ven as late

as the

1930s,

black

farmers in Alabama

labored under a highly

exploitative system of

that preserved much of the

power relations of slavery.

But with the aid of the

Communist Party, a

militant movement of

sharecroppers emerged to

challenge this system.

Robin D. G. Kelley tells

the story in his classic

book Hammer and Hoe:

Communists in Alabama

During the Great

Depression, now out in a

twenty-fifth anniversary

edition and excerpted

he rural world

Communist

organizers

entered in 1930–31 made

the poverty-stricken

streets of Birmingham

look like a paradise.

Cotton farmers were in the

midst of a crisis at least a

decade old. After World

War I, cotton prices

plummeted, forcing

planters to reduce acreage

despite rising debts, and

the boll weevil destroyed

large stretches of crop.

When the stock market

collapsed and cotton

prices reached an all-time

low, the real victims were

small landholders who

were forced into tenancy

and tenants whose

material wellbeing

deteriorated even further.

It is no coincidence,

therefore, that black

farmers straddling the line

between tenancy and

ownership formed the

nucleus of Alabama’s

Communist-led rural

Within the limited world

of cotton culture existed a

variety of production

relations. Cash tenants,

more often white than

black, usually leased land

for several years at a time,

supplied their own

implements, draft animals,

seed, feed, and fertilizer,

and farmed without

supervision. Share

tenants, on the other hand,

might own some draft

animals and planting

materials, but the

landowner provided any

additional equipment,

shelter, and if necessary,

advances of cash, food, or

other subsistence goods

such as clothing.

Verbal contracts were

made annually and the

landowner generally

marketed the crop, giving

the tenant between three-

fourths and two-thirds of

the price, minus any

advances or previous

debts. The most common

form of tenancy in the

South was sharecropping.

Virtually propertyless

workers paid with a

portion of the crops raised,

sharecroppers had little

choice but to cultivate

cotton — the landowner’s

choice of staple crops. The

landowner supplied the

acreage, houses, draft

animals, planting

materials, and nearly all

subsistence necessities,

including food and cash

advances. These

“furnishings” were then

deducted from the

sharecropper’s portion of

the crop at an incredibly

high interest rate.

The system not only kept

most tenants in debt, but it

perpetuated living

conditions that bordered

on the intolerable.

Landowners furnished

entire families with poorly

constructed one- or two-

room shacks, usually

without running water or

adequate sanitary

facilities. Living day-to-

day on a diet of “fat back,”

beans, molasses, and

cornbread, most Southern

tenants suffered from

nutritional deficiencies —

pellagra and rickets were

particularly common

diseases in the Black Belt.

The gradations of tenancy

must be understood in

relation to both race and

geographic distribution of

cotton production. The

Black Belt, the throne of

King Cotton in Alabama,

with its rich, black,

calcareous clay soil, still

resembled its antebellum

past in that blacks

outnumbered whites four

to one in some counties in

As with other cotton-

growing areas, the plant’s

life cycle and seasonal need

determined the labor and

living patterns of those

who worked the land. In

early spring, after the land

had thawed and dried from

winter, cotton farmers

plowed and fertilized rows

in preparation for

planting, which followed

several weeks later.

When the young plants

began to sprout, the cotton

had to be “chopped” —

grass and weeds were

removed and the stalks

separated so that they did

not grow too close

together. If this was not

done regularly the crop

could be lost. Picking time,

the most intense period of

labor involving all family

members, began around

September 1 and

continued through

October. Once the cotton

had been picked, ginned,

baled, and sold, accounts

were settled between the

tenant and the landowner.

The tenants, who usually

found themselves empty-

handed after settling

accounts, cultivated

gardens to survive the

winter, begged for food

and cash advances, or

spent several days without

anything to eat. And

throughout the entire

year, particularly during

the lean winters, tenants

hauled firewood, cut hay,

repaired their homes,

fences, tools, and watering

holes, cared for their stock,

cleared trees, and removed

stalks from the previous

Women’s lives were

especially hard in the

world of cotton culture.

Rising before dawn and

the rest of the family,

wives and daughters of

tenant farmers prepared

meals over a wood stove or

open fire, fetched water

from distant wells or

springs, washed laundry by

hand in pots of boiling

water, toted firewood,

tended livestock, made

preserves, dyes, clothes,

and medicinal remedies,

ground cornmeal, fathered

eggs, and tried to keep a

house that generally

lacked screens, windows,

indoor plumbing, and

electricity tidy.

