Communism and Black resistance in the 1930s South

Jul 14, 2014

Book review: “Hammer and Hoe”

Photo: Univ. of North Carolina Press
Photo: Univ. of North Carolina Press

“Hammer and Hoe,” a 1990 book written by historian Robin D.G. Kelley, chronicles the development of a communist movement in Alabama during the Great Depression. It highlights the struggles communists faced in organizing a sharecroppers’ union and building mass campaigns to free people accused of crimes in political frame-ups like the Scottsboro Boys.

Kelley emphasizes how communism was able to synthesize with Southern Black culture. He sheds light on the unique homegrown resistance that granted Southern Blacks the ability to place their fight in the context of the anti-imperialist struggle for the first time. Kelley recounts the rise of Southern youth movements that ultimately gave birth to the student sit-ins and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Alabama during the 1930s was one of many desolate spots across the country. Its mostly rural African American population toiled in a form of agricultural peonage known as sharecropping. Sharecropping was not much better than slavery. Large landowners rented out small plots of land along with tools like plows to the legions of Black farm workers. All this was in return for two-room shanties and little or no pay.

The landowners charged for the use of all equipment, which kept the small farmers in debt. Nutritional deficiencies abounded for sharecroppers and their families because they could only keep a very small portion of their crops on which to live. The rest had to be sold to eke out a living.

The prospects for organizing were made worse because of the unequal relations between Black and white farmers, which went hand-in-hand with landowner-tenant conflicts. Many poor whites were persuaded that it was in their best interests to maintain the existing racial and social order that kept the poor of both races in a state of complete destitution. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, acting as a semi-legal extension of law and order, constantly used violent methods such as lynching and bombing of houses to keep local Blacks from organizing to improve their conditions.

Organizing Black workers

In 1931, the Sharecroppers Union was born out of the ashes of the Croppers and Farmer Workers Union, which had been brutally crushed earlier that year in Camp Hill, Alabama. Under the leadership of 25-year-old communist organizer Al Murphy, the SCU developed an infrastructure based at first on stealth and cunning, allowing the union to build its strength.

Murphy stressed a structure where captains of locals would coordinate support between the union and the women’s auxiliaries and youth organizations. The role of women is stressed throughout the book, and they were vital to the sharecropping process. As the author points out, “It was not unusual for women to negotiate year-end settlements with planters.”

By 1932, the union emerged stronger than ever. It won the right of tenants to sell their crops directly to market in Tallapoosa County. By 1933 the union had 2,000 members, Black and white, in 73 locals. The following year, the union carried out strikes on plantations in Lee and Tallapoosa counties. Sharecroppers’ wages rose from 35 cents to a dollar for every 100 pounds.

These victories are even greater considering the violence meted out to those who tried to organize, including beatings, stabbings, shootings and bombings. Notes were pinned to their doors: “Warning, take notice if you want to do well and have a healthy life you better leave the Sharecroppers Union.”

Throughout the book, the author points to the existence of a militant and armed self-defense as an integral part of communist strategy in Alabama. In a Dadeville meeting of the SCU, Northern Communist Party leader Harry Haywood remarked, “There were guns of all kinds, shotguns rifles and pistols. Sharecroppers were coming to the meeting armed and leaving their guns with their coats in a back room.”

The author stresses that the resistance was completely homegrown, grown from the refusal of men to let they or their families become victims of dangerous violence. Kelley quotes Lemon Johnson, summing up their proud stand of self defense: “The only thing that gonna stop them from killing you, you got to go shooting.”

In the streets and courts

Kelley also emphasized the success of mass campaigns in building support for the Communist Party among Blacks in Alabama, foreshadowing the mass movements of the late 1950s and 1960s. Most of the efforts around issues of injustice were led by the legal apparatus of the Communist Party, the International Labor Defense. The ILD used a unique tactic where all court battles were centered in the streets. They built mass support through demonstrations, petitions and similar tactics. Pressure was placed on the courts to render a fair verdict while the whole world was watching, thus gaining both national and international attention.

