Lynching: A Weapon of National Oppression (1932)

jamesallen-blackbelt1
A map of the Black Belt ter­ri­tory and its sur­round­ing areas. From James S. Allen’s book, The Negro Ques­tion in the United States (Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1936).

Introduction

In the early 1930s, cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis com­pelled par­tic­i­pants across the polit­i­cal left to face off against a com­mon enemy: extra-legal, rul­ing-class vio­lence. Anti-black lynch­ings and sum­mary exe­cu­tions of labor orga­niz­ers had risen with the onslaught of the worst eco­nomic depres­sion since the late nine­teenth cen­tury. For the first time since rad­i­cal Recon­struc­tion – when an inter­ra­cial move­ment to bat­tle the bru­tal­i­ties of share­crop­ping and fore­stall the full imple­men­ta­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in the South was bru­tally halted by the 1876 Tilden-Hayes com­pro­mise and the return to polit­i­cal power of the for­mer slave-hold­ing class – large num­bers of white labor activists joined black lib­er­a­tionists in oppos­ing lynch law.

Out of this con­text arose an analy­sis of lynch­ing as a weapon of class war­fare. In 1932, Harry Hay­wood and Mil­ton Howard co-authored a polit­i­cal pam­phlet enti­tled Lynch­ing: A Weapon of National Oppres­sion. Hay­wood and Howard’s Marx­ist-Lenin­ist analy­sis of lynch­ing emerged from their expe­ri­ences in the Com­mu­nist Party USA (CPUSA) and from the Party’s nascent move­ment to orga­nize impov­er­ished share­crop­pers in the south­ern Black Beltneigh­bor­ing coun­ties in the South dom­i­nated by the plan­ta­tion econ­omy and with a black demo­graphic major­ity. The pub­li­ca­tion was part of a tra­di­tion of CPUSA pam­phle­teer­ing that informed the Party’s orga­niz­ing. Pam­phlets like James S. Allen’s The Amer­i­can Negro were dis­trib­uted alongside the Party’s news­pa­per The Daily Worker to party mem­bers and other work­ers, becom­ing cru­cial edu­ca­tional tools as the Party shifted its focus in the late 1920s to the his­tor­i­cal rela­tion­ship between race and class.

In 1928, Hay­wood had pre­sented to the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tional (Com­intern) his the­sis that black Amer­i­cans com­prised an oppressed nation within the empire-state of the United States of Amer­ica. Hay­wood was respon­si­ble for push­ing the Party’s agenda on what it called “the Negro Ques­tion” beyond the vul­gar eco­nomic deter­min­ism it had inherited from the Social­ist Labor Party toward a rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­na­tion­al­ism that rec­og­nized the pecu­liar­i­ties of U.S. racial cap­i­tal­ism. The post­bel­lum south­ern plan­ta­tion sys­tem – based as it was on share­crop­ping, land­lord super­vi­sion of crops, debt peon­age, the con­vict lease sys­tem, and pub­lic chain gang labor – was a semi-feu­dal econ­omy that had one foot in slav­ery and the other in cap­i­tal­ism. Its super­struc­tural cor­re­late, Hay­wood would note in 1933 in “The Strug­gle for the Lenin­ist Posi­tion on the Negro Ques­tion in the United States,” was seg­re­ga­tion, dis­fran­chise­ment, anti-mis­ce­gena­tion laws, and a host of other forms of dom­i­na­tion backed by a “vicious sys­tem … of arbi­trary vio­lence, the most vicious being the pecu­liar Amer­i­can insti­tu­tion of lynch­ing.” It was in the Black Belt that post-Civil War lynch­ings had been con­cen­trated and mobi­lized against black peo­ple who shirked the chains of the slave economy’s after­birth: the racial lib­eral labor con­tract that ensnared mil­lions in a debt econ­omy backed by police power and local white suprema­cist judi­cia­ries. Lynch­ing, accord­ing to Hay­wood, was a mech­a­nism of impe­rial vio­lence that main­tained a racial­ized divi­sion within the work­ing class.

A mass multi-racial strug­gle on behalf of the self-deter­mi­na­tion of the black nation, Hay­wood argued, was to be the ful­crum of a world­wide pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion against U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. Fol­low­ing Lenin’s pro­nounce­ment in 1920 that “all Com­mu­nist par­ties should ren­der direct aid to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments among the depen­dent and under­priv­i­leged nations (for exam­ple, Ire­land, the Amer­i­can Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies,” Hay­wood argued that it was incum­bent upon the Com­intern to offi­cially sup­port, in all regions of the coun­try, black self-deter­mi­na­tion. In response, the 6th Con­gress passed a res­o­lu­tion in 1928, stat­ing:

While con­tin­u­ing and inten­si­fy­ing the strug­gle under the slo­gan of full social and polit­i­cal equal­ity for the Negroes, which must remain the cen­tral slo­gan of our Party for work among the masses, the Party must come out openly and unre­servedly for the right of the Negroes to national self-deter­mi­na­tion in the south­ern states, where the Negroes form a major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. The strug­gle for equal rights and the pro­pa­ganda for the slo­gan of self-deter­mi­na­tion must be linked up with the eco­nomic demands of the Negro masses, espe­cially those directed against the slave rem­nants and all.

In 1930, the Com­intern adopted another res­o­lu­tion stat­ing unre­servedly that “the Negro ques­tion in the United States must be viewed [as] an oppressed nation” and that white work­ers “must boldly jump at the throat of the 100 per­cent ban­dits who strike a Negro in the face. This strug­gle will be the test of the real inter­na­tional sol­i­dar­ity of the Amer­i­can white work­ers.” The Comintern’s exhor­ta­tion to white Party mem­bers to become accom­plices in anti­lynch­ing defense was a cen­tral plank in its cam­paign against “white chau­vin­ism.” The CPUSA fur­ther urged black rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to strug­gle against nar­row black nation­alisms of the sort espoused by Mar­cus Garvey and the United Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion (UNIA). Though Garvey’s immensely pop­u­lar post­war Pan-African move­ment had inspired the com­mu­nist the­sis that African Amer­i­cans formed an oppressed nation, some CPUSA mem­bers believed that Garvey’s racially sep­a­ratist and bour­geois nation­al­ism would pre­vent inter­ra­cial work­ing-class sol­i­dar­ity. His polemics against trade union­ism and his defense of “coolie” labor in Jamaica, to say noth­ing of his over­tures to the Ku Klux Klan, might vin­di­cate such a posi­tion.

