The lost history of communism below the Mason-Dixon line.
By Robert Greene II
June 15/22, 2020, Issue
photo: A Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting in Arkansas, 1937. (Archive Photos / Getty Images)
“This is the firing line not simply for the emancipation of the American Negro but for the emancipation of the African Negro and the Negroes of the West Indies; for the emancipation of the colored races; and for the emancipation of the white slaves of modern capitalistic monopoly.” W.E.B. Du Bois delivered these lines before a large crowd in Columbia, S.C., in the fall of 1946. The people gathered before him were neither strictly Marxist nor communist; they were mostly members of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which was founded in 1937 to organize young people, workers, and other disaffected groups across the South. But no one in that audience was shocked by what he had to say. For them, like Du Bois, breaking the back of Southern white supremacy required challenging and remaking the larger system of exploitative capitalism that had subjected black and white Southerners to centuries of injustice. With the Congress of Industrial Organizations executing its Operation Dixie to organize industrial workers in the South that year and with African American veterans back from the war embarking on their own militant and heroic struggle for human rights there, Du Bois’s insistence that the South had become the center of a new battle for freedom was in no way far from the truth.
Part of the reason for this was that the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the South had long been linked to activity in the economic sphere, where millions of white and black Southerners worked as sharecroppers and factory employees and in various low-wage jobs. During the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the region the “nation’s No. 1 economic problem,” and there had always been an undercurrent of Southern-based radicalism that sought wide-ranging change—not only civil and political rights but also economic and social ones.
To add to this, beginning in the 1930s, many of the leaders and organizers in the struggle against segregation and Jim Crow were members of the Communist Party or its fellow travelers. From Harlem in New York City to Birmingham, Ala., black and white Communists organized across racial and class lines throughout the Great Depression and World War II to fight fascism abroad and hunger and racism at home. By the time the Southern Negro Youth Congress was organized, many involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement had been active in earlier Communist and Communist-affiliated groups. Others who were radicalized by the trial of the Scottsboro Boys and the Angelo Herndon case were exposed to many radical economic ideas and felt a particular loyalty to the left, having witnessed in both trials the Communist Party backing lawyers to take up the cause of black civil and legal rights in the South.
So when Du Bois spoke before a crowd of young black activists in the mid-1940s, he was preaching to the choir, because an ever-growing number of radical Southerners already agreed with him that the struggle against white supremacy was a struggle against capitalism, too. As Du Bois told them, the “first and greatest…allies are the white working classes about you,” which had also been exploited by wealthy capitalists interested in dividing the South’s working class.
Mary Stanton’s new book, Red, Black, White: The Alabama Communist Party, 1930–1950, helps recover this history through the story of one of the party’s most important sections: District 17, a regional unit of the national party that was headquartered in industrial Birmingham and sought to coordinate efforts to organize white and black Southerners in Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. During the Depression, World War II, and the early postwar years, the group was at the forefront of the struggle throughout the Deep South against police brutality, lynchings, and anti-free-speech laws. In terms of the number of members, it often punched above its weight: James S. Allen, a Communist organizer who wrote the memoir Organizing in the Depression South, estimated that in 1931 the party had fewer than 500 members in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. By chronicling the party’s successful efforts to establish a foothold in Alabama during the 1930s and ’40s, Stanton shows us that Communist organizers adopted a variety of organizing tools and resources—including the International Labor Defense (ILD), the American section of the Comintern’s legal arm—in order to win black Americans their rights and freedom in court. Highlighting how these black and white Communists built a multiracial movement through a series of highly publicized trials, Stanton illuminates how Communists in Alabama and elsewhere in the United States used the law not only to bring international attention to the worst of Jim Crow segregation but also to build solidarity across race and class lines. By doing the hard work of pursuing a legal strategy closely tied to a media strategy of publicizing numerous social injustices, Alabama Communists helped lay the foundation for the organized civil rights movement that emerged in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
Based primarily in Northern cities, the Communist Party started to plan its organizing campaign in the South in the early 1930s, a new view of the South as a key area of activism that Harry Haywood, a prominent black Communist based in Chicago, promulgated in The Communist in his 1933 essay “The Struggle for the Leninist Position on the Negro Question in the United States.” His 1948 book Negro Liberation insisted, among other things, that American radicals needed to turn their attention to the fight for black political and economic rights in the so-called Black Belt, the fertile land sweeping south from Virginia through the heart of the former Confederacy to Louisiana. There “a nation within a nation” stood, and Communists, Haywood argued, could join in its struggle for self-determination—and by doing so build a base for revolution.
Haywood’s arguments made a profound impression on his fellow Communists, both black and white, in the North. He first came across this idea while living in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and seeing the autonomous republics within the USSR, which provided a model for what he desired for African Americans in the South. The Depression only sharpened this insight. Hoping to expand the party’s membership and reach in the rest of the United States, Haywood saw an opportunity to do just that by organizing the South.
However, as the Communist organizers arrived in different Southern cities, they found that they had to make changes on the fly to the idea Haywood promoted. As Stanton tells us, many of the black sharecroppers, miners, and industrial workers they encountered did not want to opt out of the system but rather to opt into it: They wanted “to participate in the nation’s prosperity, to claim constitutional guarantees, and to assume a rightful place in society.” This discovery left a profound mark on early Communist organizers and shaped much of the work they did in the South and in the North as well. Instead of focusing on an all-out revolution against Jim Crow’s entrenched segregation, they sought to help black Americans win their economic, political, and legal rights. Rather than a violent overthrow of the system, they mostly attempted to use various means of protest to win major victories on behalf of social and political reform.
