Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression


A groundbreaking contribution to the history of the "long Civil Rights movement," Hammer and Hoe tells the story of how, during the 1930s and 40s, Communists took on Alabama's repressive, racist police state to fight for economic justice, civil and political rights, and racial equality.

The Alabama Communist Party was made up of working people without a Euro-American radical political tradition: devoutly religious and semiliterate black laborers and sharecroppers, and a handful of whites, including unemployed industrial workers, housewives, youth, and renegade liberals. In this book, Robin D. G. Kelley reveals how the experiences and identities of these people from Alabama's farms, factories, mines, kitchens, and city streets shaped the Party's tactics and unique political culture. The result was a remarkably resilient movement forged in a racist world that had little tolerance for radicals.

After discussing the book's origins and impact in a new preface written for this twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, Kelley reflects on what a militantly antiracist, radical movement in the heart of Dixie might teach contemporary social movements confronting rampant inequality, police violence, mass incarceration, and neoliberalism.


How is this for timing: the post-Cold War and the publication of Hammer and Hoe are both twenty-five years old. Or to put it another way, I published an entire book about the trials, tribulations, and virtues of a Communist movement in the U.S. South just as Communism—in its Soviet variety, at least—took its last breath. The demise of the USSR should have no bearing on the historical value of Communism, but in the early 1990s, few conservative or liberal critics saw any reason to revisit Communist movements besides performing an autopsy. Given how obsessed with the present our culture is, once Communists ceased to be our greatest existential threat, they became, at best, relics of the past and, at worst, the twentieth century’s biggest losers.

Yet I’d be lying if I said Hammer and Hoe was conceived as a purely academic contribution, unburdened by presentist concerns. The book’s genesis cannot be understood absent an understanding of the political and personal context in which it was written. I felt a fierce urgency to study black working-class radicalism, not because the old Soviet states were crumbling in the face of revolt, but because the apartheid state of South Africa was succumbing to a massive multiracial movement—a movement in which Left trade unions and the South African Communist Party played leading roles. Far more than the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and Namibian independence, both in 1990, best represented the politics behind this book. Even the title was inspired by events in Africa. In 1970, the People’s Republic of the Congo, a self-declared “MarxistLeninist socialist state,” adopted the symbol of a crossed hammer and hoe for its flag. (Coincidentally, the regime and its flag were replaced in 1992— another Cold War casualty.) I had entered UCLA’s graduate program in 1983 as an Africanist. Modern South Africa was my chosen field, and the ways in which black workers struggled under regimes of racial capitalism—how they resisted exploitation, what they fought for, how they came to define political liberation—was my primary obsession. For my doctorate, I planned to write a social history of black radical politics in South Africa that would be attentive to the culture and ideas of ordinary people.

There was little indication that the 1980s would be the last decade of the Cold War. This was the era of Reaganism and Thatcherism, new imperi-

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