Rosa Parks walked through the streets of segregated Alabama. Determined and resolute, she was on her way to conduct one of her very first acts of rebellion against the Jim Crow laws that controlled her state. But she didn’t make her way to a bus stop — protesting segregated seating would come later in her life. She was headed instead to a secret gathering, one of her first political forays: an underground communist meeting, filled with Black socialist Alabamians.
While Parks is world-famous, her communist background — which predates the civil rights movement as most people perceive it — is a key and untold part of her story. Some historians even argue that it only makes sense that Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement, was also a place with a robust communist circle (perhaps not in terms of numbers, but in influence).
“In places with a strong communist presence, the civil rights movement was also strong,” explains historian Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Hammer and Hoe whose work focuses on Black Americans and communism. The party, he says, was essential to laying the infrastructure of the civil rights movement in Alabama.
Many civil rights leaders learned from communist teachings. Hosea Hudson, the famous Southern African-American labor leader, studied Marxism in Russia. Organizers Asbury Howard and Anne Braden were both affiliated with the party, while Angela Davis grew up around communist culture in Birmingham. Parks also had ties to the party — while she was never a member, she is reported to have attended communist-led meetings in her early years of activism, while her husband, Raymond, was much closer to the party.
Hosea Hudson … swore me to secrecy. He said, ‘If you ever tell anyone about Rosa Parks coming to our meetings, then I’m gonna come and track you down.’
Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Hammer and Hoe
Although the number of communists in Alabama was not comparable to that of New York or other northern metro cities, the state’s African American community was quite a stronghold for communist activity among Black Americans. Birmingham, in particular, was the center of Southern industry, with a Black working class so prominent that the area was nicknamed the Black Belt.
Birmingham was naturally targeted by the Communist International, an organization that sought to build a worldwide communist society, as a promising source of Black American converts. The party’s rejection of racial discrimination as a capitalistic form of worker exploitation, as well as the rhetoric of a “new world,” deeply resonated among African Americans. If one totals the Alabama chapter of the Communist Party USA’s dues-paying members and other auxiliary organizations like International Labor Defense (ILD) and the Sharecroppers’ Union, around 20,000 Alabamians had a relationship with the party at its height.
One of the most famous communist involvements in American politics was the 1931 case of the Scottsboro Boys, in which two white women falsely accused nine Black teenagers of rape. While the NAACP’s legal strategy was to try to win in a court of law, the ILD — the legal arm of the Communist Party — had developed an even more powerful strategy: to try the case in the court of public opinion. They instigated speeches and rallies in support of the Scottsboro Nine around the world. Some scholars saw this as a clear case of communist involvement that undermined support in America for a legitimate cause. It was an “intense communist campaign,” writes Paul Kengor in his book The Communist, and one that “compounded an already tragic situation.”
But some argue otherwise: By galvanizing international public support for the Scottsboro Nine, “‘Scottsboro’ became synonymous with Southern racism, repression and injustice,” writes historian Dan T. Carter. “Truth is,” says Kelley, “they would have gotten the death penalty if it was not for that pressure. So they [ILD] are responsible for saving them. The tragedy is that they got jail time, but they did save their lives.” Additionally, by trying to push the case in the face of public opinion, the communist press was changing international discourse about African Americans. They challenged the stereotype of Black men as criminals, presenting them as victims of injustice and Black women as grieving mothers.
The Scottsboro case is still remembered today as a foreign infiltration into American politics and an outside force meddling in domestic issues: “Communist organizers saw a great opportunity to exploit that case as a recruiting mechanism for Black Americans,” says Kengor. Communism is often seen as alien to American culture and history, when in fact the Communist Party of Alabama appears to have been very much native and homegrown. Meetings organized by Black communists were often intertwined with prayers and religion. This relationship between Christianity, something so integral to everyday Southern life, and communism, something so seemingly foreign, was actually more common than one might believe. Kelley argues that while communism was often presented as godless, the ideology is itself a kind of faith. “Therefore, to me the most die-hard communists were the most religious, even if they call themselves atheists,” he says.
Historical discourse often vilifies outsiders for attempting to disrupt communities. Yet for the Black workers of Alabama — who felt isolated and surrounded by hostile forces — communism was an international force offering protection and solidarity. Still, communism’s reputation in America was so toxic that activists who had embraced its ideals often hid their origins. “Hosea Hudson, who I interviewed, swore me to secrecy,” Kelley says. “He said, ‘If you ever tell anyone about Rosa Parks coming to our meetings, then I’m gonna come and track you down.’” But those reputations have softened with the years. “Eventually,” Kelley says, “Hosea told the world himself.”