Editor’s Note Louise Thompson Patterson was a key figure in the U.S. communist movement and the Harlem Renaissance, noted as both an activist and a theorist who wrote about intersectionality long before the word came into popular parlance. In this video, she tells of the movement to free the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. The Scottsboro Boys were nine Black youth who were falsely accused of raping a white women in 1931. The Communist Party USA led the struggle for their freedom.
This interview was conducted over three decades ago and the audio files have been digitized as part of NYU Tamiment Library’s invaluable Oral History of the American Left project. Liberation School has been transcribing and publishing interviews from this collection not as an endorsement of all the statements expressed in them, but to help a new generation of organizers and revolutionaries gain access to the experiences, lessons and perspectives of prior generations of U.S. communists. While much has been written in academic circles about the role of communists in the Black freedom struggle, this history is systematically omitted in history textbooks and rarer still do we get to hear from the Black radicals themselves.
I was interested in the Scottsboro case before I went to the Soviet Union. But this was intensified in Moscow when I found that I would pass children on the street, and, when they found we were from the United States, the first question they would ask us: “What about the Scottsboro Boys?”
And when we went out to the park, and there were brought to a huge mass meeting of workers and people and asked to speak on Scottsboro, I was amazed. So that it’s not strange that when I came back to the United States and had found at least a partial answer to the questions I had been asking through the years that I should decide to enter into the progressive movement by entering through the portals of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners and the International Labor Defense in support of the Scottsboro case. It was exciting. It was…
– “Did it give you a purpose in life?”
It gave me a purpose in life. I never will forget that mass meeting that we assembled people. We had a little office in Harlem on 135th Street between 7th and Lenox Avenue. When the day came for the March to Washington, the police had to rope off and close the street of 135th Street between 7th and Lenox, and the buses that came that morning were quickly filled, and we had to send for more. So that was one o’clock in the day before we were able to take off for Washington. It took three days to get there. The first night we left, we made Philadelphia, where the churches filled us…put us up, and the people were able to sleep on the pews, the second night, and they were fed. The second night was Baltimore. The same thing happened again. The third day, we were up and into Washington and marched through the streets of that city. It was amazing the people that came out: old, young, crippled, children, pregnant women, children with babies and, women with babies in their arms. And that we could take these over 3,000 people to Washington on that kind of a trip, who had never been on such a trip before, and not have one accident, one incident, one person gets sick, seems to me was a miracle. At least it was to me, who had never participated in any such mass activity before in my whole life.
The case, you know, lasted many years, and there were many ups and downs in the case. That summer of ’33 was a particularly hard period. There was a dissension in the National Committee for Defense of Political Prisoners when Leibowitz was brought in to the case, and the fight that went on with some forces around the NAACP, who objected to the mass techniques of the International Labor Defense. One looks back on it now and thinks of what’s happened since that time, the mass demonstrations of the 60’s and later, and think back that these were the techniques used first by the International Labor Defense and the communists back in the 30’s. One has to see where many of these contributions came from, these ideas came from. But they were new to many of us at that time.
As a lull, but there was a lull that came about, and it was during this period in the fall ’33, that as the National Committee for Defense a Political Prisoners became rather on down beat, that I left to join forces with the International Workers Order and, in a very short time, was out in the field seeking to bring into this international body my own people who, up until that time, did not even know of its existence to any great degree, not even within progressive circles I don’t think. It was largely a foreign-born organization made up of 16 different nationalities. And I came in to the English-speaking section as it was called, and it was to this section that I was, from which I was sent South, in the latter part ’33 and in ’34, to see what could be done in the South to get Black people interested in it. It was a paternal Society, which sought to bring to working people and poor people some degree of protection that they could well afford to pay.
Now I was very familiar with the type of protection that Black people had because of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company which had built a great deal of its great fortune on selling this terrible industrial insurance to make Negro people on a nickel and dime basis on a weekly basis, and the sick policies that gave these people nothing new, nothing to go into a Black home and fine them with policy of 50 to 150 dollars life insurance policies. Whereas within the IWO, the policies nothing to go into a work his home and find him carrying one, two, or three thousand dollars’ worth of life insurance.
