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The Red Scare Overlapped With Another State-Sanctioned Panic: The Black Scare

Rooted in white people’s fear of Black Nationalism, the Black Scare was conjoined with the anti-communist Red Scare.

An illustration of Angelo Herndon, a Southern Black communist who was a victim of the Black and Red Scares, is shown on the cover of Black Scare / Red Scare.

The Red Scare Overlapped With Another State-Sanctioned Panic: The Black Scare

Rooted in white people’s fear of Black Nationalism, the Black Scare was conjoined with the anti-communist Red Scare.

An illustration of Angelo Herndon, a Southern Black communist who was a victim of the Black and Red Scares, is shown on the cover of Black Scare / Red Scare.

The case of Angelo Herndon illuminates the Red Black / Black Red as the most hated genre of Radical Blackness. The child of a coal miner and a domestic servant, he was galvanized by his position at the absolute bottom of U.S. Capitalist Racist Society. His Radical Blackness sprang from his experiences as a Southern Black worker who endured superexploitation, expropriation, dispossession, violence, and surveillance starting at the age of thirteen. Though the 1920s were the “prosperity era” when “wages were high,” Herndon and his brother Leo could only find “piece-work” jobs that came with countless deductions for amenities Herndon and other Black workers were barred from accessing. Herndon discussed this predicament in his book, Let Me Live, writing, “They robbed us with an undisguised brazenness . . . the company rob[bed] us of the fruits of our labor which we earned by the sweat of our brows and the ache of our limbs.” Company housing became a means of expropriation by domination: the rent for his shack was fifty dollars a month — almost three-fourths of his paycheck — even though it had no electricity or private toilet and was in the segregated section next to a putrid garbage dump. He paid more rent than the white workers despite exponentially worse conditions.

To add insult to injury — or domination to expropriation — the shacks were patrolled by armed gunmen to make sure the workers did not steal the company’s property. Such surveillance and repression were perpetual features of subproletarian Black toil. During Herndon’s work on a dam in Birmingham,

Alabama, for example, he was watched over by a “whole army” of “floor walkers” who lorded over the laborers day and night, ensuring that they did not escape. Workers were bound to this abysmal situation through indebtedness, which meant that “miners . . . were irretrievably mortgaged to these heartless ghouls [disreputable loan sharks and credit stores]” who preyed upon them systematically.

This ongoing primed the development of Herndon’s Radical Black political consciousness — and prepared him for the violence that accrued to the Red Black / Black Red. One day during a trolley ride, a white man attempted to force Herndon to vacate his seat. He shouted, “You white people are so civilized that you seem to think that you can afford to behave worse than savages towards us defenseless Negroes. I know you hate us, but it strikes me awfully funny that you are ready to accept money from a black hand as well as from a white. Now understand me clearly, I’ve paid my fare to ride this car and I won’t give up my seat to any white man until hell freezes over!” Here, Herndon rejected the contradictions of U.S. Capitalist Racist Society: white savagery amid claims of civilization, white violence legitimated as law and order, and Black defenselessness obfuscated as danger. Likewise, Herndon conveyed that if dollar equality was possible, so too was racial equality. The latter, after all, was perversely conveyed when workers rose up, insofar as Black cops beat white women and white cops attacked Black women; race prejudice was not a factor when it came to brutalizing workers.

The Black Scare and the Red Scare meant that, especially in the South, the only thing worse than Blackness was Radical Blackness, and worst of all was to be a Red Black / Black Red. As historian Gerald Horne put it, “Reds were persecuted and black Reds were virtually flagellated.” In 1930, Herndon joined the Unemployed Council, and that same year he was locked up by Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad guards in the Big Rock Jail for associating with communists. When he went to court after his arrest, townspeople gathered to gawk at the “Negro Red” freak with “cruel and depraved” curiosity. The prosecutor did not hide his hatred of the Red Black / Black Red, and the Black Scare and the Red Scare stood in for any semblance of fact in the case. According to Herndon, this officer of the court

talked vaguely and bitterly about bewhiskered devils that carried bombs in their pockets and threatened the virtue of every white woman. He referred to Communists and Bolsheviks as if they were two separate kinds of radicals and talked about Russians as if they were all Jews. . . . [He] demanded that society protect itself against such horrible creatures by giving us the fullest punishment under the law.