Fol­low­ing Haywood’s analy­sis and the Comintern’s direc­tive, the Depres­sion-era CPUSA for the first time devoted sig­nif­i­cant resources and labor to orga­niz­ing mem­bers and work­ers around the plat­form of national black lib­er­a­tion. With ancil­lary orga­ni­za­tions like the League of Strug­gle for Negro Rights (LSNR) agi­tat­ing for black work­ing-class power in the North and Inter­na­tional Labor Defense (ILD) – the legal defense wing of the CPUSA – orga­niz­ing black share­crop­pers in the South, the move­ment was nearly national in scale.

In 1931, the CPUSA became involved in its first anti-lynch­ing defense cam­paign after the arrest and incar­cer­a­tion, near Scotts­boro, Alabama, of nine young unem­ployed black men – Char­lie Weems, Ozie Pow­ell, Clarence Nor­ris, Olen Mont­gomery, Willie Rober­son, Hay­wood Pat­ter­son, Andy and Roy Wright, and Eugene Williams – on false charges of vagrancy and rape after they got into a fight with some white boys on a train. Rang­ing in age from 13-19, the Scotts­boro 9 were almost lynched at the time of their arrests, tried with­out ade­quate coun­sel, con­victed on flimsy evi­dence, and (with the excep­tion of 13 year-old Roy Wright) sen­tenced to die by the elec­tric chair after a sham trial in the heart of the Klan-con­trolled Black Belt. After the National Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple (NAACP) refused to pick up the case, ILD inter­vened to defend the 9. As part of its defense cam­paign, ILD – tak­ing a cue from Ida B. Wells’ transna­tional anti­lynch­ing cru­sade in the 1890s – staged a mas­sive inter­na­tional speak­ing tour. Protests erupted in Paris, Moscow, and South Africa, and activists from all over the world over­whelmed the gov­er­nor of Alabama with let­ters and telegrams demand­ing the imme­di­ate release of the Scotts­boro 9.

The move­ment to free the 9 rad­i­cal­ized many black, work­ing-class, and immi­grant peo­ples. Dur­ing the early phase of the Scotts­boro cam­paign, black work­ers orga­nized and par­tic­i­pated in actions and strikes in Arkansas, Penn­syl­va­nia, Ohio, and among West Vir­ginia coal min­ers in the National Min­ers Union. Large masses ral­lied to the unem­ployed work­ers move­ment and orga­nized against evic­tions in black neigh­bor­hoods in Chicago and Cleve­land. In Camp Hill, Alabama, the Share­crop­pers’ Union emerged from the resis­tance of black ten­ant farm­ers to attacks from land­lords and sher­iffs.

It was dur­ing this expan­sion of black mil­i­tancy that Hay­wood and Howard released their damn­ing cri­tique of lynch­ing as a weapon of national oppres­sion. Open­ing their analy­sis with the story of share­crop­per Henry Lowry – who was burned at the stake on Jan­u­ary 26, 1921 in Nodena, Arkansas by 500 peo­ple after killing his debt-mas­ter in self-defense – Hay­wood and Howard under­scored that south­ern oli­garchs’ employ­ment of extra-eco­nomic vio­lence was a response to class strug­gle on the part of mil­lions of black work­ers sub­ject to super-exploita­tion in a semi-feu­dal debt econ­omy.

Lynch­ing shared much with William Pick­ens’s analy­sis in Lynch­ing and Debt Slav­ery. Pick­ens, writ­ing the pam­phlet in 1921 for the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, argued that lynch­ing was a method of eco­nomic exploita­tion that stemmed from the efforts of the rul­ing class to con­trol black labor as well as from white work­ers’ com­pe­ti­tion with black labor. He under­scored the violence’s instru­men­tal role in main­tain­ing the south­ern sys­tem of debt peon­age and in stamp­ing out black share­crop­pers’ efforts to orga­nize farm­ers’ unions in 1918 in Brooks and Lown­des County, Geor­gia, and in 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas. Pick­ens can­nily ter­med the south­ern region where lynch­ing pre­dom­i­nated – Geor­gia, Mis­sis­sippi, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Ten­nessee, and Alabama – the “Amer­i­can Congo” in recog­ni­tion of the violence’s rela­tion­ship to inter­na­tional Her­ren­volk democ­racy and colo­nial cap­i­tal­ism.

The quest of this Congo is not for rub­ber and ivory, but for cot­ton and sugar. Here labor is forced, and the laborer is a slave. The slav­ery is a cun­ningly con­trived debt slav­ery to give the appear­ance of civ­i­liza­tion and the sanc­tion of law. A debt of a few hun­dred dol­lars may tie a black man and his fam­ily of ten as securely in bondage to a great white planter as if he had pur­chased their bod­ies.1

Pick­ens, Hay­wood, and Howard rec­og­nized that the new forms of racial slav­ery that emerged in the wake of the Civil War were speci­fic to the con­tra­dic­tions of the era; neo-slav­ery was backed by the behe­moth of Amer­i­can empire, whose emer­gence at the turn of the cen­tury was coter­mi­nous with the worst period of anti-black lynch­ing in the South. “Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism,” Hay­wood wrote in 1933, “is the force that stands behind the South­ern white rul­ing classes (cap­i­tal­ists and land­lords) in their direct and vio­lent plun­der of the Negro masses in the Black Belt.” Hay­wood would expand upon this in his in-depth explo­ration of the national ques­tion in his 1948 mono­graph, Negro Lib­er­a­tion:

The rise of a finance-cap­i­tal­ist oli­garchy to dom­i­nant posi­tion in Amer­i­can eco­nomic and polit­i­cal life pre­cluded the pos­si­bil­ity of peace­ful demo­c­ra­tic fusion of the Negro into a sin­gle Amer­i­can nation along with whites. […] The Negro ques­tion had now def­i­nitely become the prob­lem of an oppressed nation striv­ing for national free­dom against the main enemy, impe­ri­al­ism. […] One can say that the Black Belt is a kind of “inter­nal colony” of Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism, made to func­tion mainly as the raw mate­rial appendage of the lat­ter. The char­ac­ter of the oppres­sion of the Negro peo­ple in no sense dif­fers from that of colo­nial peo­ples. The econ­omy of the region is … in the hands of white local cap­i­tal­ists and land­lords, who act as the out­post com­mand for the real rulers, the finan­cial dynasty of Wall Street.

