the location of black women in society, the effect of war on women’s lives, and the international connections between women form the backstory of a struggle that later fell into obscurity. The mainstream feminist movement in Europe and North America during the 1970s too often tended to operate in the framework of bourgeois feminism, which sought equality with men in the context of a system that remained oppressive.
The deportation of Jones in 1955 was a great loss for the United States but a gain for the wider world. After settling in Britain, she spent the years before her death in 1964 engaged in political and cultural organizing work. This included work among the growing black communities of London as colonial immigrants moved to Britain from the Caribbean.
During her time in Britain, Jones created a community newspaper, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, as well as the first London Caribbean carnival in 1958. The latter event gave rise to various successors, including the famous outdoor street carnival in the west London district of Notting Hill, which is a major public gathering to this day. A number of community organizations in London have since been named after Jones, although she was largely forgotten in the United States and the Caribbean for a period of time.
Jones died in her sleep on Christmas Eve, 1964, at the age of just forty-nine. After a funeral that attracted a huge number of left-wing activists, she was interred next to the giant bust of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery. The memory of her activism endures. So, too, does her groundbreaking theorization of black women’s oppression, which remains urgently relevant today.