In honor of Black History Month, NPR’s Tell Me More program has an interview with historian Robin D.G. Kelley. Kelley, now the Harmsworth Chair of American History at Oxford (the first African-American to hold the position), talks about the history of Communists in the civil rights movement in Alabama. He wrote about this history in his book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.
‘Hammer and Hoe’ is about how (mostly white) Communists organized, and fought with, black workers (especially sharecroppers). The work that Communists did in Alabama had a direct impact on the emerging Civil Rights movement. Even Rosa Parks (not a Party member) went to Party meetings and was influenced by the Communist activist network. Needless to say, many of the more mainstream civil rights groups were very opposed to Communists and Communist involvement in the civil rights struggle. It was interesting to see host Michel Martin dance around the controversial nature of Communists in the movement and Kelley himself seemed to be in self-censoring mode, twice avoiding the term ‘Popular Front.’
I found the interview fascinating, partly because I’m very interested in the way that American Communists are understood today. American Communism is a highly politicized topic, even in academia, and it can be difficult to portray their history as positive, or even neutral, inside a discourse so heavily invested in the idea of Communism as unadulterated evil. One of Kelley’s important points is that the Communism of southern Blacks was absolutely ‘home grown’ and reflected the values of the people, (they opened their meetings with a prayer!) not the dictates of Moscow. This is a highly recommended listen and brings to light an important moment in the American Civil Rights movement.