By Peter Hogarth
On March 25, 1931, police in Alabama arrested nine Black youth at a railroad stop near Scottsboro, falsely accusing them of raping two white women. Roy and Andy Wright, Eugene Williams, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Charlie Weems, and Willie Roberson ranged in age from 12 to 20. They were hastily sentenced to death despite medical evidence that indicated their innocence, and despite one of the women (Ruby Gates) recanting her testimony.
During the centuries of American slavery, rape was used as an instrument of gendered racial violence against Black women. Then after the civil war, an epidemic of lynching by white mobs in the street, or “legal lynchings” by all-white juries, was justified by charging Black men with raping white women—which falsely accused Black men, ignored Black women who were lynched, and brought no justice to Black or white women who were raped. As investigate journalist and civil rights activist Ida B Wells-B summarized in 1909, “First: lynching is color-line murder. Second: crimes against women is the excuse, not the cause. Third: it is a national crime and requires a national remedy.”
From the beginning of the case, the American Communist Party (CPUSA) embraced the cause of defending the “Scottsboro Boys,” as they were known, which was crucial to the party’s political orientation in the 30s and in transforming their organization. Walter T. Howard’s Black Communists Speak on Scottsboro: A Documentary History unearths documents from the period that record leading voices of Black CPUSA members involved in the Scottsboro defense campaign. It is a record of documents, speeches and letters that give voice to some of the incredible Black leaders who fought so hard for the nine victims of the American legal system.
Howard’s short introduction and documentary sources paint a fascinating picture of the ways in which the CPUSA’s prioritization of the fight against racism led to incredible theoretical, political and numerical growth for the organization.
In 1928, the Sixth congress of the Communist International (the organization of Communist parties from different countries) resolved that the American Party must give priority to the “Negro question.” As a result, civil rights became a cornerstone of the CPUSA’s work in the 1930s. International Labor Defense (ILD), the CPUSA’s legal advocacy organization, began to tackle cases related to lynching, the KKK and other racially-motivated crimes. The party became more and more attractive to Black leaders, intellectuals and workers and these members would go on to lead in responding to the Scottsboro affair.
When the CPUSA turned to giving special priority to the issues of anti-Black racism, Howard notes that they did so in a global context; “as an instrument of world revolution and anti-colonialism…Black Americans combating Jim Crow and lynching were essentially no different than Africans fighting for national independence and self-determination.” They viewed the struggles of the Black working class in the US as a part of the larger fight against imperialism and capitalism.
The party sent members into the Deep South and focused on the issues of fighting against evictions, police terror and job discrimination and organizing miners, steelworkers, and tenant farmworkers. As a result of their commitment, Black membership in the CPUSA went from 200 members in 1930 (less than 3% of the total membership) to 7,000 in 1938 (almost 10% of the total membership). The party was one of the few integrated organizations in the country and made sure to develop and promote Black leaders throughout the organization, including six on the central committee in 1929 and as its vice-presidential candidate in 1936.
All through the Scottsboro trials, re-trials, appeals and on and on, Black Communists played major roles. In Howard’s introduction, he emphasizes that the understanding about Black radicals has changed over time. Once thought of as either being mindless dupes to white Leninists or, alternatively, thought of as staunchly independent radicals who avoided Soviet-influence, Howard’s book tries to show a more complicated picture: “[Black radicals] acted as both loyal Communists, operating through Party channels as internationalists, and as Black American radicals struggling against indigenous white supremacy.”
Lynch mobs and vigilante “justice” were common in the Jim Crow South and many Black men and women were stolen away and murdered without coverage or protest. The CPUSA saw an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the racist violence of the legal system and organized marches, meetings, speeches, letter writing campaigns, and international solidarity protests. The fight to save the nine provided an opportunity to raise the revolutionary consciousness and combativeness of Black workers in the South and beyond. B.D. Amis, in the Black CPUSA newspaper The Liberator wrote: “It is my belief that if we can save these boys, this one act alone will give new courage to our people and will help immensely to turn the tide against the lynching of our people. But as I said, it is a question of mass pressure.” A statement from the Central Committee emphasized, “Workers, black and white—organize monster mass meetings, militant demonstrations! Let the southern ruling class know that we will not tolerate their crimes against our class and the persecuted Negro race no longer! The death penalty for lynchers! Stop the legal lynching at Scottsboro!”
