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Cover detail from Hammer and Hoe by Robin D. G. Kelly. Photo: University of North Carolina Press

Cover detail from Hammer and Hoe by Robin D. G. Kelly. Photo: University of North Carolina Press

Despite powerful and brutal opposition, black and white communist workers battled bravely against injustice in Alabama, writes Sean Ledwith

Few situations can ever have seemed less auspicious for left-wing revolutionaries than Alabama in the 1930s. Just over sixty years after the US Civil War, the Southern state was one of the heartlands of the Jim Crow system of racism and segregation that at best forced second-class status on African Americans and at its worst subjected them to the lynchings and terrors of the Ku Klux Klan. For a brief period after the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, the Northern establishment had tried to impose desegregation on the South but in the mid-1870s, a cynical political deal between the two sections of the US ruling class led to Washington politicians effectively turning their back on the South’s black population.

Courage and creativity

Although the Democrats were nominally the party of liberalism in the North, their historic ties to the South stretching back to the era of slavery ensured even Northern liberals such as FDR were not interested in rocking the segregationist  boat. Many white workers in the state had been socialised to see their black counterparts as a threat to jobs and pay rather than as potential comrades in arms. Many officials in the state apparatus would make minimal effort to hide their allegiance to the Klan.

Despite these seemingly impossible odds, Alabama Communists in the decade before WW2 waged a campaign against exploitation and racism characterised by astonishing courage and creativity. It is impossible not to be awed by their commitment which still has lessons for us today in the renewed struggle against racialised capitalism. The story of this inspiring episode in the history of the US left is best recounted in Robin Kelley’s brilliant book, Hammer and Hoe, first published in 1990.

New perspective

The US Communist Party was created two years after the 1917 Russian Revolution on the wave of euphoria that fanned out across the world following the first successful worker’s revolution. For the first few years of its existence, however, it was hamstrung by internal wrangling and an underdeveloped conception of racism in the American South. Many of its early supporters, particularly in the North, believed the best way to agitate among workers and poor farmers was to prioritise  economic questions and to downplay the particular type of oppression that afflicted African Americans.

They were shaken out of this flawed perspective by Lenin and Trotsky who engaged with American Communists through a series of debates within the Communist International in the 1920s. A revised perspective was devised in conjunction with the Comintern leadership that demonstrated an appreciation of the particular factors that affected black Americans.  Slowly but surely the party began to attract more interest among the predominantly black sharecroppers of the Southern states, including Alabama, but it was the seismic impact of the Wall Street Crash in 1929 that took activism to a new level.

Debt trap

The economic downturn starting in that year led to a collapse in the global price of cotton which was the staple crop for thousands of black tenant farmers who populated the southern part of the state known as the Black Belt. Many African Americans in this precarious environment had already started to migrate to the Northern cities after WW1 which further eroded the likelihood of collective resistance to exploitation. Thousands of those who stayed behind fell into a debt trap as mainly white landlords imposed prohibitively high interest rates on loans of essential equipment and land.

Southern Worker

However, just at the point where defeat and demoralisation in the Black Belt seemed to be near complete, Communists based in the state capital of Birmingham- mainly black but some white as well- decided to initiate a campaign of agitation among the sharecroppers. The astonishingly positive response to this initiative from the debt-laden farmers was partly a consequence of decades of neglect by the pro-segregation Democrat Party and trade union leaders in the region. Armed with the enhanced message on the centrality of anti-racist struggle from the Comintern, the Alabama Communists were essentially the first voices on the left to take seriously the plight of African Americans in the South.

The party’s newspaper, Southern Worker, was distributed for the first time among the sharecroppers of the Black Belt alongside a call to set up mass meetings and establish a new trade union that was untainted by the colour bar accepted in much of the Alabama labour movement. The outcome was the creation of the Croppers and Farm Workers Union (CFWU) in 1931. The Communists, led by an illiterate steelworker called Mack Coad, worked with the revitalised militants among the farmers to devise a number of concrete demands such as payment in cash rather than in kind, a daily minimum wage and a three-hour midday break. Incredibly, Robin Kelley reports the Communists even managed to recruit some former KKK members!

