Civil Rights Congress

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Civil Rights Congress

The Civil Rights Congress (CRC) was founded in 1946 with the merger of the International Labor Defense, the National Negro Congress, and the National Federation for Constitutional Libertiesthree organizations closely associated with the Communist Party, U.S.A. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the CRC fought for the civil rights and liberties of African Americans, labor leaders, and suspected communists. They believed that the defense of communists was the first line in the defense of civil liberties generally and sought to overturn the Smith Act (1940) and the McCarran Act (1950), both designed to stifle dissent and harass left-wing organizations.

Like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the CRC pursued legal cases to challenge the racism and inequality in American society. However, the CRC did not rely on legal strategy alone but combined it with political agitation, massive publicity campaigns, and large demonstrations to mobilize public opinion to demand an end to racist attacks. In the early 1950s the CRC launched a campaign to raise public awareness about the systemic violence and segregation that African Americans faced by presenting a petition to the United Nations that charged the U.S. government with genocide.

In one of the CRC's earliest cases, Rosa Lee Ingram, a black tenant farmer and widowed mother of twelve children, together with two of her sons, was convicted in 1947 of the murder of John Stratford and sentenced to death. Stratford, a white tenant farmer, had been sexually harassing Ingram when her sons came to her defense and hit Stratford on the head. The CRC, under the leadership of its women's auxiliary, Sojourners for Truth and Justice, fought a public battle to free the Ingrams. They filed a petition with the United Nations, named Rosa Ingram Mother of the Year, started the National Committee to Free the Ingram Family, which raised money for family members, and sent a delegation armed with 100,000 signatures to the Department of Justice and the White House. As a result of the CRC's efforts and the resulting press coverage, Rosa Ingram and her sons were freed in 1954.

In another well-publicized effort the CRC defended the Martinsville Seven, seven young black men in Virginia sentenced to death in 1949 by an all-white jury for raping a white woman. Civil rights organizations were outraged by the harshness of the sentence as well as the judge's refusal to grant a change of venue to ensure that the men received a fair trial. Deferring the legal case to the NAACP, the CRC focused on the publicity campaign. They conducted a massive international letter campaign, organized a prayer vigil, picketed the White House, held demonstrations in Richmond, and demanded a pardon from the governor. Although the NAACP and the CRC failed to save the lives of the Martinsville Seven, they succeeded in exposing the racism of the legal system in the United States.

The CRC fought tenaciously to defend the civil rights of the persecuted. They were not, however, strict civil libertarians. For example, they opposed free speech for the Ku Klux Klan and other racists, which brought them into conflict with an organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition, recurring tension with the NAACP made an alliance difficult, but at times the two organizations were able to achieve behind-the-scenes cooperation. Nevertheless, the CRC's unyielding opposition to racism won it support among some sectors of the African-American community. At its peak, the CRC reached a membership of ten thousand, with its strongest base in large cities. William Patterson, a lawyer and Communist Party leader, served as executive secretary of the organization during its existence. Other prominent leaders included Paul Robeson, Dashiell Hammett, and Louise Thompson Patterson.

The CRC was active during the McCarthy period, and the U.S. government tried persistently to repress the organization. In the mid-1950s the organization was under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, New York State, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Government officials impounded CRC records, conducted an audit, and demanded lists of contributors. In 1954 the organization's leaders refused to give up the names of supporters and were arrested on contempt charges. Two years later, the Subversive Activities Control Board concluded that the CRC was "substantially controlled" by the Communist Party, U.S.A. Although many Communist party members and sympathizers were active in the CRC, the organization was always independent of the party. Nevertheless, in 1956 the CRC was forced to close its doors because of the increasing legal costs of the government investigations and a decline in the number of contributors. Despite its short-lived existence, CRC succeeded in bringing to international attention the injustice prevalent in the American legal system and the racism endemic to American society.

See also Communist Party of the United States; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Negro Congress; Patterson, William; Robeson, Paul


Horne, Gerald. Communist Front? The Civil Rights Congress, 194656. Rutherford, N.J: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1987.

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Civil Rights Congress