They always tried to connect the local conditions of Black Americans fighting for justice to a global context and world revolution. William Patterson wrote in Labor Defender: “To the mob violence, lynch terror, discrimination and segregation which is every day a part of [Black American] lives has been added all the burdens of this period of hard times—unemployment, wage cuts, speed-up on the job and starvation. Where is the solution? Have oppressed nations no escape from the oppression? To these questions the Russian Revolution with its slogan of the right of self-determination to oppressed minorities gives an adequate answer…More than fifty different oppressed national groups whose positions was like that of the 13,000,000 Negroes in the USA paid tribute to the Czar. Free cultural life was denied these people. They lived only to advance the glory of ‘great Russia.’ But those who steered the reins of struggle for a government of workers and farmers believed that only the voluntary cooperation of peoples, who controlled their own political and cultural life could be free from the blood feuds, national hatreds, pogroms, prejudices and discriminations which marked the pathway of national minorities under the czar.”
The party drew on its connection with other Communist Parties to organize international solidarity protests and a European tour of some of the Scottsboro boys’ mothers. Protests, fundraisers and meetings were held in Germany, South Africa, Belgium, England, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Confronting white supremacy
Prioritizing the struggle of Scottsboro forced the Party to confront entrenched white supremacist habits within their own organization. As B.D. Amis stated in his speech at the 13th Plenum of the CPUSA, “in dealing with the question, we have a special question and we cannot treat this question like we treat the ordinary question and like we treat the white workers. From now on, the comrades must recognize that fact in that in dealing with the Negro question they have a special task. And that is our task to show the Negro workers—yes, we are going to fight for their rights and to show them we are going to carry on an energetic campaign in order to prove that the things we put in writing will be carried out in practice.”
The party’s leading Black members continued to develop their ideas and throughout the campaign used it to counter racist ideas in the white working class and encourage cross-racial solidarity against the bosses. Making the case that it was in the interest of white workers to oppose the class and race-based oppression of the legal lynching system.
Harry Haywood, wrote in 1932 in Labor Defender, “In the midst of the intense, world-wide fight for the freedom of the Scottsboro victims, it is well to get a perspective view of the larger issue involved in the case. The Scottsboro frame-up is not an isolated instance of persecution; it is part and parcel of a huge, cold-blooded system of oppression and terrorization of millions Negro toilers, a system that has been well nigh reduced to a science by the boss class that imposes it.”
Emphasizing the effects on the working class of the racist system, Haywood continued: “The ruling class has [a] two-fold purpose in fostering this vicious campaign of terror against the Negro toilers (1) by whipping up lynch hysteria, it aims to divide the workers, and thus to weaken them. (2) it aims by this means to keep in terrorized subjection the Negro masses who constitute a great portion of the American working classes. Against this growing lynch terror, the American workers Negro and white must carry on a wide relentless struggle. It is absolutely essential for all workers to realize that the sharpening of the lynch terror is an integral factor in the general campaign of capitalist reaction against the toilers as a whole aimed particularly to strike at the growing unity of Negro and white workers.”
The CPUSA believed the case could be used to activate the revolutionary potential of the black working class. Agitating on the systemic nature of the racist legal system and the class basis of the terror of black folks, the Black Communists sought to transform the confidence and combativeness of the working class in the Deep South and beyond.
The transformative effect that the struggle had on those involved could be seen in an article from Ada Wright, one of the Scottsboro mothers: “I never dreamed that I had the strength to make a seven months tour of the United States and then to cross the Atlantic for more than four months now to ‘carry on’ in the European Scottsboro campaign. There have been many. But my love for my two sons, the overwhelming desire and hope to see them free again, and very soon, with all the Scottsboro boys, with the growing desire, that I did not understand 17 months ago, to achieve something for my people and my class, have kept me strong. I grew to understand the police attacks upon our meetings.”
WIlliam Patterson reported on the progress of the campaign and emphasized the approach to winning the boys’ freedom: “The forward march of Negro and white workers into the struggle for the solution of the crisis in the interest of the working class demands a forward march of negro and white workers in the battalions of defense. We must organize into a united front of defense of all workers in the factories, in our neighbourhoods, our lodges, fraternal organizations and mass demonstrations of protest against police brutality and terror. We must look forward to the launching of an irresistible attack upon the whole system of lynching of jim-crowism and special persecution against us. This is a united front struggle for an attack upon the whole. This united front must extend to all those who are willing to fight against boss terror!”
