The recent death of Abigail Thernstrom, 83, my friend and longtime colleague at the Manhattan Institute, prompts reflection on the amazing trajectory of her political life. Thernstrom was raised in a New York suburb by parents who were Communist Party members, and she attended the Little Red School House high school. She transitioned to an illustrious scholarly career, culminating in America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, coauthored with her historian husband, Stephan. The Thernstroms’ 1997 book was a revealing and dispassionate overview of racial progress and problems in the U.S., but also a rebuke of Communism and the tactics that the party pursued during her childhood.
During Abby’s youth—for a time, spent on a collective farm—Communist propaganda and strategy was suffused with race-related themes, from the Party’s “self-determination” campaign in the South’s Black Belt to its nomination of James W. Ford, the son of an Alabama mine worker, as its 1932 vice presidential candidate. Meantime, the brilliant propaganda art of Hungarian-born Hugo Gellert featured the first poster images of a noose around the neck of a lynching victim. (Gellert also painted the first poster of the peace dove that became a central part of Vietnam War protests.) The Party took up the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black Alabama teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in a railroad car. And it was the Party, along with the NAACP, that successfully appealed their convictions, ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court due to the lack of African-American representation in the jury pool.
The Party wasn’t wrong about racial injustice, but Communists, whether in mass rallies or the pages of the Daily Worker, used race as a cudgel against capitalism, writ large. Blacks were long the most oppressed by America’s economic system. This necessitated change—root and branch. Civil rights laws were mere Band-Aids. That would be the message of Communism’s cultural spear-carriers such as Pete Seeger, who not only sang “We Shall Overcome” but also “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” which tells the story of financiers auctioning the foreclosed home of a “weary farmer,” while “the banks are made of marble / with a guard at every door.” Or Paul Robeson, who not only sang “Ole Man River” and “Songs of Freedom” but also died an expatriate in Moscow.
It was this use of racism as a case-closed argument against capitalism that Abby, and Steve, would ultimately reject. She never turned her back on concern for African-Americans, but she questioned—and then disproved—the Left’s critique, so persistent today. America in Black and White combined an unblinking narrative account of Jim Crow in the South and racist social attitudes in the North with an equally clear-eyed story of blacks’ breathtaking postwar economic progress.
“The Second Great Migration brought about an enormous improvement in the kinds of jobs held by African Americans and in the incomes they earned,” the Thernstroms wrote. “In many respects, the pace of progress was more rapid before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the affirmative action policies that began in the late 1960s than it has been since.” They continued: “In 1940, only one out of ten black men had any kind of white collar or skilled manual job, a rough but reasonably good indicator of what it means to be ‘middle class.’ By 1960, this middle-class had expanded to include almost one of four African-American males.”
America in Black and White is a brilliantly told narrative that brings together the skills of Stephan the historian and Abby the political scientist. Stephan, too, had started on the political left. Together, he and Abby clearly understood the political and policy implications of their findings: affirmative action might be a cure for a diminishing disease; traditional public education must be failing black children, who, in the past, had used education to advance economically.
Abby once told me that Time was about to put her and Steve on its cover for a review of their work. They were bumped by the news of Princess Diana’s death. Now, sadly, the news of her death is lost in the wake of so many others, from Covid-19. But her evolution from the far Left to the sensible center is a timeless story, and an example one can hope will be widely followed.
Photo by Mike Theiler/Getty Images