In the historical record of anti-imperialism, the U.S. South does not often spring to mind as a critical location. Yet, during the late 1920s and 1930s, the Black Belt states – stretching from the eastern reaches of Texas up through large swathes of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and bordering regions – became the focus of the CPUSA and other international communist formations in their fight against imperialist domination. But the infamous “Black Belt” thesis and its attendant implications was not merely a matter of Soviet manipulation; it posed crucial problems about uneven development, post-Civil War labor forms and racialized mechanisms of social control, black nationalism, and working class autonomy.1 The “national-colonial question” in the United States could explode certain stagist assumptions about the historical progression and revolutionary potential of the independent political and social struggles of African Americans, something which would resurge in the protest cycle of the 1950s and ‘60s. It also provided a clear path for communist agitators to effectively intervene into the demands and pressing events in the 1930s South, especially anti-lynching campaigns and legal defense.
The Negro Worker, the publication of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers and profiled by Holger Weiss in this issue, carried numerous reports on the conditions and insurgent activity of black sharecroppers and laborers in the South. Here we present three such texts: one from a CPUSA activist, Gilbert Lewis (who would pass away the following year in 1931), on the difficulties of militant labor organizing and political tactics amidst the open white chauvinist reaction;2 a survey by Negro Worker editor George Padmore (before his break with the Comintern) of the current situation of the “Negro toilers,” mainly agricultural workers, under Jim Crow rule across the southern states at the onset of the 1930s; and a “workers’ correspondence” from Isaiah Hawkins, a black coal miner, union leader, and attendee of the 1928 Comintern Congress in Moscow, on the efforts on the part of black mineworkers in National Miners Union to engage in strike actions in Kentucky, and the obstacles to interracial labor organizing in the region due to racial violence.3
Gilbert Lewis, “A T.U.U.L. Organizer in the South of the U.S.A.” Negro Worker 3, no. 7 (May 1930): 10–12
The bourbon capitalists of the South have been able to maintain their semi-feudal sway over the millions of brutally oppressed and bitterly exploited Negro and white toilers solely because of their ability to keep these workers unorganised and divided. About this the Southern ruling class has no illusions. It knows that these workers and especially the Negro workers, when organised under the militant leadership of the Communist Party and the revolutionary trade unions can be but a battering ram for the smashing of the entire capitalist system, breeder of all forms of economic, social and political inequalities.
Thus they will do all in their power, resort to all forms of terror to keep these workers unorganised. This is shown in the bitter attacks upon the National Textile Workers Union and the Communist Party in Gastonia, the International Labour Defense in Charlotte and Norfolk, the NTWU and Communist Party in Atlanta, the Trade Union Unity League, and especially the Negro organiser of the Trade Union Unity League, in Chattanooga.
I, along with four other workers, two of them white organisers for the T.U.U.L., were arrested on March 5, while holding an open-air meeting. This meeting, the final mobilisation of workers for the great March 6 demonstration, was held on the corner where most of the unemployed gather. The police, after a vain attempt to drive the workers from the streets and our meeting, arrested us and charged us with “blocking traffic” and refusing to move on when ordered to do so by a police officer.
Use of Fascist Methods
From the moment of my arrest until the time of my release open fascist methods were employed against me.
“Lynch him, lynch the black bastard!” cried a group, identified as Ku Kluxers, who gathered around the police when I was seized. Noticing, however, the militancy of the Negro and white workers who had also gathered around in my defense they thought better of the matter.
“You got a helluva nerve,” said one big Southern detective, “to get upon these streets to make a speech. Stick up your damn hands before I blackjack you.”
In the courtroom little effort was made by the capitalist judge, Martin A. Fleming, to conceal the true class against class issue of the case. I was charged with blocking traffic; the following are the major questions that were asked:
“Do you believe in the Christian religion?”
“Didn’t you get up in a meeting and advise the workers to stay away from church and stop giving money to the preachers?”
“Isn’t it true that your organisation is trying to smash the American Federation of Labor?”
“Where did you come from?”
“Were you sent here to organise the Negroes?”
“Where did you get that fancy talk from? You didn’t learn it in the South.”
An open hand for all terror against me, even in the courtroom, had been given to the bosses’ thugs.
“Why in hell don’t you stand still before I kick hell out of you!” one big thug said to me as I, becoming tired of the long proceedings, shifted from one foot to the other.
