Debating Democracy: The Legacy of James W. Ford

In June 2019, Mary “Allison” Jobe conducted research as a recipient of our Short-Term Fellowship Program. Allison is a Ph.D. student in the history department at American University. She was awarded a Rose fellowship in support of her dissertation “We Remember Him For His Character”: James W. Ford and the Communist Party USA”.

Historians often struggle to understand their historical subjects’ views of their own life.  Some figures from the past leave diaries or autobiographies, giving scholars clues into how they viewed their legacy.  But for others, the historian is left to surmise and speculate while trying to reveal the subject’s voice as much as possible.  I traveled to the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, with its unique set of sources on the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), in the hopes of finding a candid personal assessment of the life and career of James W. Ford. 

My dissertation seeks to reclaim the legacy of Ford, a leader in the CPUSA from the late 1920s until his death in June 1957, within the history of the American Left.  The World War I veteran and Chicago labor leader came to the attention of American communist leaders in 1926 and rose through the ranks of the international communist movement between 1928 and 1930.  However, it was his Vice Presidential nomination in May 1932 that propelled the thirty-seven year old Alabaman into national notoriety.  Following Frederick Douglass by sixty years, Ford was only the second African American to run for Vice President of the United States.  The nomination, along with two subsequent runs in 1936 and 1940 also on the Communist ticket, was an advertisement of the CPUSA’s commitment to racial equality.

But for many non-communist Americans, Ford’s three campaigns were about more than communist ideology.  They were about democracy and the limits placed on citizens of color throughout the nation.  Many observers — both proponents and opponents of Ford’s message of full equality for black Americans — framed their arguments within the language of democracy.

The political impact of an African American Vice Presidential campaign was discussed excitedly in the black press.  Pittsburg Courier reporter Roger Didier described Ford’s nomination as a harbinger of a fully equal society.  He wrote, “There is a point for history—when the first Negro was chosen as a vice presidential candidate by a national party, white men paraded him on their shoulders and white men and women joined black men and women in a demonstration that lasted 18 minutes and 26 seconds.”  Not only were white and black Americans gathered together in the same space, but he was astonished to see white men literally and symbolically elevate a black man above themselves while white women cheered.[1]

Others predicted the political impact of Ford’s candidacy.  The Chicago Defender editorialized about the attraction of the Communist action, arguing that “little parties, those that are little potatoes in a big hill, that put up Colored men for big office, are driving the big parties to do the same.”[2]  William Jones, managing editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, went so far as to say “we believe the time has come . . . when a group of Negro citizens must strike boldly out for unabridged and complete citizenship.  A vote for the Communist Party is the only way this can be done in this election . . . The success of neither of the old parties means any difference to us.  But a telling vote for Foster and Ford will show the old parties that in the future we mean to throw our fate into the hands of those who offer the program, which in our judgement, best serves our well-being.”[3]  Full citizenship for these editors included being represented and addressed by political parties. 

Opponents to racial equality also framed their resistance to Ford’s challenge in terms of democracy.  The candidate was arrested in Washington, DC in July 1932 when President Herbert Hoover broke up the Bonus March of World War I veterans.  Chief detectives recognized him as the Vice Presidential candidate but still informed him that “A Negro’s citizenship does not amount to anything.”  The contrast between Ford’s campaign for political equality and the denial of citizenship rights by capital police is stark.[4] 

In Richmond, Virginia, Ford’s opponents described his message as un-American.  He was scheduled to speak at a school auditorium in August 1936, but in the weeks before, public opinion turned against the rally.  The school board denied the black communist public use of the school.  Since the school had hosted rallies of Republican, Democratic, Socialist, and Communist candidates in the past, many commentators, including the American Civil Liberties Union, believed the ban on Ford’s meeting was motivated by fear of equality which he promoted.  Leading actors in getting the rally banned commended the “righteous and patriotic stand and action” of the school board against the “infiltration of destructive doctrine.”  The message of full equality and citizenship, therefore, was a foreign ideology outside the realm of American democracy.[5] 

While critics and supporters debated within the pages of the American press, it is harder to discern Ford’s own evaluation of his political career.  The communist movement was doctrinaire, and evaluation most often took place within closed door meetings, hidden from public and often historical view.  While it is certainly possible to follow the thinking of communist actors, it usually takes place within a collection of preset theories. 

It was with this question that I journeyed to the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.  The Library houses a unique set of sources on the Communist Party.  Several renown historians of the Party, including Theodore Draper and Philip Jaffe, donated their research for the use by future scholars.  Draper and Jaffe conducted much of their research while many of their subjects were still alive.  It was the personal relationships — the oral history interviews and collections of personal documents of surviving communists — that most interested me.  I was hoping to find personal insights of Party members about their movement that did not make it into the public or the CPUSA archival records. 

