THE TRIALS OF AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE COMMUNIST PARTY DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Last spring, I had the pleasure of teaching a course at Florida International University on the Great Depression and New Deal Era as part of the History Department’s Teaching American History Master’s Degree Program. One of the Miami-Dade school teachers enrolled in that class, Brian Orfall opted to co-curate an exhibition of library materials dealing with the infamous Scottsboro race trial. After scheduling numerous research visits to the Wolfsonian’s special collections library, Brian and I selected a number of rare items from the period that not only focused specifically on the trial, but also on the Communist Party’s use of that trial and the fight against “Jim Crowism” more generally as a strategy to win African-American recruits to the cause.
This exhibition will be installed in January and will serve as a didactic display for two History classes to be taught this coming spring 2011 semester at FIU. Professor Alex Lichtenstein is scheduled to teach a course specifically focused on the Scottsboro Trial, and I will also be teaching an undergraduate level course on Tuesday evenings entitled: America Sees Reds: Communism and Anti-Communism in American Film and History.
The 1930s became a heyday for the Communist Party. The precipitous Stock Market crash in October 1929, the Bank failures that followed, and an unemployment crisis that spiked as high as 25% left many Americans angry, disillusioned, and desperate. Consequently, claims by the Communist Party that this was the death knell of the Capitalist system did not fall on entirely deaf ears.
African-Americans were particularly hard hit by the depression. While approximately two million African-Americans had migrated North between 1910 and 1930 in search of better conditions and treatment, in the desperate competition for work that followed the Crash, racist attitudes flared up so that Blacks tended to be the “first fired and last rehired.” According to a PBS web article, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a black shirt hate group paraded through Atlanta, Georgia carrying signs reading: “No jobs for niggers until every white man has a job,” while racists in other cities could be heard shouting “Niggers back to the cotton fields. City jobs are for white men.” By 1932, half of the African-American population was unemployed, and in New York City, property gains by the black middle class and the achievements of the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s had been seriously eroded and erased. The Communist Party began to find a sympathetic audience in there when they organized the “Upper Harlem Council of the Unemployed” and integrated demonstrations and marches designed to fight evictions. Party efforts on behalf of the so-called Scottsboro Boys—(mentioned in an earlier blog post They Did Not Die)—also drummed up sympathy and support of the Black community.
These nine African-American youths had been dragged from a train in Scottsboro, Alabama in March 1931, after having gotten into a scuffle with some white hobos also hopping trains in search of work. To avoid being charged with vagrancy, two white girls also found on the train claimed they had been raped by the nine youths, and after narrowly escaping a lynching, the boys were “railroaded” through the courts and handed down death sentences. Eager to recruit African-Americans to the cause, the ILD (or International Labor Defense)—the legal branch of the Communist Party of the United States took on their case. The ILD secured retrials for the boys that dragged on for years and ultimately reached the Supreme Court of the United States. The Party also organized a propaganda media “blitz” and orchestrated worldwide demonstrations in support of their clients. Note the author of the pamphlet pictured below.
The Scottsboro Trial was only the most notorious of a number of Southern “race” trials involving the Communist Party and the International Labor Defense. Another involved the Black Communist Angelo Herndon.
Born in the small steel and mining town of Wyoming, Ohio, Herndon grew up working in the dark mines, and under the even darker shadow of “Jim Crowism,” Klan violence, and “Law Lynch.” After listening to a speech made by Frank Williams at an Unemployment Council meeting in June 1930, Herndon was struck by the realization that only the “Reds” were willing to “fight for political, economic and social equality for Negroes.” Herndon quickly became a Communist Party convert and activist. Traveling down to down to Georgia two years later, the young Black Communist organized a hunger march and demonstration at the courthouse in Atlanta in July, 1932. Soon after, Herndon was arrested and charged with organizing “insurrection” under a law originally written during the Civil War to prevent slave insurrection! Bail was set at the ridiculously high amount of $25,000, and Herndon endured six months of close confinement and imprisonment and was only released on Christmas Eve after his lawyers convinced the judge to reduce it to $2,500. At the subsequent trial, the all-white jury found Herndon guilty and he was sentenced to 18-20 years in prison. Herndon’s ILD lawyers appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Georgia, and the party raised enough funds to secure his release after two years imprisonment on $15,000 bail. Although he was greeted with a “hero’s welcome” by a crowd of several thousands in New York City, the Supreme Court of Georgia convicted Herndon again, and that decision was only overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1937. The Herndon case did not gain the international notoriety of the Scottsboro trial, and far fewer primary source materials have survived. I was able, however, to find and donate to the library a copy of Angelo Herndon’s autobiography, complete with a dust jacket illustrated by Hugo Gellert, a prominent Communist activist and artist well-represented in our collection.
I’ll keep you posted as to when Brian Orfall’s Scottsboro exhibit is installed (and its virtual version goes on-line).