I was given a fine of fifty dollars cash or 112 days on the chain-gang. A cowardly lawyer refused to appeal the case and I was led away to a cell.
Southern Lynch Law
Before reaching the cell, however, several things occurred to me. Three detectives took me into a private room, locked the door and made an attempt to change my accent.
“You’re a fresh Nigger,” one of them said. “I am going to change that fancy talk of yours and make you talk like a real Chattanooga Nigger,” and with this he landed a blow on my jaw. Another came to his aid and the two of them rained blows upon my head and face.
After convincing themselves that my speech could not be changed from that of a militant T.U.U.L. organiser to that of a cringing, Uncle Tom type of Negro, with his “Yessir” and “Nosir” and abject servility, they turned me over to another, who weighed and fingerprinted me.
Five o’clock in the afternoon, no lawyer having been found who would take the case, I was taken from the city jail to the workhouse. On entering the workhouse the driver of the patrol said to the guard (pointing to me): “Here is a fellow who swears he can’t be made to work, but wants to overthrow the government and believes in social equality for Niggers (In the South social equality means only one thing – intermarriage). I guess you know what to do with him.”
In the workhouse a steel ring 3½ inches in diameter was riveted on each of my legs. These were joined together by a steel chain 14 inches long, the chains are placed on your legs on entering the prison and are not removed until the day you leave.
The next morning along with 44 other prisoners, I was taken out to a large slag (rock pole) and set to work digging rock with a sixteen pound rough-handled pick. My hands began to grow blisters. One of them burst and the blood shot out. I paused for a moment to wipe it away.
“Go on there, you,” shouted the burly guard. “A little blood of your own will do you Reds good.”
A little later, while attempting to drive the pick through a three foot mass of solid rock, I became exhausted and stopped to blow. The guard yelled at me to keep going, stating that Reds would find no picnic on the chain gang as long as he was around. He stood over me, gun in hand, the whole time I was there, watching my every move. About eleven-thirty workers and sympathisers came forward and paid my fine. The guard showed his disappointment in being cheated of the chance to work a “Red” to death or shoot him should he offer the least resistance.
These bitter attacks upon the revolutionary organisations of the workers by the bosses is being met with increasing resistance from the workers. On the very day that I was being sentenced to one hundred and twelve days on the chain-gang for organising the workers to struggle for work or wages, workers throughout the world were demonstrating millions strong against starvation. Right in Chattanooga, though all the leaders were in jail, rank and file workers of the Unemployed Council held a mass meeting and would have marched on City Hall but for a fierce rain storm that made it impossible. The attacks of the bosses are bearing fruit but not the kind of fruit counted upon by these bosses.
George Padmore, “Life Among Negro Farmers in America,” Negro Worker 3, no. 7 (May 1930): 12–14.
There are about 12,000,000 Negroes in the United States. The vast majority of these blacks are on the land, either as agricultural wage laborers, sharecroppers, or poor farmers. They live in certain sections of America known as the Southern States. In some of those states they are so thickly concentrated that they form a sort of black country of their own call “The Black Belt.” And strange to say, it is in these very territories that the Negroes suffer the most brutal oppression.
White ruling class terrorism is so widespread throughout the “Black Belt,” that from time to time whole communities move away and seek new homes in the Northern States and other parts of America, where they are able to buy arms and thereby protect themselves against lynch law.
The most widespread method of terrorism practiced in the South among the black farming population is what is known as Peonage. This is the most brutal and demoralising form of economic exploitation. It has its basis in the rent and profit system which grows out of chattel slavery. After the Negroes were “freed” from slavery, they had no land of their own, or the means whereby to gain a livelihood, so they were compelled to remain on the plantations of their masters. Some of them sold their labour power for wages, while others entered into a sort of feudal contract relationship which bound them to the land like serfs. The landlords allotted a certain quantity of land to each black family, and supplied tools, seed, and food to the tenants until the harvest was reaped. The crop is then taken over by the landlord, who sells it and afterwards made an account to the tenant. The tenants [are] always given less than what the crop was sold for, and in this way is continually indebted to the landlord. For example, if a Negro cultivated a hundred bales of cotton which fetched 600 dollars on the market, the landlord will present him with an account of 800 dollars for supplies alleged to have been rendered during the year, so even if the Negro paid 600 dollars he should still owe the landlord 200 dollars which he would be compelled to pay off by planting another crop under similar conditions as before.
