The American Communist Party
The Communist Party, in the United States, was formed on September 1, 1919, in Chicago, Illinois. Having been inspired by the Russian Revolution (1917), unionists, intellectuals, and artists were attracted to the communist philosophy of helping oppressed people. During the 1930s, with most Americans feeling the effects of the Great Depression, the Communist Party’s advocacy of unemployment insurance, social security, and the right of workers to organize, captivated the imaginations not only of the general public but also of many young and aspiring writers. The movement was strong enough that in 1932 William Z. Foster ran for president as a candidate of the Community Party.
Wright joined the party in 1932. Shortly after joining, he became the executive secretary of the Chicago branch of the John Reed Club, a left-wing cultural group sponsored by the Communist Party. The club afforded Wright the opportunity of meeting with other young, radical intellectuals and artists, helping him to define his own literary and social philosophy.
The themes of organizing workers and other oppressed groups of people in order to gain power against their aggressors mark much of Wright’s early works. These themes were born with Wright’s association with the Communist Party. Sometimes Wright’s work, especially his journalistic work for socialist papers, was so imbued with communist themes that it sounded, according to critic Robert Felgar writing in the Preface to his Richard Wright, “as if it were dictated by a computer programmed by Marx himself.”
Jim Crow Laws
So-called Jim Crow laws are any laws that implement racial segregation. Named for an old minstrel routine (Jump Jim Crow), the term Jim Crow laws reflects the Supreme Court decision (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) that upheld the Louisiana law that required separate but equal railroad facilities for blacks and whites. From this decision, white people in power in the South took it upon themselves to create other separate but equal laws for everything from public transportation to public education; the emphasis in the implementation of these so-called laws was on the word separate with a total disregard for the word equal.
The Scottsboro Case Representative of social attitudes of whites toward blacks during the 1930s (predominantly, but not exclusively, in the South) are the circumstances of the Scottsboro case. In March 1931, on a train traveling through Alabama, a group of white and black youths got into a fight. The white youths, having lost the fight and having been forced off the train by the black youths, reported the black youths to train officials. When the train stopped at the next station, nine black youths were rounded up and arrested.
Coincidentally, two white women were also arrested by the same officials for having crossed the state line for immoral purposes. In an attempt to dissuade the police from charging them, the women claimed that the black youths had raped them. Rape was, of course, a serious crime, but the rape of white women by black men was enough to cause whole southern communities to go on a lynching rampage. The black men were quickly jailed, accused, and all but one was sentenced to die in the electric chair.
The Communist Party, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the American Civil Liberties Union all became interested in this case. They paid for lawyers who eventually appealed the convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1932, the Supreme Court ruled that the defendants had been denied a fair trial. Subsequently, there was a second trial in 1933 in which one of the women recanted her story. However, the jury still found the defendants guilty.
There were many other appeals and many other trials, but in the end five of the original nine men spent many years in jail, with the last of them being released on parole in 1950, nineteen years after having been tried for a crime he did not commit.
The Scottsboro case was considered a pivotal event in the Civil Rights movement. The NAACP gained quite a bit of publicity during the trials and gained strength as an organization. Formerly accused of aligning itself only with the bourgeois, the NAACP, through the Scottsboro case, redefined itself as the defender of all black Americans. The Scottsboro case also brought public attention to the poor ethics of the southern judicial system in reference to defending African Americans.
Marcus Garvey and Black Nationalism
Black nationalism is a term that has been applied to a movement among African Americans to fight against the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. Whereas socialism, in theory, would bring workers together to fight oppression, black nationalism proffered that black people should come together and create a separate society for themselves. Although the history of the movement is not well recorded, it is known that in 1916 the movement found a charismatic figurehead in the person of Marcus Garvey. Garvey formed a group he called the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which helped to develop black capitalist enterprises with a goal to build in Africa a black-governed nation. Garvey at one point claimed that there were about two million members in his organization, which would make this the largest mass movement of African Americans ever to occur.
Garvey, who was often referred to as Black Moses, often spoke of a “new Negro” who was proud of being black. He was successful in creating a chain of restaurants and grocery stores, laundries, a hotel, and a printing press. Unfortunately, he was better at managing crowds than he was at managing business. Eventually, mismanagement of his affairs plus his doctrine of racial purity and separatism brought strong criticism his way from other influential black leaders. His popularity weakened, and in 1922 he was indicted for mail fraud. Garvey, although eventually deported from the United States, rekindled a movement that would continue after his departure. He had given African Americans a sense of pride about themselves and their culture, which would spread throughout the black community and eventually inspire other organizations such as the Nation of Islam.
The Harlem Renaissance movement, which flourished in the decade of the 1920s, marked the emergence of a new confidence among AfricanAmerican artists. Some of the writers associated with this movement include Jean Toomer (Cane, 1923), Langston Hughes (Not without Laughter, 1930), and Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937). Many other artists of this period were published in Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925), a collection of stories, artwork, and essays by African Americans who voiced a new sense of independence as well as a new definition of black identity. Wright’s works appeared as the Harlem Renaissance was fading, and although some of the writers in this movement were considered his peers, Wright wanted to move beyond the Harlem Renaissance goal of defining an African-American identity. He wanted action, and his work is said to have inspired a new movement in African-American literature that became more politically motivated. It was driven by the urge for freedom as only a true civil rights program could deliver.
Wright wrote during the transition between the old movement of the Harlem Renaissance and the new group of works that would be termed the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He would influence many other writers during this transitional period, although not all of them would agree with his political views. Two of the more famous writers were Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man (1952), and James Baldwin, who wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Richard Wright, Published by Gale, 2002.