Hammer and hoe: Alabama communists during the Great Depression

Aug 30, 2021

From the cover of "Hammer and hoe."

Robin D.G. Kelley first published Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression in 1990, although he began working on it as a doctoral student in the 1980s. In the book, Kelley narrates the emergence of the communist movement in Alabama during the 1930s, focusing on the struggles communists faced in organizing unions and anti-racist campaigns and, just as importantly, how they were able to synthesize Marxist ideology with southern Black culture. This, in turn, helped link the struggles of primarily Black agricultural workers with the international class struggle.

The book remains an essential reference for revolutionary organizers today, providing distinct insights into reviving the communist movement in the 21st century.

The following study guide will help readers not only make their way through the text but, more importantly, discover how we can apply its lessons to help strengthen the struggles with which we’re currently engaged.

For more background on the book and some of its relevance for today, see our accompanying Liberation School article. Comrades will also find Eugene Puryear’s book review, “Communism and Black Resistance in the 1930s South,” helpful.

Getting started

  1. Make a list of competing class forces in your own local context, including radical, progressive, liberal, conservative, reactionary, and other groups, organizations, and leaders. This work will be helpful for systematically assessing your own context and reflecting, when relevant, on the lessons the book offers. Mapping the balance of forces in your own context (i.e. taking note of that which is common to capitalism generally; what is common to capitalism at its particular stage of development right now; and what is locally unique) will be important for the practical applicability of Kelley’s insights.

Preface to the 25th anniversary edition

  1. What is the significance of the international political context of the 1990s that Kelley identifies as the inspiration for Hammer and Hoe?
  2. Why is it significant that “several southern historians” did not believe Kelley would find enough data and material to write a dissertation on the communist movement in the south during the 1930s?
  3. How did writing Hammer and Hoe change Kelley’s perception of communism and communists? Why is this helpful to the organizing work of communists today?
  4. What lessons does Kelley say he learned from writing the book?
  5. What does Kelley say about how contemporary activists have utilized Hammer and Hoe?
  6. Why does Hammer and Hoe challenge mainstream assessments of the New Deal?
  7. In chapter 9, Kelley argues that the Popular Front era resulted in the demise of the Party. Why does Kelley say that this has been one of the most controversial positions the book advances? (In chapter 9 we will reflect on what Kelley’s conclusions suggest about contemporary coalition work).
  8. Kelley says that the legacy of the 1930s Alabama-based communist movement is their focus on the legal defense against victims of the so-called criminal justice system. Why does he say this, and what implications does this have for organizing today?

Original preface

  1. How does Kelley contextualize the communist movement that would develop in Alabama?
  2. What does Kelley identify as the movement’s biggest challenges? What are the biggest challenges to organizing in your area?
  3. What does it say about the revolutionary optimism Kelley found in his research when he notes “that racial divisions were far more fluid and Southern working-class consciousness far more complex than most historians have realized” (p. xxix)?
  4. Kelley discusses the communication difficulties between New York and Birmingham during the 1930s, which lead to a relatively autonomous movement in the South. The internet and cell phones have made communication far more widespread today. What can Hammer and Hoe teach us to help ensure today’s technological advancements can be best utilized and not turned into another barrier?


  1. What conditions and factors compelled much of the southern Black community to abandon agricultural/sharecropping subsistence and join the ranks of the industrial proletariat?
  2. Discuss the implications of the view that southern Black workers were too backward and uneducated to play any kind of significant role in defeating the white supremacist capitalist establishment in the south.
  3. Similarly, what does Kelley say about the implications of northern communist organizers’ attempts to duplicate the tactics that had been developed based on the particularities of the north in the south?
  4. What does Kelley offer in terms of our understanding of the balance of competing class forces not just along racial or national lines, but also within the Black nation?
  5. What role does Kelley attribute to gender in the larger constellation of class forces he outlines?
  6. How do unions figure into the scenes of class struggle Kelley traces?
  7. The KKK plays a significant role in the story Kelley tells in Hammer and Hoe. How is this reactionary element contextualized and explained?
  8. What does Kelley have to say about the civil rights organizations that emerged in response to white supremacist terrorism?
  9. How does Kelley situate communism within the field of both white and Black reformism?
  10. What do these discussions suggest about the need for creativity and theory in building a mass movement?

Chapter 1

  1. Discuss the Black Belt thesis and why it is based on the premise that oppressed nations have a right to self-determination, including all that entails, such as the right to self-defense.
  2. Reflecting on the example Kelley provides from the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928 where the Black belt thesis was officially adopted–thereby compelling reluctant U.S. communists to take it on–discuss the significance of having an international center of gravity to provide leadership and guidance.
  3. Since the CP had never organized in the south before 1929, why couldn’t the organizers traveling to Alabama just implement the tactics and campaigns created in the North?
  4. Why is one of the most important tasks of organizers figuring out the issue or set of issues that will most effectively capture the hearts and minds of the people?
  5. Why did neighborhood relief committees prove to be so effective to organize around?
  6. What lessons do these tactical discussions offer for building successful campaigns in your own area?
  7. Why were campaigns against police repression so successful [1]?
  8. What was the International Labor Defense (ILD)?
  9. What was the significance of the communists supporting the Scottsboro case?
  10. What was the orientation of the NAACP and how did it relate to communists and the Black working-class?
  11. Why were communists in Alabama basically not able to organize white workers?
  12. What challenges did organizers face in Kelley’s narrative?
  13. What challenge do communists continue to face today?

