Report on the Negro Question:

Speech to the 4th Congress of the Comintern, Nov. 1922.

by Claude McKay

Published in International Press Correspondence, v. 3 (Jan. 5, 1923), pp. 16-17.

Comrade McKay: Comrades, I feel that I

would rather face a lynching stake in civilized

America than try to make a speech before the most

intellectual and critical audience in the world. I

belong to a race of creators but my public speaking

has been so bad that I have been told by my

own people that I should never try to make

speeches, but stick to writing, and laughing. However,

when I heard the Negro question was going

to be brought up on the floor

of the Congress, I felt it

would be an eternal shame if

I did not say something on

behalf of the members of my

race. Especially would I be a

disgrace to the American

Negroes because, since I

published a notorious poem

in 1919 [“If We Must Die”],

I have been pushed forward

as one of the spokesmen of

Negro radicalism in America

to the detriment of my poetical

temperament. I feel

that my race is honored by this invitation to one

of its members to speak at this Fourth Congress of

the Third International. My race on this occasion

is honored, not because it is different from the

white race and the yellow race, but [because it] is

especially a race of toilers, hewers of wood and

drawers of water, that belongs to the most oppressed,

exploited, and suppressed section of the

working class of the world. The Third International

stands for the emancipation of all the workers of

the world, regardless of race or color, and this stand

of the Third International is not merely on paper

like the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution

of the United States of America. It is a real


The Negro race in the economic life of the

world today occupies a very peculiar position. In

every country where the Whites and Blacks must

work together the capitalists have set the one

against the other. It would seem at the present day

that the international bourgeoisie would use the

Negro race as their trump card in their fight against

the world revolution. Great Britain has her Negro

regiments in the colonies and she has demonstrated

what she can do with her Negro soldiers by the

use that she made of them during the late War.

The revolution in England is very far away be-

cause of the highly organized exploitation of the

subject peoples of the British Empire. In Europe,

we find that France had a Negro army of over

300,000 and that to carry out their policy of imperial

domination in Europe the French are going

to use their Negro minions.

In America we have the same situation. The

Northern bourgeoisie knows how well the Negro

soldiers fought for their own emancipation, although

illiterate and untrained, during the Civil

War. They also remember how well the Negro soldiers

fought in the Spanish-American War under

Theodore Roosevelt. They know that in the last

war over 400,000 Negroes who were mobilized

gave a very good account of themselves, and that,

besides fighting for the capitalists, they also put

up a very good fight for themselves on returning

to America when they fought the white mobs in

Chicago, St. Louis and Washington.

But more than the fact that the American

capitalists are using Negro soldiers in their fight

against the interests of labor is the fact that the

American capitalists are setting out to mobilize the

entire black race of America for the purpose of

fighting organized labor. The situation in America

today is terrible and fraught with grave dangers. It

is much uglier and more terrible than was the condition

of the peasants and Jews of Russia under

the Tsar. It is so ugly and terrible that very few

people in America are willing to face it. The reformist

bourgeoisie have been carrying on the

battle against discrimination and racial prejudice

in America. The Socialists and Communists have

fought very shy of it because there is a great element

of prejudice among the Socialists and Communists

of America. They are not willing to face

the Negro question. In associating with the comrades

of America I have found demonstrations of

prejudice on the various occasions when the White

and Black comrades had to get together: and this

is the greatest difficulty that the Communists of

America have got to overcome-the fact that they

first have got to emancipate themselves from the

ideas they entertain towards the Negroes before

they can be able to reach the Negroes with any

kind of radical propaganda. However, regarding

the Negroes themselves, I feel that as the subject

races of other nations have come to Moscow to

learn how to fight against their exploiters, the

Negroes will also come to Moscow. In 1918 when

the Third International published its Manifesto

and included the part referring to the exploited

colonies, there were several groups of Negro radicals

in America that sent this propaganda out

among their people. When in 1920 the American

government started to investigate and to suppress

radical propaganda among the Negroes, the small

radical groups in America retaliated by publishing

the fact that the Socialists stood for the emancipation

of the Negroes, and that reformist America

could do nothing for them. Then, I think, for the

first time in American history, the American Negroes

found that Karl Marx had been interested in

their emancipation and had fought valiantly for

it. I shall just read this extract that was taken from

Karl Marx’s writing at the time of the Civil War:

