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Abstract

The year 1956 was transformative for the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). In February, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin’s reign and cult of personality. Later that year, the CPUSA itself took up the mantle of self-criticism to explicate all the wrongs of the Party. While traditional historiography notes that the number of Party members sharply decreased during this time, this thesis aims to delve further into the crisis and complicate the established narrative by focusing on African American communists. The thesis will therefore move beyond a Soviet-centric narrative, instead showing that the general attrition of African Americans from the Party in the years leading up to 1956 show that for African Americans, their decision to leave the Party was less about Stalin than it was the state of racial and Party politics at the time. By the mid-20th century, it had become clear to African Americans that the CPUSA was no longer the center of radical Black politics. Instead, with the advent of the civil rights movement among other movements for racial equality, African Americans began to leave the CPUSA to find organizations more aware of and willing to support the struggle for racial politics. Ultimately, this thesis argues that the crisis of 1956 caused many African American leftists to undergo an intensely personal struggle. While the end results varied, all decisions were based on the Party’s ability to effectively counter American racism.

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