Book Review : "THE CRY WAS UNITY: COMMUNISTS AND AFRICAN AMERICANS 1917-1936 - Ray O. Light
in 1935, at the time of the Seventh Congress of the Communist International (CI), membership of Afro-Americans in the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) had grown from less than 100 people in 1930 to over 2500!! Through the CI and CPUSA-led International Labour Defense (ILD), the Scottsboro Case and the Angelo Herndon Case had linked the struggle for Afro-American freedom in the USA to the cause of oppressed and exploited peoples throughout the world. At the very core of the Afro-American people’s struggle were the Alabama communists. Almost all Black toilers, most were either industrial workers in the Steel centres in and around Birmingham or Black farmers organized in the now ten thousand strong Sharecroppers Union. The SCU had not even existed five years earlier!
It was the Alabama Sharecroppers Union which fought the sharpest battles – including armed struggle against the repressive Ku Klux Klan-Sheriffs’ power of the state – and continued gaining membership and momentum throughout this period. In November of 1932, the Sharecroppers Union (SCU) had 778 members. In December, at the Battle of Reeltown, armed sheriffs came to the home of an SCU member to collect some farm animals for a debt he owed a white merchant. Several armed SCU members were present to help the man keep his livestock. The sheriffs returned with a posse and a gun battle took place. In the aftermath, an SCU membership list was discovered and a white vigilante gang of 500 was organized that terrorized the Afro-American people of the entire area. Several were murdered. Many were beaten and arrested. Within a few weeks afterwards, however, a demonstration of several thousand Afro-American protesters rallied in opposition to the terror and, in a separate tribute, three thousand mourners followed two caskets draped with the hammer and sickle to burial.
Not only did the Reeltown Battle not stifle the SCU but the union dramatically grew to two thousand SCU members organized in 73 locals by June 1933. In addition, in the same half-year following Reeltown, the SCU organized women’s auxiliaries and youth groups and the SCU began organizing in Georgia. ‘The Party established five new rural units as Reeltown became a hymn of resistance throughout the rural South.’ By the summer of 1935, following a cotton choppers strike which met with violent repression but also with some concrete victories, SCU membership had grown to nearly ten thousand.
Such rural armed struggle for land and freedom in the Black Belt USA was in conformity with the political line which had been developed by the CI with the participation of Afro-American and other CPUSA leaders over a number of years. In 1928 and again in 1930, a major resolution on the theme of the Afro-American people constituting an oppressed nation in the Black Belt South territory of the USA was promulgated by the CI in the context of the very militant and aggressive general line against international capital of the Sixth Congress period. But the Seventh World Congress of the CI had to deal with the rising menace of world fascism. A less aggressive and more defensive posture was established by the CI that included broader coalition work with non-proletarian and even non-revolutionary forces.
In the USA, any necessary rightist tactical corrections of ultra left manifestations, pointed out by the new CI position on the United Front Against Fascism, unfortunately helped to provide opportunist and white chauvinist forces within the CPUSA excuses or even cover up for the liquidation of the Party’s strong and developing work on the Negro National Question, especially in the Black Belt South. In pursuit of often illusory Black-white unity, not only among workers and peasants, but even with white petty bourgeois liberals and ultimately the Roosevelt Administration, the SCU was carved up and handed over to bourgeois liberal elements leading predominantly white farmers organizations and social-democratic oriented trade unions also dominated by whites, the ILD mass membership was turned over to the NAACP1 and the Party shop and neighbourhood units in Birmingham and elsewhere were transformed into larger ‘branches’ or ‘clubs’ in which active participation was no longer required. In essence, revolutionary work among the Afro-American people, especially in the Black Belt, was liquidated on the altar of the Popular Front. Virtually all the facts stated above are documented in the book ‘The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans 1917-1936’ by Mark Solomon (University Press of Mississippi, 1998). And the details surrounding these momentous events in US history make the book worth reading.