In the midst of the Great Depression in 1931, nine Black teenage boys were falsely convicted of allegedly raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama. The Scottsboro Case quickly became one of the most infamous international spectacles that would eventually define the interwar period. The Scottsboro defense campaign, led by the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and the International Labor Defense (ILD), emphasized that the defendants’ case should be understood in the larger context of international workers’ struggles occurring throughout the imperial world.
The Party’s campaign relied on several strategies to gain international significance, however, its decision to recruit Ada Wright—the mother of Scottsboro defendants, Andy and Roy Wright— to embark on a European speaking tour, was perhaps one of the most significant strategies it utilized.
Wright’s experiences on this tour point to the evolving international landscape that characterize the interwar period. Wright’s lived experience as a Black Southern domestic worker and mother informed her unique perspective of the international labor struggle that persisted during the Great Depression. Her analyses of Black workers’ and mothers’ struggles throughout the Jim Crow South made a considerable impression on British anti-imperial activists and workers alike. Her speeches not only galvanized European workers, but also empowered Black working class women and mothers in the United States to join the communist struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and Black liberation. Her tour ultimately contributed to the formation of an interracial anti-imperialist Popular Front that circulated throughout Britain. When Wright initially embarked upon her European tour in 1933, scholar Susan Pennybacker explains that “London sat uncomfortably poised between Jim Crow and the Third Reich.” The Scottsboro case seemed to be the bridge between the condemnation of the growing fascist movement in Germany and the racialized organization of labor throughout the British Empire.
Ada Wright was in her mid-30s when the ILD asked her to participate in the European speaking tour. In March 1932, the courts confirmed the guilty verdicts and set the defendants’ execution date for May 13th. In response, the ILD commissioned Wright’s European speaking tour, hoping that she could help galvanize more international support for the case. London based West Indian communist Arnold Ward, a colleague and friend of George Padmore wrote to Padmore upon Wright’s arrival in Britain, stating that “Since Mrs. Wright has been here the International Solidarity has taken on a deeper and greater hold on the workers. Here more than I have ever seen before and I think it is for the best.” In sharing her lived realities under Jim Crow, she gave many working class women language with which to protest their own oppression.
At the time, Wright had never traveled outside of the South. She was a mother of three, a widow, and a domestic worker from rural Chattanooga, Tennessee. When the CPUSA initially gained control of the case, Wright was not familiar with the COMINTERN agenda. As a Black domestic worker living under Jim Crow segregation, however, Wright was all too familiar with the exploitation that Black workers faced regularly. She spoke on the evils of racism in the United States and the necessity of mobilizing “the masses against the imperialist war.” She understood the Scottsboro case as a “struggle against the imperialist war, because the Scottsboro persecution grows out of the war preparations of the American boss class.” This profound analysis of racial capitalism inspired audiences of European workers to connect their exploitation to that of colonized workers revolting against their working conditions throughout the British empire.
Throughout the tour, Wright reconciled with both her own lived reality in Chattanooga and the new experiences and activists that she encountered. Wright claimed to have met white people throughout her travels who “treated her better than some of her own kind ever had at home.” Most of the warm receptions she recounted were from European intellectuals, laborers, and mothers who identified with parts of Wright’s story. Her international tour was a key component to the defense campaign because as the mother of two of the boys, she was considered the best suited to attest to their innocence. Her tour was also critical to the Party’s agenda because of the way she described her hardships as a Black woman surviving Jim Crow segregation in rural East Tennessee. Her compelling narrative painted an authentic picture of the harsh realities of Black Southern life that chilled European audiences to their core.
As the case and Wright’s tour gained more international notoriety, Black Southern workers also recognized the direct link between the exploitation of their labor and the Southern racial order. In his 1933 article “The Scottsboro Struggle”, James Allen, one of the Party’s leading theoreticians and the leader of the Chattanooga Communist Party, publicized the demands that Black workers made on behalf of the Scottsboro defendants and all exploited workers. Beginning with the first trial, many Black workers amplified the international call for the courts to appoint Black jurors. Although this demand was ultimately ignored, Allen explained that it inspired Black Southerners working on public work projects to demand more equitable working conditions. This demand was a manifestation of Black, Southern political mobilization against the racialized plantation economy. Such mobilizations were born out of a distinct political ideology that emerged throughout the Black South during the interwar period as a response to the local, national, and global exploitation of Black poor and working class Southerners.
While Wright’s tour was primarily concerned with asserting the defendants’ innocence, it also succeeded in redefining the reputation of the ILD. Black women and mothers back in the U.S. resonated with the Scottsboro mothers’ analyses of the intersection between labor struggles and the realities of Black womanhood and motherhood under Jim Crow. Among the numerous black women and mothers that publicly supported the ILD throughout the Scottsboro Campaign was Claudia Jones. Jones, who pledged her support to the Communist Party and Young Communist League in New York in 1936, would go on to become one of the most influential architects of the Popular Front in London throughout the 1940s.
Throughout her political career, Jones centered the lived experiences of oppressed Black people around the world. She would eventually publish “On the Right to Self-Determination for the Negro People in the Black Belt”in 1946, in which she likened the post-WWII political attacks against Black American people to those of the post WWI era, most notably the Scottsboro case. Throughout her analysis of the condition of Black life in the U.S., Jones highlighted the “…double oppression of the Negro people—as wage slaves and as Negros.” This rhetoric reflects Wright’s conceptualization of the Scottsboro case as a legal lynching of “class war prisoners” informed by the oppressive Southern racial caste.
Perhaps one of the most influential accomplishments of Wright’s tour was the way she and the Scottsboro mothers who affiliated with the Communist Party contributed to the galvanization of a European popular front of activists, intellectuals, and workers—including Jones—-who would later launch the movement against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. The Scottsboro defense campaign served as one of the catalysts for the organization of the International Friends of Abyssinia movement, mainly headquartered in London.
The defense campaign, including Wright’s tour, influenced the Popular Front’s political ideology through its multifaceted, global approach, that acknowledged the lived experiences of Black women and mothers as distinct components of workers’ struggles. In the years following the Scottsboro case, Popular Front activists utilized their myriad of experiences acquired throughout the global liberation struggles of the 1930s in order to substantively confront empire and the growing power of European fascist regimes. This coalition ultimately went on to serve among the leaders of the Post World War II liberation movement throughout African and Caribbean nations in the 1950s and 60s.
The interwar period was pivotal for the formation of this Pan-African liberation movement because it introduced new possibilities for international anti-imperial organizing. The Communist Party’s calculated framing of this case would eventually become the logics with which the Popular Front would sustain a movement for self-determination throughout the Diaspora. While Wright’s sons were both pardoned and released by 1944, the “last of the Scottsboro Boys” was not released from custody until 1976. She insisted until her passing that “it was the Russians who had saved her sons.” However, she was being much too modest. It was in fact Mrs. Wright who helped galvanize an international Popular Front that would eventually go on to challenge the imperial world order of domination.
This article appeared in Black Perspectives, a publication of the African American Intellectual History Society