The Scottsboro Boys case of 1931 took place at a very distinct period of US and world history. Only fourteen years removed from Russian Revolution and the establishment of the first workers democratic socialist society, there was a far higher political and pro-socialist consciousness among workers compared to today. The US was two years into the Great Depression and a powerful trade union movement had emerged. However, white supremacy was deeply entrenched in the political, economic, social and cultural institutions of American capitalism, especially in the South.
The Scottsboro boys were nine African-American men who were accused of raping two white women on a freight train. With no physical evidence, they were convicted by an all-white jury of rape and received a death sentence.
The Scottsboro Boys and Jena 6 are different in their details but they show the persistence of entrenched racism in the capitalist system. The whites only signs have been removed, but the second- class citizen status of African Americans still exists not only in the south but throughout the nation. The treatment of many African-Americans in the judicial system including the piling on of charges, improper counsel and all-white juries handing down rapid guilty verdicts are remnants of the old Jim Crow South.
The Scottsboro Boys and the Communist Party
As the Jena 6 case has become a rallying cry for a new movement today, the Scottsboro boys case in the 30s became an important struggle for racial and economic justice in the South and throughout the country. The role of the Communist Party in this struggle is very instructive for workers, youth and people of color trying to build a movement now.
From the outset it must be stated that the positive aspects of the CPs work in the Scottsboro Boys case and the struggle against Jim Crow and racism in the 30s have to be set against the partys adherence to Stalinism and the bureaucratic Communist International, its class-collaboration and support of the Democratic Party. All of these policies had grave consequences for the working class, poor and people of color. The CPs overall role in this period was to act as an obstacle preventing the working class and poor from forging their own mass party independent of the Democrats and the Republicans. The effects of that defeat are still felt today.
The Communist Partys work with the Scottsboro Boys case was rooted in the party having very few African-American members in its early period. The CP recruited some of its first black members from the West Indies with a strong anti-imperialist position and working class orientation, ultimately bringing the Jamaica-led African Blood Brotherhood to their ranks. At the same time they engaged in a dubious political relationship and fights with the NAACP and Marcus Gaveys Back to Africa movement (Universal Negro Improvement Association).
By 1928 the Communist International directed the CPUSA to redouble their work among African-Americans but also argued for changing the partys program to state that blacks were a separate national group. The CP went as far as to call for a separate nation that would consist of the black belt, a number of southern states with a large black population, heavily made up of sharecroppers who played a key role in the Souths largely rural economy.
But in practice the CPs work among African Americans focused far less on the demand for self determination and even less on a call for separation, which in reality would have isolated the party among African Americans. Instead they took up the day-to-day issues facing black workers and the need for a working class centered struggle to achieve racial equality within American society. The Communist Party work in the north focused on unemployment, stopping evictions, ending police brutality, and mass union organizing.
In the south the CP was involved in organizing drives in the textile, steel and packing industry and lead important strikes like the textile workers strike in Gastonia, North Carolina in 1929 and the miners strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931. The CP also tried to organize a sharecroppers union. They also organized anti-racist work in the trade unions against white supremacy and bigotry which resulted in a backlash from some white workers in the south. While this was inevitable in the short term, had the CP pursued a correct approach in building a mass workers party they could have won over a large section of Southern white workers. As it was, the CP grew to 100,000 members at its height with a substantial base among black workers, especially in key Northern cities.
The CPs day-to-day organizing and sinking roots in the working class, among poor people and people of color was key to gaining support for the Scottsboro Boys case. The CP-run International Labor Defense played a key role in their defense and brought the case to a national and international audience.
The CPs work exposed the racist character of capitalism and raised the need for black and white working class unity. The involvement of the Communist Party brought the watchful eye of the local and national authorities. There was plenty of anti-communist fervor and white vigilante violence against their organizing efforts. The CP and NAACP also conducted a political struggle as to which organization would lead the campaign for the Scottsboro boys, reflecting class and political differences between the two organizations. The combination of street actions, mass meetings, and radical ideology ran counter to the NAACP gradualist, reformist and legalistic approach. The CP won the confidence of the parents of the Scottsboro boys and organized mass demonstrations and speaking tours. The CP and the ILD eventually led the way to victory in the case and secured non-guilty verdicts at the Supreme Court level because of the violation of the Scottsboro boys fourteenth amendment. But incredibly, the second and third re-trials led to guilty verdicts and the last Scottsboro boy was not released until after the end of World War II.
The CP made a major political turn by 1935, moving from the ultra-left Third Period positions to opportunistically supporting Roosevelts New Deal. They developed an association with the NAACP and once World War II broke out, with Hitler and Germanys attack on the Soviet Union, all their efforts turned to trying to get US imperialism to enter the war on the side of the Russians.
After the war, the state went on the attack, arresting prominent African-American members under the Smith Act. Despite this, Benjamin J. Davis was elected as an open Communist to the city council in New York representing Harlem in 1945. With a change in the election laws; Davis lost his city council seat in 1949. Under attack from the state as the Cold War began, the partys influence declined and their mass work in the African-American community diminished. This changed briefly with the work of Angela Davis in the late 60s and early 70s and the party attracted some elements of the revolutionary wing of the black freedom movement. But in truth, by this stage, the CP was deeply and irreversibly committed to supporting the Democratic Party as the lesser evil. The only thing revolutionary about the Communist Party was its name.
Nevertheless, the work of the Communist Party among African Americans in the 1930s and particularly around the Scottsboro boys case helped plant the seeds that led to the birth of black freedom movement in the South in the 50s and 60s. It also showed what a socialist organization with an anti-racist program and roots in the working class could achieve.