By Barry Sheppard
Kendra Alexander, a leader of the Committees of Correspondence both nationally and in northern California, died in an accidental fire in her home in Berkeley on May 23.
Because of the central and unifying role she played, her loss will be felt throughout the CoCs.
Kendra was a leader of the Communist Party until its convention in December 1991. Leading up to that gathering, differences had developed in the CP over the events in the former Soviet bloc. As Angela Davis explained in her eulogy for Kendra at a memorial service in Oakland, it became clear to a section of the CP that there were serious problems with political and economic democracy in the former Soviet Union and east Europe.
It also became clear that there were serious problems inside the CP concerning internal democracy. Kendra was one of the leaders of the Initiative movement to democratise and renew the CP. At the convention, everyone associated with the Initiative movement was dropped from all levels of national leadership.
In March 1992, Kendra helped lead northern California Communists to a fateful decision. After lengthy open discussions, members voted in their overwhelming majority to leave the CP and to join in forming the CoCs.
A national conference on "Perspectives for Democracy and Socialism in the '90s", held in Berkeley in July 1992, formed the CoCs as a national left activist organisation open to all who saw the need for a new organisation to work toward a renewal of the socialist movement in the US.
Kendra was elected one of five national co-chairpersons at that conference.
I first met Kendra last September, when I raised with her the desire of people who had founded Independent Politics to join the CoCs and help to build it through
discussion and activist work. Most of us had come from the Trotskyist tradition, and we knew there were others who had the same origin, such as Peter Camejo, who were already members and leaders of the CoCs.
Kendra welcomed our participation.
In the course of working to build the committees, I began to learn some things about her.
One was that she was completely committed to holding a free and open discussion in the committees. She helped see to it that all opinions were heard and reflected on leadership bodies and in assignments to activist work.
She said on more than one occasion that she herself was overcoming anti-democratic or "verticalist" practices found in the CP (something all of us who came from different traditions have to deal with also to one degree or another).
At the same time, she was concerned that some groups, including some who claim to be Trotskyist, appeared to have joined the CoCs as a raiding operation. She knew these groups weren't really trying to help build the CoCs, but she was wary of taking any measures that could have the effect or even the appearance of limiting the discussion.
She also didn't claim to have all of her own political positions worked out. She was a real participant in the unfolding discussion about what kind of organisation the CoCs should be.
A major concern she had was reaching youth, especially African-American youth and other people of colour. She knew there were no easy answers, but kept this necessity in the forefront.
In the brief time I knew her, I had many occasions to go over to her house. The door was almost always unlocked, and the house was used for all sorts of meetings.
She and her husband, Franklin, always were friendly, warm and hospitable. If you were hungry, you could always get something, and if you were there at
mealtime, you would be invited to enjoy some of Franklin's excellent cooking.
Like many of her generation of African Americans, Kendra's first political activity was in the civil rights movement. As a teenager, she worked with the Congress on Racial Equality during the Freedom Summer of 1965, fighting to integrate lunch counters and register black voters in Jonesboro, Louisiana.
Returning to southern California, where she grew up, she enrolled at Los Angeles State College. There she joined the DuBois Clubs, a socialist youth organisation associated with the Communist Party. She joined the CP, and helped form the Che-Lumumba Club of black revolutionary activists in south central Los Angeles.
Recently she stated that she became a communist because she became convinced that black liberation could be won only through socialism. This was true of others who joined different socialist groups. Another who joined the CP, recruited by Kendra, was Angela Davis.
Alexander and Davis travelled to Cuba together as part of the Venceremos Brigade in 1969 to work on the huge effort to harvest 10 million tons of sugarcane.
When Angela Davis became the victim of the infamous government frame-up on murder and conspiracy charges, Kendra moved to the San Francisco Bay area to head the defence effort. The successful campaign to free Davis established Kendra in the party as a leader. She was elected to the CP National Committee in 1972, and became organisational secretary of the Bay Area District in 1973.
At a recent press conference, Kendra said, "I do not regret that I belonged to the Communist Party, nor do I regret that I left it. The struggle to make our country a better place to live will always remain my life's work."
Unlike many who go through negative experiences in one socialist group or another, Kendra did not become cynical or disillusioned. She remained a communist with a small "c" as she helped launch the new project of the CoCs.
I regret that I knew her for such a short time, but am grateful for the time I did.