Communist Party activists in the US waged a war against racial segregation during the 1930s Great Depression.
In the teeth of brutal opposition they helped build a multi-racial workers’ movement. This sought to smash the divide and rule policies of the bosses—and in the process break the prejudices of white workers.
Nowhere was the battle fiercer than in the Deep South—the states that had formed the slave-owning Confederacy during the US Civil War of 1861-65. The vast majority of black people there were forced into the lowest paid jobs or to scratch a living as tenant farmers.
The ruling class was terrified by the radicalism and unity that had developed between black and white after the Civil War. It instituted Jim Crow, a system of legal segregation that rigidly divided every aspect of life. Legal racism was backed up by the paramilitary terror of the Ku Klux Klan.
Whites were encouraged to think of themselves as superior, despite the poverty most lived in. Many workers fell into the trap. The result was pitifully weak union organisation, low wages for the poor—while the rich enjoyed big profits and unchallenged power.
Southern rulers presented their society as unchanging. But the Jim Crow laws were only fully imposed in 1900, and the first stirrings of revolt could be felt after the First World War.
The failure of this “war for democracy” to secure even basic civil rights for black soldiers returning from the battlefields coincided with the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Radicals from all over the world were encouraged to travel to Russia and see the new society at first hand. Among the hundreds of Americans who made the trip in the early 1920s were a handful of black activists. What they experienced there was to change their lives forever.
Lovett Fort-Whiteman was astounded by what he believed was “the first state in the history of the world which had actually solved the problem of racial discrimination”.
Another black visitor, Homer Smith, recalled: “If a Negro was standing in line at a shop, some Russian was sure to tug him by the arm and lead him to the front of the line. If it was a matter of a dance with a Russian girl, a Russian man would always give way.”
The Russian revolutionaries believed that African-Americans would form the vanguard of the coming American revolution. The newly founded US Communist Party prioritised recruiting black workers.
Communists established themselves in major northern cities including New York. They made significant inroads in Harlem. But most black people lived in the South at the time—and the Communists knew they would have to recruit there.
Unfortunately, the new party had few roots in the South and little understanding of its traditions of resistance—or of the terror that would be unleashed against them there.
Black Communist Angelo Herndon wrote, “We were called comrades without condescension or patronage. Better yet, we were treated like equals and brothers.”
Another recruit, Hosea Hudson, was impressed because Communists spoke to people at the bottom of the heap. He said, “This low class of people was the ones the police was killing what nobody saying nothing about. Outcasts!
“When the Party come out, these people were somebody. You took these people and made leaders of them.”
Their first major test came in 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina, when the Communist-run National Textile Workers Union called a strike. The town was famed for its mills and terrible working conditions.
Communists organised integrated meetings with black strikers speaking—at a time when mainstream unions barely allowed black workers to join. Bosses forced thousands of strikers from company owned homes into “tent cities”.
More party organisers, black and white, were sent from New York to help the struggle. Bosses understood the threat. Not only were the Communists out for better wages, they wanted to break the segregation that served the rich so well.
Company police broke picket lines and meetings with clubs, while organisers were targeted with guns. Striking Communist Ella Mae Wiggins was killed when a group of men jumped out of a car and began shooting. Wiggins was white but chose to live in a black area.
The crime was committed in daylight with more than 50 witnesses. Yet five people charged with her murder were acquitted after less than 30 minutes of deliberation.
Although the strike was eventually defeated, the knowledge that black and white workers could strike together, even in the South, spread like wildfire.
The story of black Communist organiser Otto Hall was retold countless times. White strikers drove Otto away from a police-inspired mob in the boot of their car. Everyone knew that if the car had been stopped the whites would have been killed too.
The lesson that white workers could be broken from racism—providing no concessions were made to it—was repeated at meetings across the US.
It attracted people to the party. Soon the handful of Northern black Communists who had started work in the late 1920s was supplemented by dozens of native Southerners, black and white.
They were well-schooled in how to answer what were then difficult questions. William Dunne recalls that the first question many would ask a white Communist was, “Would you want your daughter to marry a nigger?”
Dunne would reply, “That will be her affair, not mine. But one thing you can rest assured of—I would rather that she jump into a lake than to marry such a yellow-bellied Negro-hater like you.”
Now that the Communists had a base in the South their mettle was going to be tested. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys was to be the challenge that would make or break them.
The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers falsely convicted of rape in Alabama in 1931. Their trial was little more than a legal lynching.
The case was based on accusations made by two women after they had been arrested. One of them, Ruby Bates, would later admit that the police pressured her into lying and that no rape had occured. She joined the campaign for their release.
But large groups of white men assembled to “defend their women’s honour”—code for lynching any black man seen as a threat.
In this atmosphere the mainstream anti-racist organisation, the moderate NAACP, refused to provide the Scottsboro Boys with lawyers for their appeal.
But the Communist backed International Labour Defence (ILD) quickly came to their aid and helped spark an international campaign for their release.
A Communist paper declared, “There can be no such thing as a ‘fair trial’ of a Negro boy accused of rape in an Alabama court. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.”
The ILD’s strategy was “to give the Boys the best available legal defence in the capitalist courts, but at the same time to emphasise that the Boys can only be saved by the pressure of millions of workers, coloured and white, behind the defence in the courts.”
Communists organised protests across the country. Police battered them. The sight of bloodied, largely white socialists helped seal the Communists’ reputation as genuine allies of black workers.
Eventually charges for four of the nine were dropped, and none faced the death penalty. The campaign was vital to keeping them alive.
In the mid-1930s, as fascism grew in Europe, many in the US drew comparisons between the Nazis and the racist South.
But the growth of fascism posed a threat to Stalin’s recently entrenched regime in Russia. It pushed an anti-fascist Popular Front, which watered down criticism of capitalist governments in the search for new allies against Nazi Germany.
In the US the strategy often blunted the organisation’s militant edge, though it did offer limited protection from the constant threat of imprisonment that party organisers faced.
But in 1939 Russia’s leaders decided that their security would be best served by a treaty with Germany. They instructed Communist parties around the world to conduct an about turn. Now the main danger was deemed to be imperialist war with Germany. Anti-fascism was dropped.
Overnight, the respect that the party had carefully nurtured over almost two decades was lost. Nevertheless, the victories that Communists had helped win in the South did usher in a new era.
Unions began organising black workers in the late 1930s and a host of legal victories opened up spaces in which those fighting segregation could organise.
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