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Red, Black, and White

Historians of the American South have devoted relatively little attention to the 1930s and 1940s. They have mostly concentrated on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which witnessed the rise of legalized segregation and the disenfranchisement of most African Americans, and then tended to skip ahead to the eventful story of civil rights protest and desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. In between, it has been generally assumed, very little changed. The Jim Crow system was firmly in place and virtually unchallenged. The Great Depression hit the South hard, but the region was already so poor that its effects seemed less dramatic than elsewhere. Southern conservatives successfully controlled the administration of New Deal programs to inure that they did not threaten the status quo of class and race relations. World War II and postwar prosperity began to narrow the economic gap between the South and the rest of the nation, but the South at midcentury was still clearly distinguishable from the North and West by its blatant white supremacy, one-party rule, unorganized labor, and extensive rural poverty.

This conventional image of a South that was resisting change and retaining its distinctiveness as a “backward” and flagrantly racist region is not so much wrong as incomplete. It remains undeniable that reformers of the Thirties and Forties had little success in their efforts to make the South more democratic and egalitarian. Federal court decisions were chipping away at the edges of segregation and disenfranchisement, but for the most part Southern African Americans remained without power and subject to violence and intimidation if they got out of their “place” as members of a pariah caste. What the books under review reveal, however, is that the prevailing system of race and class domination did not go unchallenged during the Thirties and Forties. They rescue from obscurity the dissenters, black and white, who sought—by means that ranged from gradual reform to violent revolution—to make the South a more just society. To varying degrees and in different ways, they pose the question of precisely why it was that determined efforts to change the South from within failed to leave in place an interracial left-wing group capable of broadening the scope of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and possibly reducing the need for federal intervention to eliminate Jim Crow. Three of the books—Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, Michael K. Honey’s Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, and John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day—deal directly with this issue. All of them show how militant anticommunism provided the ammunition for a devastating attack on the Southern left—radical and liberal alike—that left it wounded and disabled at the dawn of the civil rights era.

White Southerners first became seriously alarmed about Communist interference with their way of life when a legal defense organization dominated by the Communist Party took over the case of nine black youths condemned to death for allegedly raping two white women on a freight train near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931 and turned the case into an international cause célèbre. James Goodman uses this dramatic episode to examine the range of Southern views on race and justice in the early Depression years. As its title suggests, Stories of Scottsboro claims to abandon the traditional historian’s role of omniscient narrator in favor of gradually allowing the truth to emerge out of the diverse and often conflicting stories that people told about what happened. Goodman is not a radical subjectivist who believes that one story is as good as another. He confesses in the preface that his control of the historical material inevitably means that the story emerging is based on his own understanding and interpretation of the events. The value of his approach, therefore, is not that it undermines or “deconstructs” the notion that some historical perspectives are more truthful than others; it derives rather from its capacity to explore how the diverse meanings that people give to an event like the Scottsboro case are essential components of its ultimate historical significance.

People of course disagreed on whether or not the Scottsboro defendants were actually guilty of raping Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. When it was discovered that the two alleged victims had a history of part-time prostitution that may have included serving black male clients, doubts about the truth of their story increased. When Ruby Bates recanted her original accusation and became a featured speaker at Communist-led rallies on behalf of the accused, the prosecution lost much of its remaining credibility outside the white South. But white Southerners viewed the tactics of the defense as a ruthless assault on their way of life that might well involve bribing witnesses to make them change their testimony. As a series of jury verdicts indicated, nothing could shake the belief of the ordinary white citizens of Alabama that the boys were guilty. Deeply held beliefs about black sexuality and white female virtue did not yield easily to new evidence that conflicted with them.

Ironically, however, the needs of the prosecutors to fulfill popular expectations of black male lust and criminality forced them into what would today be regarded as an enlightened position on the rights of women who claim to be rape victims. Faced with incontrovertible evidence of a lack of female virtue in the accusers, they argued that such information was irrelevant—a woman’s past behavior did not signify her consent to a particular demand for sexual intercourse. Nor did she have to struggle against her assailant to show that she was being coerced. It was the defense that claimed in effect that prostitutes or promiscuous women could not be raped.