Women also worked in the

fields, especially during

picking and chopping

time, and in the midst of

physically exacting labor

they bore and raised

children. Many had little

choice but to take in

laundry or perform

domestic work for meager

wages, thus tripling their

workload. Women

choppers and pickers

generally earned half as

much as their male

To make matters worse,

because husbands and

elder sons occasionally

migrated to nearby cities

or mines to find work,

responsibilities, or avoid

persecution in one form or

another, many women and

children in a variety of

female-headed households

and extended families

were left to organize

production without the

benefit of adult male labor.

It is tempting to

characterize the Black Belt

as a timeless, static, semi-

feudal remnant of the

post-Reconstruction era,

but such an idyllic picture

ignores the history of rural

opposition and does not

take into account

significant structural

changes that have

occurred since the 1890s.

Black and white populists

waged a losing battle

against the expansion of

tenancy, and in the wake of

defeat, many landless

farmers resisted debt

peonage with their feet.

Drowning in a sea of debt,

tenants often broke their

contracts, leaving an

unsuspecting landowner at

a critical moment in the

Given the demography of

the plantation, open

collective rebellion was

virtually impossible.

Shacks were placed near

the edge of the plantation,

and two or three miles

often separated tenant

families from one another.

Therefore, more

individualized forms of

resistance (theft, arson,

sabotage, “foot dragging,”

slander, and occasional

outbreaks of personal

violence) were used

effectively to wrest small

material gains or to

retaliate against unfair

Such tactics were

legitimated by folk

cultures that celebrated

evasive and cunning

activities and, ironically,

by the dominant ideology

of racist paternalism that

constructed an image of

blacks as naturally

ignorant, childlike,

shiftless laborers with a

strong penchant for theft.

Resistance, in some ways,

altered the structure of

production as well as the

planters’ ability to make a

profit. With the onset of

World War I, for example,

large numbers of workers

left the countryside

altogether to take

advantage of employment

opportunities in the

sprawling urban centers of

the North and South.

Areas most affected by the

exodus were forced to

adopt limited forms of

mechanization to make up

for the dwindling labor

force and rising wages.

The movement off the land

was accompanied by

improved roads and the

availability of affordable

automobiles, which

increased rural mobility.

The number of

automobiles owned and

operated by Alabama

farmers increased from

16 to 592 in 1920 and to

73,634 in 1930. Small

holders and tenants who

acquired vehicles were no

longer beholden to the

plantation commissary

and could now purchase

supplies at much lower

prices in the nearby urban

The revolution in

transportation compelled

landowners to furnish

tenants in cash in lieu of

credit lines at plantation

commissaries and county

stores in an attempt to

retain rural labor in the

face of competitive wages

offered in the cities. But

after 1929, cash was a rare

commodity, and

landowners resurrected

the commissary system,

effectively undermining

their tenants’ newly

acquired freedom and

By the time the

Birmingham Communists

established links to the

cotton belt in early 1931,

tenancy seemed on the

verge of collapse.

Advances of food and cash

were cut off, debts were

piling higher, and the city

opportunities to escape

Subterranean forms of

resistance were by no

means abandoned, but

groups of black farmers

now saw the logic in the

Communist Party’s call for

collective action.

The slogan demanding

self-determination in the

Black Belt did not inspire

Birmingham’s nascent

Communist cadre to

initiate a rural-based

radical movement. James

Allen, editor of the party

newspaper the Southern

Worker, argued that only

industrial workers were

capable of leading tenants

and sharecroppers because

the latter lacked the

collective experience of

industrial labor. Aside

from spouting rhetorical

slogans, party organizers

all but ignored the Black

Belt during their first year

in Birmingham.

Then, in January 1931, an

uprising of some five

hundred sharecroppers in

England, AR, compelled

Southern Communists to

take the rural poor more

seriously. Birmingham

party leaders immediately

issued a statement

exhorting Alabama

farmers to follow the

Arkansas example:

Call mass meetings in each

township and on each large

plantation. Set up Relief

Councils at these

meetings. Organize

hunger marches on the

towns to demand food and

clothing from the supply

merchants and bankers

who have sucked you dry

year after year . . . Join

hands with the

unemployed workers of

the towns and with their

organizations which are

fighting the same battle for

bread.

