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Publication Date

Spring 2023


How did the “Old Left”—the socialist milieu of the 1930s and 1940s—shape the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s? Focusing on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), this article examines several mechanisms of Old Left influence: personnel overlap, network ties, and organizational alliances. New findings on the Old Left backgrounds of Rev. Joseph Lowery, C. T. Vivian, and many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachers and friends are presented. The support that SCLC received from “red” labor unions is also highlighted. The picture that emerges is not the elaborate Communist conspiracy imagined by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, but rather a transfer of skills, money, and ideas that strengthened SCLC and influenced its strategic agenda. However, the repression and stigmatization of the Old Left during the Cold War led many SCLC activists to hide or downplay their connections to the socialist movement, which has distorted both popular and scholarly understanding of the civil rights movement.

Publication Title

Critical Historical Studies




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