‘Massacre of the Alabama Share-Croppers’ by Eugene Gordon from the New Masses. Vol. 7 No. 3. August, 1931.

‘Massacre of the Alabama Share-Croppers’ by Eugene Gordon from the New Masses. Vol. 7 No. 3. August, 1931.

A few months ago a small group of Negro share-croppers and farm hands of Alabama, driven to desperation by hunger and the sense of the futility of appealing to Southern ruling class “justice,” met and discussed means of organizing. Most of these men were illiterate. They met without any definite idea as to precisely what form their purposed organization would take. They were woefully ignorant of the stencils and the catch-phrases of the intellectual economist. They knew only that they were starving; that their families were indentured slaves at the mercy of the ruling class whites of that community; that there was no efficacy in prayers to an allwise and all-white god; that. if they did not move to fight against the terrors of their new slavery they would be exterminated. But they met and they talked among themselves. They decided in their meeting, and in subsequent meetings, that they must be the nucleus of a permanent organization, the purpose of which would be to fight for the relief of the present-day slaves of the South. Out of that small beginning there grew an organization of from 700 to 800 black share-croppers and farm workers.

Hearing of their revolutionary efforts to organize, the Southern branch of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights consulted with them and offered them such assistance as they seemed to need. One of the startling facts revealed to the L.S.N.R. was that some of these black backwoodsmen had regularly been reading the Southern Worker, and, reading it, had experienced a flaring up of their smoldering revolutionary fires. Since most of the men could not read, it is evident that their knowledge of what the Southern Worker said came from discussions with those who could read a little. Many of the older men doubtless saw in this experience a revival of the rebel spirit of sixty five and seventy years ago, when an occasional rebel who had been taught to read at the “big house” shared his precious knowledge with the ignorant men and women of the fields; ignorant men and women who were nevertheless wise enough to know that they would be mercilessly beaten if their masters or the overseer caught them looking at any kind of printed matter.

The more literate among the Camp Hill share-croppers and farm hands read the revolutionary messages from the Southern Worker, and a sense of the degradation that had been forced upon them by the greedy and heartless landowners flared into their consciousness. But what is more important than that, they realized that sporadic and individual assaults upon their oppressors would bring them nothing but defeat and death. It was not their intention to organize guerilla bands to harass the wealthy landowner-oppressor by ambuscade attacks; it was their purpose only to organize so that the force of their demands for “justice” would have the keener effect. They were astute enough to know that the South has never respected anything but organized force.

They had not been meeting very long before the landowners learned of the organization. That is to say, the landowners learned that the Negroes were coming together regularly and that all these meetings were not designed to the glory of God and the white bosses. Some of the meetings were held in the church; some of them, in order that suspicion might be diverted, were held at the houses of members of the organization. By this time the organization had been officially named the Share Croppers Union, and it was here that the League of Struggle for Negro Rights further assisted. The white landowners, now thoroughly frightened at these mysterious goings on of the black peasantry, assumed that plans were being laid to attack them.

On Wednesday night July 15 about 150 of the 800 or so members of the Negroes’ organization met to formulate the demands they had been discussing. The landowners must have been on the lookout, for the meeting was no sooner under way than a number of them appeared, accompanied by the chief of police and scores of landowners sworn in temporarily as “deputies.” On the outside of the meeting house, located in a lonely and isolated spot, Ralph Gray, one of the active organizers of the share-croppers union, stood on guard. He was one of the two armed Negroes. The Sheriff’s party fired wounding Gray. They invaded the meeting, and were momentarily halted by the revolver of the chairman. Outnumbered by armed and murderous landowners backed by southern “justice,” the share-croppers strategically gave way. Some of them rescued the wounded man in the dark. They called in a physician to attend his wounds, and the physician tattled to the mob. As a consequence a larger force of “deputies,” led by the gallant sheriff, set out a night or two later to finish Gray, whom they looked upon as the leader. But the share-croppers had been reading the Southern Worker and so knew something about organized resistance to capitalist thug attack. They were expecting a counter attack and were prepared. Displayed about the house in the woods, they lay waiting. When the sheriff’s gang of two hundred or more approached the house, it began immediately to fire. It fired round after round into the shack where the wounded man lay. It was surprised by an answering fire from the woods. The leader of the gang, Sheriff J. Kyle Young, was (according to the Birmingham News) “critically wounded,” and one of his deputies was “slightly wounded.” The News makes no mention of the others in the gang who were wounded. Several of the share-croppers were wounded and four were accounted “missing” after the fight. Gray was finally killed and his wife’s skull fractured by members of the gang.

Perhaps no better summing up could be made than that which was written by a correspondent for the International Labor Defense, which immediately assumed defense of the 32 share-croppers who were locked up. The I.L.D. statement says: “The sharecroppers’ union has been in process of organization during the past few months against miserable starvation wages. The plantation owners planned to cut off the share-croppers from all food advances, giving a small number the alternative of working in the fields or sawmills at wages of sixty to ninety cents a day. The organized lynchers were after the members and leaders of the union. The share-cropper’s demands as formulated up to the time of the massacre were: 1. Food advances to continue until settlement time; 2. Settlement to be made in full by cash payment; 3. The share-croppers to have the right to sell their crops where they saw fit; 4. To have the right of a garden for their home use; 5. A three-hour midday rest.” ·

These miserable crumbs are what the black farm workers were planning to ask for; these miserable crumbs were what some of them died for.

The white share-croppers of that section are secretly with the Negroes; their confusion of mind prevents their being actively with them. But they have been awakened. The blacks have shown them how to die like free men. They themselves being less than free.

The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1931/v07n03-aug-1931-New-Masses.pdf

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