Organizing in the Depression South, A Communist’s Memoir
James S. Allen
Book Previews (in HTML)
- Organizing in the Depression South
- African American History & Radical Historiography
- Origins of Geometrical Thought in Human Labor
- James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland
Chapter 1. The "Negro Question"
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- 2. We Go South
- 3. Founding the Southern Worker
- 4. The Beginning of Communist Organization
- 5. Tallapoosa
- 6. Scottsboro
- 7. The Decatur Trial
- 8. Epilogue
- A. The Workers (Communist) Party in the South, by William Z. Foster
- B. Credo of the Southern Worker: What Do We Stand For?
- C. Call for Mass Conference against Lynch Law, issued by the Provisional Organization Committee for the South of the American Negro Labor Congress
- D. Farmers of the South, Fight Starvation! Appeal by Communist Party
- E. Scottsboro Parents Statement
- ANLC: American Negro Labor Congress
- CPUSA: Communist Party USA
- ILD: International Labor Defense
- IWO: International Workers Order
- IWW: Industrial Workers of the World
- LSNR: League of Struggle for Negro Rights
- NMU: National Miners Union
- MWIU: Marine Workers Industrial Union
- NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
- RILU: Red International of Labor Unions
- TCI: Tennessee Coal and Iron Corporation
- T.U.E.L.: Trade Union Educational League
- TUUL: Trade Union Unity League
- UNIA: Universal Negro Improvement Association
- YCL: Young Communist League
- Y.W.C.L.: Young Workers Communist League
The publisher thanks Professor Robin D. G. Kelley for providing the manuscript of this work on a computer file under James S. Allen’s original title, Communism in the Deep South: The Opening, 1930–31 A Political Memoir.
The years 1930 and 1931 may be considered the beginning of a new phase of Southern history, although few may have realized it at the time. Consider the events of those days.
The nine Black Scottsboro Boys were saved from the electric chair by a nationwide mass protest movement, projected on a world scale as well. Previously, the mere accusation of raping a white woman would customarily have assured the destruction of a Black male by a mob or court.
The miners of the Kentucky fields, centered in Harlan, engaged in a long, bloody strike against a conspiracy to deny them a decent life. Big mine operators; the local and state governments; sheriffs’ posses and thugs hired by the employers, supported by troops, combined against them. The miners finally gained union recognition, better conditions, and the right to live in their own homes instead of company houses, and to buy provisions wherever they pleased in a word, to enjoy a breath of freedom. Black sharecroppers and poor farmers of Tallapoosa County, Alabama, organized their first union, beat back armed bands numbering hundreds who raided their homes and shot on sight. They not only survived, but grew into a force to be reckoned with by the planters and credit merchants.
The impact of these events was lasting, for they challenged the central pillars of Southern society. The union in Tallapoosa challenged the sharecropping plantation system. The Scottsboro defense movement challenged the entire false ideology of white superiority and Black inferiority that distorted and disfigured the juridical and political structure of the region, diseased the mentality of practically the entire white population, and kept the Blacks in submission. The militant Harlan miners gave warning, as did the Gastonia, North Carolina, textile strikers of 1929, of the new unrest to be expected from the industrialization that was to bring about a “New South.” The latter had been predicted since the turn of the century and was still to be long in coming.
Much has already been truly recorded about each of these episodes, and the telling continues to the present day, a halfcentury after their occurrence. The Scottsboro story has been told in full-length books, including a substantial scholarly work, in a popular television documentary, in poetry, in numerous essays and commentaries. Harlan is accorded an honored place in labor history, is the subject of an exciting television drama, shown at commercial movie theaters as well, and of other literary efforts. The events at Camp Hill and Reeltown, Alabama, are prominently reported in a study by the federal government of efforts to organize rural unions. The sharecroppers’ epic is also preserved in a lengthy academic oral history, in books, in poems, and in other literary works. The folk songs born in these struggles have become a part of our national heritage.
Yet nothing of substance has been written about the Communist initiative in bringing about this primary awakening. True, there have been some passing references to the Communist contribution in a few histories. Whatever more extended remarks have appeared are mostly of a derogatory nature, sometimes outrageously libelous and calumnious, ignorant or unthinking repetitions of outright lies and myths. I do not mean to imply that amid all this debris there is not also some critical comment worthy of serious consideration, with which I intend to deal. The crucial Communist effort nevertheless remains unknown or obscure.
This book is an attempt to fill the gap. It makes no pretense at being a history, formal or otherwise, of the period as a whole. That is still to be done by an enterprising historian. Mine is a personal memoir a political memoir if you please, for which I alone am responsible.
I was a member of a small team of Communists who ventured into the Deep South in early 1930; I was a participant and close observer of this first effort at Communist organization in the region. Even after leaving, I remained a student of its history and continuing development.
Few contemporaries of that time are still around with whom to compare and consult, but fortunately I had many of my own writings of the period to use critically when memory alone proved insufficient or unreliable, as it often does. I drew heavily on the weekly tabloid periodical, the Southern Worker, which I edited and which recorded the events and opinions as reported and written about at the time and on the spot by our many correspondents as well as by staff. I had kept a file of letters to family and friends and many of the articles and essays written later. My own two books on the South (The Negro Question in the U.S. and Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy), products of long and arduous studies begun while I was still in the region, supplied background and historical perspective.
I must admit at the start that we were subversives, as so often charged. We did conspire to change the Southern social order, to uproot its remnants of slavery, to improve the life conditions of Blacks and whites as well and to humanize, to civilize relations between them. Yes, as again often charged, socialism was our goal for the South as well as the North but we knew it was in the future. In the meantime, the order of things had to be improved. Along the way we wanted to overcome racism and the know-nothingism and obscurantism that continued to mar our history and current perceptions. And if socialism is the outcome of efforts such as these, why not?
I do not write here in condemnation of an entire region and its white people. Rather, I explore the distortions and disfigurations brought about by the specific turns and twists of history resulting in the particular class and ethnic formations that generated the superstitions and prejudices implanted in a people otherwise often well-meaning, civil, and friendly. These disfigurations are human failings that people can overcome, as they have been in the process of doing, as underlying conditions shift.New York, January 1984