Chapter 2

  1. What factors does Kelley identify that made rural poverty in Alabama so severe it made the “poverty-stricken streets of Birmingham look like a paradise” (p. 39)?
  2. How did the Share Croppers’ Union (SCU) become the nucleus of Alabama’s communist movement?
  3. What events in Arkansas compelled white communist organizers to take the Black nation seriously as the most progressive political force in the south?
  4. What lessons does this chapter offer communist organizers?
  5. The chapter also explores issues around sexism and the devaluing of women organizers and the resulting unrealized potential of so many. Why does Kelley highlight Eula Gray and what lessons does her story offer communists today?
  6. How does Kelley situate the role of the NAACP and New Deal politicians in the balance of class forces in Alabama?
  7. Discuss the significance of the recurring theme of the armed self-defense of sharecroppers considering Lenin’s discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat in The State and Revolution [2]?

Chapter 3

  1. Discuss the significance of the deepening poverty within Great Depression-era Birmingham, the subsequent radicalization of the working-class, and the escalating police repression including the banning of political speech.
  2. What does it say that even unions included calls to defund the police to free up funds for desperately-needed “municipal relief projects” and to “reduce antilabor repression and police brutality throughout the city” (p. 61)?
  3. As the Great Depression deepened we saw the class struggle intensify taking the shape of thousands of working and oppressed people mobilizing through the communist party on one hand, and heightened state repression on the other. What does reflecting on current examples of moments of heightened mass mobilization such as the uprising against racism during the summer of 2020 suggest about connections to the situation during 1930s Alabama?
  4. What lessons can we take away from the fact that communists didn’t make a big impact on worker organizing until the Great Depression escalated problems for workers causing them to change tactics and in turn face further violence from the companies?
  5. Why is it important for today’s movement to remember that the KKK’s escalating violence and psychological terrorism, including the distribution of fliers threatening bodily harm to African Americans who joined the communist movement, was met not with cowardice and retreat, but with courageous responses including putting out their own fliers warning the KKK that “the workers are watching you!” (p. 74)?
  6. It is important to note that increasing violence against labor organizers only drew more and more workers into the communist movement, which has consistently proven true time after time. What are some examples of this tendency?
  7. The theme of patriarchy is touched on again. What examples does Kelley offer to highlight the connections between gender oppression and national oppression within capitalism? How are these insights still relevant?

Chapter 4

  1. Discuss the way in which anti-communism was advanced by mobilizing anti-Black conceptions of sexuality.
  2. What do these examples suggest about the importance of communists having our own media?
  3. Discuss the orientation of local news sources in your own area and the insights on the view of the world people are being exposed to, and maybe influenced by.
  4. What factors does Kelley suggest contributed to how far the movement in Alabama had come? The following quote offers a concise summary of what the movement was able to develop into: “The ILD was not just one additional voice speaking out on behalf of poor blacks; it was a movement composed of poor blacks. It not only provided free legal defense and sought to expose the ‘class basis’ of racism in the South, it gave black working people what traditional middle-class organizations would not—a political voice” (p. 91).

Chapter 5

  1. Discuss the significance of the communists’ study groups and classes.
  2. How did the advances in literacy made by these programs offer another source of revolutionary optimism and hope indispensable to the movement and to peoples’ lives?
  3. Why does Kelley stress how people interpret Marxism on their own, from their own culture, conditions and understanding?
  4. What does it mean that it is not required for everyone to come to communism from the same path?
  5. How does Kelley contextualize the existence of a global counter-weight (USSR) as a bastion of knowledge, inspiration, and positive affirmation of difference creating a counterculture and a counter pedagogy to help combat western imperialism?
  6. Why does Kelley report that it was so significant that many Black communists were sent to Moscow to study and develop their skills and leadership capabilities?

Chapter 6

  1. Discuss the broader context in which the Communist International adopted a popular front strategy.
  2. What were the primary concerns related to organizing with leftists and progressive liberals?
  3. What lessons can we discern from this quote?: “Taken together, the electoral and membership data indicate that as white support in Birmingham increased, black membership decreased” (p. 132).
  4. Why is it so important for the people’s needs to be driving the party’s work?
  5. What challenges arose from attempting to shift from a Leninist party to a “respectable,” legal, mainstream mass organization?
  6. What allowed heightened police and FBI infiltration?
  7. What impact did pivoting to the right have on the party being targeted for subversive literature fines and sentences of hard labor?

