Most scholarship on the mass migrations of African Americans and southern whites during and after the Great Depression treats those migrations as separate phenomena, strictly divided along racial lines. In Ain’t Got No Home: America’s Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left, Erin Royston Battat argues instead that we should understand these Depression-era migrations as interconnected responses to the capitalist collapse and political upheavals of the early twentieth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, she shows, writers and artists of both races created migration stories specifically to bolster the black-white Left alliance. In a vibrant rereading and recovering of the period’s literary and visual culture, Battat expands our understanding of the migration narrative by uniting the political and aesthetic goals of the black and white literary Left and illuminating the striking interrelationship between American populism and civil rights.
In the following excerpt (pp. 15-17), Battat introduces one of the challenges to interracial coalition building by the Communist Party in the wake of the Scottsboro Trials, and argues that a literary trope became a powerful tool for addressing that challenge.
On 25 March 1931, a group of black boys got into a fight with some white boys on a Memphis-bound freight train. When the police rounded up the black youths near Scottsboro, Alabama, they found a couple of white girls hiding on the train and coerced them into filing rape charges. Although Alabama’s Governor Benjamin Meek Miller and the National Guard prevented a mass lynching, the outcome was just about the same: A white jury quickly convicted the boys, sentencing all but the youngest to death. The Communist-led ILD [International Labor Defense] quickly took charge of the boys’ appeals. The speed with which the ILD responded to the case, the intensity and reach of its mass protests and publicity campaigns, its top-notch defense team, and the vocal support of the mothers and families of the Scottsboro boys convinced many African Americans that the CP [Communist Party] was a trustworthy ally dedicated to their particular needs as black people. As Ada Wright, mother of two of the boys, attested, “We know our friends when we see them and we’re a goin’ to stick to the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and the International Labor Defense Committee.” Black schoolchildren carried pickets; African American Girl Scouts attended rallies; college students raised money; and ordinary people took to the streets. By 1935 the ranks of African Americans in the CP swelled from a few hundred to 2,500. The black membership of the ILD in Birmingham alone was 3,000, making it the largest Civil Rights organization in the city.
Yet a closer inspection of the Scottsboro case reveals how complicated was the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party in the 1930s. The CP championed the working-class and unemployed masses, but these were precisely the people who had terrorized the black boys on the train, falsely accused them of rape, and would have lynched them without the governor’s intervention. Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Ain’t Got No Home, by Erin Royston Battat’ »