The Southern United States is well known for being a bastion of political conservatism. The legacy of Native American reservations, the current militarization of the border in the Southwest, and the deep scars left by slavery and segregation all contribute to the image of a solidly reactionary bottom half of the country.
But the Southern U.S. has an often overlooked but immensely important radical history.
During various upsurges in working-class radicalism, the South has been shaken at the grassroots–and socialists have been a crucial part of the fightback. In particular, the Socialist Party (SP) in the Southwest at the turn of the century and the Communist Party (CP) in the Southeast during the Great Depression of the 1930s showed the potential for socialists to organize in the region–and also the centrality of the fight against racism to the class struggle.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, the state of Oklahoma boasted the largest section of the Socialist Party of any state. At its peak in 1914, the state party had 984 local chapters, with a combined total of 12,000 registered members.
The party's focus was primarily agrarian in nature, owing to the rural-based economy of Oklahoma at the time. The SP put forward a "farmers' program" that argued for turning over land to working farmers. Much of the SP's base of support came from white tenant farmers, but unlike their comrades in other Southern states, Oklahoma socialists generally stood out for their principled defense of Black voting rights and land rights for Native Americans.
Another crucial element of Southwestern socialism at this time was anti-militarism. While some SP leaders pledged their support for "their own" country in the event of U.S. participation in the First World War in Europe–the U.S. didn't enter the war until 1917–the Oklahoma socialists publicly pledged to organize against conscription into the capitalist war machine. The state party's stance on the war, like its stance on racism, would also earn them intense scrutiny by the federal government.
In response to the Selective Service Act of 1917, some 1,000 rural "Okies" participated in the Green Corn Rebellion, a spontaneous multiracial attempt at an armed march across the country to Washington D.C. to oppose U.S. involvement in the imperialist war.
The march only lasted a few hours and ended in disarray. Three people where killed in a skirmish with a pro-war gang, after which the march was scattered. Some 450 participants were arrested, and the act was later used by the forces of state repression as justification to attack the Socialist Party for attempting to foment revolution.
In the aftermath, the Socialists were heavily persecuted, and many found themselves in jail. The leadership of the state party disbanded the organization in the face of the repression. By the mid-1920s, there was little left of the once vibrant movement.
The SP and other left-wing organizations had influence in other nearby states before the war.
In east Texas and western Louisiana in 1911 and 1912, workers organized into the Brotherhood of Timber Workers–a part of the Industrial Workers of the World's union for lumber workers–faced their employers in a series of strikes and clashes that became known as the "Timber War." One particularly violent incident, known as the "Grabow Riot," involved a shootout between company men and union supporters that left four people dead and 50 wounded.
Though the SP was not directly involved in the organizing, in the aftermath of the struggle, workers in the area voted socialist in the highest numbers they ever would.
The connection between workers' "industrial action" and the Socialist Party's "political action" was recognized by both supporters and detractors of the party. Rural unrest in North Texas in 1915 prompted the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations to investigate socialist agitation against landlordism and declare that "militant class consciousness" was "threatening social change" across the region.
Indeed, during this period, support for socialism spread impressively. By 1914, the Texas Socialist paper The Rebel could boast 22,000 subscribers. The weekly socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, though based in Kansas, had 40,000 readers in Texas alone, and 60,000 in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana turned out just over 80,000 of the 900,000 votes that Eugene V. Debs won during his 1912 campaign for president as the Socialist Party candidate. This is especially impressive considering that many SP supporters were seasonal workers who moved too often to establish residency–and others who might have voted Socialist were disenfranchised because they were Black.
The SP's handling of the issues of race and oppression will always tarnish its legacy.
The party saw itself as representing "the whole working class," and therefore, it tolerated open racists within its ranks. The party's right wing included outright white supremacists like Victor Berger, who not only opposed Asian immigration, but openly defended the pseudo-science of the time that classified Caucasians as the highest developed "race." The right-wingers or "Yellows" in the party were hostile to organizing Black workers, even just to gain their votes.
While the left-wing "Reds" stood on the opposite side of these questions, they didn't break organizationally with the racist elements in the SP. Even Debs, the party's most prominent figure and a sympathizer with the left, misunderstood this question. He was a determined opponent of racism, but he maintained that socialism had nothing specific to offer the Black population beyond their general emancipation as working people.
Debs believed the question of racism would be solved by socialism, rather than seeing the struggle against racism as a crucial part of the fight for socialism itself. It would take several more years and the decline of the SP before Southern socialists would address the issue.
