- Interview by
- Arvind Dilawar
In 1929, Tom Johnson and Harry Jackson arrived in Birmingham, Alabama to set up the Southern district of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). District 17, as it would come to be known, had been tasked with a specific goal: support the self-determination of African Americans in the so-called Black Belt — a region made up primarily of freed slaves and their descendents stretching from Mississippi through Alabama to Georgia — by helping them form their own nation.
Although Johnson and Jackson were experienced organizers, the pair of white Northerners could not have anticipated what awaited them in Birmingham. White Southerners attacked them with the police and vigilante mobs. Black Southerners could not see how Black Belt self-determination was different from the segregation they already toiled under. Johnson left Birmingham in 1931, after police abducted, stripped, beat, and threatened to kill him. Jackson departed the following year, after suffering much the same.
Nevertheless, District 17 carried on. Abandoning their dreams of a Black Belt Republic, organizers focused on helping black Southerners defend themselves against day-to-day exploitation and violence. They assisted black sharecroppers struggling to unionize against their white landlords and fought the racist brutality of the criminal justice system. Most famously, District 17 led the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women. By the mid-1930s, the majority of the Alabama Communist Party was black.
Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Mary Stanton, author of the new book Red, White, Black: The Alabama Communist Party, 1930–1950, about District 17’s eventual success in reaching black Southerners, and its influence on future struggles for racial and economic justice.
From the beginning, one of District 17’s central tasks was helping set up a “Black Belt Republic.” What role did the national party play in pushing this policy, and how did District 17 end up reconciling the desire for Black Belt self-determination with local realities?
The CPUSA’s central committee had identified African Americans as a subjugated people as early as 1926 — a nation within a nation and entitled to self-determination. CPUSA drafted a resolution to establish a Negro Soviet Socialist Republic in the Black Belt South. District 17 was created essentially for this purpose in 1929.
Early in the process, District 17 comrades realized that Black Belt sharecroppers were not interested in either secession or in creating a separate republic. How, they asked, was that different from segregation? The goal of poor sharecroppers — black and white — was to become part of the larger American society and eligible for a fair share of the nation’s wealth.
By 1933, District 17’s daily priorities were to organize the unorganized, the unemployed, and the black sharecroppers of Tallapoosa County. Central Committee headquarters in New York City was not happy about this, but did not sanction them. The Central Committee ultimately dropped the Black Belt self-determination theory in 1935.
Generally speaking, who were the members of District 17?
The staff of District 17 consisted of young Communist-trained organizers, mostly white and many from New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. CPUSA sent them south just prior to the Great Depression. Most were deployed to Birmingham, “the Pittsburgh of the South,” to organize coal miners and steelworkers. Their median age was twenty-four. District 17 was given responsibility for Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia — a huge territory. Most of these comrades had never been South before.
Within six months of arriving, the reds experienced an influx of unemployed industrial and mill workers, laborers, and starving sharecroppers pouring into Birmingham, Atlanta, and Chattanooga seeking jobs or relief. At that point they began organizing unemployed worker councils.
Many young reds were Jewish, well-educated (some college students), and idealistic. Others were second-generation radicals whose parents had either been associated with the labor movement or were former members of the party in Europe.
Some white women also served as organizers, a few local white (Southern) female sympathizers raised funds, but black women were more significant participants in the movement. They generally worked with the unemployed councils in Birmingham. They organized, recruited, demonstrated, and confronted the city’s relief agencies and the Red Cross for their callous treatment of the poor. Many of these women were arrested, beaten, and jailed.
The famed novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who would have been in Alabama during District 17’s efforts had her family not moved years earlier, claimed that African Americans “won’t buy communism.” How did black Southerners react to CPUSA’s organizing?
Zora Neale Hurston may have been correct in believing that by and large African Americans did not buy communism, but eventually many did come to consider the Birmingham reds a very different breed. The District reds surprised Southern blacks by their willingness to stand up to white authority and by their unwavering commitment to social justice. Their actions spoke louder than words. They explained that they opposed segregation because it destroyed solidarity. They advocated for economic equality and boldly demonstrated for “equal pay for equal work.”