In their pam­phlet, Hay­wood and Howard deep­ened Pick­ens’ con­vic­tion that to attack lynch­ing with­out attack­ing the sys­tems of debt- and con­vict-slav­ery in the Black Belt “is like try­ing to be rid of the phe­nom­ena of smoke and heat with­out dis­turbing the basic fire.”2 To inter­rupt the basic fire, Hay­wood and Howard stressed one of lynch law’s cen­tral con­tra­dic­tions: that it but­tressed the exploita­tion of the very mem­bers of the white work­ing class who so often became agents of their bosses’ ter­ror cam­paigns. It was on this front that they demanded that white work­ers put their bod­ies on the line in defense of black life while refut­ing lib­eral artic­u­la­tions of lynch­ing as an anti-Amer­i­can threat to “law and order.”

In the Pro­gres­sive era, south­ern lib­er­als had begun argu­ing that lynch­ing was a form of work­ing-class vio­lence that threat­ened bour­geois ratio­nal­ity and state author­ity. A fully mod­ern sys­tem of law and order, lib­er­als argued, was nec­es­sary to con­tain the irra­tional vio­lence of the poor. With the imple­men­ta­tion of state anti­lynch­ing laws that threat­ened to pun­ish law enforce­ment offi­cers who par­tic­i­pated in mob vio­lence, some state offi­cials agreed to expe­dite the tri­als and exe­cu­tions of blacks accused of defy­ing the Jim Crow racial order.

But these tri­als, com­mu­nists argued, amounted to lynch­ings even if “mobs” fol­lowed legal pro­ce­dures. The move­ment to free the Scotts­boro 9 thus pop­u­lar­ized the term “legal lynch­ing,” a phrase that empha­sized what was already present in the rhetor­i­cal his­tory of the word lynch­ing: that it was a form of estab­lish­ment vio­lence that sup­ple­mented the dif­fuse and ambigu­ous pow­ers of polic­ing. In Lynch­ing: A Weapon of National Oppres­sion, Hay­wood and Howard used the term “cour­t­house lynch­ing” to refute the legal­is­tic approach of the anti­lynch­ing cam­paigns under­taken by the NAACP. Though the Association’s direc­tor, Wal­ter White, rec­og­nized the eco­nomic dimen­sions of the vio­lence (he wrote in his 1929 book, Rope and Fag­got: A Biog­ra­phy of Judge Lynch, that lynch­ing “has always been the means of pro­tec­tion, not of white women, but of prof­its”), White and other mem­bers of the NAACP tended to empha­size the psy­cho­log­i­cal aspects of the vio­lence, blam­ing it on igno­rance, bore­dom, and law­less­ness. The NAACP, in demand­ing a fed­eral anti­lynch­ing law and in pres­sur­ing the Depart­ment of Jus­tice to use exist­ing state laws to pun­ish mob vio­lence, dan­ger­ously obscured the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the rul­ing class in the main­te­nance of white suprema­cist cap­i­tal­ism.

Lynch­ing: A Weapon of National Oppres­sion went a long way in elu­ci­dat­ing the eco­nomic dimen­sions of state-sanc­tioned, anti-black ter­ror. Draw­ing upon the nar­ra­tive tra­di­tions of the rad­i­cal anti­lynch­ing and labor defense move­ments when they cited the law as a weapon of the forces of rul­ing-class power, Hay­ward and Howard impor­tantly trou­bled the wide­spread con­cep­tion that lynch­ings were the result of the “vic­tory of the law­less over the law.” Extra-legal vio­lence and a white suprema­cist judi­ciary were instru­men­tal bed­fel­lows in the landed class’s quest to accu­mu­late cap­i­tal on the backs of super-exploited blacks. Rather than argue for the con­cen­tra­tion of vio­lence in the repres­sive appa­ra­tus of the state, black com­mu­nists saw in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary exper­i­ments in the Soviet Union a model for inter­ra­cial work­ing-class sol­i­dar­ity in the U.S.

As crit­ics have noted, CPUSA pro­pa­gan­dists were naïve about the Party’s capac­ity to build this multi-racial front. Party mem­bers often failed to take seri­ously, let alone the­o­rize, white work­ing-class racial hatred. Addi­tion­ally, the Party’s advo­cacy of direct com­bat with mobs and atten­dant calls for the death penalty for lynch­ers was rooted in a toxic and largely unques­tioned asso­ci­a­tion of free­dom with nor­ma­tive mas­culin­ity.

Yet, as Trevor San­grey argues, the Black Belt the­sis worked as a “pro­duc­tive fic­tion” around which inter­ra­cial, anti-cap­i­tal­ist, and anti-impe­ri­al­ist coali­tions could take shape. The the­sis was also the first CPUSA res­o­lu­tion to rec­og­nize black women as the most exploited seg­ment of the labor force. Dur­ing the Scotts­boro defense cam­paign, black left fem­i­nists began mov­ing into the CPUSA, fun­nel­ing Party funds toward com­mu­nity cam­paigns on behalf of domes­tic work­ers and for­ward­ing proto-inter­sec­tional the­o­ries of black women’s triple exploita­tion well into the Cold War.

