Several years ago I’d heard on NPR an insightful interview of Robin D. G. Kelley, the author of Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. My interest in the work piqued, the book sat with the myriad others on my Amazon Wish List until I started creating a Long Civil Rights course track for the IB History classes I’m teaching and from my experience in the classroom I highly recommend it as a companion book/follow up reading to Reconstruction.
Kelley opens by describing the feudal milieu that Communist Party activists sought to change through the Share Croppers Union. Housing settlements are widely disbursed and are not owned by the farmers that occupy them; there are no social centers besides churches that have their preachers vetted by plantation owners; the caloric options from company provision outlets was poor and yet high-priced. Pay rates were also so poor that farmers relied upon home gardens and “odd jobs” to get by. During periods when they were not harvesting or planting, because their housing wasn’t owned, they had to rely upon company welfare – which was often required to be paid back – or government welfare that is cut as soon as planters needs workers. Any attempts at organizing against such living conditions would often mean forced eviction and beatings.
If living in this sort of economic deprivation wasn’t discouraging enough, there is then the environment of virulent racism that workers and organizers had to live in. The attempt by black share croppers to demand a more just price for their work based upon the actual commodity prices could lead to murder predicated on the defense of Southern Femininity as it was the planter’s wives that often kept the books for the business. Kelley’s narrative abounds with poor black farmers or political organizers that are kidnapped, beaten, shot or hanged by police. The police also give these people over to vigilante squads and fail to prosecute white people for crimes against blacks.
The Communist Party and it’s associate organization the International Labor Defense rouse sentiments and are able to mobilize against such a socially unequal legal order which made no real effort to prosecute lynchings. This activity was all the more heroic as it accomplished with pushback both from white supremacist organizations such as the KKK as well as the “respectable” NAACP. Representing the aspirations of the burgeoning black middle class that saw many poor blacks denial of enfranchisement as just and the confrontational street-politics of the CPUSA as antagonistic to the white allies they hoped to impress, the NAACP red-baited and sought to undermine the organization’s philosophy while the latter group beat and assassinated it’s members. Based upon their defense of the Scottsboro Boys and their role in winning some strikes for better wages and working conditions, however, they managed to seed themselves in the hearts of many Alabamians before and after the Popular Front Period.
The radical economic changes brought about by New Deal Policies changes everything. Government subsidies are granted to the owners of large agricultural holdings to industrially mechanize. While there was a small amount of resettlement funds itemized allotted to tenant farmers leaving the plantation, they often did not receive it. This army of unemployed mostly made their way into the mining industry next. There they faced racist, dual unions, similar housing arrangements as before and, following the passage of more repressive legislation, a host of pretexts for police to prevent their freedom of speech and organization. Those that were not able to obtain employment, or those that were fired from the mines, had to deal with a patronizing and intrusive system of welfare distribution.
A slew of Communist party organizers and their sympathizers are assassinated while those that live are socially ostracized by the black middle class and white liberals. Kelley breaks down a number of the considerations of the Popular Front and contextualizes the shift to embedding in the CIO as it rises to prominence and additionally gives a number of biographical sketches that gives compelling background to the CPUSA membership. By bringing in their private lives in addition to the struggles faced as a result of political activity that did not always follow CP directives, Kelley humanizes a group that we learn is more maligned because it represented an alternate ideology of modernism and the eradication of racial privilege rather than it’s slavishness as a fifth column for an “evil” foreign power.
This type of first hand account of developing activity on the ground that is constantly adapting to deal with new and often profound exigencies is quite simply an excellent case-study based way for a modern organizer to understand how to obtain true political allegiances and traction within a community by responding to and anticipating it’s needs. The variety of practical considerations makes it an excellent resource for those interested in political organizing.