Young black men such as Angelo Herndon, Al Murphy, and Hosea Hudson who joined the party were trained as organizers and groomed for leadership positions. Herndon later wrote, “We were called comrades without condescension or patronage. We were treated like equals and brothers.”
The Scottsboro Boys are the most prominent of the cases involving District 17 that you cover in Red, Black, White. How did the case change the perception of the CPUSA? And why did it create so much animosity between the party and the NAACP?
The Scottsboro case exploded on March 25, 1931, two years after District 17 had been established. Until that time, the reds were concentrating on exposing systemic racism and “legal lynching.” Jurors who practiced legal lynching were willing to accept any evidence — or none at all — to justify sending black defendants to their deaths. In the process, District 17 confronted corporate leaders, law enforcement officers, legislators, and the judicial system itself. Scottsboro was a classic example of legal lynching, and the reds attacked it as such.
While white Southerners remained convinced that reds were atheists, anarchists, and traitors, the Birmingham reds won many minds and hearts in the black South, both in urban and rural areas. District 17 responded to the Scottsboro arrests immediately and imported help in the form of the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal arm of CPUSA. Founded in 1925 to represent labor organizers, political prisoners, and immigrants, just six years later it was asked to expand its mission to include fighting against legal lynching. In 1931, the ILD opened a Southern office in Chattanooga and provided legal representation for the nine young black defendants.
The national ILD organized protests, demonstrations, and a mass publicity campaign — national and international — to keep the Scottsboro story on the front pages of the press. They also took charge of the Scottsboro appeals. No other organization or institution — black or white — came to the boys’ aid. The reds appeared to be the only ones who cared enough about injustice to do something about it. This inspired many blacks to join the party. By the mid 1930s, the Alabama Communist Party membership was more black than white.
Scottsboro resulted in ongoing animosity between the CPUSA and the NAACP. Each differed with respect to the arrests, the innocence of the defendants, defense strategies, and the direction of the appeals. Walter White, secretary of the national NAACP, initially balked at supporting the defendants.
Newly hired, White reported to a conservative board of directors, many of whom were white progressives. They were not convinced that it was wise to get publicly involved in the case. Generally, they preferred private negotiations and working behind the scenes until victory was sure. The question for them was, “What if those boys were guilty?” How would something like that reflect on the organization?
When the NAACP board finally decided to go ahead with support, White was not able to regain lost momentum. The defendants signed on with the reds. Walter White and the ILD’s William Patterson battled throughout 1931 to control the Scottsboro appeals. The ILD prevailed, and in 1932, White finally withdrew the NAACP’s interest in the case.
The ILD challenged the authority and the integrity of the black middle class, and Walter White attacked the reds for making a public spectacle of Scottsboro through their widespread protests, demonstrations, and mass appeals. The NAACP was subsequently criticized in the black press for making the issue “the evils of communism,” rather than defense of the Scottsboro Nine. Eugene Davidson, editor of the black Washington World, wrote in July 1931 that “if [the NAACP] now feels that fighting the spread of communism is more important than fighting white Southerners who will lynch, massacre and slaughter and expect to get away with it then it has outlived its usefulness.”
How did CPUSA organizing in the South shape later struggles in the region?
What District 17 accomplished in its twenty years in Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia prefigured the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. At bare minimum, it offered a working model for building social justice coalitions in the South. It reflected District 17’s coalition of the International Labor Defense, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the League of Young Southerners, and the National Negro Congress.
The next generation of radicals included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. As the reds had, they also called out the contradictions between the Declaration of Independence and racism, pointed to the ratio of affluence to crushing poverty, and challenged the nation’s apathy by protesting, demonstrating, and appealing to a mass audience.
SNCC organized in the South employing District 17 practices like organizing at the local level, developing local leaders, and working with — rather than resisting — the churches. The Black Panther Party, an outgrowth of SNCC, continued the struggle of farmers and sharecroppers in Alabama. SDS organized the unorganized in Newark, New Jersey, experimenting with applying the Southern organizing techniques to issues in the North.
CPUSA’s organizing tools and the lessons they learned from their pioneering work in the South, as adapted by the 1960s civil rights radicals, can be credited with the victories of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although this legislation and the protections they provided have been weakened and diluted in recent decades, it represents progress and a legacy likely to be resurrected as twenty-first-century organizing unfolds.