October 18, 1966
Cyril Valentine Briggs was a radical publicist of the New Negro movement and one of the black charter members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). As the political organizer of the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption—better known as the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB)—a semisecret propaganda organization founded in September 1919 in reaction to the unprecedented racial violence of the Red Summer of 1919, Briggs was the first to enunciate in the United States the political principle of armed black self-defense.
A native of the tiny island of Nevis in the Leeward Islands chain of the British West Indies, Briggs was the son of a planter-manager for one of the island's absentee landlords. Of an extremely light complexion, he was later dubbed the "Angry Blond Negro" by George W. Harris of the New York News.
Briggs received his early start in journalism working after school with the Saint Kitts Daily Express and the Saint Christopher Advertiser. As a young man in Saint Kitts, he was influenced by the published lectures of the great American orator Robert Green Ingersoll, whose irreverent wit and questioning of the tenets of Christian belief earned him the sobriquet "the great agnostic."
Briggs came to the United States in July 1905. His involvement in the fight for African-American rights began in earnest in October 1915 when he was appointed editor of the Colored American Review, mouthpiece of the Harlem black business community, which stressed black economic success and racial pride. When his editorship came to an abrupt end with the second issue, Briggs resumed work with New York's Amsterdam News, which had hired him as an editorial writer shortly after it began publication in 1912.
During and after World War I, Briggs's outspoken Amsterdam News editorials, directed against what he perceived to be the hypocrisy of U.S. war aims in view of U.S. mistreatment of black soldiers and the continuing denial of democracy to African Americans at home, came under increasing official censorship. It culminated in the detention by the U.S. Post Office of the March 12, 1919, issue containing Briggs's editorial denouncing the League of Nations as a "League of Thieves." Two months later, Briggs finally severed his ties with the newspaper for which he had been not only editorial writer but also city editor, sports editor, and theater critic.
His resignation from the Amsterdam News enabled Briggs to devote his entire time to the Crusader, which he had begun publishing in September 1918. With a free hand to promote the postwar movement through the Crusader, Briggs joined such black radical figures as Hubert H. Harrison, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, William Bridges, and W. A. Domingo in giving voice to the era's black militancy.
Initially emphasizing the racial theme of "selfgovernment for the Negro and Africa for the Africans," the Crusader proclaimed itself in its early issues as the publicity organ of the Hamitic League of the World, which had been started by the brilliant young racial vindicationist author George Wells Parker in Omaha, Nebraska. By the first anniversary of its publication, however, the editorial line of the Crusader had changed radically. Whereas its original focus had been on postwar African issues, it now espoused the revolutionary ideology of Bolshevism.
Starting with the October 1919 issue, the Crusader became the official mouthpiece of the ABB, which at the time functioned clandestinely as the CPUSA's first black auxiliary. In keeping with the group's ideological position, Briggs emerged during 1921 and 1922 as the most outspoken critic of the leadership of Marcus Garvey, against whom he supplied some of the critical evidence that would lead eventually to the federal government's successful prosecution of Garvey for mail fraud.
When the Crusader ceased publication in early 1922, Briggs set about organizing the Crusader News Agency. In February 1924, he was involved in the formation of the Negro Sanhedrin movement, under the leadership of Kelly Miller, with the aim of creating a federation of black organizations. Briggs had by this time become a full-time functionary of the CPUSA. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he was actively involved in organizing a succession of black auxiliaries of the CPUSA, most notably the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. In December 1929 he was made editor of the Harlem Liberator, the official organ of the ANLC.
Briggs was also directly involved in planning and implementing the CPUSA's role in the defense campaign of the famous Scottsboro Case in the early thirties. But in 1938, after becoming embroiled in a dispute with James W. Ford, the leading black figure in the CPUSA at the time, Briggs was expelled from the party, along with Richard B. Moore and Otto Hall, for an alleged "Negro nationalist way of thinking." In 1944 Briggs moved to Los Angeles, where he rejoined the Communist Party in 1948. During the fifties, he was employed as an editor with the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch.
Draper, Theodore. American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Years. New York: Viking, 1960.
Hill, Robert A., ed. The Crusader (1918–1922), 3 vols. New York: Garland, 1987.
robert a. hill (1996)