To many Americans, Alabama is a synecdoche for the worst of Southern reaction. It is George Wallace in Montgomery in 1963, pledging “segregation forever.” It is the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham the same year, where four young girls were killed in the name of hate. It is Jim Clark and his posse in Selma, ready to attack peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And in the present, men like Jeff Sessions and Roy Moore stand as living links to Alabama’s history of reactionary politics as well as its continued resilience.
But the strength of reaction in Alabama is a function, in great part, of the state’s tradition of Black politics and Black radicalism. In the wake of emancipation, formerly enslaved Blacks established Union Leagues, where they organized for self-defense and agitated for legal and political equality. League activists, the historian Michael W. Fitzgerald writes in “Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South,” “critiqued the ills of the plantation system and explained how Reconstruction could facilitate a more democratic social structure.” In secret meetings away from hostile whites, freedmen gave radical speeches that “politicized the prevailing discontent over the labor system,” speaking to frustration “over the holdovers of slavery.”
In the 1880s, Black farmers and sharecroppers throughout the state formed “colored” chapters of the Agricultural Wheel, a cooperative alliance of farmers devoted to debt relief, the end of one-crop farming, the nationalization of the railroads and the strict regulation of banks and businesses.
“All of these local groups,” explained the historian Paul Horton in a 1991 article for The Journal of Southern History, “supported increasing funding for education, eliminating state normal schools, building more local schools, abolishing federal banks, inflation, a high tariff to protect the farmer, abolishing the Electoral College, a secret ballot, reducing the hours of labor, and prohibiting contract labor.” Although white and Black Wheelers could not overcome the twin forces of racism and capital, they prefigured a radical politics that would flourish among Black industrial workers in the next century.
That radicalism was at its strongest within the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. “Originally an outgrowth of the Western Federation of Miners, a militant union that helped launch the I.W.W. in 1905, Mine Mill developed a national reputation as a radical, left-wing union during the 1930s,” the historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes in “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.” Most members of the union — like most iron ore miners in Birmingham, where the state’s steel industry was headquartered — were Black, and while its high-ranking officials were white, Black workers held the majority of middle- and low-level leadership positions within the union. Included among them were Communists, who helped spearhead Mine Mill’s organizing drive in the wake of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which had opened the door to unionization in large swaths of the economy.