From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain

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Overview

"This extraordinarily well-researched book puts notable 1930s causes and individuals into new global contexts. Pennybacker leaves no stone unturned—she examines fugitive writings, newspaper coverage, government documents, and many other sources to tell a richly detailed story of the period."—Werner Sollors, Harvard University

"From Scottsboro to Munich is an important intervention in the history of the 1930s, not only the history of Britain but of the West and the international Left. The book brings together people and campaigns that have been written about separately but never before treated as a whole."—Jeffrey Cox, University of Iowa

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Editorial Reviews

Basa
[T]his is an indispensable book for anybody seeking a deeper understanding of the racial politics of 1930s Britain, and their place within broader global historical and geographical networks of advocacy and engagement.
— Daniel Wittall
Journal of African American History
From Scottsboro to Munich is strongly recommended for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in 20th-century history and politics.
— Charles H. Ford
Journal of Southern History
This is an intricate and important history that no review can recount in all its complexity. It suggests not only the value of taking historical writing beyond the confines of the nation but also some of the narrative trials that await both writers and readers of this new transnational history.
— Andrew Zimmerman
Journal of Modern History
The book adds much detail and nuance to the already well-known tragedy of the divided European left in the interwar years. . . . The reader finishes this complex and depressing tale persuaded that, as the author argues, racial and imperial politics prove essential in understanding the 1930s.
— Laura Tabili
African American Review
From Scottsboro to Munich draws on a wide range of archival sources, including much Comintern and Profintern material that has recently become available from Moscow. It also shows a particular and welcome sensitivity to mixed media of expressive culture. The framing of its disparate and, again, contradictory subject is generally very sharp.
— James Smethurst
Basa - Daniel Wittall
[T]his is an indispensable book for anybody seeking a deeper understanding of the racial politics of 1930s Britain, and their place within broader global historical and geographical networks of advocacy and engagement.
Journal of African American History - Charles H. Ford
From Scottsboro to Munich is strongly recommended for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in 20th-century history and politics.
Journal of Southern History - Andrew Zimmerman
This is an intricate and important history that no review can recount in all its complexity. It suggests not only the value of taking historical writing beyond the confines of the nation but also some of the narrative trials that await both writers and readers of this new transnational history.
Journal of Modern History - Laura Tabili
The book adds much detail and nuance to the already well-known tragedy of the divided European left in the interwar years. . . . The reader finishes this complex and depressing tale persuaded that, as the author argues, racial and imperial politics prove essential in understanding the 1930s.
African American Review - James Smethurst
From Scottsboro to Munich draws on a wide range of archival sources, including much Comintern and Profintern material that has recently become available from Moscow. It also shows a particular and welcome sensitivity to mixed media of expressive culture. The framing of its disparate and, again, contradictory subject is generally very sharp.
From the Publisher
"Pennybacker's meticulous work examines the confluence of antislavery, anticolonial, and antifascist activities in 1930s Britain. The British, appalled by the oppression of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, identified brutality against nonwhites as a peculiarly American sort of repression."—Choice

"[T]his is an indispensable book for anybody seeking a deeper understanding of the racial politics of 1930s Britain, and their place within broader global historical and geographical networks of advocacy and engagement."—Daniel Wittall, Basa

"From Scottsboro to Munich is strongly recommended for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in 20th-century history and politics."—Charles H. Ford, Journal of African American History

"This is an intricate and important history that no review can recount in all its complexity. It suggests not only the value of taking historical writing beyond the confines of the nation but also some of the narrative trials that await both writers and readers of this new transnational history."—Andrew Zimmerman, Journal of Southern History

"The book adds much detail and nuance to the already well-known tragedy of the divided European left in the interwar years. . . . The reader finishes this complex and depressing tale persuaded that, as the author argues, racial and imperial politics prove essential in understanding the 1930s."—Laura Tabili, Journal of Modern History

"From Scottsboro to Munich draws on a wide range of archival sources, including much Comintern and Profintern material that has recently become available from Moscow. It also shows a particular and welcome sensitivity to mixed media of expressive culture. The framing of its disparate and, again, contradictory subject is generally very sharp."— James Smethurst, African American Review

Choice
Pennybacker's meticulous work examines the confluence of antislavery, anticolonial, and antifascist activities in 1930s Britain. The British, appalled by the oppression of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, identified brutality against nonwhites as a peculiarly American sort of repression.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691141862
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/6/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Susan D. Pennybacker is the Borden W. Painter, Jr., Professor of European History at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She is the author of "A Vision for London, 1889-1914".
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Read an Excerpt

FROM SCOTTSBORO TO MUNICH

RACE AND POLITICAL CULTURE IN 1930s BRITAIN
By Susan D. Pennybacker

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2009 Susan D. Pennybacker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-08828-0


