How Alabama Communists Organized in the Jim Crow South

Robin D. G. Kelley

In 1930s Alabama, Communist Party members fought brutal repression to organize black and white workers in the Jim Crow South. Their efforts remain a source of inspiration for those fighting racism and exploitation today.

Evicted Arkansas sharecropper who was active in the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, now building his new home in Hill House, Mississippi. (Heritage Art / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

As the United Auto Workers (UAW) set their sights again on organizing factory workers in the Deep South, they do so keenly aware of the difficulties campaigning in a center of union-busting reaction. In 2019, bosses at a Chattanooga Volkswagen plant led a vicious anti-union campaign, abetted by Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board, that defeated an earlier UAW campaign there. When Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, waged an audacious effort to unionize in 2021, against one of the largest corporations on Earth, they likewise faltered in the face of widespread interference and intimidation.

At the same time, those warehouse workers inspired many by framing their struggle as a fight for black freedom and for the working class as a whole. The UAW’s latest campaign in the South is backed by a greater momentum after their victory against the Big Three automakers, and a renewed commitment to “justice across the globe,” as the union said when calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza.

These efforts tap into a long history of radical struggle in the South, including the Alabama Communist Party (CP)’s fights throughout the 1930s to organize sharecroppers, mine and mill workers, and unemployed people in a fight against a brutal regime of capitalist rule and racist repression.

In an interview with Daniel Denvir for Jacobin Radio‘s the Dig podcast, Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of history at the University of California Los Angeles, spoke about this vital history, documented in his 1990 book, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. The Alabama Communists and their allied organizations won major victories, but they also lost many fights and lost many lives to police and vigilantes. Hammer and Hoe reminds us that, then and today, the class struggle and fight for black freedom has never been easy. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Pittsburgh of the South

Daniel Denvir

What sort of place was Birmingham, an area where deposits of iron ore, coal, steel earned it the nickname the Pittsburgh of the South? How did these industries make the Birmingham area distinct from the rest of Alabama? And how did these industries, being located in Alabama, in the heart of the Deep South — how did that make Birmingham a very different sort of industrial metropolis than Pittsburgh?

Robin D. G. Kelley

Well, first of all, Birmingham is a new South city, which means that there wasn’t really any Birmingham to speak of as a major metropolis until after the Civil War. And it was precisely the discovery of deposits of iron ore and coal, everything you need to connect all the supply chains to make steel. And the capacity to produce mass amounts of steel through the Bessemer system was a new phenomenon. Along with railroads to move the steel and all the raw materials, they need the most important element: labor. The post–Civil War period is marked by a real struggle over labor.

We think Reconstruction ended with the compromise of 1877 and the back dealings of the federal government, but the struggle continued around labor, biracial, multiracial labor organizing, and Alabama is one of the centers. The Knights of Labor, the Greenback Labor Party, and others are fighting for mine workers as the mining industry is taking off, for farmers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. The textile industry hasn’t really taken off yet, but there are workers who are organizing and also fighting for political power.

So think of the region as a site where capital is trying to discipline the labor force — to create a cheap, available labor force to basically take this coal out of the ground, take the iron ore out of the ground, and work in iron factories, steel factories, pipe fitting, all the different factories manufacturing metal products.

A huge conglomerate emerges, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI), which has subsidiaries. There are other steel companies. Republic Steel and others are there. But they have to figure out how to tamp down workers’ resistance and discipline this labor force.

This required several things. One, convict labor, which in Alabama was a big thing for the coal industry at first. They’re a captive labor force, almost entirely black labor. The other thing is to create — this is a bad word for it — corporate welfare. That is, Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, which was an outgrowth of US Steel, had to figure out how to own the workers similar to how landlords own sharecroppers. They build shotgun houses, create commissaries, provide scrip instead of cash for workers to buy the supplies they need as well as food, and create an armed guard to police these compounds.

Bessemer was one of several industrial suburbs surrounding Birmingham, basically company towns at the edge of the city. And then finally, race is used to discipline the labor force. Formerly enslaved people doing the hardest, most difficult work in the mines, working alongside whites, some of whom have been dispossessed from the land in the region or migrated from Europe.

We always think of European immigration coming to New York and Philadelphia, places like that. But a significant number ended up in Birmingham precisely because of the presence of industrial jobs. You had people from Southern Europe: Bulgarians, Greeks, Czechs. You had people from Western Europe all showing up, and a lot of Italians, both Northern Italian and Southern Italians from Sicily, Naples, places like that. They end up in Birmingham. Some of the Italians and Greeks opened alternative stores to the company stores and made their money that way.

Exactly. In the heart of the Deep South, an industrial center with a multiracial, multiethnic, multinational working class, but under the heel of white supremacy. Because white supremacy in its most modern form — what my friend and colleague Sarah Haley calls Jim Crow modernity — that’s what we’re seeing. A racially structured labor force disciplined by racial violence, privatized police, control of the labor force through control of housing, food, wages, but also very much tiered in this segregationist setting. It was dubbed the Pittsburgh of the South because it produced so much steel and iron and became a hub of transportation because the railroads were moving raw materials and people.

Daniel Denvir

It’s so striking, because this is a city that by the ’50s or ’60s becomes a global icon of the entire Southern Jim Crow system and of the South. But it’s really unlike most places in the South.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Definitely. It’s fairly cosmopolitan. It’s hard to think of it because we have images of Bull Connor and water hoses and dogs. But actually, if you saw a picture of Bull Connor in the 1930s when he was commissioner of public safety, he’s dapper; he’s got his suit on.

Daniel Denvir

He looks like a dandy, in the photo in your book.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. A lot thinner. Birmingham was a modernizing city, but unlike Atlanta it required an incredibly repressive state apparatus. The violence was there from the get-go.

Why? Coal mines in Alabama are not just situated [in Birmingham] but in other parts of the state such as Tuscaloosa. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) organized coal miners, one of the few interracial organizations. They created a leadership structure with black vice presidents of locals. Black workers were still subordinate, but they exercised control. Richard Davis was one of the most famous UMWA leaders. So Alabama, even before the Communist Party (CP) showed up, already had a tradition of labor militancy, especially in coal mines and the iron ore mines as well, in the late nineteenth century.

The other factor is Birmingham’s proximity to Montgomery, Alabama, the capital, where there are a number of universities and colleges. Those university campuses were sometimes places of reaction, but they were also hotbeds of left-wing militancy.

Birmingham’s large black population created civil society institutions. The churches play a kind of mixed role, alongside fraternal orders, mutual benefit associations, various societies, women’s groups. All represented an incredibly organized community but were also markers of class stratification. There are black elites who actually have the right to vote, and they control that vote.

Even after the disfranchisement of the black community after 1895 in Alabama, you do see some black elites on the payroll of Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company; some of them are aligned with the white political elite. In some ways, they see themselves as power brokers. They make this Faustian bargain saying, “Look, you give us limited citizenship rights, and we’ll keep these Negroes in line. We’ll teach them how to behave. We’ll make sure that there’s no kind of militant organizing going on.”

Of course, that doesn’t work because you can’t stop the working class. They just keep going for some reason. And so, there was always this class tension within the black community, and often unspoken, but obvious class tensions within white Birmingham.

Daniel Denvir

How did Birmingham fit into Alabama’s broader social, economic, and political geography at the time, from Mobile on the Gulf Coast to the Black Belt to the heavily white farmer upcountry?

Robin D. G. Kelley

Of course, Birmingham is the center.  Forgive the South African analogy, but your audience will understand this: Mobile was kind of Cape Town. Montgomery would be like Durban. Durban was a port city, but Montgomery had that role in that Montgomery was also an interesting, smaller, but cosmopolitan kind of city in Alabama. Around Johannesburg was the Rand region, which is the mining region. The farming belt — maybe Orange Free State might be the upcountry, although there are way more Africans there.

But when you think about it in terms of economic geography, then political geography, there’s some interesting discoveries. The Black Belt had majority-black counties.

Daniel Denvir

And that’s just north of the coastal region, right?

Robin D. G. Kelley

Right. It’s north of the coastal region. Montgomery is situated in the Black Belt. And these were mainly cotton plantations. These plantations were not broken up after the Civil War. Instead of land reform, we get a lot of sharecroppers — mostly black sharecroppers and some white tenant farmers.