The response was

startling. The Southern

Worker was flooded with

letters from poor black

Alabama farmers. A

sharecropper from

Waverly, Alabama

requested “full

information on the Fight

Against Starvation,” and

pledged to “do like the

Arkansas farmers,” with

the assistance of

Communist organizers.

A Shelby County tenant

made a similar request:

“We farmers in Vincent

wish to know more about

the Communist Party, an

organization that fights for

all farmers. And also to

learn us how to fight for

better conditions.”

Another “farmer

correspondent” had

already begun to make

plans to “get a bunch

together for a meeting,”

adding that poor farmers

in his community were

“mighty close to a

breaking point.”

District leadership

enthusiastically laid plans

for a sharecroppers’ and

farmworkers’ union that

would conceivably unite

poor white farmers of

northern Alabama and

black tenants and

sharecroppers in the Black

Belt. An attempt to bring

black and white farmers

together in a joint

conference, however,

brought few results. The

party’s position on social

equality and equal rights

alienated most poor white

farmers, and within a few

months the party’s white

contacts in Cullman and St

Clair counties had

practically dissipated.

The Croppers’ and Farm

Workers’ Union (CFWU)

was eventually launched in

Tallapoosa County, a

section of the eastern

piedmont whose varied

topography ranges from

the hill county of

Appalachia in the north to

the coastal-like plains and

pine forests of the south.

In 1930, almost 70 percent

of those engaged in

agriculture were either

tenants or wage workers,

the majority of whom were

sharecroppers.

Blacks comprised the bulk

of the county’s tenant and

rural laboring populations,

and resided in the flat,

fertile southeastern and

southwestern sections of

the county. As in the Black

Belt counties further

south, antebellum planter

families in these two areas

retained political and

economic ascendancy,

despite competition from

textile and sawmill

interests. Not surprisingly,

the impetus to build a

union came from local

tenant farmers living

primarily in southeastern

Tallapoosa County.

Soon after the cotton had

been planted and chopped,

several landlords withdrew

all cash and food advances

in a calculated effort to

generate labor for the

newly built Russell Saw

Mill. The mill paid exactly

the same for unskilled

labor as the going rate for

cotton chopping — 50¢

per day for men and 25¢ a

day for women.

By mid-May the Southern

Worker reported

significant union gains in

Tallapoosa County and

announced that black

sawmill workers and

farmers in the vicinity

“have enthusiastically

welcomed Communist

leadership.”

The nascent movement

formulated seven basic

demands, the most crucial

being the continuation of

food advances. The right

of sharecroppers to market

their own crops was also a

critical issue because

landlords usually gave

their tenants the year’s

lowest price for cotton and

held on to the bales until

the price increased, thus

denying the producer the

full benefits of the crop.

Union leaders also

demanded small gardens

for resident wage hands,

cash rather than wages in

kind, a minimum wage of

$1 per day, and a three-

hour midday rest for all

laborers — all of which

were to be applied equally,

irrespective of race, age, or

sex.

By July 1931 the CFWU,

now eight hundred strong,

had won a few isolated

victories in its battle for

the continuation of food

advances. Most Tallapoosa

landlords, however, just

would not tolerate a

surreptitious organization

of black tenant farmers

and agricultural workers.

Camp Hill, Alabama

became the scene of the

union’s first major

confrontation with the

local power structure.

On July 15 Taft Holmes

organized a group of

sharecroppers near Camp

Hill and invited several

union members to address

the group in a vacant house

that doubled as a church.

In all, about eighty black

men and women piled into

the abandoned house to

discuss the CFWU and the

Scottsboro case. After a

black informant notified

Tallapoosa County sheriff

Kyle Young of the

gathering, deputized

vigilantes raided the

meeting place, brutally

beating men and women

alike.

The posse then regrouped

at CFWU leader Tommy

Gray’s home and assaulted

his entire family, including

his wife, who suffered a

fractured skull, in an effort

to obtain information

about the CFWU. Union

organizer Jasper Kennedy

was arrested for possessing

twenty copies of the

Southern Worker, and

Holmes was picked up by

police the following day,

interrogated for several

hours, and upon release

fled to Chattanooga.