Lenin and bullets

The predictable paranoia among the landlords and industrialists of the state led them to issue a ludicrous leaflet claiming: What Communists want to do is nationalise your daughters. This nonsense, of course, was a foreshadowing of the witch-hunting excesses of McCarthyism which would later decimate the US left after WW2. When Robin Kelley was researching his book decades later, he asked one Communist survivor of this era what tactics the group had utilised:

In reply, Johnson “pulled out a dog-eared copy of V.I. Lenin’s What Is to Be Done and a box of shotgun shells” and said “Theory and practice.”

Scottsboro

Within a few months, the CFWU grew to almost a thousand members, partly due to the inspired intervention of the Birmingham-based Communists but also thanks to the positive publicity the national party acquired around the famous case of the Scottsboro Boys. They were nine young black itinerant workers who had been arrested in the state on a trumped up charge of the rape of two white girls. The Communist Party based in the North saw the case as an ideal opportunity to expose the system of legalised lynching that passed for a judicial process in the South.

Other mainstream civil rights organisations such as the NAACP were reluctant to get involved as they regarded it as unwinnable. The Communist Party, through a sub-section known as International Labor Defense (ILD), funded a legal team who were dispatched to Alabama to represent the nine defendants. Simultaneously, a textbook united front campaign was launched in the North by the party to publicise the case which won mass support across the political spectrum. The case turned into a legal quagmire over many years but the ILD lawyers saved the boys from what would otherwise have been an inevitable appointment with the electric chair.

Battle of Camp Hill

In July 1931, the Alabama Communists called a meeting a Camp Hill to discuss the Scottsboro case. The antipathy they had provoked among the Alabama elite had forced the militants to become an underground network by this time with many party members forced into hiding by the KKK.  Nevertheless, 80 men and women turned up at the secret location but they were betrayed by a police informant. A racist posse organised by Sheriff Kyle Young arrived on the scene and proceeded to brutally attack everyone inside. The key CFWU organisers were brothers Ralph and Tommy Gray. The wife of the latter sustained a fractured skull during the attack.

Undeterred, the Communists organised another meeting the following day-this time with armed sentries posted outside. Once again, Young and his gang of barely-disguised Klan members turned up but this time the confrontation escalated into a shoot-out between the two armed groups. Ralph Gray and Sheriff Young were both seriously wounded but while the latter received hospital treatment, the former knew he would never be allowed to live if he requested the same. As Gray lay dying in his own house, a member of the posse returned and in the words of an eyewitness, ‘poked a pistol; into Brother Ralph’s mouth hand shot down his throat’. Gray’s house was burnt to the ground and his body dumped outside the local courthouse to be desecrated by racist vigilantes.

Death squads

In the following days, more extra-judicial executions of an unknown number of Communist and union militants took place in the Camp Hill area as the local police chief vowed to ‘kill every member of the Reds there and throw them into the creek’. An even larger number of activists were incarcerated to await the dubious pleasure of the Alabama judicial system. By this time, however, the brilliant defence of the Scottsboro Boys conducted by the IDL had become admired around the world and, as result; the Alabama police department opted to release the detainees to avoid further embarrassment.

Towards the end of the 1930s, Stalin’s insidious grip on the Comintern caused Communist Parties around the world to abandon their grassroots mobilisations in favour of broader - and less subversive - alliances with mainstream parties. The Alabama Communists were ordered to dis-engage with the sharecroppers to avoid upsetting Stalin’s attempts to court FDR and the Democrat Party. At its peak the sharecroppers’ union had grown to 10,000 members, making it the largest African American labor organisation in the South. The revolutionaries achieved this startling success with a core of only about 200 activists operating underground. Tragically, in 1939, the Russian leader’s cynical Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler destroyed the credibility of the local Communists once and for all.

From Reds to Rosa

The remarkable work of revolutionaries in the previous ten years was not in vain, however. In 1955, the civil rights movement was catalysed by Rosa Parks’ legendary refusal to change seats on a segregated Alabama bus. Parks had attended Communist Party meetings during the Scottsboro case and was inspired enough to gradually move to the epicentre of the anti-racist struggle. Robin Keeley sums up the legacy of the Alabama Communists:

So, they may not be huge victories, but I know one thing, the infrastructure that was laid forward becomes the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, was laid in many ways, not entirely, by the Communist Party. They saw joblessness and Civil Rights, and the right not be raped or lynched, self-protection - that all these things are part of one big struggle. And they really did succeed in building an interracial movement. Even if the whites were in the minority, those whites were there with them. And that vision, that ordinary people can make change, was a legacy they left us.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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