Organizing in the Depression South, A Communist’s Memoir
James S. Allen
The "Negro Question" continued
The failure of Reconstruction left, as a heritage of the old days, the restored or reconstituted plantation based on sharecropping and related forms of tenancy. Upon that renewed socioeconomic foundation, the planters restored their power over Southern society (“Home Rule,” as it was called), at least in the Deep South states where their dominance had hardly been challenged in the past. They also resumed an influential position in federal government (always on the reactionary side), although by then the aggressive industrial-financial oligarchy activated by the Civil War was irrevocably on top.
The modes of labor exploitation peculiar to the reconstituted agrarian system and the racist ideology that it generated penetrated into practically every nook and corner of society. The brief interim of the Southern phase of the populist revolt in the 1890s seemed to promise some kind of coalition between white and Black farm people against the ruling combination of planter, credit merchant, and banker, now supported by the North and its important business institutions. But the revolt foundered on the rocks of racism. Populist leaders like Tom Watson and Ben Tillman introduced a new brand of racist demagogues who plagued the South and the rest of the country as well. Then came the grandfather clauses and the restoration of many restrictions against Blacks that had been set aside in most states during Reconstruction. Between that period and the great wartime exodus, a dark interval of despair and hopelessness intervened, with little prospect of change. No wonder, then, that the trek to the North soon became a torrent that cut deep gullies into the old South and transformed the composition of the Northern laboring class.
For the Blacks, it was not only an escape from ancient bondage, but a transformation of their entire social structure. Those who came North and also the smaller number who migrated to the few Southern industrial centers not only changed their position geographically but also changed their class status. From a half-free peasantry, they became a half-free working class. In this new situation, even with its limitations and disadvantages, the Black wage earner had found a place in modern capitalist society, although as a segregated and underprivileged member of the working class as a whole. A new potential was thus created for overcoming the restrictions imposed upon the Black worker and Black people in general.
Communists could not for long remain impervious to the import and potential of such a fundamental change in class composition, in effect the instantaneous emergence of a new sector of the class. The Communists saw the necessity of organizing Black workers together with whites, or, failing that, of setting up independent unions of Black workers as a means of forcing their entry into a resistant labor movement. Calling often for such solidarity, Communists made some valiant efforts in that direction.
Their projection was outward, toward the mass of Negro workers. An official Party delegation, as well as one from the African Blood Brotherhood, took part in the Sanhedrin, [i] the All-Race Assembly, which convened in Chicago in 1924. It was the first significant postwar attempt at a nationwide gathering of all Black civil rights forces. The Party and Brotherhood delegations, with little support among the delegates, sought to commit the assembly to a prolabor position. They failed, since the Assembly was completely dominated by aspiring middle-class and professional elements, aloof from the mass of Black labor. In this climate, the Assembly proved abortive.
The following year, almost on their own and without taking the trouble to find allies, the Communists organized the American Labor Congress in Chicago. The broad, far-reaching resolutions and positions worked out there went well beyond the demands of labor to include the social and political complaints of the Black population. Many of these demands were to become accepted standards and laws in years to come, and the program was even then recognized as one every Black civil rights group could accept. The young corps of Black organizers of the Congress, drawn mostly from the African Blood Brotherhood, became valuable Communist activists. But this Congress also proved abortive, for it was so narrowly conceived and formed that it turned out to be more like a Black replica of the Communist Party than the beginning of an effective mass organization as was soon acknowledged by the Communist leaders themselves when they turned to a critical examination of their work.
What was wrong? Why did the Communists, despite their determination to reach the most exploited layers of the working class, have only a handful of Black members toward the end of the decade? [ii] Their public pronouncements against lynching and other depredations, their position favoring equality, their stand on civil rights, their urgent calls to organize Black workers into the existing unions these were to the point and in the right direction, far exceeding their own initial approach. Why no real progress?
In brief, it may be answered that the Communists, even then, still failed to understand in what respect the “Negro question” was more than a pure class question. While discrimination arising from race prejudice could not possibly be ignored, it was seen largely as it applied to the exploitation of Black workers and not as characteristic of attitudes toward the entire Black population. The Communists may have made substantial progress toward overcoming the neglect characteristic of the labor movement, as well as the old Socialist movement, but they had not touched the heart of the problem, nor undertaken the fundamental thinking that was needed to find the way.
Symptomatic of this failing was the ambivalence toward the Garvey movement, by far the biggest mass upsurge among Black Americans since Reconstruction. With all its fantastic fanfare and regalia, and despite its mistaken slogan of “Back to Africa,” during its brief heyday in the first half of the 1920s it was an extraordinarily significant expression of the rebellious sentiment of millions of Black Americans, of their hopes and aspirations for some form of greater freedom. It was certainly nationalist, as then expressed in race terms, in the sense that it sought to establish identity as a distinct people seeking an acknowledged and honored place among the nations.
This the American Communists (with a few notable exceptions) could not grasp, although they were impressed by the sweep of the upsurge and the early prolabor stand of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They sent delegations to its conventions and offered cooperation on issues shared in common. At the same time, they condemned the “Back to Africa” idea as utopian and a diversion from the real problems faced here at home. They also deplored the gradual departure from the initial prolabor program and antiimperialist emphasis of the Association, as well as its refusal to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. [iii] When Garvey was prosecuted by the federal government on convenient mail-fraud charges, the Daily Worker, organ of the Communist Party, charged frame-up and rose to his defense. After his conviction and imprisonment, the UNIA was split by an internal struggle for power, and in 1925 began to disintegrate. Upon serving his prison term, Garvey was deported to Jamaica and his influence waned almost entirely. In the end, the Communists turned completely against the remaining Garvey organizations as obstacles to workingclass solidarity and objectives.
Here then was one source of the trouble the failure to perceive the nationalist quality of the fight for Black freedom as an authentic and potent force in the struggle for social change. While a few saw that potential, the tendency to condemn it as anti–working class prevailed. In general, the Party took a “for or against” position a confrontation on the basis of the contradictions rather than a recognition that the Black freedom cause had both nationalist and class content, often in conflict as contradictions are bound to be, but nevertheless components of a single movement.
A deeper and more pernicious source can also be discerned, which to a large measure was responsible for the inability to appreciate the nationalist quality. It is a revealing commentary on the prevailing atmosphere in the Party that it was the few Black members who most persistently and constantly raised the problem of racism as it existed in the organization itself. True, some white leaders did so as well, but the Black Communists were the ones who had to identify the personal indignities they suffered, the lack of consultation with them, and their absence from the higher, directing posts and committees. Many Black comrades who had joined in the earlier years left the Party because of the racism they encountered there and the asperity with which their charges were often met. Others remained to carry on the struggle, taking it into the international gatherings of Communists, where their complaints were better understood and encouraged. [iv]