A tribute to Claudia Jones – Communist freedom fighter and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 89 September 1989

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Amid the continuing controversy about the Notting Hill Carnival, communists everywhere remember with special affection the inspiring, at times lonely, struggles of a great communist woman, Claudia Jones, born in Trinidad in 1915, who died in London 1984. SUSAN DAVIDSON reports.

In 1924 Claudia’s family left impoverished Trinidad to make their lives in Harlem, New York. They were among the millions of black people who fled to the Northern cities of the USA after the First World War to escape poverty and Southern racism. As a young woman of 17 years, Claudia, seeing the poverty, exploitation and racism surrounding her, determined ‘to develop an understanding of the sufferings of my people and my class and look for a way forward to end them’. She never flinched or changed from this commitment to understand and to act and devoted her life to this task.

In 1934 at the age of eighteen Claudia joined the Communist Party of the USA. She was active in day to day struggles in Harlem and in major activities like the Scottsboro Boys and the Hands Off Abyssinia! campaigns. By 1941 she became editor of the weekly newspaper of the Young Communist League, and her continuing experience in writing and editing the Daily Worker in the USA enabled her to launch the black press on her arrival in England with the publication of the West Indian Gazette. Her time in the CPUSA was spent in urgent inner-party struggle. Against the revisionist leadership of Browder, she worked and argued for the building of a party of the poor and exploited that would stand by the goals of national self-determination for the oppressed.

After the end of the Second World War, the USA was swept by the anti-communism of General MacArthur and vicious repression was unleashed against all progressive and democratic organisations. Claudia was arrested and tried under the Smith Act and imprisoned on Ellis Island as an ‘undesirable alien’ after 24 years residence in the USA.

Claudia was released on bail and conducted a principled campaign, involving Paul Robeson and CLR James as well as many hundreds of black and left-wing activists, against the deportations and harassment. On of a speaking tour during which she addressed hundreds of working class people she defended not only herself, but the very existence of human rights: ‘Our fate is the fate of American democracy.’

Finally she was re-arrested because of an article written in support of International Women’s Day and deported to England in December 1955.

Claudia chose to be sent to England rather than Trinidad because she needed medication for a tubercular condition she had suffered since her poverty-stricken childhood in Harlem and which had worsened in prison. Nevertheless, she immediately became active in the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Caribbean Labour Congress and the short-lived West Indian Workers and Students Association.

Claudia was to live only nine years in England before her death, but during that time she worked tirelessly in the working class and black communities of London. After the Notting Hill ‘riot’ in 1958 which followed the racist murder on the streets of Kelso Cochrane, Claudia was a tower of strength in the area. She was on the Committee set up for those who were arrested for defending themselves against fascist attack. And it was she who proposed and organised the first Caribbean Carnival the following year, determined that the black settlers in Britain should stand together visible and proud of their West Indian culture and extend the hand of friendship and understanding to the host country. The first Carnival was held in Camden but thereafter in Notting Hill. She was also instrumental in bringing the Mighty Sparrow, a radical Calypso singer, to this country for a series of concerts.

It was after the ‘riots’ that Claudia almost single-handedly launched the West Indian Gazette, which she continued to write for and edit till her death. The first edition was a single-page flyer appearing within days of Kelso Cochrane’s murder.

Largely through the pages of the Gazette, but also as an organiser and speaker, Claudia Jones campaigned on every vital issue of the day. She attacked the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and the intervention in British Guiana to depose the left-wing thrice-elected People’s Progressive Party under Dr. Cheddi Jagan. Through the Committee of Afro-Asian Caribbean Organisations she organised a massive demonstration in support of Nelson Mandela and the Rivonia trialists and was one of the hunger strikers protesting outside the South African Embassy.

Claudia was also very concerned with education and communist ideas. She wrote at length about the Caribbean Community in England and its relation to British imperialism and about the condition of women, especially the triple oppression of black women, with a multitude of facts and information. Always precise, always rigorous, Claudia never allowed self-indulgent rhetoric to cloud the issues. This remarkable woman stood by the words that she said in 1934 at eighteen years old, that socialism is the only way forward.

‘It was out of my Jim Crow experiences as a young Negro woman, experiences likewise born of my working-class poverty, that led me to join the Young Communist League and to choose the philosophy of my life, the science of Marxism-Leninism; that philosophy that not only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them.’

Claudia Jones’ grave is next to that of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, London. The inscription reads: ‘Claudia Vera Jones, born Trinidad, 1915. Died London 25.12.1964. Valiant fighter against racism and imperialism who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own black people.’

 

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