The Great Depression was a heroic period in the history of the Communist Party. While the SP went into decline following the First World War, the newly formed CP began to grow and gain in influence in the 1920s, though slowly at first. Despite the many political shortcomings of the by-then Stalinized party, Communists led the struggle for civil rights in the South a generation before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
When the CP sent organizers into Alabama in the early 1930s, they saw their task as finishing the mission of Reconstruction–the era following the Civil War when the federal government stood behind efforts to "reconstruct" Southern society on a basis that guaranteed political rights for Blacks.
CP members organized steelworkers and sharecroppers, often in incredibly difficult and dangerous circumstances. They started Unemployed Councils that fought for welfare and jobs, and they campaigned for equal wages for women and land for farmers.
The Communists also made the fight against racism central to every campaign they waged. CP organizers understood that any sincere fight for workers' rights had to be a fight against racism and vice versa.
From 1930 to 1937, the weekly Southern Worker was published in Tennessee and circulated across the South. The paper was filled with stories about racial discrimination and violence, and their connection to a system in which employers dominated working-class organization.
Unlike the SP of the previous era, the Communists tried to root out prejudice within their own ranks, as well as to encourage the development of Black leadership in the party and its affiliate organizations. A major pillar of CP strategy was to attempt to incorporate longstanding traditions of Black resistance into its organizing.
Uniting Black and white workers in a common fight required more than just organizing integrated unions–it demanded campaigns organized against lynching and other forms of racism. CP members organized against rules designed to disenfranchise black votes, for an end to public segregation ordinances, and for fair trials in the viciously racist criminal justice system.
The most famous of this last kind of campaign was waged in defense of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," who were falsely accused of raping a white woman and subsequently jailed. The CP-led International Labor Defense took the court battle into the streets, mounting a massive public solidarity campaign. It argued that the defendants were class-war prisoners, and that a Black man couldn't get a fair trial in Alabama.
The campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys was national in scope, with meetings and marches taking place across the country. Connecting a case of racial injustice with the plight of working people helped bring together workers, Black and white, North and South, to save a group of young men and pose a challenge against the whole system.
For much the decade of the 1930s, the party had to operate underground. Communists were regularly fined and jailed for breaking various Jim Crow laws. Confederate-era laws against inciting slaves to rebel were used in several prominent cases, like the "Atlanta 6," who were arrested for holding illegal gatherings to discuss union organization. Communists were often subject the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist vigilantes, who acted with the tacit approval of local law enforcement.
For all that was heroic and path-breaking about the Communist Party and its organizing during the 1930's, the period was short-lived.
Anti-communism became synonymous with the preservation of the "Southern way of life"–that is, with institutional racism. The anti-communist witch-hunts decimated the party across the region in the 1940s and '50s. For example, the state of Mississippi established the "State Sovereignty Commission" to collect information on Communists and other activists. To this day, people taking public office in Georgia must take a 1940s-era anti-Communist loyalty oath.
Meanwhile, as with other CPs around the world, the Communists in the U.S. followed the twists and turns of the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia.
This would have a devastating effect on the party–for example, the CP's defense of the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact, which divided Poland between Nazi Germany and the USSR, led to disorientation among party supporters. For years, CP members had argued that Jim Crow in the South was the American version of "Hitlerism"–and now, the USSR, the supposed bastion of racial equality, was making a deal with that very devil.
It wasn't long before the party would make its own deals with local devils. By the start of the Second World War, the CP–which had flipped back to opposing Hitler when the Nazis attacked the USSR–had shelved a majority of its civil rights program, closed down the Southern Worker, disbanded the International Labor Defense and lined up in a "popular front" that included the Democratic Party, which, in the South, presided over Jim Crow.
This turn had been ordered by the leaders of the USSR–to subordinate the activities of CPs around the world to defending the war effort of the Allied governments, including the U.S., against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers.
In the postwar period, the repression of the McCarthy era, combined with a stubborn insistence on supporting Democrats, would affect the CP in ways it never recovered from. When the civil rights movement came to full prominence in the South in the mid-1950s, some Communists played important roles as individuals, but not as part of what had been a hegemonic movement in the previous generation.
For socialists organizing in the Southern U.S. today, these lessons of the past are vital–especially the heroic effort to build a working-class movement that put struggles against both exploitation and oppression at the heart of its activities.
Less than a century ago, socialist ideas were instrumental in organizing Southern workers against injustice and oppression. This is heritage we can be proud of.
This article was originally published by Socialist Worker.