Everybody knows that Alabama is a red state, but back in the first half of the 1900’s it was red for a different reason: communism.
Birmingham was a steel town in an agricultural state. The mix of rural poverty and urban labor provided the perfect soil in which communism could grow. According to Diane McWhorter’s book about the civil rights struggle, Carry Me Home, in 1934 the Birmingham Communist Party claimed 1000 members. Birmingham was called “the reddest city in the country.”
The Good Ol’ Boy network of rich industrialists knew that the communists wanted to ally poor whites with poor blacks against the steel industry. (“Black faces and red necks” had two meanings: both miners and farmers, and blacks and whites.) The labor unions and New Deal supporters represented a threat to the industrialists’ privileged way of life. The industrialists hit upon a divide-and-conquer strategy and focused on two wedge issues: segregation and red-baiting. They allied themselves with the Ku Klux Klan and used domestic terrorism (like bombing) to intimidate labor organizers.
It didn’t help, of course, that some of the red-baiting was true. Many early civil rights advocates were on the far, far, left: Paul Robeson, Hosea Hudson, Helen Keller…
Yes, that Helen Keller.
Although I sat through what seemed like months and months of Alabama History in elementary school, and I distinctly remember watching “The Miracle Worker,” it seemed that Ms Keller simply disappeared after she learned to talk. I think I vaguely remember our textbook saying that she went on to be an advocate for people with disabilities, but there was never, of course, any mention of her being a socialist. It wasn’t until I read Lies My Teacher Told Me that I understood why her history had been sanitized: our famous Alabamian had gone on to become a founding member of the ACLU and an advocate of women’s reproductive freedom.
I visited Tuscumbia a few weeks ago for a wedding, and went into the town’s excellent independent bookstore. I picked up a book by Helen Keller (titled My Religion), and had an awkward conversation with the cashier.
Her: That looks like an interesting book. I’ve been meaning to read that one.
Me: Yeah, she was a fascinating woman. Did you know that she was a socialist?
(Conversation at the coffee tables behind me stops)
Her: …Huh. I never heard that before.
Me: Yeah. She even wrote poems in praise of the Boshevik revolution. But they don’t teach that in school.
I’d embarrassed her, without even thinking about it. I insulted a hometown hero. I’m such a doofus.
Anyway, it’s fascinating to think of how much history we attempt to expunge from our memories to fit whatever is currently socially acceptable. If we teach children that Helen Keller was a socialist, they might ask “why?” Then we’d have to talk about the fact that lots of workers were rendered deaf and blind in industrial accidents, and it was only because brave activists risked life and limb that today, workers have to be paid in real money instead of scrip, get time off, and are compensated if they get hurt. These activists were bombed, lynched, and shot because they demanded to be treated like human beings. They paved the way for the civil rights struggle that would happen decades later. (Say what you like about OSHA and various industry regulations: you wouldn’t want to work in a factory or mine of 100 years ago.)
We might also have to talk with children about the concept of “class,” and have conversations with them around questions like, “Are we really a classless society?” We might have to talk about why poor people in Alabama subsidize low property taxes for the wealthy by paying such high sales taxes, even on things like groceries. One of my pastor friends asked a state legislator if he thought it was unfair that Alabama has such a regressive tax system which proportionally takes more money from the poor than from the wealthy. The politician was incredulous. “How else are you going to get money out of the poor?” he replied.
How far we’ve come since Alabama was called “the most liberal state in the south!”
Of course, these days, even talking about such things can get you labeled a socialist, regardless of what your economic and political views actually are. Our history has much to teach us that we are reluctant to learn. Privileged folk in Alabama of the last fifty years have worked very hard to forget as much as possible, hoping that we can “move on” from our past. But as dramatic as our history is, the further you dig, the more drama—and relevance—you uncover. Red-baiting and race-baiting still go on today, of course, although their practitioners resist similar rhetoric connecting them to the Klan, or Nazis, or to the feudal landlords of the south. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll see that there’s more than one reason this state’s politics are as red as its soil.
In my next post, I’ll talk about what this has to do with the church.