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. Antilynching activists, on one hand, and labor defenders, on the other, relied on diametrically opposed conceptions of the populist masses and the law. Whereas the antilynching movement called for the rule of law to quell mob hysteria, labor defense stood up for workers against a prejudicial legal system. These opposing views posed a challenge to the CP in attracting black members and sympathizers. While communists prophesied a future revolution led by an international proletariat, the most visible form of proletarian collective action in the South, according to some skeptical observers at the time, was the lynch mob. As African American editors I. Willis Cole of the Louisville Leader and William Kelley of the New York Amsterdam News pointed out, lynch mobs were driven by poor whites, while white advocates of black civil rights tended to be middle-class liberals. This vexing issue of white working-class racism led W. E. B. Du Bois to conclude in the early 1930s that “throughout the history of the Negro in America, white labor has been the black man’s enemy, his oppressor, his red murderer,” and therefore “imported Marxism . . . does not at all fit the situation.” Writers and activists who wanted to build an interracial coalition out of the ferment over Scottsboro had to deal with the contradiction between the “masses” and the “mob.”
According to James A. Miller, the ILD’s success in the Scottsboro case depended on its ability to disrupt the white South’s powerful rape-lynch myth by constructing a compelling counternarrative that debunked the stereotypes of the black rapist and the pure white victim. Accordingly, commentators at the time and subsequent historians have placed the Scottsboro protests in the political and aesthetic tradition of antilynching. African Americans such as Ada Wright saw the protest as a “fight goin’ on against lynchin’,” and the ILD had been using the term “legal lynching” to describe the southern courts’ liberal use of capital punishment for black males since at least 1929. Yet the ILD also had to create an alternative to the antilynch narrative that counterposed respectable, often middle-class African Americans and the white rabble, for this characterization was at odds with its Marxist outlook. The most powerful rhetorical tool in this arsenal of the literary Left was, in my view, the hobo narrative.
Left-wing journalists drew upon different hobo “types” to depict the Scottsboro boys as vulnerable workers, to discredit their accusers as promiscuous tramps, and to imagine a counternarrative of masculine proletarian unity. While this strategy inverted the “rape-lynch triangle” of the black male rapist, white female victim, and white male avenger, it still relied on conservative sexual and gender ideologies. The proletarian hobo was reconfigured during the Popular Front period as a symbol of “the people” but remained constrained by notions of manhood that relied on sexual access to white women. In his widely read sentimental novella Of Mice and Men (1937), John Steinbeck popularized the radical hobo narrative by depicting an interracial community of transient workers that resembled a family more than a union. However, its racial inclusiveness depended on the exclusion and demonization of white women and the emasculation of black men. In response, fledgling African American writer William Attaway self-consciously revised Steinbeck’s story in his novella Let Me Breathe Thunder, published two years later. Attaway draws upon this populist image of the masculine hobo family but explodes the tinderbox of race and sex that lingers in the background of Steinbeck’s story. Tracing the hobo narrative from radical Scottsboro journalism to Steinbeck’s popular version to Attaway’s response reveals how Left interracialism contended with the tangled thicket of race, sexuality, and gender.
- Wright, “My Two Sons Face the Electric Chair,” 182. For more on the role of the Scottsboro mothers, see Miller, Pennybacker, and Rosenhaft, “Mother Ada Wright.”↩
- Solomon, Cry Was Unity, 197, 205.↩
- Ibid., 300; Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 90.↩
- Hill, Men, Mobs, and the Law, 2.↩
- Solomon, Cry Was Unity, 229.↩
- Du Bois, “The Negro and Communism,” 315.↩
- Miller, Remembering Scottsboro, 11.↩
- Wright, “My Two Sons Face the Electric Chair”; Solomon, Cry Was Unity, 187.↩