How 'Communism' Brought Racial Equality to the South
The Communist Party fought for racial equality in the South, specifically Alabama, where segregation was most oppressive.
by Tell Me More Editors via NPR on February 16, 2010
Prof. KELLEY: In 1928, the communist position internationally was that African-Americans in the South have the right to self-determination. Meaning: they have the right to create their own nation in the South. In this position that came out of Moscow, it came from other black communists around the globe.
And with that idea in mind, they sent two organizers to Alabama and they went to Birmingham. And they chose Birmingham because it was probably the most industrialized city in the South. And they went there thinking they would organize white workers. And from white workers, black workers would follow. But no white workers had come forward.
And so, the first two organizers was a guy named James Julio(ph), who was a Sicilian worker who had migrated to Alabama, and another guy named Tom Johnson(ph), and together they went out looking for white workers and black workers came.
And black workers came in fairly large numbers right away because to them, they had a memory of reconstruction, the memory of the Civil War. And in that kind of collective memory, they were told that one day the Yankees will come back and finish the fight. Well, when they saw these white communists, they said, oh, good, the Yankees are here. We cant wait to join.
MARTIN: What was the Communist Partys message at that time and why were these black folks so attracted to it?
Prof. KELLEY: Well, there were three things they focused on. One, because it was during the Great Depression, their primary focus was the unemployed. And so their demands were, we want either work or some kind of support from the government. The second thing was, in 1931, we had the famous Scottsboro case, where nine young black men were arrested falsely for raping two white women and they end up going to jail.
Well, these cases happen all the time where black men are falsely accused. The difference was that the Communist Party made the Scottsboro issue an international issue. They put it in the newspapers. They spread the word all over the globe in different languages. And these unknown figures, some of them became a kind of (unintelligible).
And finally, the third thing was basic civil rights: the right to vote, the right to sit on juries, you know, the right to not be Jim Crowed or segregated.