But they’re not backwaters. These were the centers of political power because the Southern Democrats represented these Black Belt counties, not just in the state legislature but also Congress. They’re running the New Deal policies. And we can talk about that. This is a dictatorship.

Daniel Denvir

The so-called big mules.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. The big mules and industrialists are two ruling-class symbols in Alabama. They’re producing for a global market hampered by the Great Depression. The upcountry farmers tended to be white landowners or white tenant farmers. This is the Appalachian region on the edge of the mountains or in the mountains. The land is not as arable. There’s not much in the way of global production.

And there are mines there too; there are mines everywhere. You could find a mine almost everywhere in Alabama, basically. Also some of the textile factories are situated in the upcountry area. Huntsville becomes a center for the Alabama textile industry. So you have poor whites working as wage laborers in that industry, many women in particular.

But the upcountry is interesting. The relative level of poverty caused resentment of both the big mules and black sharecroppers on their land, who they blame for their poor access to land, for their poverty. And this is a sentiment against the big mules that lasted for a long time, because those counties happen to be the ones that had the largest socialist vote.

Daniel Denvir

And prior to that, Unionist.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Yes, Unionist. Yes, you read the book carefully!

Daniel Denvir

My mom is from Birmingham.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Oh! So she knows.

Daniel Denvir

I grew up learning a little about it and family from Cullman as well.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Oh, really? Yeah, Cullman was the first place where the Communist Party tried to organize farmers. Before the Black Belt, Cullman was the first place they went. Many Confederate deserters were from this region. And you’re right, they gave significant support for the Union in the Civil War, and later socialists and Republicans.

We often err in thinking, “Oh, poor white people? They’re backward, we know how they’re going to vote.” There was a reason why they didn’t like the Democrats. Because Democrats didn’t do anything for them. Despite efforts to prove otherwise during the era of populism, when they had this kind of attempt at fusion, the Democrats still represented, in the state of Alabama and throughout the South, big capital, rural capital, urban capital.

Daniel Denvir

But in a dynamic that’s familiar today, they simultaneously saw the white business elite as a threat alongside the poor black people.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Absolutely. We think of it as countervailing tendencies, but they see them hand in hand. And part of what the Left had to do in those days was to destroy the myth of an alliance between capital and black labor.

Black workers were perceived to be strikebreakers and therefore allied with capital. Booker T. Washington advanced this idea that black labor’s best friend is the capitalist because he’s the one who’s going to hire you. He takes care of you. White workers are the ones that you need to distrust, right? Wrong. But this racial dynamic is what a left movement was up against in Alabama.

Mobile is a little different. Mobile is like the Eastern version of New Orleans. It had a large Catholic population. It was a port city.

Daniel Denvir

It has a Mardi Gras.

Robin D. G. Kelley

It has a Mardi Gras. Exactly.  It was under French occupation, French colonial rule, at one point, and it has that history. Interestingly enough, the party didn’t make as much headway there. Not because there wasn’t interest. I think they just didn’t have the capacity to really build a strong following there. But they did have some support. And the dockworkers, the waterfront workers, were ripe for left politics at the time.

But like any waterfront, race became the kind of Achilles’ heel in trying to organize, because the jobs are highly segregated and tiered. All you have to do is start bringing black workers or the threat of black workers to break through that tier, and then you just have nothing but chaos because it’s the black workers who become the victims of racial violence, not the company.

The Communists Come to Alabama

Daniel Denvir

The Communist Party’s commitment to black freedom won them an enthusiastic response from black Alabamans. But you write that initially, communism was a rather foreign and abstract concept in Alabama and a heavily demonized one as well. What did those early moments look like with white radicals from the North preaching anti-racist revolution to black crowds in Alabama?

Robin D. G. Kelley

I’m still surprised there is no movie because it’s a great image. It took a while. The party begins in 1929, and it was a steelworker, a Sicilian, named James Giglio. And he, like a lot of Italian immigrants, had a history, knew the history of left organizing from home. The United States deported Italians often because they were accused of being anarchists. I mean, they weren’t entirely wrong about that.

And so, Giglio writes the Communist Party asking for help to build a party and the CP sends people like Tom Johnson and other white radicals south. They actually didn’t go down there to organize black workers, because they presumed black workers were harder to organize, more ignorant, backward, easily influenced by employers. They focused on the white working class.

Now, this is 1929–30. This is a time when the Communist International, with the help of some black radicals like Harry Haywood and others, are saying that in the South, black people represent the majority in the Black Belt counties and therefore should be the focus of organizing. Moreover, black people constitute a nation much like Georgia of the Soviet Union, and therefore have a right to self-determination, which includes the right to secede. The white Communists who went down south like, “We don’t believe that. That’s not our politics.” They just rejected it.

Anyone who says American Communists were slaves to the Comintern, that’s just not true! The Daily Worker emphasized the need to organize white workers, that black workers are backward, but might be organized too. But the focus was on the “advanced” white workers, especially the white industrial working class. They didn’t think they could organize farmers.

Daniel Denvir

And these other people are feudal relics.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. It’s in the book! So they’re going by the book, and they get down there, and then they hold a meeting. And who shows up? Black workers! And a few white workers, but black workers show up. The immediate response is, “OK, well, it’s good that you’re here. Let’s try to organize some more white workers.” They hold another meeting and more black workers show up. Then they’re like, “OK, well, what do we do?”

Now, in fairness, these same radicals, both the supporters and those on the ground, were also deeply anti-racist. I mean, that’s just a fact. There were some racist things that were said. And a lot of those folks ended up being expelled from the party. But for the most part, they were anti-racist, but still believed that white workers were the vanguard.

When they made an effort in 1931, to form some kind of farmers’ union, thinking they could reach out to the rural areas, they went to Cullman County. They went to try to organize white workers, but because the party now had a black majority, even the most well-meaning, working-class white people, said, “I can’t possibly join an organization that’s mostly with black people, for black people, populated by black people. Because if I do, even if I believe in this, I’m going to be ostracized.”

They end up having to turn to the people who came there first, who showed up and kept showing up over and over again. These are folks who come from gospel-quartet circuits, from churches, from the steel plants, the iron ore mines. They’re the people who come from the lowest orders of the working class. But people also have aspirations to be like Negro leaders. People like Hosea Hudson, Al Murphy, Ebb Cox, and Mack Coad. They are people who were more than just workers. They cared about the plight of their people. And they felt like the Communist Party was the answer.

Ironically, spatial segregation meant that the initial white leadership of the party could easily meet with white workers, but it was hard to meet with black workers, because they would be suspect. And that meant that they really couldn’t control the party, which meant homegrown black leadership made decisions.

That’s not to say that they didn’t meet in interracial spaces. They did. And they did have debates, and it was very dangerous and all that. But it meant there were homegrown black, working-class, organic intellectuals and organizers who charted the path for the party on the ground, and only a handful of courageous and incredible white radicals like Clyde Johnson and Mary Leonard and Alice Burke and Donald Burke — these are the people who basically risked their lives to organize with black workers or try to bring in white workers.

So you have a mass black base, a handful of white workers who are Alabamians, and then a handful who are from other places around the country. Many are Jewish radicals who change their names, or college-educated people from Minnesota or New York who go there and stick around and build a party. Because of that, the party took on the characteristics of a kind of black liberation movement with a class analysis.

The African Blood Brotherhood was an organization formed in 1919 right after the Red Summer that was meant to be an underground, left-wing, black nationalist organization: armed self-defense, the right to self-determination, anti-lynching, the right to vote. Imagine that organization in Alabama, but larger. That’s sort of what the early formation of the Communist Party looked like, except that they had white allies close by.

Daniel Denvir

These white Communists from the North came there to fight the class struggle, but you write that it turned into a “race organization” and “a working-class alternative to the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People].”

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. And a working-class alternative both in composition and outlook. It became a race organization, but a race organization committed to class struggle. This has been my mantra since I learned it from my teacher Cedric Robinson many years ago: that an organization that is fighting for power and justice and focusing on the conditions of black people doesn’t mean that they’re not also fighting for everyone else.

Reconstruction was a fight for everybody. It was a fight for free universal public education, for decent wages, for protections from violence, for land. And the Communist Party did that too.

The African Americans who became the leaders of the party, Estelle Milner, Helen Longs, Eula Gray, Hosea Hudson — they saw themselves fighting for the race and for the class. They would say, “We wish the white people would go with us. We wish the white working class would join us.”