Chapter 7

  1. Discuss the significance of what Kelley suggests were mistakes associated with the party’s over-accommodating orientation toward the labor movement and choosing to completely subordinate its activities to it?
  2. What lessons can we discern from the following excerpt: “As several scholars have suggested, the Party’s loss of identity within the CIO hastened its eventual downfall in the labor movement after World War II. By assuming primary roles as New Deal labor bureaucrats and dutiful organizers, most Communists became indistinguishable from other labor leaders. Industrial workers, therefore, really had little incentive to become Communists and devote time and energy to an organization that merely preached the CIO’s message” (p. 147).

Chapter 8

  1. How did the political orientation of the police continue to reveal itself?
  2. What class differences does Kelley point to in terms of responses to red-baiting? Why is this valuable information for communist organizers to have?
  3. How does patriarchy and white supremacy converge in this chapter in the context of the state’s relief programs?
  4. What does Kelley seem to be suggesting in his continued emphasis on how police attacks on strikers and on Black workers continued despite the party’s increasingly accommodating positions?
  5. What connection might Kelley be making in regards to the relationship between what seemed to be weak party positions and the party’s increasingly weak outcomes and results of their organizing efforts?

Chapter 9

  1. What are the practical implications of Kelley’s conclusion that, “the Party’s vacillating attitude toward self-determination in the black belt further contributed to” members’ “growing disillusionment…” (p. 160)?
  2. What lessons can we draw from the complexity of the movement (i.e. it was not all bad nor was it all good)?
  3. What were the key distinctions between the Alabama Farmers’ Union (AFU) and the Share Croppers’ Union (SCU)?
  4. What barriers prevented the AFU from organizing in the Black belt?
  5. How did changes within the capitalist economy contribute to the end of the SCU?
  6. What factors, according to Kelley, contributed to the decline of the communist movement in Alabama by 1940?

Chapter 10

  1. What general observations regarding the movement’s successes and failures and its direction as the Great Depression decade ended does Kelley offer?
  2. For example, why is it important to remember that despite bending over backwards to obtain mainstream respectability, liberal politicians believed to be allies continued to betray and sell out communists?
  3. Why did the communists, by 1937, conclude that building a Popular Front in the U.S. was not yet possible?
  4. What factors does Kelley attribute to the party’s decision to launch a “Democratic Front”?
  5. How does Kelley characterize the party’s decision to attempt to seize hold of the ready-made Democratic Party?
  6. How does Kelley characterize the Democratic Front’s launch of the Right to Vote Club and its taking on the Board of Registrars, something they had never done before?
  7. According to Kelley, why did some communists question how useful such a campaign would be?
  8. Since the club formed as a primarily working-class African American organization, Kelley argues it signaled a shift back to a more direct engagement with the class struggle. Discuss this development: what led to it; its implications; etc.
  9. Kelley notes that some of the biggest opponents of the club were members of the middle-class and elite African American community who coveted the vote as a status symbol. What connections can we make to Glen Ford’s work on what he calls the Black misleadership class [3]?
  10. While the club achieved some important victories, why does Kelley argue it collapsed in 1940 before it was able to achieve its ultimate aim of defeating the poll tax?
  11. What import does Kelley afford the Southern Conference for Human Welfare?
  12. Why does Kelley claim that the final straw that broke Alabama’s communist back was a distorted assessment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact?

Chapter 11

  1. In the final chapter why does Kelley argue that the blow communism’s reputation suffered in the U.S. as a result of the propaganda generated around the Nazi-Soviet Pact render the party’s mainstream acceptance impossible?
  2. How did this turn of events impact the movement?
  3. Discuss the party’s return to its more clandestine past.
  4. What impact did a new generation of activists being recruited into the party have on its development?
  5. What was significant about the need to keep their communist affiliations secret for comrades working in unions, in government, in journalism, in religion, and throughout society?
  6. Were they successful in advancing progressive policies and initiatives? Discuss why or why not.
  7. Why does Kelley argue that the youth-led communist movement during this new era was the primary driver moving the movement back to the left?
  8. Discuss Kelley’s emphasis on the importance of popular culture and art for the work of the Birmingham radicals in 1940-1941.
  9. What were the effects of Germany invading the Soviet Union in 1941 on the radicals in Birmingham?
  10.  Discuss how radicals in Birmingham during 1940-1941 worked to transcend divisiveness between the LYS and the SNYC.


  1. Kelley ends Hammer and Hoe reflecting on the direction of the movement through the 1950s and the legacy it left the resurgent movement of the 1960s. The movement today exists as a resurgent movement after the 1960s resurgence was crushed by the FBI and capitalism’s neoliberal turn. However, the patterns of historical development are not cyclical, but operate more like a spiral where new eras are always uniquely new and not mere repetitions of the past. Discussing what is specifically new about global capitalism today and the resurgent socialist movement coupled with the ways Kelley’s text can help guide our practice is a good place to end this guide.


[1] See Correia, David and Tyler Wall. (2018) Police: A field guide (New York: Verso); Hadden, Sally. (2001). Slave patrols: Law and violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (New York: Harvard University Press).
[2] Lenin, V.I. (1917/1992). The state and revolution (New York: Penguin).
[3] Ford, Glen. (2020). “You can’t shame the shameless Black misleadership class.” Black Agenda Report, December 17. Available here.