Despite the violence,

about 150 sharecroppers

met with Mack Coad — an

illiterate Birmingham

steelworker originally

from Charleston, SC who

had become the party’s

organizer in Tallapoosa —

the following evening in a

vacant house southwest of

Camp Hill. This time

sentries were posted

around the meeting place.

When Sheriff Young

arrived on the scene with

Camp Hill police chief J.

M. Wilson and Deputy A.

J. Thompson, he found

Ralph Gray — Tommy

Gray’s brother and fellow

CFWU organizer —

standing guard about a

quarter-mile from the

meeting. Although

accounts differ as to the

sequence of events, both

Gray and the sheriff traded

harsh words and, in the

heat of the argument,

exchanged buckshot.

Young, who received

gunshot wounds to the

stomach, was rushed to a

hospital in nearby

Alexander City while Gray

lay on the side of the road,

his legs riddled with

bullets.

Fellow union members

carried Gray to his home

where the group, including

Coad, barricaded

themselves inside the

house. The group held off a

posse led by Wilson long

enough to allow most

members to escape, but

the wounded Ralph Gray

opted to remain in his

house until the end.

The posse returned with

reinforcements and found

Gray lying in his bed and

his family huddled in a

corner. According to his

brother, someone in the

group “poked a pistol into

Brother Ralph’s mouth

and shot down his throat.”

The mob burned the home

to the ground and dumped

his body on the steps of the

Dadeville courthouse. The

mangled and lifeless leader

became an example for

other black sharecroppers

as groups of armed whites

took turns shooting and

kicking the bloody corpse

of Ralph Gray.

Over the next few days,

between thirty-four and

fifty-five black men were

arrested near Camp Hill,

nine of whom were under

eighteen years of age.

Most of the defendants

were charged with

conspiracy to murder or

with carrying a concealed

weapon, but five union

members were charged

with assault to murder.

Although police chief

Wilson could not legally

act out his wish to “kill

every member of the

‘Reds’ there and throw

them into the creek,” the

Camp Hill police

department stood idle as

enraged white citizens

waged genocidal attacks

on the black community

that left dozens wounded

or dead and forced entire

families to seek refuge in

the woods. Union

secretary Mack Coad, the

vigilantes’ prime target,

fled all the way to Atlanta.

Behind the violence in

Tallapapoosa County

loomed the Scottsboro

case. But unlike

Scottsboro, the Camp Hill

defendants were members

of the party’s organization;

there was no question as to

who was going to defend

them. After lawyers

associated with the party

secured the release of all

but seven of the

imprisoned sharecroppers,

prominent Alabama

citizens wary of creating

another Scottsboro

episode pressured

authorities to quietly drop

the case.

National Communist

leadership praised the

union’s resistance at Camp

Hill as vindication of the

party’s slogan calling for

the right of self-

determination. The

successful legal defense of

the sharecroppers was

further proof, they

reasoned, of the

effectiveness of mass

pressure outside the

courtroom.

But union organizers

found little romance in the

bloodletting or in the

uprooting of hundreds of

poor black farmers that

followed the Camp Hill

battle. Moreover, rural

conditions in Tallapoosa

County had not improved

at all.

By September, the height

of the cotton-picking

season, landlords again

promised to cut off all food

and cash advances after the

cotton was picked, and

many tenants had to pick

cotton on other

plantations in order to

earn enough to survive the

winter. The going rate at

the time was a meager

30¢ per one

hundred pounds, a tidy

sum considering the

average laborer could only

pick about two

hundred pounds per day.

The repression and the

deteriorating economic

conditions stunted the

union’s growth initially,

but the lessons of Camp

Hill also provided a

stimulus for a new type of

movement, reborn from

the ashes of the old. The

Communist movement in

Alabama resonated with

the cultures and traditions

of black working people,

yet at the same time it

offered something

fundamentally different. It

proposed a new direction,

a new kind of politics that

required the self-activity

of people usually

dismissed as inarticulate.

The sun had not set on the

proud history of

Communists in Alabama

— black sharecroppers

would continue to

struggle.

August Third Collective South NAPLA
Haki Kweli Shakur #Screenshot_2015-09-07-14-25-21-1TheStruggleizForLand

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