While looking through the Philip J. Jaffe Papers, I came across a blurry copy of a speech Ford gave in November 1940, at the conclusion of his third and final Vice Presidential campaign.  When I read the first paragraph, in which the former candidate admitted to a special convention of Party leaders that he had thrown away his lengthy prepared speech and would be giving his impressions on the election campaign from a rough outline, I was excited.  Perhaps this would offer a more candid view of the normally-stoic Ford and his assessment of his actions. 

Buried within his calculations and praises of the Communist Party and its leaders was Ford’s own belief that his political career was an important milestone in the fight for expanding American democracy.  He recognized the arguments of his supporters and critics and saw the opening of a renewed struggle for equality. 

In the speech, Ford described the hundreds of letters and postcards he received, which he believed “represents the voice [of] the people. . . . who recognized in our Communist Party, by the way it places and raises the issues, it is the most valiant fighter” for African American rights.  The candidacy of an African American had garnered the attention of millions of disenfranchised black Americans, awakening in them the hope for change. 

Throughout the campaign, Ford found many encouraging examples that America was ready for the fight, including increased African American political activity.  In states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana, and West Virginia, black residents made up a significant percentage of signatures on petitions to put the CPUSA ticket on state ballots.  “This is a historical thing,” Ford argued.  “It was a conscious move, a conscious understanding that they were signing the petition not only of a minority party . . . but of a party that fights for the Negro people.”

Other Americans crossed racial and ideological lines to initiate the fight for democracy.  Ford related the story of the “heroism of Oscar Wheeler,” a white West Virginian farmer who was arrested for petitioning for communist candidates.  Ford summarized Wheeler’s bold statement of interracial solidarity to the authorities: “He said, here in the state of West Virginia, Negroes can’t go in the restaurant and sit down with white people.  Negroes are discriminated here and there.  Negroes don’t have the right of citizenship.”  The farmer understood that racial discrimination amounted to a denial of democracy and was fighting within the Communist Party for political equality, including the ability of West Virginians to vote for a black candidate.

And in Houston, Texas, a Ford rally was opened by the prayer of an African American preacher while police officers stood in the doorway.  The preacher bridged the historic divide between communism and religion and risked upsetting the racial status quo in order to open his church to a message of political and social equality.  Ford told his audience in November 1940, “Comrades, that’s something.” 

But there was still much work to be done.  While Ford had seen the early rumblings of the fight to expand political rights in the 1940 elections, communists needed to fan the flames and launch a “broad struggle for democracy.”  He predicted the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement a decade and a half later when he told his audience that “We have to go into the Southland.”[6]

Unfortunately, Ford would not live to see the culmination of the fight he believed began in 1940.  Shortly thereafter, the demands of the Second World War superseded the fight for racial equality, and it would not pick up steam again until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1950s.  However, Ford witnessed the beginning of the broad democratic struggle he had called for in November 1940.  In May 1957, one month before his death, he watched a young Martin Luther King, Jr. exhort, “Give us the ballot,” during the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington DC.  It must have brought comfort the the aging communist to see his fight for democratic rights once again taken up.

The Short-Term Fellowship made possible my research in the beautiful Rose Library.  Everything about my research trip — from the supportive and attentive archival staff to the intuitive finding aids and the impressive views of the Emory campus and Atlanta skyline — was amazing.  I left able to answer some important questions which are central to the legacy of James W. Ford. 

[1] Roger Didier, “James W. Ford, Brown-Skinned ‘Red’ of Alabama, To Run For Vice President On Communist Ticket,” The Pittsburg Courier, 4 June 1932.

[2] “The Week: April 3, 1932,” The Chicago Defender, 2 April 1932

[3] ”Wm. N. Jones Out For Ford and Foster,” Baltimore Afro-American, 22 October 1932.

[4] “Arrest Of Ford Criticized,” New Journal and Guide, 13 August 1932. 

[5] “Schools Barred to Reds In Richmond,” New Journal and Guide, 1 August 1936; “‘Red’ Dispute Will Be Taken Before Judge,” New Journal and Guide, 15 August 1936; “Ford, Red Nominee, Denied Right To Speak In Virginia,” Chicago Defender, 8 August 1936.

[6] James W. Ford, Speech at the Special CPUSA Convention, in “Minutes of the Special CPUSA Convention (16-17 November 1940), Philip Jaffe Papers, MSS 605, Box 35, Folder 6b, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.