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Herbert Aptheker (July 31, 1915 - March 17, 2003) was an internationally known U.S. Marxist historian and political activist. He authored over 50 volumes, mostly in the fields of African American history, and U.S. history generally, among which include American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), his doctoral thesis and a classic in the field, and the 3 volume-Documentary History of the Negro People. He was a prominent figure in U.S. scholarly discourse since the 1930s.
He was born in Brooklyn, New York, the last child of a wealthy family in 1915, and educated at Columbia University. In 1932, when he was 16, he accompanied his father on a business trip to Alabama. There he was appalled by the operation of the Jim Crow Laws in the South. On his return to Brooklyn, he wrote a column for his school newspaper on the "Dark Side of The South."
Six years later, after obtaining a degree from Columbia, he went back to the South and worked as an educational worker for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union . Shortly afterwards, he served as secretary of the Abolish Peonage Committee . "Peons" or sharecroppers, the vast majority of whom were African American, were tied to the plantations by debt to the plantation owners. This practice essentially maintained slavery into the post-Civil War in all but name and law.
In 1939 Aptheker's academic and political concerns, long-running interest in the history of African Americans, and struggle against racism led him to join the Communist Party USA-- the U.S. political party that took the hardest line on full economic, social, and political equality for African Americans at the time. During World War II, he joined the army. He took part in Operation Overlord and by 1945 had reached the rank of major in the artillery.
His master's thesis, a study of the 1831 Nat Turner revolt in Virginia, laid the groundwork for his future work on the history of American slave revolts. Aptheker uncovered Turner's heroism, demonstrating how his rebellion was rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. His doctoral dissertation, American Negro Slave Revolts, was published in 1943. Traversing Southern libraries and archives, he uncovered 250 similar episodes through exhaustive research. It remains a landmark and a classic work in the study of Southern history and slavery.
He challenged racist writings, most notably those of Georgia-born historian UB Phillips , who cast African Americans as child-like, inferior, and uncivilized; argued that slavery was a benign institution; and defended the preservation of the Southern plantation system. Such works were the consensus in the field until Aptheker's scholarship tore them apart.
In the 1950s he was a victim of McCarthyism, and unable to obtain appointment as a university lecturer throughout the decade. For several years in the 1960s and 1970s, he was executive director of the American Institute For Marxist Studies .
He was a fervent opponent of the Vietnam War, making many lectures in college campuses nationwide. Aptheker saw U.S. conduct in Vietnam as a war of aggression against an exploited peasantry determined to win their independence and control of their land. He saw many parallels between Southern African American slaves and later sharecroppers and the Vietnamese working class and peasantry, from which the guerrilla fighters of the National Liberation Front (known in the U.S. as the "Viet Cong") drew most of their ranks.
Aptheker served on the National Committee of the Communist Party USA from 1957 to 1991. Aptheker and the CP-USA held that his decision to leave the party was more of a career move than a rejection of the party's beliefs.
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