This is repeated year after year. Even if the Negro took the landlord to court his statement of the facts would not be believed, because the word of the white man cannot be refuted by a black. Furthermore, the Southern landlords are not only the overseers and bookkeepers of their plantations, but aro the political dictators of the community as well; and when they make a statement it becomes the law of the court. It is always the prerogative of the ruling class of the South to determine when Negro workers should leave their service, or under what conditions they are bound.
Negroes who rebel against these outrages and run away are arrested by the police and other uniformed thugs with the aid of blood hounds especially trained for this purpose. They are brought back to the plantations and turned over to the landlords either as vagrants or as runaways.
Another method by which labour is recruited is through the chain-gang. Whenever, the landlords need labour they simply go the local judge and arrange that the police be ordered to arrest the required number of workers. In this way-whole communities of able bodied blacks are commonly apprehended. All kinds of form-up charges are made against them. When find in court- they have to agree to enter the service of the landlords who pay a small fine for the opportunity to reduce the Negroes to involuntary servitude. In this way the judges and the-police get the court fees, and the landlords cheap labour.
A brief account from one of the peonage districts is sufficient to illustrate this point. Passing along the street where a Negro had been mistreated by his white master, an observer inquired of the worker: “Why do you stand this?” “That is Just the damned trouble down here” responded the black. “I once complained to the court when another white man beat me, the man denied it and the judge believed his story imposed upon me a fine which I could not pay, so I have to work it out in the services of this man who was present in the court at that time and paid it in order to get the opportunity to force me to work for him.”
Whenever there is a shortage of labour the Southern capitalists carry out these repressive measures. Thousands of blacks are still being held as slaves in the coal mines and on road construction work in the state of Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia, A new law was enacted in the State of Florida in 1919 to the effect, that whenever a Negro is unable to pay his debts he is to be imprisoned, and the jailer has the right to rent him out to a farmer until such time as the farmer is satisfied to release him.
Just a few days ago a white man by the name of Wilson, who owns a 7,000 acre farm near Greenwood, Mississippi, went into the county of Noxubee scouting for Negro farm labourers. He had signed up 25 coloured workers and had chartered two freight cars for their transportation to Greenwood, when the business-men and plantation owners in Noxubee discovered Wilson’s activities. They immediately organised a small band of 100 men and drove Wilson out of the town. The Negroes who had dared to sign up to leave were stripped naked and most brutally flogged in public as a warning to other blacks never to attempt to migrate.
There is a special law in Mississippi which makes it a criminal offense punished by fine or imprisonment for agents to enter the State and contract for labour. This law was enacted in order to present Negro tenants and agricultural labourers from leaving their masters no matter how badly they were treated, or how high the wage offered by other employers outside of the State.
A recent investigation has disclosed the existence of large peonage farms in the extreme Southern part of Florida. Over 5,000 Negroes have been collected from various parts of the State and lured away to toil in the turpentine camps where they are forced to work day and night under armed guards. Life in these places is indescribable hell holes. The workers are huddled together in shacks, given a minimum amount of food of the worst quality, and denied the most elementary sanitary conveniences. Conditions are more primitive than in some colonial countries. As a result, disease is very rampant in these barbed-wire compounds. Hundreds of blacks die annually from starvation and exposure, while others meet a quicker and more welcome death at the hands of their cruel task masters.
Negro farmers and agricultural labourers are completely segregated from all forms of social intercourse with whites in the South. They are not even allowed to ride in the same couches with the whites, Wherever railroad companies agreed to permit them to travel they are provided with small dirty wooden compartments, for which they have to pay the same fare as the white passengers, who enjoy the most up-to-day railroad conveniences. In street-cars, Negroes get in and off from the rear end, while the whites enter from the front and have priority to the best seats. In those places where Negroes are admitted to the theatres they are huddled together in filthy balconies far removed from the stage.
Black farmers are not permitted to patronise restaurants which cater to whites; neither are they allowed to use the same public bathing beaches, or entrances to buildings as other people Negroes are barred at libraries, museums, art galleries, and other centres of culture. Very limited educational opportunities are offered them In most places they are compelled to send their children to separate schools and as to be expected the capitalist State expends by far more money on the education of white children than black ones, although the Negro workers are made to pay the same taxes for the maintenance of the public school system.
