Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Seeing Red

In surveying the list of dissertations written about Memphis in the past few years—a recent ProQuest search revealed that no fewer than twenty-three have appeared since 2007—it’s been good to see Dr. Charles Crawford’s name attached to some of them. Dr. Crawford was in the history department when I was a student at the University of Memphis in the mid-1980s. He was an advocate for oral history when oral history was still struggling to gain acceptance as a legitimate scholarly enterprise, and if I could do it all over again, I’d make sure to take a course or two from him.

One of the dissertations Dr. Crawford recently supervised was by John L. Bass, who, under Dr. Crawford’s guidance, produced in 2009 an extensively researched study of Communist activity in Memphis in the middle part of the twentieth century. Titled “Bolsheviks on the Bluff: A History of Memphis Communists and Their Labor and Civil Rights Contributions, 1930–1957,” the work begins with a brief history of the Communist Party in the South and then discusses Communist activity in Memphis beginning in 1930, the earliest year for which the author could obtain papers of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) that mentioned Memphis. He ends his story in 1957, the year in which Tennessee formally banned Communist activity in the state. Communists in Memphis during that period usually had to act in secret: anti-Communist sentiment in the city was high—no surprise there—and anyone caught working on behalf of the Communist Party was subject to firing, arrest, or worse.

As Dr. Bass reports, in the 1940s Communists in Memphis played a large role in thwarting the machine rule of Edward Hull Crump, the longtime “Boss” of Memphis. Their biggest success was in helping to create Local 19 of the CIO’s United Cannery, Agricultural Production, and Allied Workers of America. Many members of Local 19 were African American, and the training they received from the union with respect to organizing helped them in their fight for civil rights. In the immediate postwar years, Memphis Communists helped build a chapter of the National Negro Congress in the city, and they participated in many strikes, including one in 1946 at the four plants operated in the city by the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company.

In Dr. Bass’s study we meet the leading figures in the Memphis chapter, as it were, of the national Communist Party, beginning with Horace Davis, who in 1929 arrived in Memphis as a visiting professor at Southwestern (today’s Rhodes College). Troubled by the expressions of racism he heard from his students—he had asked if they believed lynching justified, to which nearly all replied in the affirmative—he soon joined, along with his wife Marion, the CPUSA. The two were arrested for trying to organize a meeting in Confederate Park to protest the arrest of six Atlanta Communists. When Horace’s contract with Southwestern expired, it was not renewed, and he and his wife left the city. Perhaps the most interesting leader, according to Dr. Bass, was Reuel Stanfield, who was in Memphis from 1942 to 1944 and who, along with two men named Frank Bruno and Morton Davis, organized an IWA-CIO local at the E. Bruce Lumber Company. Morton Davis himself took charge of training black workers to take on leadership roles in CIO unions. Davis also reconciled Marxist theory with Christian doctrine, in the process forming links with local black churches. John Mack Dyson led Local 19 for eight years and helped desegregate the Memphis chapter of the CIO. Other Communist activists were Lee Lashley, Henderson Davis, and Ed McCrea, as well as Al Greenberg, William “Red” (his hair color) Davis (Morton’s brother and the first Memphis native who was a Party organizer), and Lawrence McGurty.

In constructing his account of Communists in Memphis, Dr. Bass was determined “to leave no stone unturned,” and I believe him. His admirable bibliography is fifty-pages long, and in addition to consulting a wealth of secondary sources and newspapers and periodicals of the time (the Daily Worker, the Southern Worker, and the UCAPAWA News, to name just three), he examined papers in several archival collections, including the CIO’s Operation Dixie Papers, which are housed at Duke University; the papers of the Communist Party USA, which can be found at Emory University; and the National Negro Congress, which are at the University of North Carolina. The author even obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI’s Memphis Division files. I was surprised to see the papers of Boss Crump listed in the bibliography. The last I read, Crump’s papers, which are in the main public library in Memphis, had not been released to the public. Could an authoritative, scholarly biography of the controversial political leader, two parts bully, one part benefactor, be far behind?

Communist activity in Memphis was not homegrown; rather, the party sent people to Memphis to organize workers and others who proved themselves sympathetic to the cause. The movement effectively ended in the 1950s when, under the intensification of the Red Scare, its allies stopped supporting it and the Memphis Communists were expelled from the local chapter of the CIO.

Perhaps the legacy of the Memphis Communists, Dr. Bass suggests, lies in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1940s and 1950s Memphis Communists were virtually the only whites willing to work on social-justice issues with blacks; in the process, black workers learned organizational tactics that proved useful in the political battles ahead.

For another recent dissertation supervised by Dr. Crawford, see my post on Paul W. White's study of the old Kennedy General Hospital.

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