A SKELETAL RAILROAD crossing at Paint Rock, Alabama, in the mountainous terrain near Scottsboro is the unlikely starting point for a journey into the political culture of imperial Britain in the 1930s—a journey that continues across the English Channel to the plains north of the Bavarian Alps and Munich. The metropolitan British and German rail centers dwarfed the sparse Alabama settlement that was too small to have a courthouse; those picked up in Paint Rock on suspicion of foul play had to be carried in flatbed trucks to the county seat. How did “race” figure in the 1930s? This history of the decade is comprised of unanticipated travel, unjust trials, and tangled and ragged networks of people living in dark times. The nine young defendants in the Scottsboro rape case were arrested in March of 1931, and Munich was the scene of the conference in September 1938, at which representatives of the British and French governments, with fascist Italy's assistance, attempted to appease Adolf Hitler's drive for war, sacrificing peoples and lands in the balance. The paths of many of those who responded to these events crossed in Britain, where London served as an unofficial center of colonial and antifascist exile. The imperial capital on its rain-swept islands—between the European continent, the ports of the Caribbean, and the North American seaboard—remained the seat of a parliamentary democracy that continued to allow entry to some people in flight. Britain was the final and first stop for many coming and going across oceans and seas. This story unfolds in the interconnections of activist lives, and is about the ideas and purposes to which those lives were dedicated.
Why was Ada Wright, a domestic worker from Chattanooga, Tennessee, walking so determinedly on Fleet Street in the summer of 1932? How does her story find a connection to the designs for peace that led to war staged in Munich? The answers to these questions foster a reconfigured narrative of the 1930s, whose protagonists formed a diffuse “front” of radicals and liberals, many of them socialists and communists, passionately involved in racial politics, who for the most part knew one another between the wars. The persons at the center of this story visited or worked, in Britain, or exercised influence over a strand of British-based activism, yet each came from somewhere else— Tennessee, Trinidad, Ireland, India, and Germany—and achieved notoriety in one political circle or another in the era.
In the 1930s, the Empire was a central foundation of Britain's life and through the operations of what some have termed her “gentlemanly capitalism,”