They are begging the white working class; they’re not trying to be exclusive. Because they know if they can get the white working class as a whole, they can win, and they can’t win without them. I mean, that was just basic common sense without having to read any Vladimir Lenin or Karl Marx.

The party was the first organization that they confronted that said exactly what they thought and gave them a plan. One of the shocking numbers I found was that the party was way bigger than the NAACP in Birmingham. There’s a point around 1931 when the NAACP had maybe six dues-paying members, and the party had at least three-hundred-plus dues-paying members. The International Labor Defense, the Communist Party’s auxiliary devoted to the criminal justice system and to fighting for what they called “class-war prisoners,” had six hundred, seven hundred members. And it was a much more robust organization than the NAACP.

The leaders of the NAACP in Birmingham were so afraid of that that they’re writing back and forth to Walter White saying, “We’re being overshadowed. We need to do something.” That’s when the Scottsboro case comes up as a source of a fight between the organizations.

Daniel Denvir

The black elite is a big part of your book. From Birmingham businessmen and ministers to the NAACP and the Tuskegee Institute, they weren’t only uninterested in the struggles of poor and working-class black people, but actively opposed them. You write:

The party’s ideological assault on Southern society affected the black elite. Because black professionals and businessmen depended on friendly relations with white elites, maintaining the color line was as much a concern for the black petite bourgeoisie as it was for the entire white community. Indeed, black middle-class anti-communist rhetoric was sometimes indistinguishable from the utterances of white Southern liberals and mild racists. The Birmingham branch of the NAACP assailed the Communists for their refusal to recognize the color line.

Why was Alabama’s black elite so reactionary?

Robin D. G. Kelley

I think that could be replicated in every state of the United States. I got in so much trouble for that line, I have to say — because it challenges this idea that Jim Crow created a deep racial solidarity and, therefore, the recognition that we are an oppressed race. What Jim Crow also did was build up and make dependent on it the power of a black elite. It’s not to say that there were not black elites, black landowners, black entrepreneurs, black doctors and professionals before that moment, but there was a kind of dependency.

Daniel Denvir

Because their elite status depended on this brokerage role that they were playing through Jim Crow.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Yes. Being able to get the right to vote in the Jim Crow South period, not just in Alabama, usually required a sponsor if you were black. You had to have a white sponsor who would vouch for you, and then they would let you register. That meant that you owed them.

More important, they depended on a captured working class, both as consumer base and as a community to be controlled in some respects. But to be fair, the black elite also were afraid of losing the little status that they had. The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company often owned the land the churches were on, or it would give donations to the church, or ministers would literally be on the payroll of the company. It replicates the system of slavery where you have African American ministers who were given special treats or payments from slave masters to preach obedience and to preach that the slave master is the father and this is the law of the land and that to resist is to sin.

To be fair, some of the black elites were caught up in this situation and eventually, in the postwar period, would try to liberate themselves from it. But you have the early examples of the anti-communism of the NAACP and the various businessmen’s leagues and that sort of thing.

You also see it later with the Right to Vote Club. When the Right to Vote Club was formed in Birmingham, and black and white workers were pushing through CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] voter registration, there was a black organization of elites that emerged that said, “This is not acceptable. We need to actually push for property requirements. We need to push to disenfranchise these black people,” because it wasn’t in their interest. So the complicity of the black elite was always a problem.

Some of my favorite episodes in the book are those where black elites are challenged directly. There’s this almost circus-like story that Hosea Hudson tells in his memoir about confronting a black minister who’s sort of a stool pigeon [or snitch]. Hosea was devout, but they knew a traitor when they saw one. So members of the church confronted this preacher. [The black elites] play a kind of notorious role handing over people to the police, informing on welfare recipients who may have too much flour or too much oil, or are getting aid from someplace else.

The most notorious example, of course, is the Tuskegee Institute. There was a first shootout in Camp Hill, Alabama, in 1931 between members of the Sharecroppers’ Union (SCU) and the police, and a second one in 1932. Two people died as a result — more than two, but two died in Tuskegee, Cliff James and Milo Bentley. They were members of the Sharecroppers’ Union.

James had been shot in the back, and was bleeding, and he walked seventeen miles to get to Tuskegee, because there’s no hospital for Negroes anywhere near there in Reeltown, Alabama. And Tuskegee has a hospital; it is allegedly a safe place. Same with Milo Bentley, but James is the main figure. He gets there, and they dress his wounds and immediately call the police, the Macon County Sheriff, who shows up.

They arrest him and Milo Bentley. They strip them naked, put them in a jail cell, give them no medical treatment at all. And they both die. James dies of infections from his wounds in a jail cell.

Thanks to the Communist Party press, thanks to the stories that circulate through the Southern Worker and the Daily Worker that people read all over the country, all these black people were writing letters to Robert Russa Moton, who was the president of Tuskegee, saying, “You are such a traitor. How could you as a Negro turn those boys in to their death? What’s wrong with you?” They got all this hate mail from African Americans around the country.

That proved to a lot of black working people who their friends were. If you thought Tuskegee was your friend, now you found out that the ILD [International Labor Defense] is your real friend, the Communist Party is your real friend, the working-class struggle is your real friend.

The International Labor Defense and Class-War Prisoners

Daniel Denvir

The CP’s reputation among black people everywhere, but in Alabama in particular, skyrocketed after the Communist-aligned organization the International Labor Defense moved to defend the Scottsboro Boys, who were nine young black men accused of raping two white women in 1931. What was the ILD? How did its involvement in this case make it so explosively high-profile and, in places like Alabama, such a threat to the status of the black elite?

Robin D. G. Kelley

The ILD was formed in 1925, to defend what they called “class-war prisoners.” It wasn’t founded specifically for African Americans, but the most famous case that many people know about is Sacco and Vanzetti, the two Italian anarchists who were accused of armed robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920. There was very little evidence, and they were executed in 1927.

That kind of put the ILD on the map. But then it also defended the trade union leaders Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, who were framed for the 1916 bombing in San Francisco. They’re looking at class-war prisoners as basically working-class activists, organizers, leftists who are being railroaded. Some are being deported.

But Scottsboro in some ways led to a shift. I should name the the defendants, because we always say “Scottsboro Nine,” but we don’t say the names. When [the ILD] defended Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Andy Wright, Roy Wright, and Eugene Williams — these cats were not trade unionists. They were not Communists. They were not anarchists. They were not organizers of anything.

They were just some young people riding the rails trying to find work. A lot of them were from Tennessee. They were passing through Paint Rock, Alabama, March 31, 1931. The only reason they were arrested was because they got into a fight with some white boys who were on the train.

The police stopped to try to figure out what happened with this fight. When the word got out that some black kids were fighting white kids, they discovered two white women riding the rail. And the white women felt compelled, in order to not be arrested for vagrancy or for prostitution, to say that they’d been raped by these black kids. That was what got them off, but it was also a lie.

The ILD did something that the NAACP would not have done. The NAACP was hemming and hawing, like, “We don’t know the character of these kids. Maybe they really did it.” And eventually it got involved in the case. But the ILD’s thing was that the Scottsboro Boys were class-war prisoners because they were oppressed by class and race, and the only reason that they will not be lynched or sent to the electric chair [would be] because of our intervention. And they decided to basically bring this trial to the court of public opinion by spreading the word all over the world: an injustice had occurred — they’re victims of systemic racism and class oppression.

As a result, they got people in the streets: thirteen thousand people in Cleveland, twenty thousand people in New York City, protests in Tokyo, South Africa, Paris, and Moscow all demanding freedom for the Scottsboro Boys. It changed the narrative, and it allowed them to go on tour. The mothers of the Scottsboro trial became heroes.

The Communist press countered all the racist and gender stereotypes that painted black men as violent and dangerous rapists and all the white women as pure and virtuous, and basically flipped that narrative on its head. And through the Scottsboro mothers, it showed black women as grieving mothers who might lose their children to the electric chair. It was so dramatic and powerful for reversing a lot of the racism.

That brought a lot of black people and others into the party, more so than fighting evictions or relief or economic arguments. It was that struggle for justice that did it.

One last thing is that Ruby Bates, one of the two [white women accusers], decided to recant her testimony, and she was embraced by the party. She went on speaking tours. That emboldened a lot of the working-class white women and other white women who were forced into testifying that they’d been raped. There was a case in 1934 where the ILD defended a man named Ed Johnson in Selma who was charged with raping a white woman, and the woman who filed the charge in the first place told the police, “I’m not going to be forced by the police to invent a story. It’s not true.” She said she “would not be like Victoria Price, but like Ruby Bates. She would tell the truth.”