In the 1960s, the idea that black Amer­i­cans were inter­nally col­o­nized influ­enced the Black Pan­ther Party and oth­ers who renewed the black nation the­sis to link their strug­gles for sur­vival and self-deter­mi­na­tion to the decolo­nial strug­gles of the Tri­con­ti­nen­tal left. Though the CPUSA had aban­doned black self-deter­mi­na­tion in favor of an inte­gra­tionist agenda due to Cold War red-bait­ing, Hay­wood con­tin­ued his the­o­riza­tion of black national oppres­sion through­out the 1960s to argue that the Black Belt, though con­cen­trated in the South, was also focally cen­tered in the urban north of the empire-state.

Lynch­ing: A Weapon of National Oppres­sion reminds us of an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion of rad­i­cals who disiden­ti­fied with lib­eral cap­i­tal­ist democ­racy and Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism to envi­sion an end to impe­rial dom­i­na­tion and eco­nomic exploita­tion. The pam­phlet and the multi-racial strug­gles against legal lynch­ing that inspired it are impor­tant tools as we heed renewed calls for black self-deter­mi­na­tion amidst a global reasser­tion of fas­cism and lynch law.

– Erin Gray


The front cover of Haywood and Howard's pamphlet. The original publishers did not credit the photograph on the cover. Though we can't positively identify the man in the photograph, the picture is nearly identical to one featured on a 1908 postcard of an unidentified lynching victim in Oxford, Georgia and included in the collection, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.
The front cover of Hay­wood and Howard’s pam­phlet. The orig­i­nal pub­lish­ers did not credit the pho­tograph on the cover. Though we can’t pos­i­tively iden­tify the man in the pho­tograph, the pic­ture is nearly iden­ti­cal to one fea­tured on a 1908 post­card of an uniden­ti­fied lynch­ing vic­tim in Oxford, Geor­gia and included in the col­lec­tion, With­out Sanc­tu­ary: Lynch­ing Pho­tog­ra­phy in Amer­ica.

More than 500 per­sons stood by and looked on while the Negro was slowly burned to a crisp. A few women were scat­tered among the crowd of Arkansas planters.…

Not once did the slayer beg for mercy despite the fact that he suf­fered one of the most hor­ri­ble deaths imag­in­able. With the Negro chained to a log, mem­bers of the mob placed a small pile of leaves around his feet. Gaso­line was then poured on the leaves and the car­ry­ing out of the death sen­tence was under way.…

As the flames were eat­ing away his abdomen, a mem­ber of the mob stepped for­ward and sat­u­rated the body with gaso­line. It was then only a few min­utes until the Negro had been reduced to ashes.…

Mem­phis Press, Jan. 27, 1921. 

This is how an eye wit­ness described the lynch­ing of Henry Lowry.

Who was Lowry? What was his crime? Henry Lowry was a Negro share-crop­per in Nodena, Arkansas. For two years he had been toil­ing steadily under the scorch­ing sun. Yet for two years he had not received one cent of his right­ful wages. The land­lord had advanced him less and less food for his fam­ily. Already they were close to star­va­tion.

He went to the landlord’s house and demanded wages. The land­lord at first looked at him queerly, a if he did not under­stand what he had heard. But when he under­stood that one of “his” share-crop­pers was actu­ally ask­ing for his wages, he rose in insane fury, curs­ing and beat­ing Lowry with his gun. Then he lev­eled his revolver at Lowry’s head, and fired, wound­ing him. Enraged at this dog-like treat­ment, Lowry began to fight back. In the fight the land­lord was killed.

As soon as this became known, the white land­lords for miles around became obsessed with one idea – to tor­ture and lynch this Negro share-crop­per, to mur­der him, so that not another Negro worker on the plan­ta­tion, not one of their own starv­ing ten­ants dd dare to protest, as Lowry had done, against the bru­tal exploita­tion of the land­lords. To refuse to starve, to refuse to be robbed. These were the ter­ri­ble “crimes” for which Lowry, Negro farm worker, was burned at the stake – lynched by the land­lords and their hench­men. This is how the white rul­ing class attempts to sub­due any oppo­si­tion to its mer­ci­less exploita­tion of the Negro peo­ple.

The Ruling Class Takes Its Toll

In their efforts to sub­due the Negro work­ers and peas­ants, the rul­ing class has taken a ter­ri­ble toll. Since 1882, the first year in which any attempt was made to gather sta­tis­tics on lynch­ing, over 4,000 Negroes have been either hanged, burned, or both. Of these over 75 were women; some of the vic­tims were young girls less than 15 years of age. 

Here are only a few recent cases: 

George John­son, in May, 1930, accused his land­lord of fal­si­fy­ing debt accounts. Strug­gling in self-defense he killed the land­lord. He was lynched, and his body was dragged through the Negro quar­ter and burned in front of a Negro church. 

John Parker; unem­ployed and starv­ing Negro worker of Con­way, Arkansas, was accused of steal­ing some peaches. He was lynched by plan­ta­tion own­ers, August, 1931. 

Bill Fane was a Negro worker who refused to toil with­out pay. He was lynched by a mob of mer­chants and planters in Sep­tem­ber, 1931. 

Will Jones and his fam­ily of five were shot down in cold blood by a land­lord and his hench­men in Octo­ber, 1931. The land­lord said that in a dis­pute over wages, “Jones talked back.”

Dave Tillis of Crock­ett, Texas, demanded an account­ing from his land­lord. He was seized and charged with “enter­ing the bed­room of a white woman.” He was lynched by his land­lord and four neigh­bor­ing landown­ers, April, 1932. 

Every one of these Negro work­ers was mur­dered as a direct result of the class strug­gle as expressed in his demand for wages or bet­ter con­di­tions from the white land­lords who exploit the Negro masses with even greater inten­sity than they rob the white work­ers. Other lynch­ings result from the refusal of a mil­i­tant Negro worker or peas­ant to sub­mit to every kind of social abuse and per­se­cu­tion. The lynch­ers them­selves have admit­ted as some of the rea­sons for lynch­ing, the fol­low­ing: try­ing to vote, accus­ing a white man of steal­ing, tes­ti­fy­ing against white men, being too suc­cess­ful, talk­ing back to a white man. 