A police chief in Birmingham, Alabama, made a similar statement when Herndon was later arrested alongside two white communists:

Too bad I can’t make a public example of you Reds, Russians, Jews, and niggers. . . . That God-damn Legislature of ours — it won’t enact the criminal-anarchy law I recommended against you bastards! If it were up to me alone I wouldn’t be treating you as leniently as the courts do. Trials should be only for Americans and not for such Red trash as you. You’ve been agitating far too much and stirring up trouble among our steel workers and miners. If I had my own way about it I’d line you all up against the wall and shoot you down like dogs.

The Red Black / Black Red, appended to the Russian and the Jew, was a foreign/foreign-inspired subversive, a criminal-anarchist, an agitator, and a piece of trash to be disposed of. No law or punishment was too harsh for this bastard, troublemaker, dog. Herndon’s Radical Blackness, coupled with his interracial organizing activities, made him an abomination to U.S. Capitalist Racist Society generally, and in the Southern Black Belt particularly, because he challenged the trifecta of class domination, racist oppression, and dehumanizing poverty as the capitalist system was being called into question during the Great Depression.

While working in a coal mine in Birmingham, Alabama, Herndon saw a handbill advertising a meeting at which the dire situation of the city’s workers would be discussed. He was drawn as much to the CPUSA’s staunch reproach of Jim Crow and emphasis on interracial cooperation as he was to the class analysis the Party offered. The very first meeting he attended was raided by police because of these very factors, and from then on Herndon became a persistent target of police harassment. “Time and again I was now picked up on the street and arrested,” he wrote. “I became reconciled to the idea of being arrested. . . . Inevitably I would walk straight into the dragnet the police set for me. It got to be such a habit that every time I looked at a policeman I knew ‘it’ was coming.”

Herndon’s experience of repression combined public and private deployment of the Black Scare and the Red Scare. When he was arrested for “vagrancy” in Birmingham on the way to a Labor Day rally coordinated by the CPUSA and other organizations, he was held in jail for eleven days and put in the “dog house” for mentally insane prisoners. This was because any “nigger” who chose to be a communist must be crazy — and dangerous. Then, after hearing the case, the judge attempted to have him murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. In New Orleans, Louisiana, he was arrested for participating in a longshoreman’s strike and charged with “violation of the Federal Injunction, inciting to riot, dangerous and suspicious, distributing circulars without a permit, and having no visible means of support.” The “inciting to riot” charge no doubt had to do with the fact that he was a Red Black / Black Red supporting workers’ militancy.

Herndon was policed and harassed further when he attended the All-Southern Conference for the Scottsboro Defense in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on May 31, 1931. The police had gathered in a show of extraordinary force against interracialism and against the Northern communists who would be speaking. Moreover, authorities had no problem creating trumped-up charges to frame the Red Black / Black Red — a process organizations like the International Labor Defense called “legal lynching.” Then, on August 3, 1931, Herndon was accused of murdering three white girls in an all-white suburb of Birmingham. After beating him in an interrogation room, several officers took him out to the woods and brutalized him with a rubber hose. When he wouldn’t confess to the crime, they returned him to the Birmingham County Jail and threw him in solitary confinement with no medical attention. When the murder charge did not stick, Herndon was convicted of vagrancy along with two other comrades. This dragnet of unmitigated torment conveyed that no punishment was too harsh, no violence was too brutal, no rationalization was too outlandish, and no crime was beyond the realm of possibility for the Red Black / Black Red.

Because of the incessant threat of arrest, lynching, and police assassination, in 1932 the party reassigned Herndon to Atlanta, Georgia, where he would continue his organizing work — and face the fight of, and for, his life. Herndon’s arrest and conviction under Georgia’s anti-insurrection law was the archetypal punishment for being a Red Black / Black Red. The law was a manifestation of an earlier confluence of the Black and Red Scares, namely, fear surrounding the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831 and hostility to increased abolitionist militancy. These laws sanctioned the full use of the state to suppress actual and suspected slave revolts and conspiracies and aimed to criminalize any public opposition to the slave system. After the Civil War, references to slaves were removed, but the definition and harsh penalization of insurrection remained. The Georgia Penal Code was updated to read: “Attempt, by persuasion or otherwise, to induce others to join in any combined resistance to the lawful authority of the State, shall constitute an attempt to incite insurrection.” Unless the jury recommended mercy, insurrection was a capital crime.

