Communist Party US & civil rights

The Communist Party USA was founded in 1919, three years after the Russian Revolution. It started as a dual organization composed of foreign-language and native-born American groups, but the factions were ordered to merge by the Soviet Union, which helped fund the Communist Party USA. The Communists were active in promoting civil rights and racial equality for blacks. Many black writers and artists were invited to Moscow as guests of the state. When the Great Depression occurred, many Communists believed that Marx’s prediction of the inevitable collapse of capitalism was coming true. Four black communists The Communists became extremely active on the civil-rights front, and they found a great opportunity to act on the national stage in 1931. Nine black youths traveling on a freight train in Alabama were arrested, falsely charged with raping two white women who were also on the train. The youths were quickly tried, and all but one were sentenced to death. The Communists intervened with a two-fold strategy: They hired first-rate legal talent to appeal the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and they also staged mass demonstrations in the United States to rally public support for their campaign to free the youths. The strategy worked. The Supreme Court overturned the first trial and ordered a new one.

In the second trial, the judge himself threw out the case. Alabama reinstated it, and once again the “Scottsboro Boys” were found guilty and sentenced to death. Again United States Supreme Court overturned the verdict. Finally Alabama yielded. All nine defendants were eventually released after spending many years in prison. At the same time as the Communists were fighting the Scottsboro case, they were also organizing sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Alabama. Their goal was to force landlords to give sharecroppers and tenant farmers a fair share of their income, provide food and clothing during the winter, and pay them money that was lawfully due them.

The party found thousands of black farmers who were willing to participate. It was a dangerous business. Local organizers like Ralph Gray and Clifford James, Alabama farmers, were murdered. Others, like Ned Cobb, were imprisoned. Some just disappeared. Unidentified bodies of those believed to be organizers were found in rivers. Despite the terror, the party organized some successful strikes in Lee County in the mid-1930s. However, the agricultural situation had dramatically changed by the late 1930s and the party — while still maintaining a strong civil rights platform — withdrew from the cotton fields.

— Richard Wormser

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This entry was posted in History.