Such “lead­ers” of the Negro peo­ple as Wal­ter White, sec­re­tary of the National Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple (N.A.A.C.P.), and such “friends” of the Negro peo­ple as the upper class “edu­cated” (as. W.E.B. Du Bois calls them) whites in the Inter­ra­cial Com­mis­sion have ascribed the sav­agery and bru­tal­ity of lynch­ing to the drab­ness of South­ern life, to the desire for amuse­ment and enter­tain­ment by “poor whites who have no radios and do not go to movies.” This is but a das­tardly eva­sion of the real cause of lynch­ing and the deser­tion of the fight against lynch­ing. It is the tra­di­tional pol­icy of these “race lead­ers” and their white friends to pre­serve the present sys­tem of cap­i­tal­ism, with its seg­re­ga­tion and lynch­ing, by mak­ing the Negro work­ers and poor farm­ers believe that white work­ers are their ene­mies, and the “edu­cated” white men (the bosses) their friends. 

Bru­tal­ity and sav­agery mark all lynch­ings. Young and old, male and female, have been tor­tured by fire; a preg­nant col­ored woman was hanged by the ankles and her unborn child ripped from her abdomen. This rul­ing class sav­agery has a pur­pose: to strike ter­ror into the hearts of the oppressed Negro peo­ple so that they dare not strike out for lib­er­a­tion.

What is the Real Cause and Purpose of Lynching?

Every lynch­ing, every degra­da­tion, every social per­se­cu­tion and pro­scrip­tion, every Jim Crow humil­i­a­tion, which the Negro masses suf­fer in this coun­try is the result of the fact that the Negro mil­lions are in the posi­tion of an oppressed nation­al­ity. They are sub­jected to a more intense, a fiercer exploita­tion on the land and in the fac­to­ries. While the white work­ers are mis­er­ably exploited by the cap­i­tal­ist rob­bers, the Negro work­ers are espe­cially exploited and per­se­cuted. They are super-exploited. They are given the dirt­i­est jobs, the longest hours, and the least pay. They are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. They must work under the foulest con­di­tions. It is an absolutely unde­ni­able fact that today, nearly 70 years after they were sup­posed to be “freed,” the Negro masses are in slav­ery, pro­duc­ing super-prof­its for their cap­i­tal­ist land­lords and bosses.

Con­cen­trated on the land in the Black Belt, more than three-quar­ters of the nine and a half mil­lion Negroes in the South live in inde­scrib­able poverty, crushed by debts and star­va­tion. Every year, after the “set­tle­ment” with the land­lord, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Negro crop­pers, pen­ni­less and own­ing no land, find that they are toil­ing hope­lessly in peon­age, chained to the land­lord by debts which no toil can wipe out. 

The only way that the cap­i­tal­ist class can pre­serve this extra exploita­tion of the Negro masses is to keep them an iso­lated, degraded group, sub­ject to spe­cial per­se­cu­tion. For this they have cre­ated a hideous sys­tem of social per­se­cu­tion and Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion against the Negro masses, forc­ing them to live in squalid Jim Crow ghet­toes. They teach the white work­ers and their chil­dren that whites are “supe­rior” to Negroes. This is the typ­i­cal method used by a pow­er­ful cap­i­tal­ist coun­try to drive a wedge between “its own” work­ers and the work­ers of the oppressed nation. This serves a dou­ble pur­pose. It crip­ples the resis­tance of the oppressed nation­al­ity by iso­lat­ing it. And it blinds the “supe­rior” work­ers to the fact that they are being robbed by the same cap­i­tal­ists as the “infe­rior” work­ers.

Here we come to the true origin and pur­pose of lynch­ing. It is with the aid of such meth­ods as lynch­ing, ter­ror­ism and vio­lence that this whole sys­tem of national oppres­sion, super-exploita­tion and social per­se­cu­tion can be enforced. And the great­est vic­tory for the cap­i­tal­ist rulers is to get white work­ers to be the agents of their cam­paign of ter­ror­ism. Lynch­ings defend prof­its! Lynch­ings are a warn­ing to the Negro toil­ers. Lynch­ing is one of the weapons with which the white rul­ing class enforces its national oppres­sion of the Negro peo­ple, and tries to main­tain divi­sion between the white work­ers and the Negro toil­ers.

The “Rape” Lie

To incite the white work­ers against the Negroes and to fur­ther build the myth of “white supe­ri­or­ity,” the white rul­ing class has coined the poi­so­nous and insane lie that Negroes are “rapists.” Today, Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism is using this same “rape” lie against the masses of Hawaii as it pro­ceeds to place this impor­tant naval base under iron rule in prepa­ra­tion for war against the Chi­nese peo­ple and the Soviet Union. In defend­ing the white lynch­ers of Hawaii, Clarence Dar­row, of the Board of Direc­tors of the N.A.A.C.P., aided in this war prepa­ra­tion and in spread­ing the “rape” lie. 

It is only nec­es­sary to remem­ber a few facts to see the utter fal­sity of this rul­ing class slan­der.

The first fact is that of the 2,522 Negroes lynched dur­ing the period 1889-1918, only 19% or one in five vic­tims, were even charged with rape. When we remem­ber that this charge is invoked when­ever pos­si­ble as the tra­di­tional excuse for every kind of mur­der, the fact that the lynch­ers them­selves could only charge 19% of their vic­tims with “rape” reveals how base is the lynch­ers’ lie that they mur­der Negro work­ers to “pro­tect white wom­an­hood.” As in the above-men­tioned case of Dave Tillis, who was lynched for demand­ing an account­ing from his land­lord, the cry of “rape” is raised when­ever any Negro worker begins to rise from his knees. We may be cer­tain that of the Negro work­ers lynched for “rape,” prac­ti­cally none, if any, were guilty of a crime com­mit­ted innu­mer­able times by whites against Negro women, and pun­ished, if ever at all, by a few months in jail. 