Nationally, the Communists accepted this Popular Front approach, seeking to pursue social justice in all of its manifestations, and the experience of the Alabama Communists played an important role in shaping this evolution in American Communist thinking and in helping the party, as its vanguard, test the applications of this new approach. The Alabama Communist Party, after all, made up a considerable part of District 17. The threats these activists and their allies faced were stark. Even at the height of its popularity during the Great Depression, it was risky being a member of the Communist Party anywhere in the country, and organizing for civil rights and economic reform in Alabama was an even more dangerous prospect. District 17 became ground zero for the new reformism that ran through the party. Communists there could become active in both civil rights and labor organizing; they could reach out to black and white Southerners alike, form trade unions, and provide them with legal defense. As a result, they were a constant target of harassment and beatings, so much so that Stanton compares District 17 to “a firehouse—in a perennial state of emergency, running on adrenalin.”
Stanton begins Red, Black, White with the infamous Scottsboro Boys trial. In 1931, nine young African American men were accused by two white women of raping them while they rode on a train traveling through Tennessee and Alabama. The NAACP was initially reluctant to take the case, so the ILD rushed to the Scottsboro Boys’ defense. The case soon rocketed to international prominence, primarily because of the unrelenting efforts of local Communist activists and the ILD’s skillful use of publicity. Eventually, the state gave posthumous pardons to several of the young men—Ozie Powell, Haywood Patterson, Charlie Weems, Andy Wright.
The achievements of the ILD helped the Communist Party build some support among African Americans across the country, and Stanton traces how Communist organizers in Birmingham and the rest of District 17 used it to fuel activist campaigns throughout the Deep South. Even with the ILD’s organizing, however, the Birmingham organizers struggled to craft a party structure that was able to withstand the heat of the anti-communism and anti-black racism that pervaded Alabama’s political system in the 1930s and ’40s. The party organization that had been developed in the North proved important in supporting the party’s efforts in the South. Faced with laws explicitly designed to crack down on radical organizing, the national party sent lawyers to defend the organizers and helped publicize their cases. But District 17 often found that it had to innovate its own tactics: investigating the lynchings and other murders of African Americans in the state, organizing local sharecropper unions and a reading group, and enlisting sympathetic local lawyers.
Stanton also discusses District 17’s attempts to investigate police brutality in cities like Memphis in the 1930s. The hostility that the Communist organizers faced was attributable to their radical stance on racial equality as well as to their attempts to organize Southern workers. They were operating in a one-party system that constantly monitored and suppressed all forms of radical organizing, and the ghosts of the past haunted their work. In 1919 in Elaine, Ark., radicals were victims of the Red Summer racial pogrom sparked by attempts to organize black sharecroppers.
The struggles of union workers in Gastonia, N.C., in 1929 and the collapse of the textile workers’ strike in 1934 likewise showed how hostile Southern authorities were to any labor organizing, and many Communists there were forced to try a variety of tactics untested in the North. Often stretched thin trying to help out wherever they could, they ended up having to live in a state of what Stanton calls “mind-numbing fear,” but they nonetheless persevered and helped thousands in the American South make their desires for freedom known across the world.
While offering us a close view of local organizing, Stanton never loses sight of the larger story of American communism. She also situates District 17’s activism within a larger history of radical activism and protest in the Deep South that helped plant the seeds for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The members of District 17 and the people they served recognized that theirs was but a local phase of a much broader worldwide struggle against not just fascism but all forms of imperialist and racist domination. Du Bois was not alone in making the connections between local struggles against Jim Crow and international struggles against capitalism. Black Southerners defended Ethiopia after it was invaded by Italy in 1935 and journeyed to Spain to fight Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. They all saw their fight as the same one, against the same enemy, on multiple fronts.
As Stanton shows near the end of the book, the forces of reaction in the South were aware of this larger struggle, too, even as their attempts to crush the Communists and drive back interracial organizing became more successful in the postwar years, when Northerners and Southerners alike targeted labor and socialist organizers across the country, essentially forcing the left underground. The Second Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s dealt some severe blows, but the Communist Party left a legacy of grassroots organizing and agitation that would become part of the broader civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Other books have covered at least a portion of this terrain before. Robin D.G. Kelley’s landmark Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression is the best-known work on the party’s operations in Alabama in this period. Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie, John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day, and Patricia Sullivan’s Days of Hope also note that the fight against Jim Crow did not begin with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Taken together, these books tell a rich story that is often neglected or minimized in the mainstream narratives of Southern history. By excavating the roots of civil rights activism in the South that reach back to the 1930s, they remind us that the struggle for political and civil rights there was almost always twinned with the struggle for economic and social rights.
The role that Communists played in the civil rights movement of the postwar years is often suppressed or glossed over, if mentioned at all. Red, Black, White prompts us to remember a different Southern past, and Stanton shows us the more practical and down-to-earth nature of Communist organizing in the South as well. The party’s activists arrived in the region with an ideological view of class struggle but adapted their tactics and strategy after listening to people on the ground. “Pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will” is the memorable phrase coined by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, but it could just as easily have been uttered by Alabama’s Communists, both those from the South and those who traveled there to help organize it. These Communists risked nearly everything, and they did so knowing full well that their ideals might never be realized in their lifetimes. But they nonetheless persisted. Whether trying to save someone from lynching or struggling to organize workers in a Birmingham steel plant, it was, for nearly all of them, a matter of life or death.