Alabama Sharecroppers' Union
ALABAMA SHARECROPPERS' UNION
The Alabama Sharecroppers' Union was the largest Communist-organized, black-led mass organization in the Deep South during the Great Depression. Composed of African-American sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and agricultural wage laborers, the union at its peak numbered an estimated ten to twelve thousand members. However, due to persistent opposition from white southerners, shifts in agricultural production, unfavorable New Deal policies, and, ultimately, lack of Communist support, the union was never able to effect permanent change in working conditions for rural blacks in the South.
Founded in 1931, the Alabama Sharecroppers' Union was part of a larger Communist Party effort to organize African Americans as a separate group of Americans that required "liberation" from capitalist society. Most of the union's first members were semi-independent African-American farmers and sharecroppers who had been displaced by increasing farm mechanization and depressed commodity prices. Within months of the group's founding, many members and nonmembers had to go into hiding after local white authorities killed an African-American union leader, Ralph Gray, in a dispute over working conditions.
After Gray's death the organization regrouped and adopted the name Sharecroppers' Union. Fearing more white violence, the new secretary of the union, Al Murphy, an African-American Communist from Georgia, turned the group into a secret underground organization whose members were armed for self defense. Under Murphy's leadership, the union spread into Alabama's "black belt" counties and beyond to the Alabama-Georgia border; white violence spread along with it. A confrontation between white authorities and Sharecroppers' Union members in Reeltown, Alabama, in 1932 left three dead and several others wounded; eventually, five Sharecroppers' Union members were convicted and jailed for assault with a deadly weapon.
Still, the Sharecroppers' Union continued to grow as African-American sharecroppers faced with evictions resulting from New Deal acreage reduction policies joined in large numbers. By June 1933 the union's membership was estimated at two thousand; fifteen months later estimates ran as high as eight thousand members.
In 1934, a new white Sharecroppers' Union leader, Clyde Johnson, tried to merge the group with the newly formed Socialist-led Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, but the effort failed when the leadership of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union denounced the Sharecroppers' Union as a Communist front. Meanwhile, white violence persisted. Two strikes in Alabama in the spring and summer of 1935 left six dead and dozens of strikers jailed and beaten.
In 1936 the Sharecroppers' Union, now at its peak membership, moved into Louisiana and Mississippi as its leaders tried again to merge with the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. When that attempt failed, the Communist Party ordered the Sharecroppers' Union to disband. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were transferred to the National Farmers' Union, while the agricultural wage laborers of the Sharecroppers' Union were told to join the Agricultural Worker's Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). However, some Sharecroppers' Union locals in Alabama and Louisiana chose not to affiliate and remained independent into the 1940s.
Dyson, Lowell K. Red Harvest: The Communist Party and American Farmers. 1982.
Shaw, Nate. All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, compiled by Theordore Rosengarten. 1974.
Mary Jo Binker