Max Yergan was born about 1893 in Raleigh, North Carolina, the grandson of a slave, he studied at Shaw University and Springfield College. From about 1920 to 1936 he lived in South Africa as a representative of the Young Men's Christian Association, based at Alice in the Cape. A Communist by conviction at this time, he introduced numbers of Fort Hare students, most notably Govan Mbeki, to Marxist thinking. In 1936 he was asked to aid in drafting the constitution of the All African Convention. He had a reputation as a forceful and persuasive speaker. On his return to the United States he was appointed to the faculty of City College in New York and joined Paul Robeson in founding the Council on African Affairs, a left-supported organisation dedicated to opposing the oppression of Africans.
After being ousted as the director of the Council on African Affairs in 1948, Yergan's views became sharply anti-Communist, and he thereafter became a supporter of right-wing causes, including the Katanga secessionist movement of the early 1960s. In 1952 he returned to South Africa during the Defiance Campaign and warned against Communists in a speech at the Bantu Men's Social Center in Johannesburg. In a later trip in 1964 he publicly praised the government's separate development policy. From 1965 until his death in 1975 he was co-chairman of the American-African Affairs Association. He was the author of Gold and Poverty in South Africa (1938).