New book explores dramatic political life of black activist

A new biography by UC Santa Cruz associate history professor David Anthony traces the history of black activist Max Yergan--a prominent African American leader of the 20th century who made a dramatic shift from the political left to the right over a period of three decades.

Max Yergan: Race Man, Internationalist, Cold Warrior (2006, New York University Press) follows the course of Yergan's life against the backdrop of the complex political and institutional movements that have shaped African American history in the United States and abroad.

According to Anthony, Yergan was part of a generation of leading African American figures whose careers were made up of an impressive series of pioneering feats. Yergan was the first African American to do YMCA work in South Africa; he was a mentor of Govan Mbeki, who later achieved distinction in the African National Congress; he was one of the first African Americans to work as an adjunct lecturer at City College of New York; he was the second president of the National Negro Congress; and with Paul Robeson, he cofounded the International Committee on African Affairs.

But as author Adam Hochschild noted in a recent review of the book: "The multiple lives of the man David Anthony explores in these pages are fascinating, tragic, and remarkably little-known. The left to right journeys of many white American intellectuals are familiar, but the trajectory of this talented black man seems more dramatic than any of them--from mentor of a key African National Congress leader to enthusiastic backer of apartheid, from friend of Paul Robeson and target of FBI surveillance to someone eulogized in the National Review, Max Yergan's odyssey through the twentieth century is a prism through which to view an era's dreams and conflicts on four continents."

Anthony noted that Yergan's dramatic shift politically was the result of intense pressure due to Cold War hysteria. "It was a mix of personal disillusionment and intimidation once the government began pressuring radicals through the Smith Act, Truman Doctrine, and everything leading up to and culminating in McCarthyism," Anthony explained. "Yergan was one of the many casualties of the Cold War."

Anthony added that many elements of his new book are surprisingly timely.

"Yergan was a target of government surveillance for almost 30 years, from 1937 through the 1960s," Anthony said. "He was not rehired by City College in 1940 in the wake of an anti-left purge of radical academics by New York State legislators. And during his public life, the Army, Navy, State Department, and FBI all maintained extensive dossiers on Yergan's writings, speeches, comings and goings--this persisted well after he recanted leftism and became an outspoken critic of the left."

The book took more than a decade of research, involving a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and numerous trips to southern Africa. Anthony also spent 10 months as a Fulbright Fellow, teaching and researching at the National University of Lesotho in Roma and made three field trips to South Africa as part of the African American Historical Linkages with South Africa project.

Anthony said the book had its origins as part of a study about men and women of African descent, whose interests in Africa led them to live there for significant periods of time. But he said he became increasingly intrigued with all of the twists and turns of Yergan's complicated life. "I never intended to work as long on this subject as I did," Anthony observed.


David Anthony will present a book talk and reading at Capitola Book Café (1475 41st Ave., Capitola) on Tuesday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. For more information about the event, call (831) 462-4415.