THE FREDERICK DOUGLAS Book Store at 49 Mass. Ave. in Boston is an odd place to set up shop for a Presidential campaign. Old torn posters–some from the days of the Russian Revolution–are on the walls, together with newer ones of Che and Mao. The shelves are stacked high with used, decaying paperbacks, works of Balzac, Stendahl, and Marx. An old wooden table, painted blue, runs along the middle of the store. On it sit a stack of copies of “The Daily World” and some paper cups half filled with stale coffee.
Last Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. the owner of the store, a short, fat, balding man with glasses, stepped out for lunch. A few minutes later the phone rang. A woman answered it, “Hello, Frederick Douglas Book Store. May I help you?” The woman wore an olive green skirt, a yellow pullover, and a blue and green striped jacket. She was Charlene Mitchell, 38 years old, black, and candidate of the Communist party for President.
Her campaign would not send shivers up Richard Nixon’s spine. She is only on the ballot in two states. She does not have advance men. When she travels, her entourage consists of a friend or two. Her only campaign workers are Community Party members in the cities she visits. Her speaking places are colleges, trade union meetings, street corners, and parks. And she spends almost as much time helping friends by watching the store and answering the telephone as she does campaigning.
“Everybody says that the two problems facing our society are racism and the war. Cleaver says it. Gregory says it. The New Left says it.” She paused to light a cigarette. “More and more, however, their protest is turning inward, turning from racism and the war to the society which has brought them on and sanctions them. The system itself is at stake–and the issue is the immense gap between the way people could live and the way people do live.” Her voice lowered.
“What we need is a revolutionary transformation of this society to make it fit for men to live in, nothing else. Violence? Maybe yes, maybe no. The poor people, the black people, must have the right to defend themselves, and that means with arms if necessary.”
Mrs. Mitchell, who is the first black candidate the Communist party has ever nominated, has been with the party since 1946. When she was nine, her family moved from Cincinnati to Chicago, where it was easier for her father, a railroad yards worker, to find employment. “We lived in the Near North Side,” she recalled. “At the time of the Second World War, it was the heart of the profascist, racist, anti-labor movement in Chicago. My parents were working people. We were anti-fascist and pro-civil rights. We walked in picket lines. The Communist Party was on our side; when I was 16, I joined.”
Mrs. Mitchell stuck with the party through the hysteria of the McCarthy years. “Sometimes it was a little hard finding a job,” she said, half in jest, half in anger, “and the FBI followed us around all the time. We couldn’t do party work in the open.” She had to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee, and many of her close friends went to jail.
SHE HAS NEVER abandoned her faith in the communist system. Often, in her speeches and in private, she talks of the need for a “counter-vision with counter-values” to replace the American dream. “When I talk about the need for the people to own the means of production,” she explains, “I don’t mean that each worker in a factory would own the machine he works at. It’s different. It’s that the profits of a company, instead of going into the pockets of the owner, come back to benefit the people who work for the company.
“The Communist Party supports all the demands of Black Power. We support the Black Panthers. But we think they stop short. You see, replacing white capitalism with black capitalism isn’t going to solve the problems of poverty: the problems of poverty are rooted in the nature of capitalism itself.”
Mrs. Mitchell learned her economics first hand. She went to school at Herzl Junior College in Chicago’s Near North Side. The College is no longer in existence; its neighborhood is now one of the city’s worst ghettos.
Like any utopian vision, however, the Communist Party’s has its flaws. A key point in its scheme is the insistence upon the re-emergence of labor unions. “It is time,” the party platform states, “that workers demand that their leaders cease being water boys for the Democratic and Republican bosses. It is time that workers run for public office and begin to build a political party of their own.”
THE reliance upon unions puts Mrs. Mitchell in an awkward position; for, undeniably, labor will supply a great majority of the Wallace vote in this election. The awkwardness can become schizophrenic. In New York, for example, Albert Shanker has led his powerful teachers’ union in a six-week-old strike that is pitting the union directly against the black community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn.
“Shanker is leading a racist strike,” Mrs. Mitchell says. “Decentralization is an absolute necessity for the continuation of black education in this country. Black people must be free to control their schools.” She explains Shanker’s as a case of “union misleadership,” and argues that unions in this country have to move away from bread and butter issues and deal “not only with what’s good for themselves but with what’s good for their trade.”
Despite her optimism, labor unions have shown little sign of being less corrupt than anybody else. The Communist analysis that the black people of the ghettos and the poor white working class are natural allies in fighting the system is sound. And its analysis that the white power structure has used racial antagonism to prevent the formation of such an alliance is also sound. But one wonders whether the Communist slogans of three decades ago are, in fact, the answer for this country.
When Mrs. Mitchell spoke at Harvard last week, several Party friends accompanied her. All wearing dark glasses, they, and the man selling “The Daily World” at the door, seemed to be out of some movie from the ’30’s. Mrs. Mitchell did not fit in. At the end of her speech, she tried to defend the party position that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was “regrettable but necessary.” It was easy to see that she was uncomfortable. It was easy to see that she was more interested in black power than in labor unions. Her speech dealt with the “irrelevance of liberalism” to the modern world, but in many ways her communist vision seemed, too, to be irrelevant. Someone asked about Martin Luther King, “He was a tremendous human being,” Mrs. Mitchell said sadly. “But I do not accept non-violence as a principle. I am closer to Malcolm X. He stood for freedom.”
When the speech was over and she prepared to go, her small entourage surrounded her, and the man at the door picked up all the “Daily World’s” that he hadn’t sold. American communism seemed suddenly harmless, out of touch, and a little bit funny. But it had provided a woman with a way of life, and she would see it through to the end.