Chapter One

ADA WRIGHT AND SCOTTSBORO Camptown Races De Camptown ladies sing dis song-Doodah, Doo-dah! De Camptown race-track five miles long-Oh, doodah-day! I come down dah wid my hat cav'd in-Doodah, Doo-dah! I go back home wid a pocket full ob tin-Oh, doodah-day! Gwine to run all night! Gwine to run all day. I'll bet my money on de bobtail nag-Somebody bet on de bay ... I'se Gwine Back to Dixie I'se Gwine Back to Dixie. No more I'se gwine to wander; My heart's turned back to Dixie, I can't stay here no longer, I miss de old plantation. My home and my relation. My heart's turned back to Dixie. And I must go -The Labour Party Songbook: Everyday Songs for Labour Festivals * * * Doo-Dah-Day We march along with a merry song, Doodah, Doodah We-re all going strong and we shan't be long. Doodle, doodle, doo-dah-day We're out to see that an end shall be Doodah, Doodah, Of poverty and tyranny, Doodle, doodle doo-dah-day. Going to work all night, Going to work all day, Till the profit system's all washed up, Doodle, doodle doo-dah-day. -Workers' Music Association

Prelude: Fellow Travelers

The British press of the 1930s often carried news of Southern lynchings. Dramatic tales of racial violence across the Atlantic appeared on breakfast tables and Jim Crow hovered over tea breaks. African American servicemen who came to Europe during the Great War offered the English a glimpse of organized segregation, and after the war a growing stream of African American travelers passed through London. Ivan H. Browning, London stringer for the Chicago Defender enthused, "The West End will look like Harlem for a hot minute. Americans always attract immediate attention, much more than other Colored people, and as the different ones stroll in and around town they are not exactly laughed at but looked at with great curiosity. I have enjoyed so very much lately seeing so many of my people." British travelers below the Mason-Dixon Line wrote in turn of their American encounters with sharecroppers, miners and shoe shine "boys"-the word used by whites to address black men of any age. The British Labour Songbook excerpted above boasted "old Folks at Home," "Old Black Joe," "Camptown Races," and "I'se Gwine Back to Dixie" along with Eugene Pottier's "The Internationale," while the communist version of "Camptown Races" that appears below it, proletarianized and cleansed the wording, leaving in "Doo-dah" for good measure. These songs casually nurtured versions of a "plantation stereotype," identified and defined by African American writer James Weldon Johnson, and revisited by Alain Locke in Nancy Cunard's 1934 anthology, Negro.

In April 1931, a month after the Scottsboro case began, King George V and Queen Mary attended a royal command music hall performance at the London Palladium that featured black-faced minstrels Alexander and Mose. In the royal party was the U.S. ambassador's wife, Mrs. Charles Gates Dawes, whose husband was the recipient of the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize and a key figure in the reparations politics of interwar Germany and the League of nations, and the Earl of Athlone, recently back from serving as governor-general of South Africa. 3 one did not have to be a Labour party member to hum the Camptown Races, which appeared on the bill that night. A 1930s radical took political exception to the lyrics and replaced them with the version that appears above, retaining the crucial refrain "Doo-dah," a rejoinder meant to capture African American dialect, and part of the dominant version of the song heard in childhood, when the new lyricist was not likely to have been a communist. The tune remained, signifying racial assumptions and racial attitudes. Many other forms of discrimination existed. In 1932, the year that Scottsboro Mother Ada Wright came to Britain, a color bar was imposed on the British Empire heavyweight championship, stipulating that contenders must be "born of white parents."

Labour MP Jennie Lee wrote of her trip to the American South that year, in the New Leader. She later recalled the era. "Long before my time labour notables, large and small, had established a regular trade route between Great Britain and the States." She remarked on "the vast and politically incoherent American scene" in an English vernacular, identifying "settlers" rather than farmers, and "missionaries" rather than evangelists.

It is a very pleasant experience to stumble backwards into summer, and doubly luxurious against an unfamiliar background of cotton and tobacco plantations, smiling darkies, and a skyline of picturesque forest land.... even in the most trivial matters strict separation of the two races is rigidly maintained.... The passing stranger cannot hope to form any reliable opinion regarding the relative capacities of the white and colored children, but a white settler ... originally a missionary teacher ... [gave] as his serious opinion that the colored children are quite as intelligent as those of his own race.... the negro is an easy-going fellow, not inclined to trouble so long as he has enough to eat and is not too brutally overworked and has plenty of sunshine.

Lee observed "... the colored people with their unaffected ways and their quick laughter and their brown skins and their plentiful picanninies and their voice and their songs. And, tying us in close fraternity, the pathos of their tentative first efforts to organize industrial unions." She remembered a man presiding at a meeting after a union official was killed as "an Old Uncle Tom himself-just as I had pictured him in my children's story book." British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, another of the Southern travelers in the thirties, wrote for the New Statesman and Nation about her trip to research Appalachian folk songs. "The quality of the tunes shows no variation, save a natural fragmentariness of the jogs, and in the hymns a degeneration into something akin to the pious fol-de-rol of the negro spiritual."