Reformist versus revolutionary tactics
The mass movement approach to winning the case was the key factor the party identified to both freeing the nine and building the level of politics in the wider working class. In his article “The Scottsboro Decision: Victory of Revolutionary Struggle Over Reformist Betrayal” in The Communist, Harry Haywood makes clear the difference between how the CPUSA and ILD conducted the defense and the strategy organizations like the NAACP (which was initially reluctant to defend the Scottsboro 9) and the Urban League advocated. “The tactics of the Communist Party were: no reliance on the capitalist courts, the instruments of national and class oppression; on the contrary it carried on the sharpest fight against all democratic and legalistic illusions among the masses. While utilizing all legal and parliamentary possibilities, adequate legal aid to the victims, petitions, etc., it subordinated these to the organization and development of revolutionary mass action outside of courts and bourgeois legislative bodies. Only on the basis of such revolutionary tactics could the Communist Party develop a mass movement around Scottsboro, drawing into support of this movement all of the oppressed classes. Only through such methods, did we succeed in staying the murder of the innocent victims.”
In 1933, analyzing next tasks for Communists in the campaign, William Patterson, explained the way in which Communists relate to broader groups of people through the united front method: “We must go into the shops, from house to house, among the employed and unemployed workers, the organized and the unorganized, those in reformist and revolutionary trade unions, Negro and white, native born and foreign born, young and old. The Communist members of the International Labor Defense must understand that the International Labor Defense is not a Communist organization, must recognize that he is the best Communist whose activities best enable that organization of which he is a part to function to reach the masses, to clarify the masses as to their interests, to draw them into struggle.”
The effect of this commitment was felt in Ben Davis’ reporting in the Daily Worker in 1937 on the release of Roy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams and Willie Roberson. Olen’s mother said: “We can’t be too thankful to the Scottsboro Defense Committee, the International Labor Defense, and Mr Leibowitz for this great victory. We feel that all those, Negro and white, who helped make this victory possible are helping the fight for our race. We shall always have a special place in our hearts for the ILD, Mr. Joe Brodsky and the Communist Party, too, for they have stuck by us from the beginning when our boys were first sentenced to die. Through thick and thin they have been with us.”
Angelo Herndon, himself a victim of the racist legal system when he was convicted of insurrection for attempting to organize black and white workers in Atlanta, emphasized the role of the CPUSA in building a struggle much wider than its membership in his 1937 pamphlet on Scottsboro: “The Communist Party and the Young Communist League were the great stimulating forces which brought Scottsboro before the broad masses of organized labor. In cooperation with the ILD, the question of Negro[es] serving on juries was raised for the first time. Because this question struck at the root of Negro oppression, and because of the mass fight carried on around it, the United States Supreme Court was forced to reverse the convictions of the Scottsboro boys for the second time. Like the infamous Dred Scott decision, in which the Negro-hating Judge Taney ruled that a Negro, ‘had no rights a white man is bound to respect,’ Scottsboro became the beacon light and symbol of the struggle of the Negro for complete freedom.”
The ideas and deeds that of the CPUSA’s commitment to opposing anti-Black racism in the 1930s are a shining example of what a group of revolutionaries can accomplish. The victories in organizing unemployed workers, fighting lynch terror, and organizing sharecroppers in the Deep South demonstrate how united front tactics can be used to win gains for workers and the oppressed, while extending the reach of revolutionary politics, opposing the chauvinism of white workers, and strengthening party organization.
Unfortunately this book only focuses on Black communist men, overlooking the crucial contributions of Black women in the CPUSA. Louise Thompson Patterson, for example, was the lead organizer of the 1933 March on Washington (the first march on Washington for civil rights, 30 years before Martin Luther King’s famous march), as part of the Scottsboro campaign; she led the march arm in arm with Janie Patterson (mother of Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro 9) and with Ruby Bates (who after recanting her testimony joined the campaign). As Patterson recalled decades later, “It was amazing the people that came out: old, young, crippled, children, pregnant women, children with babies and, women with babies in their arms. And that we could take these over 3,000 people to Washington on that kind of a trip, who had never been on such a trip before…One looks back on it now and thinks of what’s happened since that time, the mass demonstrations of the 60’s and later, and think back that these were the techniques used first by the International Labor Defense and the communists back in the 30’s. One has to see where many of these contributions came from, these ideas came from.”
But these insights, into a working class strategy to fight multiple forms of oppression, have been buried in history. Shortly after the period documented in this book, the CPUSA—under the increasing influence of Stalinism—turned to what was called “Popular Front” politics, making alliances with Liberals and the Democratic Party, and accommodating to regressive politics. This marked a moment when the CPUSA’s commitment to mass working class politics and advancing revolutionary tactics to win reforms waned and never really recovered. However, the party’s work in the Deep South documented in Howard’s book and others (such as Robin G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression) should be studied by all those looking to build socialist organization, for their rich lessons and impressive politics.
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