The sec­ond fact even more inci­sively than the first, tears the “rape” lie to pieces. When­ever the reader hears the cry of “rape” to jus­tify the lynch­ing of a Negro worker, let him but call to mind this pro­foundly illu­mi­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal fact: that Negroes have been in this coun­try for three hun­dred years; that dur­ing the first 200 years not one was ever accused of “rape,” though hun­dreds of thou­sands of Negro work­ers lived in the clos­est prox­im­ity to the whites. For 200 years, for eight gen­er­a­tions, not the slight­est hint about the Negroes as “rapists.” The first time we hear this lie is about the year 1830, two hun­dred years after the Negroes were first unloaded from the slave ships in Vir­ginia. Why did it appear at this time? Because this year marks the begin­ning of the abo­li­tion move­ment in the North, and the sharp­en­ing strug­gle of the slaves them­selves for free­dom. For 200 years the Negro work­ers were not “rapists.” But as soon as their posi­tion as valu­able slaves was endan­gered, then they sud­denly became “rapists.”

In the last 50 years, 76 Negro women were lynched, some with bes­tial cru­elty. Were they, too, “rapists”?

The South­ern land­lords and their hench­men con­sider all Negro women as legit­i­mate prey. Many Negroes have died for object­ing to the rape of Negro girls and women by whites. Mrs. Wise was lynched at Frank­fort, Vir­ginia, May, 1931, for object­ing to her daughter’s being taken out for “rides” by white Klans­men. Clyde Payne was mur­dered in Florida, Sep­tem­ber, 1931, by the employer of his wife, when he tried to pro­tect her from attack. In Geor­gia, an aged Negro was lynched for try­ing to pre­vent the rape of two col­ored girls by two white men. 

Many whites take advan­tage of the cap­i­tal­ist “rape” lie to pro­tect them­selves. In New Jer­sey, in 1927, a man was killed while rid­ing in an auto­mo­bile with his wife. She told the police that two Negroes had mur­dered him as he tried to pro­tect her from rape. Under cross exam­i­na­tion it was brought out that she and her lover had com­mit­ted the crime. In Philadel­phia, in 1930, a 17-year-old girl stayed out all night with her com­pan­ions. Next morn­ing she reported she had been abducted and assaulted by two Negroes. Pressed by ques­tion­ers, she con­fessed that she had invented this story to deceive her mother: In Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, Novem­ber, 1930, a white woman, strug­gling with a “black” assailant, tore open his shirt and dis­cov­ered that he was a white man who had black­ened his face and hands. There are scores of such “cork-face” crimes. No one can tell how many inno­cent Negroes have been burned and hanged as a result of such frame-ups.

Who Organizes Lynchings?

The impres­sion is pur­posely cre­ated by rul­ing class pro­pa­ganda, and nur­tured by “race lead­ers” of the N.A.A.C.P. and Kelly Miller type, that lynch­ings are the deeds of “irre­spon­si­ble mobs” or the “law­less ele­ments.” Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the, truth. An exam­i­na­tion of the facts of many hun­dreds of lynch­ings shows what every lyncher knows full well – that every lynch­ing is a care­fully orga­nized and thor­oughly planned mur­der, done with the full coop­er­a­tion of every rul­ing class agency, the police, the sher­iffs, the mili­tia, the news­pa­pers, the entire gov­ern­ment appa­ra­tus. With­out the active lead­er­ship of the “best ele­ments,” that is, the rich and pow­er­ful land­lords and bosses, with­out the tacit or active par­tic­i­pa­tion of the gov­ern­ment and its offi­cers, lynch­ings could never take place. 

Here are only a few facts taken from lit­er­ally thou­sands of sim­i­lar cases. When George Hughes yas hor­ri­bly roasted alive in his prison cell, in 1930, at Sher­man, Texas, the Gov­er­nor for­bade the sher­iff to fire on the lynch gang, thus guar­an­tee­ing that the lynch­ing would take place.

When John Hat­field, Negro worker, was seized by a lynch gang at Ellisville, Mis­sis­sippi, the biggest news­pa­per in the state, the Jack­son Daily News, car­ried head­li­nes announc­ing the exact time and place of the com­ing orgy. Ten thou­sand peo­ple answered the paper’s invi­ta­tion and they were addressed by the Dis­trict Attor­ney, T. W. Wilson, while the lynch­ing was going on.

At Mar­ion, Indi­ana, in August 1930, a lynch gang announced its inten­tion of lynch­ing two Negro boys who were locked up in the jail. When the mob arrived there they found the jail and cell doors wide open, the state prison author­i­ties giv­ing their fullest coop­er­a­tion to the lynch­ers.

When Matt Williams was seized in Sal­is­bury, Mary­land, Decem­ber, 1931, from the non-resist­ing hos­pi­tal author­i­ties, the sher­iff and dis­trict attor­ney sud­denly left town. And while the hideous tor­ture was going on in one of the most crowded sec­tions of the city, the police were direct­ing traf­fic so that the lynch­ing would not be inter­rupted!

The State and Federal Governments as “Protectors”

But the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment will be a much bet­ter pro­tec­tion for the Negro work­ers, say the lib­er­als and the Negro bour­geois “race lead­ers.” Let us see. 

When Ray­mond Gunn was burned at Maryville, Mis­souri, in 1931, the National Guard was present dur­ing the entire lynch­ing. The offi­cer in charge reported that his instruc­tions were to act only upon request from the sher­iff. And since the sher­iff refused to request his ser­vices, he and his reg­i­ment watched the lynch­ing with­out lift­ing a fin­ger.

In Octo­ber, 1930, a National Guard unit was ordered to Darien, Geor­gia, to pre­vent the lynch­ing of George Grant. But the lynch gang had no dif­fi­culty in seiz­ing the Negro and lynch­ing him. This com­man­der, Colonel Neal, made a report in which he said that the guard had done its duty. He had sent one sol­dier, to guard the pris­oner. The Negro was seized by the gang which entered the unguarded rear door. The sher­iff said, “I don’t know who killed the nig­ger and I don’t give a damn.” Gov­er­nor Hard­man of Geor­gia would not read the report of one of the state offi­cials who reported these facts. He was entirely sat­is­fied with the course of events.