A belief in the innocence of the defendants came as readily to African-American civil rights advocates and progressive Northern whites as a conviction of their guilt came to Southern white supremacists. Those who agonized most over the verdict were the Southern liberals and moderates who had been working to improve race relations by discouraging racial violence, especially lynching, and by upgrading the separate facilities available to blacks under Jim Crow. Southern moderates of the kind who supported organizations like the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching initially saw signs of progress in the fact that the Scottsboro boys were not lynched but were instead quickly put on trial. Fearful of being driven beyond the fringes of the mainstream Southern opinion that they hoped to influence by being associated with a cause promoted by Communists, the moderates were, for the most part, cautious in their statements about the affair.

But some of them became convinced that the accused had been unjustly treated. Goodman recounts how Grover Hall, the influential editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, changed from being a “stalwart defender” of the prosecution in 1931 to being in 1936 an advocate of stopping the trials and releasing some of the defendants on the grounds that there were reasonable doubts about their guilt. Other moderate Southern editors were quicker to brave the wrath of their readers by questioning whether justice had been done. The judge in the second round of the trials (made necessary by a Supreme Court decision overturning the original verdicts) sacrificed his own reelection by setting aside a jury verdict of guilty that he believed was unwarranted.

In general, however, the Southern voices of reason and moderation were neither very insistent nor influential. Although saved from execution by the adroitness of their attorneys, some of the accused languished in prison until after World War II. The last was not released on parole until 1950, and only one of them has ever received a formal pardon.

The role of Communists in the Scottsboro defense seems surprising at first glance. How was it possible that adherents of a revolutionary movement could have persuaded the accused and their families—impoverished and uneducated Southern African Americans who had been forced to accommodate to their intensely repressive environment—to let them take charge of the defense over the objections of the NAACP and virtually the entire established black leadership, North and South?

The Communist-controlled International Labor Defense thrust itself into the case by getting to the defendants right after the original verdicts were handed down, while the NAACP was still agonizing over whether this was the kind of cause it wanted to be associated with. The ILD quickly gained the confidence of the young men and their parents. One of the mothers recalled after the first trial that neighbors had told her to “keep away from the reds” but that she had concluded that “the reds are the only ones that want to help us,” and was glad that she did “because if it had not been for the reds, and the mass protests of the workers, our boys would have died….” It seems clear from Goodman’s book and other accounts of the Scottsboro case that Communists provided the accused with excellent legal representation, hiring as head of the defense a distinguished New York criminal lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, who was not a Party member or even a radical. Although Leibowitz was unable to win acquittals for his clients, he did at least save them from execution.

Communists, of course, exploited the case for its propaganda value in the North and throughout the world, but it would not be fair to say, as their critics alleged at the time, that they sacrificed the interests of the defendants to the needs of the Comintern. In 1935, after the Party line had changed to permit cooperation with “bourgeois” organizations, the ILD, the NAACP, the ACLU, and other organizations joined together to form the Scottsboro Defense Committee, an umbrella organization to coordinate the effort to free the prisoners.

The Communist presence in Alabama in the early 1930s was not limited to representatives of the ILD coming down from the North to arrange the Scottsboro defense. Communists were also trying, with a surprising degree of success, to organize unemployed African Americans in Birmingham and sharecroppers in the heart of the Black Belt. This larger effort is the subject of the most widely praised book of recent years to deal with the relations between African Americans and the Marxist radicalism of the 1930s. Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, published in 1990, is part of the revisionist post-cold war scholarship on American Communism which attempts to show that the Party did not merely project Soviet influence onto the American domestic scene but was also helping to organize grass-roots movements that embodied the beliefs, needs, and aspirations of the people who took part in them. More than most such studies, this one makes a persuasive case that an oppressed group could use the help provided by “the reds” for its own purposes, as well as being used by them for goals that were set in Moscow.

Kelley does not overstate his case. He concedes that Party organizers in Alabama “dutifully followed national and international leadership” and “did their best to apply the then current political line to the tasks at hand.” But he also argues that they had no specific instructions about how to deal with “their daily problems” and “developed strategies and tactics in response to local circumstances that, in most cases, had nothing to do with international crises.” In Birmingham, they organized the unemployed to demonstrate for public relief. Even more remarkable was their success in founding a union of sharecroppers and farm workers and helping it to grow. Despite the extensive violence and intimidation directed at its members, the Party-backed Share Croppers’ Union succeeded in enrolling thousands of members in the six Black Belt counties where it gained a foothold—an estimated 10,000 at its peak in 1935. In that year the union called a major strike of cotton choppers that won most of its demands in the three counties where it was strongest.

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