The ILDs biggest case, which took on national significance, was for the Scottsboro Boys. Nine Black youths had been framed up for supposedly raping two white girls. The ILD elicited the support of the boys’ parents to take the case into the national arena. They organized mass protests across the state and country, leading to overturning three convictions. The ILD also successfully defended Angelo Herndon, a veteran communist organizer, who was framed in Atlanta.

Kelley’s point in describing the Scottsboro Boys and Herndon cases is the importance of bottom-up organizing in movements for justice and equality. In more “respectable” organizations like the NAACP and various voting leagues, a few educated “leaders” would seek justice. This approach excluded the working class from participation in the struggle for racial equality. It also helped stifle attempts to bring issues of economic peonage to the forefront.

Ending the virtually economic slavery of sharecropping was not part of the agenda set forth by the Black middle class. The only way for Black workers to advance was to unite and build their own structures like the SCU and the ILD campaigns. By developing their own leadership, those affected by the system of economic slavery and state-sponsored abuses of the legal system were directly involved in the struggle and willing to fight the hardest.

Alabama Communists were willing to risk life and limb for racial equality, economic justice and an improved quality of life for Black workers. Bottom-up organizing belies the belief that the working class is inferior to the middle and upper classes, proven by the success of the SCU and ILD. Organizers from modest backgrounds were leaders of struggles unmatched by any other organization of the time. Their many victories even won over moderate leaders like Reverend Adam Clayton Powell.

A culture of resistance

“Hammer and Hoe” shows the significance of communist ideology mixing with Southern Black culture, creating a unique culture of resistance. Since the Reconstruction era, Southern Black culture always had a tone of resistance. This only grew with the introduction of Marxist theory. Kelley believes that it “taught Blacks how to connect their struggle to a world movement.”

The fierce anti-communist propaganda proclaiming that “Soviet agents” controlled the Communist Party, while frightening liberals, only increased the support communists received from Southern Blacks. According to Kelley, Alabama Blacks took heart in the idea that people in far away places like Moscow were interested and invested in the fight for freedom and equality for African Americans. Help from outside harkened back to the culture surrounding Reconstruction.

Joseph Stalin, then premier of the Soviet Union, was viewed by many as the “new Lincoln,” and the Communist Party the “new Yankees.” Al Murphy felt that every member of the party was the standard bearer for “Nat Turner, Denmark Vessy, Gabriel Prosser, and Frederick Douglass.”

Key to this cultural fusion of socialism with Southern Black culture was its working class base. More well-to-do Blacks feared communists as threatening to their meager position in life. They gravitated to more moderate organizations like the NAACP that put a “friendly face” on racial progress. However, they frequently excluded working class Blacks who were much more militant and willing to fight for their rights. Working class Blacks were never elected to leadership positions in these organizations.

Communist organizations were primarily led by workers. They gave Blacks the opportunity to defend their rights and advance their education through party schools. They provided new self-worth and dignity, which had been denied by whites and more established Blacks.

Alabama Communists in the Depression era blazed new ground in organizing the very part of the U.S. where racist reaction was most entrenched. The movement for sharecroppers’ rights and the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys brought the issues of the rural South to the eyes of millions across the country. This period, almost completely ignored in contemporary histories, saw the Communist Party as among the most influential civil rights organizations in the Deep South.

The author documents the reach of communists, summed up well by Hosea Hudson: “I’d be discussing Socialism in the barbershop … they’d sit down there and wouldn’t no one ask no questions, wouldn’t interrupt what I was saying. They wanted to see what I had to tell.”

“Hammer and Hoe” is a valuable reminder of the power of Marxism when it is rooted in the struggles of the most oppressed workers. While the Communist Party long since abandoned militant mass organizing in favor of tailing behind bourgeois organizations tied to the Democratic Party, its work in the South during the first half of the 1930s provides valuable lessons for socialists today.

“Hammer and Hoe,” by Robin D.G. Kelley. University of North Carolina Press, 1990