Workers Vanguard No. 1036
13 December 2013
1930s Scottsboro Case
Communists and the Fight for Black Liberation
In November, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to posthumously pardon Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright. They were part of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine unemployed black youth who were framed up in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931 for rapes that never happened. The case has long been emblematic of racist injustice in the United States. For more than 80 years it has been as clear as day that the nine were innocent, so the pardons were a cheap way for Alabama to attempt to refurbish its image—just like racist demagogue George Wallace pardoned the last of the nine still living in 1976. While Alabama’s politicians gloat over how they have finally granted “justice” to people who have been dead for decades, there are 193 inmates, disproportionately black, on Alabama’s death row.
The Scottsboro Nine were hauled off a freight train by police in Scottsboro after an altercation between white and black youth who had been “riding the rails” during the Great Depression. One of the nine was 13, two were 14 and the oldest was 21. The police pressured two white women who had been traveling on the train into claiming they had been victims of gang rape. Normally, black men accused of raping white women would have been lynched by a mob, but this time the authorities preferred a legal lynching. Within two weeks, the nine were framed up, tried and convicted by an all-white jury. Eight were sentenced to death, and the youngest to life in prison.
The American Communist Party (CP) and its defense arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD), immediately took up the case. The ILD’s legal efforts exposed the frame-up for the sham it was. In the process, it won two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions protecting the right to legal representation and outlawing the exclusion of black jurors simply on the basis of their skin color. Most important to the defense strategy was building mass protests of hundreds of thousands against the frame-up and the entire racist system of capitalist justice. Due to these efforts, demands to free the Scottsboro Boys rang out around the world. Liberals like the middle-class NAACP initially wanted nothing to do with defending impoverished black youth accused of rape—a longstanding pretext for lynching. But due to pressure from the campaign, the NAACP was forced to denounce the frame-up, even as it tried to edge the CP out.
In addition to shining a spotlight on the atrocities of the Jim Crow South, the Communist campaign also highlighted the continuity between the lynch mob and the electric chair. It succeeded in preventing Alabama from executing the Scottsboro Nine, but it did not stop the state from trying. The ILD won retrials for the black youth only to see them convicted again, setting off a chain reaction of one appeal after another in kangaroo courts.
One of the women who had accused the nine, Ruby Bates, recanted and testified for the defense in 1933. Driven out of the South for exposing the frame-up, she joined the defense campaign and toured with the ILD. In July 1937, prosecutors dropped rape charges against five of the defendants. The remaining four were convicted yet again and sentenced to death or decades in prison hell. Between 1943 and 1950, three of them were paroled and, in 1948, Patterson escaped from prison to Michigan (where the governor refused to extradite him to Alabama).
The Scottsboro campaign was just one prominent example of how Communists were in the forefront of fighting against racial oppression and lynch law terror in the 1930s. Amid the devastation of the Depression, they organized the black and white unemployed, sharecroppers and industrial workers. Their efforts put the struggle for black rights on the national agenda in a significant way for the first time since the early Populist movement in the 1890s. Writing at the time of the civil rights movement, James P. Cannon, an early Communist leader and founder of the ILD, underscored the role of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky’s Communist International (Comintern) in convincing the American CP to appreciate the centrality of the struggle against black oppression:
“Everything new on the Negro question came from Moscow—after the Russian Revolution began to thunder its demand throughout the world for freedom and equality for all national minorities, all subject peoples and all races—for all the despised and rejected of the earth.”
—“The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962)
In 1928, Cannon and his cothinkers were expelled from the CP and the ILD for supporting Trotsky’s fight against the degeneration of the Comintern that accompanied the rise of a parasitic bureaucracy headed by Stalin in the Soviet Union. During the 1928-34 Third Period, Communists in the U.S. left the AFL craft unions to form small “red unions,” effectively sealing themselves off from the mass of the organized working class. The Stalinization of the Communist International also led to disorientation for the American CP on the black question, as it did on all other issues.
In line with the class-collaborationist strategy of the “People’s Front” adopted by the Comintern after Hitler came to power in Germany, the CP began to tail “progressive” capitalist politicians during the mid 1930s. The CP became a subordinate part of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, which comprised pro-segregation Southern Democrats, bureaucrats in the newly formed industrial unions and liberal Northern politicians. In so doing, the CP betrayed the revolutionary aspirations of its members, including thousands of black workers.