There was a cultural program, but it was from the practical side, and, being a very practical-minded person myself, I felt that this organization had something to offer that was very concrete at the same time that it had a cultural program that I felt could very well fit into the pattern of the life of my people. I knew it. So, I went south to New Orleans and became part of the life of some of the Creole people down there and some of the people in the labor movement. It was a very interesting experience, and from there, I went into Birmingham, and in Birmingham that I really got my baptism fire.
Birmingham was where the Scottsboro Boys were in prison. In Birmingham at that time was also in town where there was a big strike on in mines that surrounded, Birmingham being one of the big industrial centers of the South. Birmingham, at the same time, being one of the great bastions of racism and terror against Black people. There was Bull Connor at that time who became, I guess, notoriously known all over the world when the 60’s came. But he was quite notorious to the people locally when I was there in 1934. He carried a gun which carried notches for every Black that he had shot.
The white Citizens’ Council was part of the life of Birmingham, and it was the most segregated, consciously segregated, city that I had ever seen. Blacks and whites had no relation, and, as a matter of fact, the segregation took in so that even the Jewish people lived in separate…you perhaps know about how Birmingham was.
I think it was the most frightful city that I ever. I remember going to meeting one night. It was going to be a meeting of the party because the party was active in Birmingham, and I was to go with a white comrade. We would go out on a bus or streetcar I believe it was. But we were not to speak to each other or anything. He was to get on one entrance, I was to get off, obviously, get on the back, and he was to get on the front or something like that. He was to get off at one stop, and I was to get off at the stop ahead or the stop after his, something of that kind. All of which we did. When we came back we caught the same conductor coming back, and he gave a look at us as if to say, “Something is going on here.”
Well, I, in going about organizing for the IWO, I was, my work was largely going into trade unions and into churches. So, being a strike, a strike was on, I’d been out to a union meeting the night before, and I found out some important information that I wanted to pass on to the party. The next morning, I tried to get in touch with some of the party people, and I couldn’t find anyone, so I knew where the woman who was the editor of the Southern Worker, Elizabeth Lawson, was living in a white neighborhood, middle-class neighborhood.
Meanwhile, I was stopping with some friends who were related to people I knew in New York, and, they had sent me, when they knew I was going to be in Birmingham, they had given me their address, saying that would be a nice place for me to stay. They didn’t know my business, but they were concerned about me, and they were very nice people. The father worked at the Post Office. One of the daughters was a schoolteacher, one was a social worker, and so on. One was in college. So, they used to worry about me. They’d say, “Daughter, we don’t like to see you out on the nights and going places by yourself, and we have a friend who has a car. He’d be very glad to drive you around, and you don’t have to tell us how where going, but George will take you around where you want to go and be glad to bring you back and so on.”
So, one day, this day when I was trying to find the party, I asked him would he drive me out to this neighborhood. But I didn’t let him drive me to the house. I’d rather he drove me not on the same street, to another street. And then I got out and walked. I went up to this apartment. I think she lived on the second floor. And I knocked on the door, and who opened the door? A policeman. They had raided it, and the whole district leadership was sitting there on the couch in Elizabeth’s apartment, Lawson’s apartment. She was very quick-witted. She said, “I haven’t any serving for you today.”
This guy said, “Ah, we know you’re one of them. Come on in here you goddamn Yankee bitch.”
And they were afraid for me to try to run because they thought he might shoot me. So, I went in, and that’s how I got arrested. I walked into a raid. Nat Ross, Sid, forget his name, he once later on came here and became a theatrical producer. He died recently. Quite a few people there. All of them were white but me. So, we had to wait, and, interestingly enough, they didn’t know, but this one solitary cop carried through this rain by himself. Elizabeth got away. She just opened the door and ran out, and I remember she had on a house dress, and she got away. But they wouldn’t let me do that.
So, when we, when they finally got the cops there to take us on off to jail, they put an old cop in charge of me, and they put me in a separate car. Now I don’t think he realized who I was or what I was. He said, “Daughter, what are you doing getting caught up in all this mess?” He said, “You know, nothing wrong with these communists, but one thing they just love niggers to hell.” He said, “You shouldn’t be in this mess.”
