The Black Belt Communists

During the Great Depression, black sharecroppers and the Communist Party waged war against tenant farming in the South.

A sharecropping family in Alabama (1939). Flat World Education

The rural world Communist organizers entered in 1930–31 made the poverty-stricken streets of Birmingham look like a paradise. Cotton farmers were in the midst of a crisis at least a decade old. After World War I, cotton prices plummeted, forcing planters to reduce acreage despite rising debts, and the boll weevil destroyed large stretches of crop.

When the stock market collapsed and cotton prices reached an all-time low, the real victims were small landholders who were forced into tenancy and tenants whose material wellbeing deteriorated even further. It is no coincidence, therefore, that black farmers straddling the line between tenancy and ownership formed the nucleus of Alabama’s Communist-led rural movement.

Within the limited world of cotton culture existed a variety of production relations. Cash tenants, more often white than black, usually leased land for several years at a time, supplied their own implements, draft animals, seed, feed, and fertilizer, and farmed without supervision. Share tenants, on the other hand, might own some draft animals and planting materials, but the landowner provided any additional equipment, shelter, and if necessary, advances of cash, food, or other subsistence goods such as clothing.

Verbal contracts were made annually and the landowner generally marketed the crop, giving the tenant between three-fourths and two-thirds of the price, minus any advances or previous debts. The most common form of tenancy in the South was sharecropping.

Virtually propertyless workers paid with a portion of the crops raised, sharecroppers had little choice but to cultivate cotton — the landowner’s choice of staple crops. The landowner supplied the acreage, houses, draft animals, planting materials, and nearly all subsistence necessities, including food and cash advances. These “furnishings” were then deducted from the sharecropper’s portion of the crop at an incredibly high interest rate.

The system not only kept most tenants in debt, but it perpetuated living conditions that bordered on the intolerable. Landowners furnished entire families with poorly constructed one- or two-room shacks, usually without running water or adequate sanitary facilities. Living day-to-day on a diet of “fat back,” beans, molasses, and cornbread, most Southern tenants suffered from nutritional deficiencies — pellagra and rickets were particularly common diseases in the Black Belt.

The gradations of tenancy must be understood in relation to both race and geographic distribution of cotton production. The Black Belt, the throne of King Cotton in Alabama, with its rich, black, calcareous clay soil, still resembled its antebellum past in that blacks outnumbered whites four to one in some counties in 1930.

As with other cotton-growing areas, the plant’s life cycle and seasonal need determined the labor and living patterns of those who worked the land. In early spring, after the land had thawed and dried from winter, cotton farmers plowed and fertilized rows in preparation for planting, which followed several weeks later.

When the young plants began to sprout, the cotton had to be “chopped” — grass and weeds were removed and the stalks separated so that they did not grow too close together. If this was not done regularly the crop could be lost. Picking time, the most intense period of labor involving all family members, began around September 1 and continued through October. Once the cotton had been picked, ginned, baled, and sold, accounts were settled between the tenant and the landowner.

The tenants, who usually found themselves empty-handed after settling accounts, cultivated gardens to survive the winter, begged for food and cash advances, or spent several days without anything to eat. And throughout the entire year, particularly during the lean winters, tenants hauled firewood, cut hay, repaired their homes, fences, tools, and watering holes, cared for their stock, cleared trees, and removed stalks from the previous harvest.

Women’s lives were especially hard in the world of cotton culture. Rising before dawn and the rest of the family, wives and daughters of tenant farmers prepared meals over a wood stove or open fire, fetched water from distant wells or springs, washed laundry by hand in pots of boiling water, toted firewood, tended livestock, made preserves, dyes, clothes, and medicinal remedies, ground cornmeal, fathered eggs, and tried to keep a house that generally lacked screens, windows, indoor plumbing, and electricity tidy.

Women also worked in the fields, especially during picking and chopping time, and in the midst of physically exacting labor they bore and raised children. Many had little choice but to take in laundry or perform domestic work for meager wages, thus tripling their workload. Women choppers and pickers generally earned half as much as their male counterparts.

To make matters worse, because husbands and elder sons occasionally migrated to nearby cities or mines to find work, escape family responsibilities, or avoid persecution in one form or another, many women and children in a variety of female-headed households and extended families were left to organize production without the benefit of adult male labor.

It is tempting to characterize the Black Belt as a timeless, static, semi-feudal remnant of the post-Reconstruction era, but such an idyllic picture ignores the history of rural opposition and does not take into account significant structural changes that have occurred since the 1890s.

Black and white populists waged a losing battle against the expansion of tenancy, and in the wake of defeat, many landless farmers resisted debt peonage with their feet. Drowning in a sea of debt, tenants often broke their contracts, leaving an unsuspecting landowner at a critical moment in the planting cycle.