Daniel Denvir

What’s fascinating and important there is the CP and the ILD’s understanding of the everyday persecution of poor and working-class black people by the police, the courts, and the entire criminal- justice system. They understood these young men as class-war prisoners because of that structural dynamic, even though those nine were not being repressed in direct response to labor or political work, but just going about their daily lives as poor black people. That’s a rather advanced analysis, given where we find ourselves today with the carceral state.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly, and I want to give credit also to the Communists on the ground who helped develop the analysis. Because before Scottsboro, local Communists were actually doing this work on the ground.

There’s the case of Tom Robertson in 1930, who was lynched over a dispute with an employer or a farmer. The Communists began to frame this, again, as race and class oppression. They saw the ILD’s role as to take up all these local cases of criminal injustice, of people being arrested or prosecuted or lynched.

Before that, in 1930, the American Negro Labor Congress, which was one of the Communist Party auxiliaries, held an anti-lynching conference in Chattanooga.

What ends up happening is that lynching, in the Communist worldview, becomes a class weapon. It’s weapon of racism; they don’t deny that part, but it’s also a class weapon. Once you see lynching as a class weapon, then you can see poor black people being corralled by the police for crimes they didn’t commit as class-war prisoners.

One of the tragedies is that you have another case that no one ever talks about where a twelve-year-old black girl named Murdis Dixon was raped by a white man. The local ILD took up that case. Hosea Hudson himself was like, “We need this guy to go to jail. We need to defend her.” But for some reason, the Communist Party press at the national scale did not cover it. The ILD didn’t get resources or support for it, because the Communist Party didn’t see twelve-year-old Murdis Dixon as a class-war prisoner. The only publication to carry an article about it was the Garveyite Negro World.

Daniel Denvir

An important piece of context here is that as soon as Communists started doing their early organizing, even among unemployed people in Birmingham, they were targeted immediately for advocating social equality. You write: 

Social equality was such a potent, all-encompassing, anti-communist slogan that the party’s demand for black self-determination, with its separatist implication, was surprisingly ignored in the Southern press or in the various forms of Southern anti-communist propaganda. The cry of social equality, with all its multiple, specifically sexual meanings and apparent ambiguities, was particularly effective because it symbolized the ultimate threat to white supremacy, class power, civilization, and Southern rulers’ most precious property: white women.

 This is not a term in general circulation anymore. What did “social equality” mean in Jim Crow Alabama and the Jim Crow South, and why did reactionaries emphasize that above all else in their anti-communism?

Robin D. G. Kelley

That’s an excellent question. The concept of social equality as a race leveler goes back to the antebellum period. In fact, we can see it not just in the South, but across the country, where, during Reconstruction, the biggest slogan against the Republican Party, against Abraham Lincoln for that matter, was that abolitionists want social equality. Republicans want social equality. Social equality equals miscegenation.

If you say you want equal wages, that’s one thing. If you say you want equal access to land, it’s nothing. But the domain of the social is the intimate domain. It’s definitely the domain of sex. So social equality is a euphemism for, “You’re going to marry a white woman,” for example.

It also meant the domain of housing. One of the things that’s important to realize is that the violence against school integration and home integration as neighborhood integration was much more intense, because it was considered social equality as opposed to economic equality or equality of wages. You can be a left-leaning person on economic matters, but not social matters.

That’s where social equality became the wedge to try to drive white workers out of even being interested in the Communist Party. And it worked.

Daniel Denvir

It was the weakness in prior forms of organizing in the South around the Populist movement, where, while there was interracial organizing for economic and political equality, social equality was not exactly on the table.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Right. In fact, social equality was a way to undermine all the political and economic struggles. One of the great stories where this becomes clear is Danville, Virginia, in 1886, when you had Republicans and the Readjusters, which was a biracial party that was really influenced by Republicans, in the state. You had black people elected to local office.

You had a kind of biracial coalition happening. And all they had to do was elect a black man to the school board in Danville, and all the people who were like, “This society is pretty good. Wages are not bad. We have political participation” — all they had to do was say, “This black man being elected to school board is an example of social equality.” Why? Because he’s going to have access to all the white teachers — because as a member of the school board or the superintendent of schools or whatever, he’s going to rape all the white women. That’s where the white people go crazy.

Claude McKay gave a presentation at the fourth congress of the Communist International, where he talks about the Negro question. In his speech, he said the biggest Achilles’ heel for white working people is sex, the fascination with black sexuality. This is the thing that always drives them.

Part of the story of chivalry is that — and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall writes beautifully about this — chivalry was a bludgeon, in the name of protecting white women, to keep white women in their place, and to keep black people in their place as well. So chivalry was the Faustian bargain that white women had to make to protect their wombs and limit their own sexual freedom, to be placed on a pedestal and protected from black rapists. There can never be any conception of consensual relationships between white women and black men, unless you’re dirt poor. That’s different. Because poor white women didn’t have chivalry, and we know this because there’s a whole history of poor white women legally marrying black men.

In some ways, that question of chivalry and the protection of white women become the foundation for some of the most important cases that the ILD gets involved in. Scottsboro’s one; the other one was the Willie Peterson case.

Willie Peterson was an Alabama black man falsely accused of shooting three white people and killing two white women, and he was accused of rape. He didn’t fit the description at all, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he fit the description of the black brute, the black rapist.

That was a case where, when the ILD took it up, it had to proceed very cautiously and carefully because it couldn’t give the impression of defending black rapists, despite the fact there’s no evidence of it. So the ILD took a very bold position and shot down the entire question of what chivalry and the defense of white women really means. And they didn’t say anything that was new. They said what Ida B. Wells and others had been saying since the nineteenth century. But this is one of the land mines that the party had to navigate, this question of race and sex.

Organizing the Unemployed

Daniel Denvir

Let’s move on to the CP’s organizing campaigns in Alabama, starting with its work among unemployed people. Why did the CP start with unemployed people? Who were they organizing? What were they organizing people to fight for? And how did they use those fights to begin to build out cadre and mass organization?

Robin D. G. Kelley

The party’s unemployed campaign, which took the form of the formation of unemployed councils, was a national campaign. It was organizing the unemployed everywhere. This is deep into the first wave of the Great Depression.

You got the stock market crash of 1929. The years 1930, ’31, ’32 were just high unemployment. And if you can’t get into a plant, then those are the folks who are most likely to be organized. They were demanding immediate cash relief; they weren’t necessarily pushing for a kind of labor regime. If the federal government could not produce jobs, they wanted cash relief. The CP organized a massive march to Washington DC of unemployed people.

Alabama is no different from any other state. It was the first to be organized, the first available. That period from 1930 to ’32 was all before the New Deal, by the way. This is important because you don’t have New Deal relief agencies there, you don’t have work relief. What you do have is city relief, community chest, private relief, some state relief — but no significant, robust federal relief.

Organizing the unemployed wasn’t easy because of mobility. The Scottsboro Boys are examples of the kind of mobility where people go from state to state looking for work. If you want a cadre to stay in one place, then the unemployed are not always your best bet.

But initially, they made a strong foundation. Some of the early demonstrations were led by people like Joe Burton, a nineteen-year-old African American Young Communist League leader — they were marching to city hall in Birmingham demanding relief and bringing white unemployed people with them as well. Men, women, and children would show up. At one point, I think 1932, Birmingham had the largest Communist-led demonstration in its history — five to seven thousand people showed up, an interracial group, demanding relief.

Daniel Denvir

It’s a good model for organizers to not only identify what their ideal struggle is, but the struggle of what makes the most sense to where people are at, at any given moment.

Robin D. G. Kelley

That is true. Even if you believe that industrial workers at a plant have the most power, if you have jobless people in the streets. . . people have to fight the battles where they are. For a lot of jobless people, it meant not being evicted from your house or your rental property. It meant having your electricity cut off or your water cut off and trying to figure out how to get it back.

What the party did was not simply to organize rallies of jobless people, but to attend to their needs. For example, the cases of people in Harlem and Chicago being evicted, and your furniture is on the street and the cops are there overseeing the eviction, and the Communists show up and dramatically put the furniture back in, and then the cops put the furniture back out. . . . Those kinds of dramatic scenes are what we see.

