Three Texts from The Negro Worker on the U.S. South

Jacob Lawrence, Migra­tion Series, Pan­el 17 (1941)

Editorial Introduction

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.

William Grop­per, Field Work­ers, 1942.

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.

Com­rade­ly yours,

I. Hawkins,

Head of Negro Depart­ment, Nation­al Min­ers Union.

Pitts­burgh, Pa., U.S.A., Jan­u­ary 6, 1932.

  1. 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. 

  2. See “Death of Gilbert Lewis: A Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Negro Work­er.” The Negro Work­er 1, no. 6 (June 1931): 7-8. 

  3. 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. 

Authors of the article

(1904-1931) was a Communist Party USA activist.

(1903-1959) was a Trinidanian journalist and author. A member of the CPUSA and integral figure in the Communist International until his expulsion in 1934, he became a leader in Pan-Africanist and anti-colonial circles. His notable works include How Britain Rules Africa (1936) and Pan-Africanism or Communism? (1956).

was an African American leader in the National Miners Union and CPUSA activist.