Well, they took me off to a city jail, not the big modern jail down in the center of town, but a big building, with about fifty women in one room, one long one with a dirty, filthy bathroom in the back of it. And that’s nothing but a series of cots with no divisions or anything. The first time I’d ever seen inside a jail in my life. But I didn’t have sense enough, I guess, to be afraid. I was mad because there was one woman there who was out of her mind, and she walked the jail all night long saying, “My name is Virgin Mary Johnson. This is my front room. This is my dining room. This is my kitchen.” By morning, she and I were the only ones awake. I was taken for identification down. Birmingham.
The jail experience had done one thing for me. It had certainly given me the steeling to feel that I could stand anything. Birmingham, I went into Atlanta and work. Angelo Herndon was in Fulton towers facing the death penalty, and Ben Davis was practicing and was his lawyer. There was another white, there was a white attorney in that town who developed a great, rabid Jewish hating attitude. He turned on the movement and began to try to finger everybody beginning with Don West, who at that point was, at that time, was the organizer. And I can recall Ben Davis coming to my room at the St. James hotel, was on Auburn Avenue, at two o’clock in the morning to see whether I had some money. They had run out of every possible hiding place he had known in Atlanta, and Ben wanted some money to take him up. He had him in the trunk of his car. He was taking him up the road to put him on a, where it would be safe to put him on the train to get him out of the clutches of, I forget what that prosecuting attorneys name, do you remember the name of the man that’s-?
– “I should remember.”
That period that Don took me up the hills to meet his family, and the first time I’d ever met with a poor white family. And it was the first time that they had ever sat and ate with a Black. It was a strange experience. His mother, you know, everything, when I say not like Tobacco Road in the sense it was vulgarized, but the poverty was there and all his brothers. I remember we gathered in the woods afterwards.
I had just recently come back from the Soviet, from the Soviet Union wasn’t so long ago. And Don wanted me to talk to them about the Soviet Union, and so we gathered in the woods. And his son, his brothers, and their wives, and they invited the Black people, but the Black people stood behind trees. It was so interesting, and so you wanted to cry. They wouldn’t come up, and yet these people had grown up together, lived up there together all their lives, and yet they didn’t dare come and mingle together. That was quite an experience down there in Georgia.
I mean the building, the Southern, I could tell you many other stories about going after Memphis and getting with the Scottsboro mothers when Leibovitz finally broke with IOD. How the hell do you call me in Atlanta and ask me to go up and bring the Scottsboro mothers down to Montgomery because Leibovitz had sent his goon down there to get, try to get the mothers to sign up with them? And so, me and Goomoo were in the city at the same time trying to get the mothers. I succeeded in getting most of them, and I remember he got Claude Patterson’s, what was his name, Claude Patterson’s father. And I remember going to the railroad station, and as they were pulling out on the train, I tried to pull his father off the train. I went home and got his mother, got Mrs. Wright, and got in the car and drove down there, and I beat them to Montgomery because they had to layover in Birmingham. And when Leibowitz’s man got down to Montgomery, I had already turned the mothers over to Ben Davis, who was acting as attorney. And he had them at Kilby Prison already.
So that when you go into Scottsboro, I’ve read, the story of Scottsboro has never really been told. It’s a human story. The book that, what’s his name, Earl Conrad wrote on, Hayward Patterson, his name is. It’s not a good book because, I fell out with Conrad when he wrote a book about migrant workers from Florida because he makes Blacks into animals. And that’s what he does if you read that Scottsboro Boy carefully enough. You will see that he makes animals out of these people. And then the book that what’s his name did of Scottsboro. But of all the people that have been, I could tell you stories about Ruby Bates whom I knew very well, and the mothers that used to come and stay with me when they came to do…
And if you trace the lives of the boys, they were not lynched, no. But their lives were really shattered. None of them were ever really able to, there was a victory in the fact that they were never legally lynched. But what has happened to shatter the lives of boys like that so that when they get out they’re never able to fit into a real world? The Scottsboro is a, Lawson did a drama on it, but Scottsboro is a story that can take much retelling and many people who had pieces of it did their, you probably did your part. If we were to get all the people together who worked on the Scottsboro case, you could probably string a line from New York to San Francisco.
Well, that’s Scottsboro, and these things I was able to do within the framework of not neglecting my IWO work, but of being in the spot at certain points where it was possible for me to do things.
Thanks to AfroMarxist for the video and the Tamiment Library for archiving these audio files. Transcription by Jonathan Ebhogiaye.