SCOTTSBORO TRIAL OF THE 1930s: HEYDAY OF THE CPUSA
Just yesterday, Florida International University Professor Alex Lichtenstein and 12 students taking his Approaches to History: the Scottsboro Case came to the Wolfsonian library. They came to see a library exhibit jointly curated by myself and FIU History graduate student, Brian Orfall, entitled The Politics of Race On Trial, and to see a display of some other materials from the 1930s dealing with this infamous race trial and the part played by the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in championing “the cause.”
Their visit was especially well-timed, as tomorrow marks the eightieth anniversary of the date that nine African-American youths were pulled from a train in Scottsboro, Alabama and falsely accused of raping two white girls, and as we will be dismantling this exhibit in the next week or so to prepare for our next show. A virtual exhibit of the display is permanently available for viewing on our website.
My quizzing of the students revealed that they had already learned a great deal about the Scottsboro incident, which began on March 25th, when nine African-American youths hopping a train in search of work during the Great Depression got into a scuffle with some white boys also “riding the rails.” When the train came to a stop in Scottsboro, the nine black boys (all of them under 21 years of age) narrowly averted a lynching before being subjected to what amounted to a “legal lynching” in the courts.
Defended by a real estate lawyer with no experience in criminal law, eight of the nine youths were condemned to death in three separate trials—lasting only a day a piece—after mere hours of deliberation by all-white juries. Fourteen-year-old Roy Wright’s case ended in a deadlocked jury as one member held out for a sentence of life imprisonment while the other eleven clamored for the death penalty and the judge declared a mistrial. Learning of the travesty of a trial, the CPUSA sent representatives down to Alabama and convinced the mothers of a couple of the defendants to allow their legal arm, the International Labor Defense (or ILD), to demand a retrial, and to take control of their case.
Thus began the train of events that would lead to a number of trials and appeals that ultimately made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the course of the 1930s. But the fight for justice in the courts was only one of the strategies employed by the ILD in defending the Scottsboro Boys—and attempting to garner support for the CPUSA among African-Americans and sympathetic progressive liberals. A couple of the boys’ mothers were sent on international speaking tours, marches and demonstrations were organized in cities around the globe, and a flurry of propaganda pamphlets, periodicals, and leaflets were produced in order to sway world opinion. The library holds some rare and important materials concerning this case, but also showing the larger scope of the activities of the CPUSA in the depression era.
To provide the students with some additional historical context for the race trial, we had also laid out a number of publications put out by the Roosevelt Administration in an effort to demonstrate their inclusion of African-Americans in New Deal relief programs. We have, for example, a number of publications reproducing Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Resettlement Administration photographs documenting the depressed state of black sharecroppers, tenant, and migrant farm workers taken in order to justify the president’s Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).
Ironically, some provisions of the AAA helped make an additional case for Communist critics who pointed to the madness of plowing under crops in a time of want, and to worsened conditions for tenant farmers and black sharecroppers driven off the land by unscrupulous landowners who cashed in on federal subsidies designed to reduce overproduction. Hugo Gellert, a proud member of the CPUSA used his considerable talents in the service of the Party in the early 1930s to ridicule Roosevelt’s “band-aid” approach to propping up the Captialist system. Between 1935 and 1939, however, he would begin defending Roosevelt’s policies against right-wing “social fascists” during the period of the Popular Front.
Of course, President Roosevelt had to walk a fine line in courting African-American voters without alienating the so-called Dixiecrats (the conservative Southern wing of the Democratic Party). Often Roosevelt had his wife, Eleanor, take up politically sensitive sectional causes such as the Costian-Wagner bill. This bill proposed federal trials for any law enforcement officers who failed to exercise their duties during a lynching incident. Without the president’s direct support, the anti-lynching act failed to pass Congress and Communist and progressive liberal artist-activists had to carry on the struggle alone.
In other areas, however, the Roosevelt Administration championed some important gains for African-Americans. Ten percent of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) positions were reserved for African-American youths (although camps in Southern states remained segregated, and were staffed by white officers). An equal proportion of federal relief program jobs were mandated to go to Black Americans, and the federal government set an important precedent by insisting that regardless of race, these employees were to receive equal pay for equal work.
The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) under the direction of Hallie Flanagan perhaps pushed the envelope the furthest by not only enforcing the equal pay provisions, but also by firing racist employees, and requiring integrated audiences for all Federal Theatre productions. Such enlightened racial policies earned the FTP the enmity of Texas Democrat Martin Dies, who chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and used those hearing to attack the project as infiltrated by “Communists.” Not surprisingly, the FTP was the first WPA program to lose Congressional funding, and many Southern Democrats defected to the Republican opposition in 1938, effectively bringing an end to Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The Popular [Front] appeal of the Communists did not have much more staying power. Following the revelations of the Hitler-Stalin Peace and Friendship pacts in 1939, many disgusted progressive liberals severed all ties with the discredited “Communazis.” Radical left periodicals such as Der Hammer—a Yiddish-language serial intended to recruit Jewish Americans into the Communist fold—folded that same year, a victim of Moscow’s abandonment of Popular Front policies and détente with the Nazis.