I recently watched Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters, an excellent film that depicted ideology, race, class, and Jim Crow in the American South. There are a number of great clips to show in an American History course. Washington, a great actor that personified the typical black academic circa 1930, played Melvin B. Tolson, a poet and professor during the decade. In the movie, Tolson’s character was that of an energetic professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas who organized the school’s debate team, which went on to debate white colleges, to a mostly undefeated season where they won a 1935 debate against the reigning national champion, USC — not Harvard. Although there are historical problems with this feel good film, the same cannot be said about the historical accuracy of what the movie is really about: lynchings, KKK, poverty, racism, economic inequality, communism, and capitalism.
Tolson, being both an academic and a communist, saw the significance in ending class and racial conflict in America, as he attempted to unify poor black and white sharecroppers against the feudal construct that controlled their wages. Such a union was a threat to both white supremacy and capitalism. The government, along with the bosses, were completely against any form of union that would help sharecroppers receive better wages and better working conditions. Moreover, a great fear among white supremacists was racial harmony. Rooted back in the days of the Populist Party, racial unification among the working class might destroy the feudal order of share cropping.
The late Richard Hofstadter, one of my favorite scholars, thought very little of the Populist. He noted in his 1955 work, The Age of Reform, that they rested on a romanticized and obsolete vision of the role of farmers in American society, and was permeated with bigotry and ignorance. Thus, their inability to unify beyond the condition of race and ideology allowed capitalists to manipulate them, and the dominance of progressive period politics to end their platform for rural reform.
As I have noted on a previous post regarding this historical topic: The problem that unfolded, however, was the marriage of democracy, racism, and slavery. These three components can be viewed as a product of capitalism. Many black intellectuals were Marxist. Better yet, many were card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston wrote about the failure of American democracy. According to some, they saw a better world in the red regime of Cold War Eastern Europe. Because of the failure of American democracy, the communists had some natural advantages. Marxist ideology was insistently nonracislist; the various non-European nationalities in the former Soviet Union were, on paper at least, equal under the law; and blacks from the west that visited Russia could be entertained in a manner that seemed to demonstrate a total absence of color prejudice.
As noted on my CV, I delivered a conference paper a few years back entitled The Atlantic-Market Thesis. In this paper I stated that in my courses, I teach that the term “racism” was transformed at the same point in which the term “slavery” was transformed via the 16th century Atlantic market (denoting the Atlantic Ocean and World). The Atlantic market gave rise to a newly created North American state that used racial exploitation as a labor base to develop its economic market. I do realize that this attitude was one of region and geography; regardless, it fostered an American identity that linked Max Webber’s work ethic of inherent Calvinism to capitalism, slavery, and racism. Though, the very nature of slavery was anti-climatic to the term free-market capitalism.
That historical epoch which shaped my interest in Oceans as a historical marker (see post here) are directly linked to the rise of black communist in American society. The Atlantic market gave birth to the notion of king cotton, slavery, and the inevitable rise of sharecropping. Note this recent book review offers much perspective on what the film is really about. In Robin D.G. Kelley’s book, Hammer and Hoe, the author constructs an anthropological, historical, and sociological book about the organizing work of Black Communists in the South in which the stereotype about communists are debunked.
The Alabama Communist Party was built from scratch by working people who had no Euro-American radical political tradition. It was composed largely of poor blacks, most of whom were semiliterate and devoutly religious, but it also attracted a handful of whites, including unemployed industrial workers, iconoclastic youth, and renegade liberals. Kelley shows that the cultural identities of these people from Alabama’s farms, factories, mines, kitchens, and city streets shaped the development of the Party. The result was a remarkably resilient movement forged in a racist world that had little tolerance for radicals. In the South race pervaded virtually every aspect of Communist activity. And because the Party’s call for voting rights, racial equality, equal wages for women, and land for landless farmers represented a fundamental challenge to the society and economy of the South, it is not surprising that Party organizers faced a constant wave of violence.
Kelley’s analysis ranges broadly, examining such topics as the Party’s challenge to black middle-class leadership; the social, ideological, and cultural roots of black working-class radicalism; Communist efforts to build alliances with Southern liberals; and the emergence of a left-wing, interracial youth movement. He closes with a discussion of the Alabama Communist Party’s demise and its legacy for future civil rights activism.