Given the demography of the plantation, open collective rebellion was virtually impossible. Shacks were placed near the edge of the plantation, and two or three miles often separated tenant families from one another. Therefore, more individualized forms of resistance (theft, arson, sabotage, “foot dragging,” slander, and occasional outbreaks of personal violence) were used effectively to wrest small material gains or to retaliate against unfair landlords.

Such tactics were legitimated by folk cultures that celebrated evasive and cunning activities and, ironically, by the dominant ideology of racist paternalism that constructed an image of blacks as naturally ignorant, childlike, shiftless laborers with a strong penchant for theft.

Resistance, in some ways, altered the structure of production as well as the planters’ ability to make a profit. With the onset of World War I, for example, large numbers of workers left the countryside altogether to take advantage of employment opportunities in the sprawling urban centers of the North and South. Areas most affected by the exodus were forced to adopt limited forms of mechanization to make up for the dwindling labor force and rising wages.

The movement off the land was accompanied by improved roads and the availability of affordable automobiles, which increased rural mobility. The number of automobiles owned and operated by Alabama farmers increased from 16 to 592 in 1920 and to 73,634 in 1930. Small holders and tenants who acquired vehicles were no longer beholden to the plantation commissary and could now purchase supplies at much lower prices in the nearby urban centers.

The revolution in transportation compelled landowners to furnish tenants in cash in lieu of credit lines at plantation commissaries and county stores in an attempt to retain rural labor in the face of competitive wages offered in the cities. But after 1929, cash was a rare commodity, and landowners resurrected the commissary system, effectively undermining their tenants’ newly acquired freedom and mobility.

By the time the Birmingham Communists established links to the cotton belt in early 1931, tenancy seemed on the verge of collapse. Advances of food and cash were cut off, debts were piling higher, and the city offered fewer opportunities to escape rural poverty. Subterranean forms of resistance were by no means abandoned, but groups of black farmers now saw the logic in the Communist Party’s call for collective action.

The slogan demanding self-determination in the Black Belt did not inspire Birmingham’s nascent Communist cadre to initiate a rural-based radical movement. James Allen, editor of the party newspaper the Southern Worker, argued that only industrial workers were capable of leading tenants and sharecroppers because the latter lacked the collective experience of industrial labor. Aside from spouting rhetorical slogans, party organizers all but ignored the Black Belt during their first year in Birmingham.

Then, in January 1931, an uprising of some five hundred sharecroppers in England, AR, compelled Southern Communists to take the rural poor more seriously. Birmingham party leaders immediately issued a statement exhorting Alabama farmers to follow the Arkansas example:

Call mass meetings in each township and on each large plantation. Set up Relief Councils at these meetings. Organize hunger marches on the towns to demand food and clothing from the supply merchants and bankers who have sucked you dry year after year . . . Join hands with the unemployed workers of the towns and with their organizations which are fighting the same battle for bread.

The response was startling. The Southern Worker was flooded with letters from poor black Alabama farmers. A sharecropper from Waverly, Alabama requested “full information on the Fight Against Starvation,” and pledged to “do like the Arkansas farmers,” with the assistance of Communist organizers.

A Shelby County tenant made a similar request: “We farmers in Vincent wish to know more about the Communist Party, an organization that fights for all farmers. And also to learn us how to fight for better conditions.” Another “farmer correspondent” had already begun to make plans to “get a bunch together for a meeting,” adding that poor farmers in his community were “mighty close to a breaking point.”

District leadership enthusiastically laid plans for a sharecroppers’ and farmworkers’ union that would conceivably unite poor white farmers of northern Alabama and black tenants and sharecroppers in the Black Belt. An attempt to bring black and white farmers together in a joint conference, however, brought few results. The party’s position on social equality and equal rights alienated most poor white farmers, and within a few months the party’s white contacts in Cullman and St Clair counties had practically dissipated.

The Croppers’ and Farm Workers’ Union (CFWU) was eventually launched in Tallapoosa County, a section of the eastern piedmont whose varied topography ranges from the hill county of Appalachia in the north to the coastal-like plains and pine forests of the south. In 1930, almost 70 percent of those engaged in agriculture were either tenants or wage workers, the majority of whom were sharecroppers.

Blacks comprised the bulk of the county’s tenant and rural laboring populations, and resided in the flat, fertile southeastern and southwestern sections of the county. As in the Black Belt counties further south, antebellum planter families in these two areas retained political and economic ascendancy, despite competition from textile and sawmill interests. Not surprisingly, the impetus to build a union came from local tenant farmers living primarily in southeastern Tallapoosa County.

Soon after the cotton had been planted and chopped, several landlords withdrew all cash and food advances in a calculated effort to generate labor for the newly built Russell Saw Mill. The mill paid exactly the same for unskilled labor as the going rate for cotton chopping — 50¢ per day for men and 25¢ a day for women.

