How did the Scottsboro Case illustrate the different strategies of the NAACP and the Communist Party in the 1930s.

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Interesting question! In 1931, nine black boys from Scottsboro were accused of having raped two white women on a freight train. This alleged incident transpired during the Great Depression (1929-1939) when young men (both white and black) often hopped on trains illegally in a desperate bid to find work.

The Scottsboro Case (1931)

Riding The Rails As Hoboes During The Great Depression

With the nine accused of a crime they did not commit (one of the two women later admitted that she had lied about the rape), both the NAACP and the United States Communist Party rushed to be at the forefront of the defense effort for the boys. However, there were great discrepancies between their individual strategies for ensuring acquittals for all the accused. Below, I list the differences.

NAACP and the United States Communist Party

During the 1930's, the goal of the NAACP was integration, and they especially favored moderate methods in securing the rights of blacks. Despite their work on behalf of black citizens, the NAACP was often accused of being class conscious, as the organization at the time consisted mainly of wealthier whites and middle class blacks. Other organizations soon emerged, like the Friends Of Negro Freedom, which was formed to champion the rights of working class black citizens.

When the Scottsboro case heated up, the NAACP was slow in taking on the defense for the nine boys. Rape was a potentially explosive issue for the organization: if the boys were guilty, it could derail the organization's efforts to remain relevant in the civil rights issue. So, the organization as a whole waited and bided its time.

However, this lack of leadership was seized upon by the Communist Party (CP) as an opportunity for flexing their political muscles. The legal arm of the CP, the International Labor Defense (ILD), took control of the legal defense for the boys between 1931-1934. It was the ILD which approached the parents of the boys to discuss initiatives for freeing their sons. The working class parents of these boys were so profoundly relieved that someone wanted to help their sons that they couldn't have cared less what the NAACP thought about the CP. At this point, the NAACP desperately tried to warn black citizens that the CP had ulterior motives in helping. They warned against the militant methods the CP employed to accomplish their aims. However, their warnings fell on deaf ears.

The CP at this time typically used to revolutionary methods to secure their aims. They organized large rallies and mass protests on behalf of the boys. Protests in Boston, Kansas City, Omaha, New Haven, and Niagara Falls loudly demanded the release of the Scottsboro boys. The CP wasted no time in using the protests as a vehicle for further denouncing the NAACP's apparent lack of fortitude and motivation. This was actually an unfair accusation as the NAACP had presided over a number of court battles to secure the rights of black citizens. The most notable case was the Arkansas Riot Case in 1926, where the Supreme Court eventually ruled that a mob atmosphere at any trial for blacks amounted to an infringement of the due process of law. Despite this, the mass agitations won out: the Communists were viewed by many disenchanted blacks as the champions of working class rights, while the NAACP was designated a snobbish organization for elitists, mired in bureaucracy and politics.

Meanwhile, word had come down from the Soviet Comintern to secure the place of American black citizens under the Communist banner in an effort to inspire a world-wide proletariat or working class revolution. In fact, NAACP members such as W.E. DuBois favored the radical, Communist approach to securing the rights of blacks. His views differed from that of moderates such as Booker T. Washington, who favored granting blacks access to necessary vocational, business, and industrial skills. Washington viewed the mutual cooperation and understanding between whites and blacks as a means to promote the security of the country.

"interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." (Booker T. Washington)

As can be seen, the CP favored a two pronged, radical approach to secure the visibility of their organization during the Scottsboro trials. First, they mounted a formidable defense on behalf of the boys (by hiring renowned attorneys such as Samuel Leibowitz and Walter Pollack) and second, they lost no time in denouncing the seeming paralysis of the NAACP and the Alabama court system. Meanwhile, when the NAACP realized that the boys were likely innocent and that their own influence in the civil rights arena was fast being usurped by the Communist Party, great efforts were made to secure their position as the main defense for the boys. However, this failed, and the NAACP saw the CP take precedence in mounting the legal case for the accused. Eventually, through a series of agreements, the ILD agreed to work with the NAACP in appropriating NAACP funds for appeal efforts for the boys.

So, to summarize the difference in strategies:

1)The NAACP favored a moderate approach. They were leery of violent, unwieldy mass protests and demonstrations. Many members favored securing the rights of blacks through education (with increased economic opportunities) and integration with the white community.

2)The CP favored a radical, revolutionary approach. They agitated forcefully for the rights of working class, black citizens. To the CP, the oppression suffered by working class blacks paralleled proletariat hardships under the tyranny of the global, capitalist system. The CP organized mass protests on behalf of the Scottsboro nine.

Sources:

The NAACP versus the Communist Party: The Scottsboro Rape Cases, 1931-1932 Hugh T. Murray, Jr.
 

Papers of the NAACP: the Scottsboro Case.

 

The Comintern.

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