As we wrote in “The CP and Black Struggles in the Depression” (Young Spartacus No. 25, September 1974):
“While the CP of this period was deformed by dishonesty, political zig-zags and egregious departures from Marxism, nonetheless in the area of black work the 1930’s represents the CP’s heroic period. Despite the erroneous ‘Black Belt’ theory and the call for ‘Negro self-determination’ in this territory (a call which was never raised agitationally but remained part of the CP’s written propaganda), the CP’s work in practice combined a proletarian orientation with an awareness of the strategic need to fight racial oppression throughout all layers of American society, especially to address the problems of poor and unemployed blacks.”
We reprint below an article by Cannon, originally published in the 9 April 1932 issue of the Militant. At that time, Trotskyists in the United States were organized as the Communist League of America (Opposition). They saw themselves as an external faction of the CP and fought to rescind their expulsions. The Militant article was directed toward the ranks of the CP, which contained many advanced black and white workers.
* * *
By James P. Cannon
Militant, 9 April 1932
The Scottsboro case reveals American capitalism in one of its most hideous aspects, and offers to the Communists an exceptional opportunity to deal the whole system a mighty, world-resounding blow. The deliberately planned assassination of the unfortunate Negro children is notice to the entire world that imperialist America, this pretended pacifist and friend of justice, is in fact a monster. The endeavor to thwart its bloody designs in the present case calls out the deepest and best human instincts. The words solidarity and justice acquire fresh values, they become new again in the struggle for the liberation of the helpless young Negro boys who await their fate in the Alabama jail. It is hard to think of a cause that could appeal more strongly to the hearts of the workers and all the oppressed than that of these obscure and friendless symbols of a doubly persecuted race and class.
From the revolutionary standpoint, the struggle, of course, goes far beyond the immediate objectives of the court appeals. To save the lives of the intended victims and restore their liberty is indeed our aim; but the only hope of accomplishing this is to set a really immense movement into motion. And such an achievement could have great implications for the strengthening of the Communist influence over the workers and the Negro masses. All of this is bound up together with the concrete fight for the freedom of the prisoners. To separate the one from the other, as the liberal and Socialist snivellers try to do, would only make the sacrifice of the prisoners doubly certain.
The problem consists primarily in the mobilization of the white workers for the fight. In our opinion it is incorrect to view the Scottsboro case as a “Negro issue”; it is wrong to direct the main agitation toward the Negro people and concrete the organization work around them, including their churches and lodges. Such a tactic will not be able to arouse a movement of the necessary breadth and power. And, moreover, it will fail even to make the desired impression on the Negro people.
There is no doubt that the Negro masses burn with indignation at the Scottsboro outrage and suffer their own thousand-fold wrongs again in sympathy with the prisoners. But along with that they cannot help being conscious of their position as a hopeless racial minority. What they need to inspire them for struggle is the prospect, or at least the hope, of victory. Direct agitation alone will never suffice for this. The sight of a significant movement of white workers fighting on their side is the agitator that will really move the Negroes and make them accessible to the Communist organizers of that movement.
The central problem of the Scottsboro defense movement is the organization of the white workers for the fight. Once a good start is made along this line, the enlistment of huge Negro contingents in the common struggle will be a comparatively simple matter. In this question, as in every important undertaking in the class struggle, the trade union movement exhibits its decisive importance. The trade unions ought to be alive at this moment with Communist agitation on the Scottsboro case. Here is an unexampled opportunity to explain to the organized workers the necessity of solidarity with their black brothers, and to dramatize the argument with the monstrous story of Scottsboro.
Assuming a Communist Party that knows how to work in the trade unions, a big response can be expected from this agitation. The sympathies of the organized workers can be quickly crystallized into a network of conferences. The movement of the unions in this direction will give a tremendous impetus to the propaganda among the Negroes; they will join in the movement with enthusiasm and hope. The concrete demonstrations of white and Negro solidarity, ominously foreshadowing their coming union in the revolution, will impress the judicial hirelings more than a thousand lawyers’ briefs; will make them pause and weigh the possible consequences of their murders. The Communists, as the organizers and leaders of the unprecedented demonstration, as the loyal and capable champions of the most oppressed and persecuted, will gain an enormous prestige.
In such a perspective there is nothing fantastic. It assumes merely an active Communist Party which understands the essence of the Negro question, which applies the tactic of the united front, and has not isolated itself from the trade union movement. Even in the present situation the deficiencies can be made up by a timely correction of policy. The best way to serve the Scottsboro case is to press for this.