Black and Red, the Untold History Part I: The Fight to Free the Scottsboro Boys

16 February 2024 615 hits

History has segregated the fight against racism and the fight for an egalitarian system, communism. In reality, the two were connected like flesh and bone. Many antiracist struggles were led by, initiated by, or were fought with communists and communist-influenced organizations. Many Black fighters were also dedicated communists and pro-communists of their time.

In turn, the bosses have used anti-communism as a tool to terrorize and divide antiracist fightback. Regardless of communist affiliation, anyone who fought racism was at risk of being redbaited. Why? 1) The ruling class understands the natural relationship between antiracism and communism, and 2) Multiracial unity threatens the very racist system the bosses “work so hard” to maintain.

Below is part I of a series aimed at reuniting the history of communism with antiracism. Robin D.G. Kelley’s book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, excerpted throughout this piece, is a good supplement for those who would like to find out more. This series originally ran in May 2017 (volume 49 no.11), and in this period of increasing nationalism and liberal fascism, it’s worth revisiting again!

In the years after slavery, Southern U.S. bosses used racist terror in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, police beatings, and lynching, legal and extralegal, to keep Black workers oppressed and as a source of cheap labor to drive down the wages of all workers Black and white.

Robin D.G. Kelley in Hammer and Hoe described it as the following:

White supremacist groups [including the KKK] organized by some of [Birmingham’s] leading citizens…enjoyed huge numerical and financial support…Klansmen [through intimidation and violence] sought to cleanse their city of Jews, Catholics, labor agitators, and recalcitrant African-Americans who refused to accept “their place” in the hierarchy of race.

The Southern bosses police and kangaroo courts (sham legal proceedings) were the heart of this injustice system.

“Fear [of the Southern injustice system] came from the knowledge that the color of your skin made you a suspect—a suspect that looked just like the prime suspect--every time the police were looking for a black man.” (WNYC 2//1/2013)

When workers united and fought back against this terror, the bosses often used racism and anti-communism to try to divide the working class.

The Scottsboro Boys
On March 25, 1931 nine Black teenagers age 13 to 19 were pulled from a freight car near Paint Rock, Alabama and charged with raping two white women. Within three days, the young men were tried by an all-white jury, convicted and sentenced to death. A lynch mob gathered at the jail in Scottsboro, demanding the young men be turned over to the racist rioters.

Courthouse lynchings like this were common for Black workers and youth living in the Jim Crow south. So common in fact that the local branch of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the other misleader organizations, focused on helping small business owners, didn’t even respond to the case.

Communists, First Responders
One organization did respond, the International Labor Defense (ILD), a workers’ defense organization initiated by the Communist Party. ILD was made up of communist and non-communist workers, Black and white. Within days of the sham trial, the ILD set up a defense committee, obtained lawyers for the nine young men on death row and built the defense of the Scottsboro Boys into a worldwide cause that saved them from the electric chair and after a many years-long battle eventually won their freedom.

The fight to defend the Scottsboro Boys involved several thousands of people around the world. The ILD organized mass meetings where family members of the wrongly convicted young men would speak alongside members of the ILD.

Bosses Counter with Terror
The Southern bosses were terrified of this multiracial movement against lynchings and responded with a campaign of terror against Black and white supporters of the campaign. Along with the physical terror carried out by the Klan, a campaign of anti-communism was launched to scare workers away from the fight to save the Scottsboro Boys.

The anticommunist campaign took several forms. The kkkops arrested people, and beat people suspected of being supporters of the ILD. Black and white women were arrested and threatened with rape by the police. The bosses’ press spread anti-communism.

The Birmingham Labor Advocate warned its readers to beware of outside agitators who, “under the cover of darkness,” disseminated ”Red literature preaching free love [and] inter marriage.(Hammer and Hoe)

The local NAACP was reluctant to help defend the working-class youth. But a whole year after the arrests, one of the women accusers of rape came forward and admitted there was no rape and that the police had forced her into lying. This created an upsurge in anger about the case and the NAACP finally joined the ILD in the campaign to free the young men.

In spite of the beatings, jailings and threats, the ILD kept both the mass campaign and the legal fight going by organizing meetings, rallies and raising money to pay legal fees and other expenses for the families of the Scottsboro Boys.

‘The All-Southern Scottsboro and Civil Rights Conference was one such mass meeting that went on in spite of Klan and police intimidation. In the days prior to the conference Klansmen organized a twenty-car motorcade through the Black community and distributed leaflets that read “Communism Will Not Be Tolerated.”

 Nonetheless some three hundred Blacks and fifty whites packed the meeting room and between 500 and 1000 were turned away because of lack of space and by the military presence of the police who stationed eighty cops equipped with three machine guns in posts across the street from the hall.

…As Hosea Hudson [a Black communist and labour leader in Deep South] recalled many stood up to the intimidation.  “[People] just walked all under them rifles, just went on in the door and on to the meeting.” (Hammer and Hoe)

The fight to free the railroaded young men took many years. Charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the rest ranged from 75 years to death. All but two served prison sentences; all were free by 1946.

You Cannot Kill the Working Class
Angelo Herndon, a Black communist labour organizer, summed up the significance of the struggle in his essay entitled “You Cannot Kill the Working Class.”

If you know the South as I do, you know what the Scottsboro case means. Here were the landlords in their fine plantation homes, and the big white bosses in their city mansions, and the whole brutal force of [private security] and police who do their bidding. There they sat, smug and self-satisfied, and oh, so sure that nothing could ever interfere with them and their ways. For all time they would be able to sweat and cheat the [Black] people, and jail and frame and lynch and shoot them, as they pleased.

And all of a sudden someone laid a hand on their arm and said: "STOP." It was a great big' hand, a powerful hand, the hand of the workers. The bosses were shocked and horrified and scared. I know that. And I know also that after the fight began for the Scottsboro boys, every [Black] worker in mill or mine, every [Black] cropper on the Black Belt plantations, breathed a little easier and held his head a little higher.