But in Alabama, where being a communist was a dangerous thing, they would do these amazing actions. If someone’s electricity was cut off, the Communists would show up with these heavy-gauge copper wires as jumper cables, and they would attach the public electricity line to the home and get their electricity working again. They would figure out how to turn on water mains that had been turned off.

When working people were renting, and they were about to be evicted, the Communist Party would send a delegation to the owner of the house — and it could be a black owner, it didn’t have to be a white owner — and they would say, “You have a choice. You can evict this family, and I guarantee you by tomorrow you will not have a house. Because people need firewood and your house looks really good. It’s a wooden house; it has a lot of really good burning materials. Or you could keep them there, pay them a dollar a week or whatever to take care of your property, and you’ll have a house. The choice is yours.” That kept people in. That’s very different from the drama of fighting the police in the streets and getting recruits that way.

Daniel Denvir

They also made similar things clear to black people in the neighborhood who they thought were snitching to the relief administrators about people’s hidden assets.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Yes, exactly. In those days, they would police people who received public welfare. If you had too much flour, or if you had extra cash, or if you had nice furniture, they would cut you off. They would pay what they called “stool pigeons” — known today as snitches — who would inform on their neighbors, and they would get a little bit of extra relief — cheese, flour, meat, oil, whatever.

The party would write out these penny postcards; if they know someone snitching, they would write dozens of them saying, “The workers are watching you. We know what you did at Ms Collum’s house. You better watch out.” Same thing with social workers. Some of the black social workers’ jobs were to deny people relief. [The party] would send penny postcards anonymously: “The workers are watching you.” Could you imagine? You get home and you have twenty-five or thirty postcards saying, “The workers are watching you.” You’d be scared to death!

All these things are examples of mutual aid. When firemen — people who stoke the fires of trains — were passing through Birmingham, they would kick big chunks of coal off the train for people to pick up, to use for fuel. They would accidentally knock a whole bunch of coal off, and people would just pick it up. That’s mutual aid. Turning people’s water mains on — that’s mutual aid.

It’s like, “We’re going to help each other out to make sure we survive.” It wasn’t just a tactic of gaining recruits. It was what Communists are supposed to do. Because these Communists were driven by the Bible; they were driven by being good neighbors, caring for other people in the midst of the Depression, and crossing the color line, which was required to do so.

Daniel Denvir

You mentioned the Bible and Southern black Christianity was enormously influential among black Alabama Communists. Important black Communist leaders like Hosea Hudson were active on the local gospel quartet circuit.

But as you also mentioned earlier, black ministers were part of a black elite that was staunchly anti-communist. You had ministers preaching against communism, even as black Communist parishioners sat in the pews. But meanwhile, the Communist Party, in official terms, did not look very kindly on religion of any sort at all. How did that all shake out on the ground?

Robin D. G. Kelley

The spatial segregation allowed for self-development of a black Communist Party in alliance with whites. The [national party] couldn’t tell people what to do, so [the local party] developed on its own. And of course, once the party learned the power of biblical injunctions, it didn’t disagree.

Alabama may not be that exceptional compared to other parts of the United States in terms of the presence of devoutly religious members of the party. I think it was everywhere. No one was disciplined for starting meetings with a prayer. It was very much part of the culture, part of the African American culture, and I would guess part of white working-class culture as well.

There were ministers who were close to the party, or at least close to labor. There were some critical figures among the radical clergy in Alabama who opened their churches up for the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, for example, for their meetings. Later, after the war, some more progressive ministers played a role in supporting the Southern Negro Youth Congress [SNYC], for example.

My guess is that the majority of black clergy in Alabama probably was either indifferent, afraid, or sympathetic to what the party was doing. Those who exercised more power often were those who were empowered by corporate interests, empowered by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company and local police. But they were not the majority.

Organizing the Sharecroppers

Daniel Denvir

Let’s turn to the CP’s first big push into the countryside, which was to organize sharecroppers across the Black Belt. You write:

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.

What did the Black Belt economy, society, and politics — and black people’s place within it — look like when Communists arrived amid this period of the early Great Depression and the early Great Migration?

Robin D. G. Kelley

The Depression hit the rural South almost immediately after World War I. People think of the stock market crash as the change, but the cotton market collapsed. It collapsed for a variety of different reasons, some of it having to do with the global economy and the fact that after the war, the Southern cotton economy is competing with the global market. That has a huge impact. The boll weevil infestation has a huge impact.

Ralph Gray, who was one of the first lead organizers of the Sharecroppers’ Union, is one of those figures who got hit with the boll weevil — things were really rough. He left Alabama, he sharecropped in Oklahoma; he ended up, I think, in New Mexico, someplace in the West. He ends up coming back and sharecropping again and starts to accumulate a little money to buy land. This kind of constant movement was par for the course. The other factor is that there was nothing going on in terms of improved conditions. Every year was like starvation.

The way sharecropping worked was that you’re always in debt. You grow on your acreage. You chop the cotton. You cultivate it. You harvest it. You take it to the gin, and they gin it and bale it. You’re paying all these expenses, and in the end, you settle accounts with the landlord. So you end up with nothing, and have to beg for furnishings or food.

This is a key demand that led to the growth of the Sharecroppers’ Union in the first place. That is, during the winter months, you don’t have anything and you have to borrow or beg to get it. It was a demand saying, “We need a fairer system, and we want furnishings.”

And they were asking for higher wages to pick cotton. They were paid thirty cents per one hundred pounds of cotton. Most people, even strong people, can’t pick more than two hundred pounds a day, which means you’re basically getting sixty cents a day. That meant that people often had to travel to other places to pick cotton when the crop was coming in a little later, just to make ends meet.

That was the context for the Sharecroppers’ Union organizing initially. It wanted to get white workers and tenant farmers, but at first it could not.

The sharecroppers organized themselves with the help, specifically, of a black woman named Estelle Milner, a schoolteacher. She was from Tallapoosa County, in the Piedmont region, just north of the Black Belt; it’s sort of part of that.

Tallapoosa had a cotton economy, and because she was from there, she knew people. She had family there. Milner was the one who started distributing the Southern Worker and pamphlets and getting people organized. When they began to see that, sharecroppers began to write the Southern Worker letters, thanks to her. They began organizing around extending furnishings, food, raising wages for cotton picking, and that sort of thing. It took a long time. When they ended up in a shootout with police, Milner was one of those who was beaten badly and had broken vertebrae.

Women were really central. Ralph Gray was killed in this kind of police raid, and his body was riddled with bullets. His corpse was thrown under the county courthouse steps in Dadeville. There was very violent repression. After that, it was the daughter of Ralph Gray, Eula Gray, who was nineteen years old, who kept the union together.

One thing that changes, though, is the New Deal and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. It was basically one of many attempts to save capitalism. Rather than figure out a way to take the harvest or maybe redirect the harvest to grow food, what they did was pay farmers to destroy crops, to let the land lie fallow, and to kill pigs — to do whatever they could to keep the price of commodities up at the expense of people starving.

Long story short, landlords got these checks that were supposed to be double endorsed. They were supposed to cash the check and then distribute the proceeds, related to acreage, to the sharecroppers.

Daniel Denvir

Seems like a foolproof system in the Jim Crow South. What could go wrong?

Robin D. G. Kelley

What could go wrong? With the Agriculture Adjustment Act, part of what happened was that the landlords kept the money and used the money to buy mechanical cotton pickers.

Daniel Denvir

All while evicting the tenants.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. So you transformed this potential small-land-holding group into landless wage laborers. The potential for land is now just a pipe dream, and they end up being evicted. This happens especially after 1935, because the workers wage a cotton-picker strike that is incredibly successful in terms of raising wages. But then it’s followed by evictions.

Daniel Denvir

How did they manage to organize in a climate of such brutally violent terrorism? You write that the Sharecroppers’ Union scored its first big victory with the 1934 cotton-picker strike. That was just three years after its founding. Then they had another victory, the cotton chopper strike of ’35.

But you write that in the ’35 strike, the SCU won in counties where it was strong. But in other counties, it was just brutally and thoroughly repressed. What sort and scale of repression did the Sharecroppers’ Union confront? Why were they better able to weather it in some places than others?

Robin D. G. Kelley

I can say a couple of things. Organization is always a factor. Armed self-defense is a factor. In places where people were organized and armed, they were able to defend themselves. Or at least the landlords knew that you can’t just send a local sheriff in and get out alive.

