Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression

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Kelley, Robin D.G., Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1990) ISBN 0807842885 392 pages.

Summary

In general, one does not think of the 1930s South as a hotbed of radical Communist activism. However, in Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, author Robin Kelley shows how southerners, particularly blacks, were drawn to this movement, especially in the years leading up to the Second World War. Using a bottom-up approach, Kelly demonstrates how southern blacks, the most oppressed people in society, defied their “betters” (i.e., the whites) and used the Communist Party to call attention to the inequalities in southern society. By using the vehicle of the Communist Party, the blacks demonstrated that they did not receive the same benefits promised by FDR under the New Deal. The Communist Party did not remain a potent force after the Second World War, and many southern liberals and middle-class blacks associated with the NAACP began to agitate against poverty and racism; however, neither movement provided the agency and voice to poorer blacks that the Communist Party had in the 1930s.

While Hammer and Hoe does take a sympathetic view of Communists in the 1930s South, its subject matter should not deter those who dislike the Marxian perspective from enjoying this book. The author has done an incredible job tracing the rise and fall of the Alabama Communist Party (CP) during the New Deal era. He begins his work with a brief synopsis of the rise of industry in post-Civil War Birmingham, then describes how the black community became attracted to the message of the CP, and eventually tailored it to its own needs. Meanwhile, many white Alabamians opposed Communism, “read[ing] into basic struggles for social justice a threat to the edifice of Southern civilization.” (Kelley, 99) Although the CP gained many adherents, white racism, coupled with lack of support from elite blacks, helped lead to the party’s demise. In the 1950s and 60s, therefore, “many Communists …’hid’ behind desks, podiums, in small offices and unions halls, among spokespersons, and “race” leaders who belonged to SNYC, the Alabama Committee for Human Welfare, the CIO, the AFU, and other related organizations.” (Kelley, 220). While they did not engage in the same strike and other in-your-face activities, blacks still strove to achieve the goal of equality as preached by the CP.

Although black males play a significant role in Kelley’s account, women also had role in the story of the CP in Alabama. In looking at female workers, Kelley shows how black women rose through the ranks of the CP, despite prejudice against them. In the late nineteenth century, many reformers (mostly of the middle class women) “exhibited hostilities toward their darker sisters.” (Kelley, 6). And as far as labor organization went, white male labor organizations regarded black female laborers—the majority of the domestic work force—as “unorganizable and unimportant and thus…virtually invisible.” (ibid.) With that said, women eventually achieved an important role in the CP. All-female “Sewing Clubs…met separately to divert the suspicions of local authorities;” however, these clubs “provided forums to discuss conditions and formulate strategy.” (Kelley,46) In these early years, “women’s auxiliaries sometimes rivaled union locals in membership as well as in their strident advocacy of labor organizations.” (Kelley, 69)

A final interesting topic Kelley brings up is religion. Although many northern/international Communists dismissed faith, blacks saw religion and the equality preached by the CP as intimately related. A “radical interpretation of Christianity continued to thrive outside of the organized church. Ironically, this radical, prophetic tradition of Christianity was a major factor in drawing blacks into the Communist Party and its mass organization.” (Kelley, 107) It was not the smooth words of Father Coughlin nor the folksy of rhetoric of Huey Long that inspired the rural and working blacks (Kelley points out that few owned radios), but rather the word of God and message of equality as preached by the CP.

Kelley has done a fantastic job in showing the role of the CP in the New Deal South. He bolsters his story by adding his one-on-one interviews with CP members Hosea Hudson, as well as including horrifying accounts of the struggles and beatings many blacks endured to win equality. His bibliography is extensive, and shows the depth of his research. In sum, Hammer and Hoe is a must read for scholars interested in social or labor history.-- Liz Jones, Spring 2007

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