The Communists and Rosa Parks

A nine-foot bronze statue of the civil rights icon and Alabama native, Rosa Parks was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol building yesterday. President Obama spoke at the dedication ceremony rightly asserting that Parks' activism began long before she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1955.

In fact, according to Professor Robin D.G. Kelley, who has written on the Communist Party's involvement in the early days of the civil rights movement in Alabama, Parks and her husband were regular attendees at communist meetings in the 1930's. 

Kelley, who is currently Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, shared his own journey as a member of the Communist Party in a 2003 Minnesota Review article. Kelley also touched on his 1990 book Hammer and Hoe chronicling the rise of the Communist Party in Alabama during the Great Depression.

From MR:

So I went to graduate school to study history not to be a history professor, but to be a professional Communist. That was my thing, and I was a member of the Communist Workers' Party. I chose to go back to the period of Stalinism to figure out what happened when you build a movement around the notion of the self-determination of African Americans. What happens when you say that African Americans in the Black Belt counties of the South constitute a nation, and your politics are built around that? Did they actually try to achieve self-determination? Were they struggling for land?"

Another thing about Hammer and Hoe is that in some ways it is not really African American history. Some of the key figures were white, many of whom were second, third-generation Jews who migrated to the South and who ended up as central figures in the Communist movement in Montgomery, Alabama. 

As a result of some of those classes, I had a couple of professors who took me under their wing. Not black professors. Two old Lefties, Jack Stuart, who was an old Trotskyite from the early 60s, and Leo Rifkin, who since passed, who was a Young Communist Leaguer back in the 30s and became a kind of Rockefeller Republican, but still had left-wing leanings. 

[At U of Michigan] There were a lot of study groups; I was part of a group called MSG, which was the Marxist Study Group. Every once in a while it did give you the sense that you had MSG, you got kind of sleepy and had a headache, but I learned a lot in that group, and it really shaped my work.

Then in 2010 Kelley was interviewed by Michel Martin of NPR. I found the transcript on an online site called The Marxist-Leninist. This time Kelley focused on Hammer and Hoe and the Party's beginnings in Birmingham. He specifically named Parks as a woman who was directly involved with the famous 1931 Scottsboro case which the CP used to cement their relationship with the black community.

From The Marxist-Leninist:

MARTIN: What was the Communist Partys [sic] message at that time and why were these black folks so attracted to it?

Prof. KELLEY: Well, there were three things they focused on. One, because it was during the Great Depression, their primary focus was the unemployed. And so their demands were, we want either work or some kind of support from the government. The second thing was, in 1931, we had the famous Scottsboro case, where nine young black men were arrested falsely for raping two white women and they end up going to jail.

Prof. KELLEY: Initially, when the Communist Party arrived and began organizing black workers, the NAACP in Birmingham and all of Jefferson County was just sort of a shadow of itself. They had six dues-paying members. The Communist Party had about 500.

And when the Scottsboro case opened up, the leader of the NAACP, Walter White, his concern was whether or not these boys did it. Whereas the communists said, look, we know that theyre [sic] class war prisoners. We know that theyre [sic] victims. And they made a big case out of it.

So, pretty soon, the NAACP and the Communist Party began competing for the hearts and minds of the parents of the boys. And nationally, NAACP leaders said that, look, whatever you do, don't [sic] let the communist win.

MARTIN: At its height, how many members would you say the Communist Party had in Alabama, particularly among African-Americans?

Prof. KELLEY: Well, theres [sic] a couple of ways to think about this. One, in terms of actual dues-paying members, they never had more than 600, 700. But then, if you look at all the other auxiliary organizations, the International Labor Defense, which focused on civil rights issues, they had up to 2,000. The Sharecroppers Union had up to 12,000. You had the International Workers Order. You had the League of Young Southerners. You had the Southern Negro Youth Congress. If you add up all these organizations, it touched the lives easily of 20,000 people.

...But in Alabama they do little secret things...My favorite story is, you know, one of the big issues for unemployed people was getting relief from social workers. And sometimes it would be impossible just to get your basic flour and lard and whatever. And whenever workers had trouble with social workers, the Communist Party would get penny postcards and write on these penny postcards, anonymously: The workers are watching you. And send them to the social worker.


Prof. KELLEY: To threatening them to basically give the people what they need.

MARTIN:  How successful do you think the Communist Party was at brining [sic] about a change in Alabama, which is the place that you seem to think it was the most effective or widespread, or at least the most present in this period? And the reason Im [sic] asking is that even now, I mean, Alabama has yet to elect an African-American to a state white [sic] office, for example.

Prof. KELLEY: Right.

MARTIN: One person who is running now, Congressman Artur Davis. But if hes look [sic] he will be the first till 2010. So, how effective do you think the Alabama Communist Party was?

Prof. KELLEY: Well, I think it was very effective in some areas. One, even in training and organizing. Some of the most important organizers in steel, in iron were communists; who, after 1935, were some of the lead organizers in training and organizing, which really made a difference in workers lives in the 50s and 60s. The other thing is that there were many people who were trained in the Communist Party who went on to become Civil Rights activists.

And then, Rosa Parks. Was [sic] does Rosa Parks had to do with any of this? Well, some of her first political activities were around the Scottsboro case, you know? She never joined the party, but as a young woman, she and her husband, in fact, attended some of the meetings.

Kelley doesn't mention Parks attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee weeks before her arrest in Montgomery. Highlander, a kind of training facility for community organizers was started by two members of the Communist Party in 1954. There Parks learned about Ghandi and the effectiveness of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Later on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael also attended sessions at the school. Trouble is Highlander was founded by the same two men who set up Commonwealth College. Commonwealth was cited in a secret report on communism reprinted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. On April 27, 1947, the U.S. Attorney General listed Commonwealth College as a communist front. The College had displayed a hammer and sickle and openly taught communism.

Even though the communist underbelly of the civil rights movement has been noted by Kelley and others most students and Americans are unaware of the Party's influence in the lives of activists like Rosa Parks. That's a shame.

If the elites of the CPUSA were indeed using the horror of segregation, lynching and Jim Crow to further their own anti-capitalist agenda we need to know. It could help us understand why there is high unemployment among blacks, why there are ripped up cities like Detroit and Oakland and why the welfare state has destroyed the black family. 

Read more M. Catharine Evans at Potter Williams Report

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