By mid-May the Southern Worker reported significant union gains in Tallapoosa County and announced that black sawmill workers and farmers in the vicinity “have enthusiastically welcomed Communist leadership.”

The nascent movement formulated seven basic demands, the most crucial being the continuation of food advances. The right of sharecroppers to market their own crops was also a critical issue because landlords usually gave their tenants the year’s lowest price for cotton and held on to the bales until the price increased, thus denying the producer the full benefits of the crop.

Union leaders also demanded small gardens for resident wage hands, cash rather than wages in kind, a minimum wage of $1 per day, and a three-hour midday rest for all laborers — all of which were to be applied equally, irrespective of race, age, or sex.

By July 1931 the CFWU, now eight hundred strong, had won a few isolated victories in its battle for the continuation of food advances. Most Tallapoosa landlords, however, just would not tolerate a surreptitious organization of black tenant farmers and agricultural workers. Camp Hill, Alabama became the scene of the union’s first major confrontation with the local power structure.

On July 15 Taft Holmes organized a group of sharecroppers near Camp Hill and invited several union members to address the group in a vacant house that doubled as a church. In all, about eighty black men and women piled into the abandoned house to discuss the CFWU and the Scottsboro case. After a black informant notified Tallapoosa County sheriff Kyle Young of the gathering, deputized vigilantes raided the meeting place, brutally beating men and women alike.

The posse then regrouped at CFWU leader Tommy Gray’s home and assaulted his entire family, including his wife, who suffered a fractured skull, in an effort to obtain information about the CFWU. Union organizer Jasper Kennedy was arrested for possessing twenty copies of the Southern Worker, and Holmes was picked up by police the following day, interrogated for several hours, and upon release fled to Chattanooga.

Despite the violence, about 150 sharecroppers met with Mack Coad — an illiterate Birmingham steelworker originally from Charleston, SC who had become the party’s organizer in Tallapoosa — the following evening in a vacant house southwest of Camp Hill. This time sentries were posted around the meeting place.

When Sheriff Young arrived on the scene with Camp Hill police chief J. M. Wilson and Deputy A. J. Thompson, he found Ralph Gray — Tommy Gray’s brother and fellow CFWU organizer — 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 the argument, exchanged buckshot. Young, who received gunshot wounds to the stomach, was rushed to a hospital in nearby 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 Coad, barricaded themselves inside the house. The group held off a posse led by Wilson long enough to allow most members to escape, but the wounded Ralph Gray opted to remain in his house until 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 down his throat.” The mob burned the 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.

Over the next few days, between thirty-four and fifty-five black men were arrested near Camp Hill, nine of whom were under eighteen years of age. Most of the defendants were charged with conspiracy to murder or with carrying a concealed weapon, but five union members were charged with assault to murder.

Although police chief Wilson could not legally act out his wish to “kill every member of the ‘Reds’ there and throw them into the creek,” the Camp Hill police department stood idle as enraged white citizens waged genocidal attacks on the black community that left dozens wounded or dead and forced entire families to seek refuge in the woods. Union secretary Mack Coad, the vigilantes’ prime target, fled all the way to Atlanta.

Behind the violence in Tallapapoosa County loomed the Scottsboro case. But unlike Scottsboro, the Camp Hill defendants were members of the party’s organization; there was no question as to who was going to defend them. After lawyers associated with the party secured the release of all but seven of the imprisoned sharecroppers, prominent Alabama citizens wary of creating another Scottsboro episode pressured authorities to quietly drop the case.

National Communist leadership praised the union’s resistance at Camp Hill as vindication of the party’s slogan calling for the right of self-determination. The successful legal defense of the sharecroppers was further proof, they reasoned, of the effectiveness of mass pressure outside the courtroom.

But union organizers found little romance in the bloodletting or in the uprooting of hundreds of poor black farmers that followed the Camp Hill battle. Moreover, rural conditions in Tallapoosa County had not improved at all.

By September, the height of the cotton-picking season, landlords again promised to cut off all food and cash advances after the cotton was picked, and many tenants had to pick cotton on other plantations in order to earn enough to survive the winter. The going rate at the time was a meager 30¢ per one hundred pounds, a tidy sum considering the average laborer could only pick about two hundred pounds per day.

The repression and the deteriorating economic conditions stunted the union’s growth initially, but the lessons of Camp Hill also provided a stimulus for a new type of movement, reborn from the ashes of the old. The Communist movement in Alabama resonated with the cultures and traditions of black working people, yet at the same time it offered something fundamentally different. It proposed a new direction, a new kind of politics that required the self-activity of people usually dismissed as inarticulate.

The sun had not set on the proud history of Communists in Alabama — black sharecroppers would continue to struggle.