International Labor Defense

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INTERNATIONAL LABOR DEFENSE. The International Labor Defense (ILD) was formed in 1925 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the United States as the party's legal arm. The group's goal was to provide legal and moral aid to people it considered victims of an ongoing class war. Under the leadership of William L. Patterson and Vito Marcantonio, the ILD came to the defense of strikers and workers confronting labor injustices, foreign-born individuals faced with discrimination and deportation, and African Americans in the Deep South challenged by oppression and racism.

In 1927, lifelong labor activist and eventual African American rights advocate Lucy Parsons became a member of the National Committee of ILD. Parsons believed that militant strikes and direct action would lead to equality and enable a working-class movement that could seize the methods of production. Similarly, the ILD believed that direct action would lead to equality in a legal arena that was politically motivated. With that in mind, the group launched political protests and campaigns that included legal defense, as well as massive levels of publicity garnering action. The scope and aggressiveness of ILD protests, however, often contrasted sharply with the less-combative methods of other civil rights groups.

Included in the ILD's list of controversial protest actions was a campaign to keep Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti from receiving the death penalty. Sacco and Vanzetti, who were anarchists, were convicted for robbing and killing two men who were delivering the payroll of a shoe factory. The ILD argued that the men were convicted, and eventually executed, because of their poor grasp of the English language and status as immigrants. Other efforts taken on by the ILD included a campaign to force the release of convicted trade unionists Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings and the criminal defense of the Scottsboro Boys.

During the depression and early wartime years, the ILD introduced many African Americans to Communist rhetoric and teachings. But its involvement in the Scottsboro case, more than any other protest, garnered a great deal of African American support for the ILD and its Communist Party leanings. The Scottsboro case began in 1931 after two white women on a freight train near Paint Rock, Alabama, accused nine African American men of rape. The ILD protested that the men were arrested and tried without adequate access to counsel—eight of the nine were sentenced to death. The ILD initiated a campaign to gain the men's freedom and engaged the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in an intense battle for control of the case. After a prolonged battle between the two organizations and an attempted witness bribe by attorneys associated with the ILD, an alliance between the ILD, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the American Scottsboro Committee (ASC) was able to obtain releases for four of the nine defendants.

Until the end of World War II, the ILD also published a monthly magazine called the Labor Defender in an effort to extend its challenge of racial, class, and political oppression. In 1946, the group merged with two other organizations to form the Civil Rights Congress.


Martin, Charles H. "The International Labor Defense and Black America." Labor History 26 (Spring 1985).

James T.Scott

See alsoCommunist Party, United States of America ; Industrial Workers of the World ; Sacco-Vanzetti Case ; Scottsboro Case .

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International Labor Defense

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International Labor Defense