James Ford, a Communist Party official, was born in Pratt City, Alabama. He worked on railroads and in steel mills while in high school. In 1913 he entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, but before receiving his degree he enlisted in the army and served in France during World War I. Following the war, he returned to Fisk and completed his degree in 1920.
Ford then moved to Chicago, where he went to work with the postal service. He joined the Chicago Postal Workers Union and the American Negro Labor Congress, both affiliated with the Communist Party, U.S.A. (CPUSA), and through these organizations were recruited into the party in 1926. Ford demonstrated considerable bureaucratic skill and political savvy, and he rose rapidly in the party hierarchy. In 1928 he was selected as a delegate to the Congress of the Communist Trade International, or Profintern, held in Moscow. Ford stayed in the Soviet Union for nine months and was elected to the executive committee of the Profintern. In 1930 he moved to Hamburg, Germany, where he co-founded the International Conference of Negro Workers and became the first editor of its Negro Worker.
Ford returned to the United States in 1931 and was selected to be the party’s leading spokesperson on “the Negro question.” Shortly after his return from Europe, Ford was made vice president of the party’s League of Struggle for Negro Rights, and in 1932 he became the first black member of the American Politburo. Ford received national attention in 1932 when he was selected as the party’s vice presidential candidate, becoming the first African American to appear on the ballot for national executive office. He and his running mate, party chair William Z. Foster, received 102,991 votes.
In 1933 Ford was installed as leader of the party’s section in Harlem. Through the 1930s he transformed the Harlem party from a relatively decentralized, iconoclastic communist organization into a model of Stalinist orthodoxy. He quickly undercut the power of several black leaders in Harlem, including such leading black communists of the period as Cyril Briggs, Richard Moore, and Harry Haywood. In particular, Ford set out to rid the Harlem section of black nationalism, which had gained considerable currency among the membership. In his first year in Harlem Ford terminated communist participation in campaigns to boycott those Harlem stores that did not hire African Americans, arguing that such a strategy of local black empowerment would exacerbate divisions between black and white workers.
Ford redirected Harlem communists to boycott only institutions with unionized workers whose unions supported the campaign, a strategy that proved successful in desegregating several private businesses and government agencies located in Harlem. Ford was also successful in expanding the Harlem party, which in the first two years of his leadership increased its black membership from 87 to more than 300 and its general membership from 560 to 1,000.
In 1936 Ford helped found the National Negro Congress, a civil rights organization closely aligned with the Communist Party. In that year he was again selected to be the CPUSA’s vice presidential candidate, this time as a running mate with new party chair Earl Browder. Ford and Browder ran again in 1940 but received fewer than fifty thousand votes.
During World War II Ford’s power within the national party diminished as he was eclipsed by the more dynamic Benjamin J. Davis as the party’s leading black spokesperson. Ford was deposed from the National Committee (the renamed Politburo) at the party’s congress in 1945 and was selected as chairperson of a newly formed internal security committee, though he remained the leader of the Harlem party.
After World War II Ford languished as an obscure party bureaucrat, escaping the federal prosecution that sent many of the Communist Party’s leadership to prison. In the 1950s he served as executive director of the National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership, a party group set up to support black members convicted under federal antisubversion laws. Ford died in New York in 1957.