The National Guard was sent to “pro­tect” the Scotts­boro boys, April, 1931, so that they could be legally lynched “with due process of law.” These troops gave all the boys mer­ci­less beat­ings while they were “guard­ing” them.

When mil­i­tant work­ers attempt to strug­gle against wage cuts, speed-up and star­va­tion, the whole police and army appa­ra­tus is mobi­lized against them. But one rarely hears of any gov­ern­ment action against lynch­ers. Grand juries, coro­ners’ juries, and gov­er­nors sud­denly become strangely inac­tive. Hun­dreds of times grand juries have refused to indict any lynch­ers because the vic­tim met death at the “hands of a mob, the mem­bers of which are unknown.” The Gov­er­nor of Mis­sis­sippi accepted such a ver­dict in the case of Jim Ivy. Yet the town news­pa­per, the News-Scim­i­tar, of Rocky Ford, Mis­sis­sippi, car­ried pho­tographs in which the faces of at least one hun­dred lynch­ers were clearly vis­i­ble.

Lynch­ings are not the “vic­tory of the law­less over the law.” They take place not only with the com­plete coop­er­a­tion, but in hun­dreds of cases, with the active par­tic­i­pa­tion of the whole legal and gov­ern­men­tal machine, the sher­iffs, the deputies, the dis­trict attor­neys, and so forth. And this is so because the rul­ing class exploiters and the gov­ern­ment are united in using lynch­ing as a weapon in the national oppres­sion of the Negro masses.

It is not only in the South that the Negroes are the most oppressed sec­tion of the work­ing class. In the North, too, the Negro worker lives in Jim Crow ghet­toes, is forced into the worst jobs, is paid from 20 to 65% less than the mis­er­able wages of white work­ers, even when he does the same work. In the North s the Negroes are a minor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion and suf­fer all the exploita­tion and added oppres­sion of a national minor­ity. Here, too, the bosses answer the demands of Negro work­ers with lynch­ing – Matt Williams in Sal­is­bury, Mary­land; Tom Shiff and Abe Smith in Mar­ion, Indi­ana; Ray­mond Gunn in Maryville, Mis­souri.

Laws Against Lynching

The National Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple prides itself on the fact that it fights lynch­ing by col­lect­ing sig­na­tures for the Dyer Anti-Lynch­ing Law. We are told by both our Negro and white “friends” that lynch­ing can be abol­ished by sim­ply pass­ing laws.

Anti-lynch­ing laws have been passed in a num­ber of states. Vir­ginia has a law for the “dis­per­sal of mobs.” The only time it was used was to break up a picket line of tex­tile strik­ers at Danville, Geor­gia passed an anti-lynch­ing law in 1893. It pro­vides for one to 20 years impris­on­ment for any one guilty of “mob­bing or lynch­ing a cit­i­zen with­out due process of law.” This law actu­ally pro­vides legal pro­tec­tion for lynch­ers. No one has ever been con­victed under this law, although Geor­gia has had at least 600 lynch­ings since the law was passed.

North Car­olina has a law pro­vid­ing for fines against lynch­ers who break into jails. After the law was passed lynch gangs sim­ply seized their vic­tims before they could be impris­oned, and thus evaded the “law.”

Some states, like West Vir­ginia, Ken­tucky, Texas, Ten­nessee, Ohio, and Nebraska have laws which provide for the pay­ment of dam­ages to rel­a­tives. But since, in all these states, the grand juries and the courts refuse to act, the laws are dead let­ters. State anti-lynch­ing laws have not pre­vented lynch­ing. More than 1,000 lynch­ings have taken place in these states since the laws were passed.

By dan­gling the illu­sion that lynch­ing can be stopped by such laws – even a fed­eral one – the N.A.A.C.P. tries to divert the Negro work­ers from an ener­getic strug­gle against lynch­ing. It asks them to rest their faith in those very state offi­cials and in the very rul­ing class which orga­nizes, per­pet­u­ates and defends lynch law.

Courthouse Lynchings

What can be expected from the courts and the state is shown only too clearly by the num­ber of lynch­ings that have taken place under the cover of “due process of law.” As in every phase of life, so in the sys­tem of jus­tice, too, the Negro does not even get the chance that the white worker gets, as lit­tle as that may be. On the basis of the “rape” lie seven of the nine Scotts­boro boys now (July, 1932) await exe­cu­tion in the elec­tric chair. Only the world­wide mass protest of the inter­na­tional work­ing class has saved them from the elec­tric chair lynch­ing and forced the Supreme Court of the United States to agree to review their case.

Two unem­ployed Negro work­ers, Robert Strick­land and Percy Irvin, are elec­tro­cuted in Alabama for steal­ing 50 cents. In the North, too, the “rape” lie is used in an effort to bring about the legal lynch­ing of 17-year-old Willie Brown of Philadel­phia, Penn­syl­va­nia.

What is behind all this legal lynch­ing? The answer has been given by Gov­er­nor Ross Ster­ling of Texas. In Jan­u­ary of 1932, Bar­ney Lee Ross, Negro boy, was exe­cuted after a trial which took less than two hours. In deny­ing stay of exe­cu­tion the Gov­er­nor said, in words which no worker, Negro or white, should ever for­get:

It may be that this boy is inno­cent, but it is some­times nec­es­sary to burn down a house in order to save a vil­lage.

This state­ment brazenly admits two things. First, that Negro work­ers who “may be inno­cent” are being mur­dered not for any crimes, but to “save a vil­lage.” What is this “vil­lage” which the Gov­er­nor is try­ing to save? Obvi­ously, it is the whole sys­tem of rob­bery, star­va­tion, Jim Crow­ism, and lynch­ing – the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem.

The sec­ond thing which this south­ern ruler admits is that the whole gov­ern­ment, includ­ing judges and gov­er­nors, is a con­scious part of the ter­ror­ist cam­paign against the Negro masses, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the present gen­eral cri­sis.

