Black radical leadership in Depression-era Alabama

Share with your friends


In the 25th anniversary reissue of his book Hammer and Hoe, Robin D.G. Kelley tells the absorbing story of the courage and perseverance of Black communists working underground in the dangerous Depression-era South.

Kelley, an esteemed Black author and educator, thoroughly documents the role of the Alabama Communist Party (CP) in this period. By far, most of its members were Black, and many were semiliterate, religious laborers and sharecroppers unfamiliar with the Marxist political tradition. They forged a resilient movement of thousands in a rabidly racist, anti-radical world.

History revealed. Most people know little or nothing about this activism because mainstream history, and even movement history, excludes the role of Marxists of color.

But CP-led groups organized a strike of 5,000 tobacco workers, winning raises of 20 to 33 percent. They rallied around the defendants in the infamous Scottsboro case, which eventually set legal precedents against all-white juries. Tenant farmers, sharecroppers and industrial workers outwitted Jim Crow and braved arrest, kidnapping, and lynching by the combined police state and Ku Klux Klan.

Black women were crucial to building the CP and unions while they fought sexism in and out of the party.

The activities of these brave communists show how fighting malignant circumstances with ideology and structure can build a long-term movement. The roots of the civil rights movement, Kelley states, were established by these hardheaded community leaders.

Kelley asked Lemon Johnson, a leader of the CP-led Share Cropper’s Union of the time, how they had won some of their demands. In reply, Johnson “pulled out a dog-eared copy of V.I. Lenin’s What Is to Be Done and a box of shotgun shells” and said “Theory and practice.”

As a side note, early leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution like Lenin and Leon Trotsky scorned how the U.S. Left ignored the plight of Blacks. Meeting with U.S. communists, Lenin demanded that they shake off their own prejudices and organize together with Blacks to champion African American causes among whites and others. (See James P. Cannon’s The First Ten Years of American Communism.)

The problems of Stalinism. In contrast, Kelley writes that Joseph Stalin’s policy that the Black Belt constituted a nation, and that residents should seek national self-determination, did not reflect the community’s needs. So comrades mostly ignored it while they focused on improving working and living conditions. Their goals were raising wages, inclusion in all-white unions, voter registration, uniting white and Black, and fighting state terror.

Then the Stalinist “popular front” policy came down. In contrast to a united front, which has working-class leadership and a working-class program, popular fronts prioritize alliances with capitalists and their politicians. This inevitably leads to ruling-class interests dominating. At the time Kelley is describing, the popular front meant CP members allying with the Roosevelt “New Deal” administration, becoming a respectable part of regional politics, and attempting to take over the Democratic Party.

As Kelley explains, adherence to popular front policy led the CP to back off from grass-roots action. CP members had combined gritty battles of confrontation with careful underground organizing. Once these battles were scrapped, the CP lost the adherence of thousands of poor Blacks.

Compounding the Alabama CP’s problems were fierce redbaiting; the racism that kept most whites out of Black-led CP groups; and the shunning of the poor by better-off Blacks.

By the time McCarthyism struck in full force, making the CP illegal and driving radicals out of unions and other organizations, the CP was already weakened. It had lost its mass base of disciplined Black members, the people who had built the party, and could not rally against the witch-hunt.

A struggle to be continued. Kelley depicts heroic anti-racist work, despite the zigzags of Kremlin policy. But he fails to draw the crucial distinction between the politics of Lenin and Trotsky and the “popular frontism” of Stalin — which still blunts movements today.

Hammer and Hoe demonstrates that socialism and the battle against white supremacy are natural partners, despite the Stalinist CP’s betrayals of Black issues. It also shows implicitly that, although important fights can be won, racism cannot be overcome under capitalism, which successfully uses police-state terrorism up to this day. Only a revolution — the complete overthrow of the capitalist state by all the oppressed and exploited united in a multiracial party — will finally spell the end of the racism so courageously opposed by the little-known heroes of the Alabama CP.

Send feedback to author Adrienne Weller at

To listen to this and other articles from this issue, click here.

Share with your friends