When Black Workers Organized Against Jim Crow

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression by Robin Kelley.

A twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this wonderful classic work of workers’ history was published last year. Robin Kelley has magnificently brought to light the little known struggles of communist party-supporting workers and sharecroppers, the majority of whom were black, under ferocious conditions of repression in Alabama, USA. This chronicle takes place against the background of the 1930’s depression, Communist Party politics and the segregationist regime in the Deep South where black resistance ran the risk of lynchings. Communist advocates of “social equality” were liable to beatings, arrests and jail-time.

It was not until 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, when the American Communist Party (CP) attempted to organise in the south. The Party sent a couple of organisers to Birmingham, Alabama, an industrial city on the fringe of the cotton-growing black belt. After their first public meeting the home of one of the Communists’ speakers was fire-bombed.

From the beginning the CP found their principal support was in the Black working class. The CP was the only party that was anti-racist, opposed to segregation and fought for the right of Blacks to vote. Consequently, party members faced constant threats of police harassment, white-supremacist vigilante violence and legal repression.

The first issue the CP agitated around was relief for the unemployed. The Birmingham city authorities hit back against CP-led unemployed demonstrations by outlawing the speaking or printing of “criminal anarchy”. Police arrests and searches for radical literature took their toll, but despite the harassment the party was able in 1930 to launch a weekly newspaper, the Southern Worker. The paper concentrated on the problems of black workers and quickly won a following and recruits to the party.

This is Kelley’s summing up of a chapter on organising around unemployment:

“The unemployed campaign was the key to the Party’s growth and consolidation in Birmingham; by the end of 1933, the Party’s dues-paying membership in Birmingham rose to nearly five hundred, and its mass organizations encompassed possibly twice that number. The relief campaign was crucial to the formation of a local cadre, serving especially to increase the number of black female members, who often proved more militant than their male comrades. Furthermore, the various tactics developed in the relief campaign, from open confrontation to hidden forms of resistance, would later prove invaluable to local Communists continuing their work in the mines, mills, and plantations of the black belt.”

The hidden forms of resistance that Kelley mentions above harked back to traditions of Black rural radicalism, where secrecy and cunning were vital tactics under conditions where to agitate openly was suicidal.

Conditions in the countryside were even worse than the poverty in the cities. From 1931 the Party took up the task of organising black sharecroppers and poor white farmers into unions. The sharecropping system worked by sharecroppers doing all the work and the landowner supplying houses (no more than shacks) the necessary materials, food and cash advances. All these things supplied by the owner were deducted from the sharecropper’s portion of the value of the crop when sold. The system kept the sharecroppers in constant debt and on the edge of survival.

Organising sharecroppers into a union was perilous, but despite setbacks a measure of success eventually came. The first clash took place at Camp Hill, Tallapoosa County, in 1931 where the Grays, a family with radical traditions, taking their lead from the Southern Worker, set out to organise a union. They invited the CP to send an organiser – this was to be Mack Coad. After the local sheriff got wind of a union meeting, he and his deputised vigilantes raided the meeting “brutally beating men and women alike. The posse then regrouped at Tommy Gray’s home and assaulted his entire family, including his wife who suffered a fractured skull.”

The following evening about 150 sharecroppers met in a vacant house.

“This time sentries were posted around the meeting place. When Sheriff Young arrived on the scene with police chief J M Wilson and Deputy A J Thompson, he found Ralph Gray standing guard about a quarter-mile from the meeting. Although accounts differ as to the sequence of events, both Gray and the sheriff traded harsh words and, in the heat of argument, exchanged buckshot. Young, who received gunshot wounds to the stomach, was rushed to a hospital in Alexander City while Gray lay on the side of the road, his legs riddled with bullets. Fellow union members carried Gray to his home where the group, including Mack Coad, barricaded themselves inside the house. The group held off a posse led by police chief J M Wilson long enough to allow most members to escape, but the wounded Ralph Gray opted to remain in his home to the end. The posse returned with reinforcements and found Gray lying in his bed and his family huddled in a corner. According to his brother, someone in the group “poked a pistol into Brother Ralph’s mouth and shot him down the throat.” The mob burned his home to the ground and dumped his body on the steps of the Dadeville courthouse. The mangled and lifeless leader became an example for other black sharecroppers as groups of armed whites took turns shooting and kicking the bloody corpse of Ralph Gray.”

Following this incident there was a reign of vigilante terror, as the Camp Hill police stood by, that left dozens of blacks wounded and dead.

Incredibly, the Grays continued to organise, with 19 year-old Eula Gray playing the key role in keeping the Share Croppers Union running in the county.

Working in secrecy, the SCU continued to grow. The reality of racial divisions meant that the SCU was a black workers’ union. Poor whites were attracted to it, but it was too dangerous for black union organisers to discuss the union with whites. And it was dangerous for whites to be involved. A white Tallapoosa tenant farmer was lynched because of his sympathy for the union. Unable to join, poor whites showed their support in other ways, and a significant minority used the anonymity of the ballot box to vote Communist in the 1932 presidential election.

Just a year after the Camp Hill violence, Tallapoosa County was again the scene of an armed confrontation. The immediate issue was the attempt by the Deputy Sheriff to seize an indebted union member’s livestock. The Deputy Sheriff was met by 15 armed SCU members ready to stop the seizure, and after he had gathered reinforcements there was a shoot-out that left one union member dead and others wounded. Two of the wounded were flung into jail without medical treatment and died. A reign of terror, worse than at Camp Hill, ensued.

Despite this second setback, the SCU continued to grow. In 1934 the SCU organised a strike in Tallapoosa and Lee counties. This was met with police repression and vigilante violence, but the strike won concessions on most plantations. The union’s ultimate success was short-lived. Under a New Deal programme the cotton economy was restructured and sharecroppers were evicted from the land in their thousands in the winter of 1934-35.

During second half of the 1930’s, under Moscow directives, communist parties internationally turned rightwards to seek middle-class and progressive allies to form broad popular fronts. In Alabama, the CP’s efforts to forge alliances with the Black middle class and white liberals were unsuccessful. Anti-communism amongst both groups was too strong. While chasing the will o’ the wisp of the popular front the CP’s working-class black membership dwindled. This is an equally fascinating story as those of the earlier heroic period.

In Hammer and Hoe Kelley relates many incidents and other facets of the struggle that are not mentioned in this review. I heartedly recommend this book to readers. It is thought-provoking and rich in lessons that apply to this day.