Leading up to his arrest, Herndon, now a leader in the Atlanta Unemployed Council, called for an interracial demonstration at the Fulton County Courthouse after the city of Atlanta, in the throes of the Great Depression, closed all relief stations and attempted to drop twenty-three thousand families from the relief rolls and send them back to the farms, where there was no work — effectively a death sentence for the impoverished masses. Herndon and his comrades drafted a list of demands and organized a protest. More than one thousand Black and white, male and female, workers participated, striking fear into the hearts of authorities because a gathering of that size of Black and white workers had never taken place in the South. Despite the efforts of authorities to foment racial animosity among protesters by only negotiating with whites and excluding Blacks, the protest was a success: the twenty-three thousand families remained on the relief rolls and $6,000 of additional funds were appropriated for relief. As a direct result of this interracial, militant protest, Herndon was arrested on July 11, 1932, and incarcerated for eleven days under “suspicion” without being formally charged. He was eventually indicted for three counts under Section 56 of the Georgia Penal Code, which criminalized “any attempt by persuasion or otherwise, to induce others to join in any combined resistance to the lawful authority of the State.” Such action constituted “an attempt to incite insurrection.”

As a Red Black / Black Red, Herndon’s contravention of racial hierarchy through interracialism, challenge to the ruling elite by organizing workers, and rejection of capitalist racism by demanding economic relief for Black and white families were not expressions of freedom of speech and assembly, but rather dangerous rioting aimed at overthrowing the government. His membership in and organizing on behalf of the CPUSA amounted to foreign-inspired subversion and an attempt to undermine democracy with dictatorship, upend property relations, and foment revolution. Further, for circulating radical ideas, the Red Black / Black Red was guilty of insurrection because his analysis threatened the Jim Crow regime that obfuscated Georgia’s capitalist exploitation of Black and white workers alike—albeit at different levels of intensity. Not unlike enslaved Africans gaining literacy, the circulation of revolutionary ideas was considered dangerous and unlawful such that one Radical Black possessing “subversive” literature, like an enslaved African possessing a book, menaced the whole system.

The Black Scare and Red Scare were activated throughout Herndon’s trial to underscore the danger of the Red Black / Black Red, with the racial position of the CPUSA targeted as much as its economic program. The prosecutor argued: “The defendant claims to be interested in the unemployed, but that is just a disguise. He is only trying to stir up the races, to foment and create trouble that will bring about an industrial revolution so he and his Communist friends can set up a godless dictatorship in this country based on the style of the Bolsheviki dictatorship in Soviet Russia.” Here, the Red Black / Black Red was accused of using Depression conditions to manipulate the unemployed, stir up race hatred, overthrow the economic order, and subject the United States to foreign domination. The prosecutor also asserted that because Herndon was an admitted member of the CPUSA, he should legally be sent to the electric chair, along with “other Reds who might plan to invade” the state of Georgia. In less than two hours, Herndon was found guilty, but, in act of Southern “mercy,” the jury recommended twenty years on the chain gang instead of the electric chair. After almost six months, the International Labor Defense fund paid Herndon’s bail and appealed his case. The United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1937.

Through the logic and discourse of the Black Scare and the Red Scare, the West Indian, the Outside Agitator, and the Red Black / Black Red posed acute threats to the life and limb of superior whites, the racial order, the capitalist system of private property, Wall Street Imperialism, and European colonialism. In addition to their attempt to subvert the extant order, all three genres of Radical Blackness were linked through their promotion of a dire threat to U.S. Capitalist Racist Society: Black self-determination.

Adapted and excerpted from Black Scare / Red Scare: Theorizing Capitalist Racism in the United States by Charisse Burden-Stelly, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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