Politically, Negroes in the South are completely dis-franchised. This is done with open violence and terror. On election days, armed white mobs, agents of the capitalists, keep the Negroes away from the polls in the Southern States. Certain enactments known as the “Black Laws,” have been incorporated in the Statutes of some States in order to more effectively deprive the Negroes of their political rights. These laws are chiefly based on property and educational qualifications. As the majority of Negroes are propertyless, and their standard of literacy is a matter to be determined by the capitalist politicals [sic], it becomes very easy for them to be ruled off the ballot.
Wherever one goes in the South one sees a striking similarity in the appearance of black communities derisively called “Nigger Towns.” The outstanding feature of these ghettos are their verv unsanitary conditions. For the bourgeois politicians, although they impel the Negroes to pay the same amount of taxes as the whites, they never spend any money to improve the standard of life among the black workers. Epidemics frequently break out in these settlements, taking heavy toll among the workers, especially their children. The death-rate among Negro farmers is in some cases 50% higher than whites. This is especially so in the case of contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, typhus, etc.
Isaiah Hawkins, “Negro Leader Tells About Terror in Kentucky,” Negro Worker 2, no. 2 (March 1932): 29.
Dear Comrade Editor,
I already wrote you about our last strike, but now we are entering another struggle in Kentucky. I would like to tell you of what is happening in the mines down in the South. I will deal specifically with Negroes and their conditions.
The Negroes are a small minority in the strike area in Kentucky, being about 3%, while thousands of them are employed in the Penn.-Ohio district. They are at this time facing the most terrible conditions of all the miners in the South. The miners are segregated into the most miserable section of the Company Camps and are not permitted to leave this section without a guard or a pass from the gun men. They are also discriminated against and the white miners are not permitted to associate with them whatsoever. The starvation of the Negroes in Kentucky is shown by their wives and children. Many of them have not sufficient clothes and shoes. They are also afflicted with the disease called Flu. The Negro miners are willing to join our Union to better their conditions and to fight against the starvation program of the Kentucky Coal operators.
The only Union that has ever been in the South was the National Miners Union which at their first meetings went in with their program of full unity of the coal miners in Kentucky. There is quite a membership and they are yet joining the National Miners Union.
I attended the first District Convention of Kentucky on the 13th of December and there was not a Negro present. This was due to the terror of the imported gun men who are picked up in the slums of the large cities and shipped into Kentucky to shoot down the miners. Many of the Negroes as well as the white miners were taken for a ride, beaten up and told not to come back to Kentucky. This terror which is still going on was used before the Convention and particular attention was paid by the gun men to see that no Negroes attended the Convention. Just the same I was able to speak at the Convention and the workers gave me a great applause, as the first Negro to speak for the Union in Kentucky. As I write this letter I think that it is the task of all the workers throughout the world to give as much help as possible to the Kentucky Strike. So far, since the Strike which began on January 1st the terror is increased. Almost all of our organizers that were sent there by the National Office are arrested and held for “Criminal Syndicalism,” which means in Kentucky, if not defended, and the cases won, from 5 to 25 years in the Penitentiary. I know that we Negro miners are in the position to give some help to the leaders of our revolutionary Union.
I hope that the revolutionary trade union movement internationally is going on at high speed and that you will continue to correspond with me and help us in cur important work.
Head of Negro Department, National Miners Union.
Pittsburgh, Pa., U.S.A., January 6, 1932.
See, for example, Harry Haywood, “The Two Epochs of Nation-Development: Is Black Nationalism a Classical Form of Nationalism?,” Soulbook 4 (Winter 1965-1966): 257-266. In both published texts and drafts from the 1960s, in the midst of the civil rights/Black Power movements, Haywood would insist that the Black Belt thesis was consonant with the popular notion of African Americans as an “internal colony” within the United States. ↩
See “Death of Gilbert Lewis: A Revolutionary Negro Worker.” The Negro Worker 1, no. 6 (June 1931): 7-8. ↩
For more biographical information on Hawkins, including his clashes with John Lewis, see Paul Nyden, Black Coal Miners in the United States (New York: American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1974), 52-3. ↩