The other factor, I think, has to do with the strength of the landlords’ relationship to the economy, to the middleman. I don’t write about this, but there were some plantations where a landlord was quick to agree to a wage increase, even without party influence. Part of it was that they thought that they could actually liquidate the party through cooperation.

There was also just sheer courage on the part of organizers. And this is a funny story that I love to tell. One of the people I interviewed was a man named Lemon Johnson. Johnson became a Communist, and he was the secretary of the Hope Hull local of the Sharecroppers’ Union. I was in his shack, and I’m sitting on his bed, and he has one chair. I asked him, “How did you all win that cotton-chopper strike?”

He said, “Let me show you how we did it.” He takes out a box of shotgun shells and puts it on the bed, and then he takes out a copy of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? and puts it next to the shotgun shells. And he says, “Right there. Theory and practice. Theory and practice.”

Then, he proceeds to tell me this amazing apocryphal story. They all knew, that if anything were to go wrong, if the planter class and the police were to come down and start massacring black people, he knew that [Joseph] Stalin would send ships across the Atlantic, they would dock in Mobile, and send troops in groups of men who would defend them, who would start to kill landlords.

We think of internationalism as kind of a dream. For them, it was so real. It was like, they could fight because they knew they had the world’s proletariat behind them. It’s funny because the rebellions in the 1960s, they said, “There are Cubans behind it, there are Russians behind it, there are Communists behind it.” There are always some Communists behind it. But for a lot of African Americans in the party or close to it, that works! It’s like, “There are Cubans behind us? They are Russians?”

Daniel Denvir

Thank God the Cubans are here.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Yeah! “We’re ready to fight now.” Like, “I know I’m not alone.” That’s where I set upon this idea, which became clear in my interviews, of Reconstruction redux — that the Communist Party represented the new Yankees. Because part of the image or the memory of Reconstruction wasn’t just that it was an experiment in democracy and in freedom, but it was an experiment in democracy and freedom that was only possible because of the Yankees.

Daniel Denvir

That was a popular memory that the CP, probably unbeknownst to it, was tapping into.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. It didn’t have a clue. The white mainstream conservative press tapped into it too. Because they’re the ones saying, “These are Yankees, Communist Yankees, Yankee Reds,” all this stuff.

Imagine: you have black people saying, “Yankee Reds here in Alabama? I’ve got to find one! Where are they?” And they start to ask questions. Even when I was interviewing people in the 1980s for the book, they would tell stories about the civil rights movement, where there was something about the white people who came from the outside, who didn’t talk like neighbors — they were the ones that they automatically trusted. There’s something about, “You’re like the Yankees.” The same thing happened in the 1960s, this kind of recognition that you’re a friend.

Daniel Denvir

Because you’re a white person without a Southern accent.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. Of course, people learned that many of them actually worked for the FBI, but that’s another story.

Daniel Denvir

The rural repression of sharecroppers was probably the most brutal thing in your book, but there’s so much brutal repression. There are police working with lynch mobs all over the place; police torture; red squad raids in Birmingham seizing radical literature and arresting people; company goon squads meting out beatings and torture; the white legion; the KKK [Ku Klux Klan].

What was this web of repression that existed in Alabama? How did it exercise these various forms of terror against black people and Communists across the state? The repression you described was so brutal and widespread, it makes me wonder does that level of repression force us to take a second look at classic questions like why the United States has never had socialism or a strong socialist party?

Robin D. G. Kelley

The repression was brutal in part because it did not rely entirely on the state. You had a very strong repressive state apparatus and police departments and local county sheriffs. But a lot of times, the police depended on mob violence. They were incredibly careful sometimes about not taking responsibility. They would let people out of jail, or they would withdraw, so that mobs that they worked with could do the dirty work.

People like Joseph Gelders [were targeted]. [He was from] a prominent Jewish family and an intellectual, someone who was quite public in terms of his work around civil rights and anti-labor repression. He was kidnapped and beaten and left outside the city limits. It was just common stuff. The big corporations, TCI in particular, had their own private police, and they did their dirty work.

To me, this shows the deep fear of an interracial or black working-class response. Because the party was winning. It was winning adherents. It was winning small battles. The party was blamed for the strike waves of 1934, despite the fact that a lot of Communists didn’t play a major role in it. They played roles in very particular places, but they were the ones blamed.

[Companies and the state] used every single force at their disposal to crush the Communists, because they knew they couldn’t win by persuasion. The genie had been taken out of the bottle. They also had other ways of repressing: all these hearings — the Fish Committee hearing in 1930, they had the Dies Committee hearings in 1938. You also had all these different kinds of investigations, the passage of the criminal anarchy ordinance in Bessemer and elsewhere. All of this was meant to tamp down the Communist threat.

But what’s amazing to me is I’ve never found any evidence of someone being beaten by the police badly and saying, “I quit.” Saul Davis is one: beaten, skull-fractured, comes back to work. Estelle Milner, Helen Longs. Helen Longs was a Communist black woman — the description of her beating is no different from what Fannie Lou Hamer experienced thirty years later. And yet she didn’t quit. They keep coming back and coming back.

[The repression] may help explain why there’s no communism in the United States. Although I would say that the repression kept [the Communists] at bay to a certain degree, but it didn’t succeed fully. Because if it had succeeded, there would be no presence, and they continued throughout World War II. It wasn’t until the Cold War where you have a national repressive apparatus, with Taft–Hartley and the Red Scare, that a lot of the Communists actually went underground and left the South. They didn’t all leave; a lot of them ended up in the civil rights movement.

But it’s amazing how [despite] all that repression that we see in the early ’30s and in the rural areas, by the second half of the 1930s, the Popular Front, the party’s bigger than it had been, and it continues to grow.

So I think [the repression] is a factor. I think the reason we don’t have a robust Communist Party has to do not with hard power but soft power. The soft power is more effective in convincing people. For example, during the Popular Front, the party got involved in organizing the CIO. And the CIO was pretty successful. It wasn’t Communist, but those Communists in the rank and file succeeded in doing their work building an effective organization, and many of them saw no need for being in a party anymore. People left more often over that than being beaten.

It showed that you can have some kind of extension of the social democratic promise through these other organizations, and the party was not necessary. Also, the party itself abandoned the underground period of working-class organization and embraced the Popular Front for the purposes of building an alliance with liberals, many of whom would not even be sympathetic to communism anyway.

Alabama Communists and the Popular Front

Daniel Denvir

You write, in a recent foreword to the book, that your “suggestion that the Popular Front led to the party’s demise in Alabama is still perhaps the book’s most controversial argument.” What was the Popular Front, and how did it change how the party operated in Alabama? Why, as you argue, was it a significant factor leading to the party’s demise?

Robin D. G. Kelley

The shift to the Popular Front was an international shift in Communist policy. In a nutshell, it was an attempt to resist fascism by creating the broadest front possible with labor, with liberals, including with socialists. [The Communists had] a policy that was anti–Socialist Party. And then they said, “We’re just going to take everyone.” It came from Stalin.

In Alabama, the party underwent a shake-up. It got new leadership, who was supposed to represent the new Popular Front strategy. Rob Hall was sent to Alabama to basically run the party. The way the Popular Front was conceived across the United States was to build alliances with liberals, with intellectuals, with artists, to come above ground in order to say, “We’re harmless, but most important, we’re going to get the broadest support to fight fascism.”

The problem with Alabama is that you had another set of liberals who were deeply anti-communist and segregationist. That’s the issue. You’ve just risked all these people’s lives for the past six years fighting a deeply anti-racist social justice movement that was class-based, that focused on the working class, that waged war on elites, black elites and others. . . to suddenly turn around and say, “All these racist liberals, we’re going to try to embrace them and recruit them” — it wasn’t a winning strategy if the point was to build a working-class movement.

That’s when black working people began to drift away from the party. Because they saw no need for it. If you’re organizing the CIO and the CIO becomes a vehicle to do working-class organizing — or the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers or the Steelworkers [union], all part of the CIO at the time — then you don’t need the Communist Party.

That’s one side of the story; it’s not the whole story. But the numbers and the focus on the black working class start to dwindle. That’s right around the time when black workers are working in Works Progress Administration projects; the Communists were trying to organize them. It was the most incongruous campaign, because they’re not focused on workers. Then, they shift again in 1937 to the Democratic Front, which is more of a liberal orientation. They lose their black base, but not all of them.

