Sunday, January 29, 2012

Communism and Racial Equality in the South

We've had an eye on the historian Robin D.G. Kelley since...well, not just since we read his book on Thelonious Monk last year, but since we had first discovered--many years ago--Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism (Kelley wrote the introduction to the most recent edition).

When a few links to an NPR program on "How 'Communism' Brought Racial Equality to the South" popped up in the feeds today (not to mention on I Cite), we figured that Kelley must have been involved in some form. When I thought I'd make a joke about how some Republican hack was going to find this out and turn it into one of those rousing primary non-issues (LOOK! NPR IS PUSHING COMMUNIST PROPAGANDA!), I discovered that the interview is originally from February 2010. 

It's a short reminder (in fact a discussion of Kelley's Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression) that the Communist Party played an important role in organizing civil rights struggle in the 1930s, and something to think about as the Occupy movement reorganizes for 2012.
Prof. KELLEY: In 1928, the communist position internationally was that African-Americans in the South have the right to self-determination. Meaning: they have the right to create their own nation in the South. In this position that came out of Moscow, it came from other black communists around the globe.
And with that idea in mind, they sent two organizers to Alabama and they went to Birmingham. And they chose Birmingham because it was probably the most industrialized city in the South. And they went there thinking they would organize white workers. And from white workers, black workers would follow. But no white workers had come forward.
And so, the first two organizers was a guy named James Julio(ph), who was a Sicilian worker who had migrated to Alabama, and another guy named Tom Johnson(ph), and together they went out looking for white workers and black workers came.
And black workers came in fairly large numbers right away because to them, they had a memory of reconstruction, the memory of the Civil War. And in that kind of collective memory, they were told that one day the Yankees will come back and finish the fight. Well, when they saw these white communists, they said, oh, good, the Yankees are here. We cant wait to join.
And it was no small part of the movement:
Prof. KELLEY: Well, theres a couple of ways to think about this. One, in terms of actual dues-paying members, they never had more than 600, 700. But then, if you look at all the other auxiliary organizations, the International Labor Defense, which focused on civil rights issues, they had up to 2,000. The Sharecroppers Union had up to 12,000. You had the International Workers Order. You had the League of Young Southerners. You had the Southern Negro Youth Congress. If you add up all these organizations, it touched the lives easily of 20,000 people.
Finally, the moral:
MARTIN: Hmm. So, what would you hope people would take away from all the work that youve done, documenting this history?
Prof. KELLEY: Well, first what I really emphasize is the fact that these were ordinary people, most of whom could not read or write, who were able to, on their own, form a very strong and productive movement that saw not just black peoples problems, but all peoples problems as connected. They saw joblessness and Civil Rights, and the right not be raped or lynched, self-protection - that all these things are part of one big struggle. And they really did succeed in building an interracial movement. Even if the whites were in the minority, those whites were there with them. And that vision, that ordinary people can make change, was a legacy they left us.

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