The Fight Against Lynching

In the “race riots” after the last World-War – when Negro sol­diers returned from a jim-crowed army demand­ing those equal rights promised them by Pres­i­dent Wilson and W. E. B. Du Bois – the rul­ing class whipped up lynch law on a mass scale in the North to keep the Negro “where he belonged.” They were race riots, and not mass lynch­ings, only because the Negroes defended them­selves and fought back.

Today, in the midst of a cri­sis which spreads star­va­tion and mass suf­fer­ing among all work­ers, and when a new world war is being pre­pared, the unity of black and white work­ers grows rapidly. It is this unity of black and white work­ers, strug­gling against their com­mon enemy – the white bosses and their “Uncle Toms” – which will in the end sweep away all Jim Crow lines and destroy the sys­tem of class and national oppres­sion. The mil­i­tant fight for Negro rights, par­tic­i­pated in by grow­ing sec­tions of the white work­ers, is giv­ing the lie to the slan­der of the “race lead­ers” that the white work­ers are the ene­mies of the Negroes.

Already on one-sixth of the world, in the Soviet Union, the work­ers and peas­ants have estab­lished their own gov­ern­ment. They have lib­er­ated all the oppressed nation­al­i­ties which groaned under the cap­i­tal­ist lash of the tsars. Today in the Soviet Union 132 peo­ples which for­merly were taught to hate or mis­trust one another are now coop­er­at­ing in full social and polit­i­cal equal­ity in the build­ing of a social­ist soci­ety. The work­ers there have destroyed the cap­i­tal­ist lie of “race hatred” and “race infe­ri­or­ity.” Any worker who shows any trace of this cap­i­tal­ist poi­son is expelled from the fac­to­ries, as two Amer­i­can engi­neers only recently learned. The Soviet work­ers have shown the Amer­i­can work­ers, Negro and white, a glo­ri­ous exam­ple and the true road.

And because the Soviet Union points the road to the wip­ing away of all oppres­sion and “race” lies, the whole rul­ing class is today prepar­ing a gigan­tic war against it. When the Negro sol­diers returned from the last war, they returned to the same old per­se­cu­tion and Jim Crow insult. Some Negro sol­diers were lynched in their uni­forms. Today the rul­ing class is try­ing to make the Negroes “safe” for the next war. Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism does not want a dan­ger­ous “back door,” such as Ire­land was for the British Empire in the last war. Only the orga­nized efforts of the work­ing class in fight­ing unity – Negro and white – can defend the Soviet Union and strug­gle against impe­ri­al­ist war. Only this unity can destroy lynch­ing and the sys­tem which causes it.

The white work­ers, led to a proper under­stand­ing by the Com­mu­nist Party, are begin­ning to real­ize that any attack upon the Negroes, any denial of rights to them, is also an attack upon the white work­ers, also a denial of the rights of the white work­ers. Mil­i­tant white work­ers are actu­ally tak­ing the lead in fight­ing for Negro rights arid against lynch­ing.

As is shown in the Scotts­boro case and in other sim­i­lar strug­gIes the rev­o­lu­tion­ary white work­ers are the first to demand the right of Negro work­ers to sit on juries, the wip­ing away of all Jim Crow and seg­re­ga­tion lines. James W. Ford, a Negro worker born in Alabama, whose grand­fa­ther was the vic­tim of a lynch mob, is the Com­mu­nist Party can­di­date for United States vice-pres­i­dent in the 1932 elec­tions, show­ing, as on numer­ous other occa­sions, that the Party’s fight for full eco­nomic, social and polit­i­cal equal­ity for the Negro peo­ple is one of its most impor­tant strug­gles.

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary white and Negro work­ers demand the death penalty for lynch­ers. They orga­nize white and Negro work­ers together in the strug­gle against lynch­ing and for Negro rights. They call for defense groups of white and Negro work­ers to beat off lynch mobs and com­bat such ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions as the Ku Klux Klan, the Night Rid­ers, etc. South­ern white work­ers, under the lead­er­ship of the Inter­na­tional Labor Defense, were among the most active in build­ing the defense of the Scotts­boro boys.

At Bridge­port, Ohio, June 13, 1932, white and Negro work­ers saved Alex Dorsey, a Negro orga­nizer of the National Min­ers’ Union, from lynch­ing at the hands of a mob led by the orga­nizer of the United Mine Work­ers, the offi­cials of which, like those of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor, are sup­port­ers of lynch law.

While fight­ing for equal rights for the Negro in all parts of the coun­try, the Com­mu­nist Party strikes at the very basis of the oppres­sion of the Negro peo­ple by demand­ing and fight­ing for the right of self-deter­mi­na­tion in the Black Belt of the South, where the Negroes form the major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. This is the right of the Negro peo­ple in the Black Belt to exer­cise gov­ern­men­tal author­ity over this land on which they have toiled for years, and the right to sep­a­rate from the United States gov­ern­ment if they so desire. Then, and then only, will the Negro peo­ple have achieved equal rights with all the other peo­ples of the earth, wip­ing out, through the mil­i­tant alliance with the white work­ers, the abom­inable national oppres­sion which is part and parcel of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem.

This text was first pub­lished in the Inter­na­tional Pam­phlets series, No. 25 (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers), under the direc­tion of the Labor Research Asso­ci­a­tion, Com­mu­nist Party USA.


  1. William Pick­ens, “Excerpt from Lynch­ing and Debt Slav­ery,” in Wit­ness­ing Lynch­ing: Amer­i­can Writ­ers Respond, ed. Anne P. Rice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity Press, 2003), 211. 

  2. Ibid., 212. 

Authors of the article

(1898-1985) was a communist activist and theorist. A leading figure of the Communist Party USA from its founding until the late 1950s, he was the principal architect and proponent of the Black Belt nation thesis. He also was at one time a member of the African Blood Brotherhood and the October League. His major writings include Negro Liberation (1948), For a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question (1958), and Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro American Communist (1978).

(b. Milton Halpern) was a Communist Party USA activist.

is a PhD Candidate in History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her writing appears in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory, The International Feminist Journal of Politics, Mute, and Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action.

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