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slave holders for

the first time in the annals of the world, dared to

inscribe “Slavery” on the banner of armed revolt, on

the very spot where hardly a century ago, the idea of

one great democratic republic had first sprung up,

whence the first declaration of the Rights of Man was

issued, and the first impulse given to the European

revolution of the eighteenth- century, when on that

spot the counter-revolution cynically proclaimed

property in man to be “the cornerstone of the new

edifice” — then the working class of Europe

understood at once that the slaveholders’ rebellion

was to sound the tocsin for a general holy war of

property against labor, and that (its) hopes of the

future, even its past conquests were at stake in that

tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic.

Karl Marx who drafted the above resolution

is generally known as the father of Scientific Socialism

and also of the epoch-making volume

popularly known as the socialist bible, Capital.

During the Civil War he was correspondent of the

New York Tribune. In the company of Richard

McKay: Speech to the 4th Congress of the Communist International 3

Published by 1000 Flowers Publishing, Corvallis, OR, 2005. • Free reproduction permitted.

Transcribed by William Maxwell for the Modern American Poetry website.

PDF version published here by permission.

For further information on Claude McKay and his role, see Dr. Maxwell’s book,

New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars.

(New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

Cobden, Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist, and John

Bright, he toured England making speeches and

so roused up the sentiment of the workers of that

country against the Confederacy that Lord

Palmerston, [the] Prime Minister, who was about

to recognize the South, had to desist.

As Marx fought against chattel slavery in

1861, so are present-day socialists, his intellectual

descendants, fighting wage slavery.

If the Workers Party in America were really a

Workers Party that included Negroes it would, for

instance, in the South, have to be illegal, and I

would inform the American Comrades that there

is a branch of the Workers Party in the South, in

Richmond, Virginia, that is illegal — illegal because

it includes colored members. There we have

a very small group of white and colored comrades

working together, and the fact that they have laws

in Virginia and most of the Southern states discriminating

against whites and blacks assembling

together means that the Workers Party in the South

must be illegal. To get round these laws of Virginia,

the comrades have to meet separately, according

to color, and about once a month they

assemble behind closed doors.

This is just an indication of the work that

will have to be done in the South. The work among

the Negroes of the South will have to be carried

on by some legal propaganda organized in the

North, because we find at the present time in

America that the situation in the Southern States

(where nine million out of ten million of the Negro

population live), is that even the liberal bourgeoisie

and the petty bourgeoisie among the Negroes

cannot get their own papers of a reformist

propaganda type into the South on account of the

laws that there discriminate against them. The fact

is that it is really only in the Southern States that

there is any real suppression of opinion. No suppression

of opinion exists in the Northern states

in the way it exists in the S outh. In the Northern

states special laws are made for special occasionsas

those against Communists and Socialists during

the War — but in the South we find laws that

have existed for fifty years, under which the Negroes

cannot meet to talk about their grievances.

The white people who are interested in their cause

cannot go and speak to them. If we send white

comrades into the South they are generally ordered

out by the Southern oligarchy and if they do not

leave they are generally whipped, tarred and feathered;

and if we send black comrades into the South

they generally won’t be able to get out again —

they will be lynched and burned at the stake.

I hope that as a symbol that the Negroes of

the world will not be used by the international

bourgeoisie in the final conflicts against the World

Revolution, that as a challenge to the international

bourgeoisie, who have an understanding of the

Negro question, we shall soon see a few Negro

soldiers in the finest, bravest, and cleanest fighting

forces in the world — the Red Army and Navy

of Russia — fighting not only for their own emancipation,

but also for the emancipation of all the

working class of the whole world