What changes things, though, was when the Southern Negro Youth Congress is formed in 1937, and they move the headquarters to Birmingham in 1939. And in many ways, the timing is really important because the Southern Negro Youth Congress is a new generation of black radicals.

Daniel Denvir

It’s almost a proto–New Left. The same with the League of Young Southerners, who are the kind of white counterpart.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Right. It’s smaller, but significant. People like Joe Gelders’s daughter, Marge Gelders, and Laurent Frantz. This is a number of people who come together, and they’re allied with the Southern Negro Youth Congress. They’re kind of like precursors to the civil rights movement, except that their orientation is still focused on the working class.

The Southern Negro Youth Congress fought things like segregation in public accommodations and transportation. They were working with sharecroppers, doing art projects, cultural projects with youth, fighting for the right to vote, expanding democracy. And then they were also organizing tobacco workers in Virginia. So they were a pretty radical force.

The timing is interesting, because they get a hold in Birmingham. Their leaders are amazingly dynamic folks, many of whom are Communists, like James Jackson, Esther Cooper Jackson, Dorothy Burnham, Ed Strong, Augusta Jackson, and Louis Burnham. They’re couples, and they’re brave and courageous. They end up doing this work at the very moment when you have the Nazi-Soviet pact.

Daniel Denvir

It’s disastrous for American Communists in a lot of obvious ways, but it has this kind of silver lining in Alabama.

Robin D. G. Kelley

What happens is the Popular Front falls apart around this. For the US Communist Party, it was a devastating policy, because it was a kind of reversal of fortune. It was like, “Fighting fascism is not going to be our main thing.” But in Alabama, it played out as, now we don’t have to bend over backward — or bend over forward, depending on how you think about it — to build support.

Daniel Denvir

To kiss wealthy white liberals’ asses, who are not even positively responding to said ass-kissing.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. It also led to power struggles within those organizations that had been set up to bring liberals in. The Southern Conference for Human Welfare was radicalized as a result. There were no holds barred in either the League of Young Southerners or the Southern Negro Youth Congress. There was a publication called the Southern Almanac that became a de facto Communist Party publication. Many amazing radicals — white radicals especially, like Don West — were writing for the Southern Almanac.

Then we get into World War II. In 1941, the war starts, and then there’s a flip again, where the party’s focus is on anti-fascism. By then, the Southern Negro Youth Congress has become the dominant force fighting for civil rights in World War II. It builds new alliances with folks on the left of the NAACP orbit, like, for example, John LaFleur from Mobile, quite a militant himself.

They start to build power until 1948, and in 1948, they hold the SNYC meeting there in Mobile. It ends up being the last one, because that’s when Bull Connor really makes a name for himself, along with others. They repress that meeting. They drive people out of the city. They crush what was left of the Communist Party, which then is resurrected again in the form of individuals in labor and civil rights organizations in the state.

Daniel Denvir

Labor organizing was a big part of what Communists were doing in Birmingham. You write that initially the CP failed because their dual-union strategy didn’t make sense, because outside of some exceptions in the steel industry, there were no “competing labor organizations.” But that changed after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.

What was the CP’s dual-union strategy, and why did it become more successful as the New Deal labor regime took off? More generally, how and around what issues did Communists mobilize workers? How did they mobilize workers in these workplaces where racial segregation was a tool used with great effect by the boss to divide and conquer workers?

Robin D. G. Kelley

The Trade Union Unity League was formed as an umbrella organization for this dual-unionism strategy. Dual unionism goes back to William Z. Foster, who was a syndicalist more than a Communist initially. The idea was that they needed militant industrial unions. They wanted to draw workers away from the established American Federation of Labor unions — this is all before the CIO exists — draw away through militancy or at least pressure the mainstream unions to become more militant.

If you can’t draw workers away, at least pressure the unions. That was part of the strategy. But it only works in places where you have an established union presence. Like waterfront workers, for example — the National Maritime Union was a good example of a successful strategy in the South. So in some cases, they were the first unions in certain industries.

But the three big industries were coal and iron-ore mining, steel, and textiles. In textiles, they never really made any headway.

Daniel Denvir

Because it was all white.

Robin D. G. Kelley

It was all white. Despite the fact that one of the best labor organizers the party ever had in the South was a white man named Clyde Johnson. Despite the fact that he was a white organizer, he could only organize black workers. I mean, he could not win over most of the white workers because they were captured.

The place that had the most support as a result of the New Deal, the National Industrial Recovery Act, were industries like steel and coal. That’s where the party’s dual-union strategy began to have some impact. Because one of the things that William Mitch of the Steelworkers accepted was the wage differentials imposed by the New Deal, which is to say that Southern workers made less than Northern workers. So it didn’t take that much effort on the part of Communists in the opposition — now they’re inside the union — to say, “We need to equalize that. Just because Southern Democrats tell us we should be paid less, we’re still starving here.”

That generated some support and kind of pushed the union in new directions. The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, which was probably the most left of the unions in Alabama, was formed in 1933. Its roots go way back to the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW [International Workers of the World]. But the Communists played probably the strongest role in that union, and they were able to build support that way.

But it was never easy. Even during the strike wave of 1934, when it seemed like you had a lot of momentum, organizing was hard for Communists. If anything, the role that the Communists played was to bring to the fore questions of racial justice, issues of the franchise, and issues of shop-floor control.

One other thing the Wagner Act did was allow for National Labor Relations Board elections for unions. But competing company unions that also had the right to run elections. So part of what the party was able to do was to convince people not to go with the company unions. A lot of this agitprop work was very important.

It just so happens that black Communists also made the best labor organizers. Because they knew the landscape, they were good organizers. Ebb Cox is a legend in Alabama trade union organizing, but he started out as a Communist.

Daniel Denvir

The next big change is the arrival of the CIO, which offers Communists a new opportunity to participate and lead more progressive unions. But the flip side of that, you write, is that “Communist labor organizers essentially subordinated themselves to the CIO during the Popular Front era.”

What did that mean for black Communist workers and for the labor movement in general? What did that subordination ultimately mean when the CIO was seized by the anti-communist reaction that took hold in the late 1930s, this moment of the “little red scare”?

Robin D. G. Kelley

Their decision to subordinate themselves to CIO leadership was not a directive. It didn’t come from the top of the party. This was strategic. I think what they realized is that they were more concerned about the CIO winning than they were about trying to push the CIO left. The Communists felt like the very existence of an industrial union movement was itself left enough. So a lot of folks became very professional organizers.

Most important, in this setting, they did not announce their Communist bona fides or affiliations. Some people knew. But keep in mind, [CIO president] John L. Lewis was deeply anti-communist. He was willing to bring Communists on because he knew they were the best organizers. But he also was like, “We don’t want their influence. We want their skills.” In Alabama, I think the Communists who came into the CIO understood that.

So they kept a low profile while doing the work of organizing. But to their credit, they fought for things that you don’t think unions usually fight for. The Right to Vote Clubs were products of the CIO. They existed before that, but the CIO captured them. They talked about pushing for voter registration for black and white voters; they saw the CIO as a possible political force.

The Communists become absorbed into the CIO. The Mine Mill was different in that they didn’t care about Communists. They invited Communists, they embraced them. You could be an open Communist. In 1949, after Taft–Hartley — one of the provisions of Taft–Hartley is that you had to sign an affidavit saying that there are no Communists in your organization, that you’re not a Communist. Part of the split was [due to the fact that] the CIO agreed to that. Some of the unions were like, “We’re not going to do it.” And CIO leadership said, “You know what, if you don’t do it, we’ll kick you out.”

That wasn’t necessary. Taft–Hartley didn’t demand that. What Taft–Hartley demanded was that you sign an affidavit. The penalty for not signing was you don’t have access to National Labor Relations Board elections. You can’t go through the process. They would deny you that right. So, the entire CIO could have said, “Absolutely not. We boycott.” They could have had a general strike.

After World War II, that’s sort of what happened. What we see in 1945, ’46 was one of the biggest strike waves in US history before the 1970s. Some of those strike waves were against union leadership. There were wildcat strikes, similar to the wildcat strikes that took place during the war, which were often over race.

Those set the stage, possibly, for resisting Cold War labor policies, but leadership at CIO ultimately embraced them. And that led to the expulsion of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers union, along with the Electrical Workers (UE) and Maritime Workers, the Food and Tobacco Workers — these were the left unions. These were the ones that were kicked out.

Daniel Denvir

The unions that got expelled then got raided and destroyed, essentially. The UE still exists and is led by amazing progressive people, but its footprint is a small fraction of their size once upon a time.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Right. They got raided, and they also experienced the repressive force of the state. They lost members, they lost leaders, people were jailed, and it was devastating. But in Alabama, one of the main leaders of Mine Mill was an African American named Asbury Howard, who ended up playing a critical role in civil rights and black politics in Alabama.

One thing I write about is the treacherous role that the NAACP played in undermining Mine Mill. Herbert Hill, who later became a major scholar of US labor, went down to Alabama on behalf of the NAACP and did his own investigation. He promoted the expulsion of Mine Mill and called out Communists who were in the organization and basically red-baited them.

In the NAACP’s ongoing efforts to undermine any kind of left presence, or Communist presence at least, Herbert Hill becomes known as a heroic liberal figure — one of those who undercut the union. So it wasn’t just federal repression. It was a repression coming from all different directions, because of the overwhelming culture of anti-communism.

You’ve got to imagine what it meant for so many people who joined the party in 1930, ’31, or ’32 to have gone through about twenty years risking their lives, getting beaten, jailed, all that, and suddenly the whole thing is crushed. It kind of disappears and is remade.

Hosea Hudson leaves Alabama: he ends up living in New Jersey up in the North. A lot of folks end up having to flee. The Jacksons. . . Louis Burnham dies in 1957. But they all have to leave Alabama after all that work.

It’s almost like starting from scratch with the civil rights movement. But when [the Left] does reemerge, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for example, comes to Alabama, whose homes do they stay in in the Black Belt? The homes of former Sharecroppers’ Union leaders.

Daniel Denvir

We sketched out the trajectory of the CP and of the CIO and Communists within the CIO. What about the decline of the Sharecroppers’ Union?

You write that it was complex. You had the CP central committee turning away from rural organizing during the Popular Front; you also cite the rise of the socialist-led Southern Tenant Farmers Union and a radicalizing National Farmers’ Union, with its Alabama chapter, the Alabama Farmers’ Union, which had locals in the northern upcountry among poor white farmers. But at the end of the day, I think, you argue that none of these factors contended with enormous changes in the cotton industry that were taking place, pushing sharecroppers off the land and into the Great Migration.

Robin D. G. Kelley

That led to the demise. When the CIO started to organize rural workers through the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), they formed a chapter to take over the Sharecroppers’ Union’s jurisdiction. They didn’t even know how to organize sharecroppers. They only knew how to organize wage laborers.

The focus now is on wage workers who don’t want to be wage workers picking cotton when the industry is transforming. You have these huge mechanical cotton pickers and hardly any labor. The labor force is disappearing. The former Sharecroppers’ Union is moving west to Louisiana.

There’s some organizing taking place. But again, it’s the Great Migration. It’s the collapse of the cotton industry. There’s also the takeover by the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, which also gets folded into UCAPAWA. It sort of fades away.

What doesn’t fade away, though, are those people who experience union organizing. They end up doing things like running for office. Charles Smith becomes a local political leader, an elected official, in Montgomery County. Some members of the Deacons for Defense [and Justice] in Louisiana came out of the Louisiana Farmers’ Union. So there’s a legacy, but it doesn’t take place in the rural areas in the same place.

You see the continuation of that legacy. But to me, the story someone else needs to follow up on is: What happened to those ten thousand or fifteen thousand people? If many migrated north, what did they bring with them, what memories? What political organizing work did they do? Did they give up? Or did they continue in this kind of struggle?

Daniel Denvir

You write, “In our current moment, anti-capitalism and struggles against state violence and incarceration tend to be separate movements. For Communists and their allies, especially in the Deep South, they were inextricably bound together. The African Americans who made up the Alabama radical movement experienced and opposed race and class oppression as a totality.”

How did class struggle and anti-racist struggle become separated from one another — and often held out as somehow contradictory political projects? Do you see steps being taken today to recombine them, to fight this totality of oppression in the way Alabama Communists once did?

Robin D. G. Kelley

On the question of how it happened: I went to sleep one night and woke up, and all of a sudden, I don’t even recognize some of these tendencies. It happened so fast. One of the things I’ve been arguing for years is that we don’t even do a good job of understanding the class dimensions and class critique coming out of what’s called the civil rights movement. SNCC had a class critique — they actually had an anti-capitalist position.

There’s so much evidence for it, but we don’t look at that. We tell the story of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as if it ends in Atlantic City in 1964. But when you look at their platform in 1968, it is deeply anti-capitalist, deeply anti–US empire, and deeply struggling around the question of reproductive labor and compensation for that.

In every movement I’ve been a part of — and I was a member of the Communist Workers’ Party, I’ve been a part of lots of different movements — even if there was a debate about the relative weight of race or class — which is, I think, is a useless debate, too — there was no question that these things operate and function together and that they’re fought together. In the 1960s and ’70s, the socialist feminists also talked about anti-racism being fundamental in class politics, as well as fighting patriarchy — that these things are together. The Combahee River Collective — they were socialists. They made it clear that capitalism is not going to save anybody.

When I wrote [the new foreword to Hammer and Hoe], it was a critical moment around 2014 and 2015, when you begin to see in certain places, like Ferguson for example, where there was a kind of race and class critique on the ground. Because they’re fighting against the extractive processes of state repression, taking money from poor black people to pay for government, and there was an understanding of that.

But a particular kind of “Afro-pessimist” position slowly started to become popular. I say “particular kind” because there are many different manifestations of it. It didn’t say that class doesn’t matter, but that anti-blackness is the way that the modern world was structured. With it comes a similar position on the part of the black elite as the black poor and working class — that they occupy a similar position within the structure of anti-blackness, and therefore they’re all basically slaves, and that all white people, irrespective of their class, somehow are all anti-black and therefore participate in reproduction of the system.

That’s not to say that there’s not working-class anti-blackness. But it’s to say that even working-class anti-blackness is part of a class politics, [and there needs to be] a class analysis of what is required to be able to reproduce the class as a subordinate, landless, impoverished, immiserated class without the means of production.

So our analysis has to be better. I think there’s a struggle right now over this. The flip side is there’s an unfair critique of anti–state violence, of anti–police brutality struggles, as if they’re not class struggles. Part of what I said about Ferguson is that it is very much a class struggle against racism.

Daniel Denvir

In the same way the Communist Party saw the Scottsboro Boys as class-war prisoners.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Exactly. What ends up happening is that the critique of struggles against racism often gets dismissed as race reductionism — that is, the only way we understand the reproduction of inequality and repression and violence and oppression is through racism. And that is a position that some people take. There’s a whole new body of work on implicit bias, and how we’ve got to deal with racism. Racism becomes like personal work.

Daniel Denvir

Do the work. It’s all about psychotherapy for white people.

Robin D. G. Kelley

Yeah, it is. It is therapeutic. Even the way that people experience racism is on the same terms — that is to say that they don’t feel seen, that they feel violated, that this is a kind of violence.

Imagine if you thought that way, and you’re in a meeting trying to figure out how to build a class struggle, and someone says to you, “Comrade n-word.” That’s in the book. And then all these comments like, “Comrade, you can’t use that word here.” But they still stay together.

In this circumstance, that would be trauma. That moment of trauma is like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to not only expel you, but punish you, and then figure out how to revive this person who had to hear the n-word.” Right? Those conditions make it impossible to transcend the ideological chains that are holding back our capacity to build a movement.

So, I’m very heartened by some of the more recent struggles where people are seeing themselves as abolitionists, but also thinking about workers at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, and thinking about steelworkers, and thinking about internationalism, and thinking about labor and class and the carceral state and feminism and patriarchal violence and all that stuff together. I see that more and more.

It’s like West Side Story: race reductionist versus the class reductionist, and who’s got the sharper knives? Of course, no one’s claiming the mantle — they’re just using it to blame each other.

I think that we’re now at a point where we’re moving beyond that, hopefully. It’s not just Alabama, but the Communist heritage in much of the United States and elsewhere is not class reductionism at all. It doesn’t mean they didn’t make errors, but it does mean that they understood how these things were connected. We may be more sophisticated now, but we have to be able to see how these things are connected.