Scots writer Naomi Mitchison entered the American racial scene in another way, on an extensive Fabian Society trip to the Soviet Union in 1932. She approached two African American travelers whose group met hers.

I took my courage in both hands and went up to a table where two of the colored people were, one quite dark and one lighter.... They were more charming and cultured and more generally sympathetic than I can well express. I hadn't talked books and highbrows to anyone with much of a point of view for some weeks, and I enjoyed it. But they were also politically and socially solid and sure of their ground in a way that few English highbrows are. And they were gentle and friendly, and yet with a certain good toughness, just as the Russians are.

Although Mitchison did not identify her companion in conversation, the writer Loren Miller was traveling with Langston Hughes. They spoke of writers John Dos Passos and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

I discovered that the other one was Langstone [sic] Hughes, whom I knew by name (as they knew me). He was pleased at being recognized at all, I think; they both purred quite a lot when one was nice to them. They talked a good deal about the Scottsboro case and said nobody would have heard about it-they themselves [would have paid] little attention to it, thinking it was only one more injustice out of a hundred-if the local Communists hadn't taken it up. They also told about traveling across the States in a Ford car, how they'd tried ordinary restaurants, and the general attitude of the proprietors had been "Get out, you ought to know better!" I said it seemed to me quite impossible-it really does-but I found out that one of the American parties had refused to eat in the same dining room with them here! I can honestly say that I feel no color antagonism at all, if anything a slightly romantic feeling toward them, because they have so lately been slaves, and are still terribly oppressed. I went up to their room afterwards, while they packed, and we talked, and Hughes gave me a copy of his Scottsborough poem, which is not very good as a poem (though not bad at all) but which must have made a fine thing when acted. Something rather awful has occurred to me! I believe there is a party of Indian students in Moscow. Would I-could I-have felt so friendly towards them? Would I have found them so sympathetic? Could I have said honestly that I felt no color bar? If not, why not? Can there possibly be an ECONOMIC reason?

The decade was marked by a literary curiosity about African American habits and rituals in the face of continuing racial violence. "Negroes" might be benevolently portrayed as incapable of concerted action and undeserving of brutal punishment, but for the fellow traveler like Mitchison the intellectual Negro was an amiable, momentary, and reassuring companion. The week that Ada Wright arrived in Britain to plead the case of her sons, the papers gave pride of place to the murder of the rogue lover of a prominent socialite, Thomas William Scott Stephen. His assailant was his mistress, twenty-seven-year-old Mrs. Dolores Elvira Barney, daughter of Sir John and Lady Mullens. Mrs. barney and Wright appeared very near one another on the news pages in the summer of 1932. In the case of Mrs. Barney, who claimed the gun had fired accidentally, the London courts were generous and she was let off, risking the disappointment of a spellbound public, and earning her the communist press label of "wealthy parasite." Mrs. Wright's sons faced harder luck.

the scottsboro case

On March 25, 1931, the journey of nine black youngsters who boarded a train at the rail center of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the Smokey Mountains, came to an abrupt halt at the station in Paint Rock, whose location in the Alabama hill country across the Tennessee line would forever mistakenly cast the defendants as Alabama residents. Despite its location deep in the Bible Belt, most travelers would have called it "godforsaken," and so it must have appeared to the forlorn group of young men whose only blessing that night was not being lynched. Instead, they were taken by truck to Scottsboro. The inhabitants of the poor mountain towns suffered the deprivations of the Depression, their racial prejudices in part an inheritance of the American Civil War, a conflict that had ended less than seventy years earlier and in some respects in name only.

A series of trials in Scottsboro led within sixteen days to all but one of the defendants, the youngest-Leroy Wright-being convicted of capital offenses, and their execution date set for July 10, 1931. They were pronounced guilty of raping two white women found on the train dressed as male hobos, who had accused the youngsters only after a pointed talk with the local authorities. It was illegal to ride the rails without a ticket, and the defendants' supporters would always claim that the whites, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, had "been bulldozed" into the accusations. A group of white male vagrants thrown off their rail gondola at an earlier point that night had alerted the local police to the presence of the black youths. It later transpired that a melee had occurred on the train as it passed down the line toward Memphis. Someone stepped on a white youth's hand and he was hurled from the train in the fight. Why such an episode had not led to lynching remains a matter of speculation. Chattanooga historian James Livingood attested that a 1906 experience with federal roundups of local sheriffs who let a black defendant in a rape case go to his death at the hand of a mob on the Walnut Street bridge in Chattanooga, and the local memory of jail terms up in Washington had spread fear in the region of further reprisals from the "Feds," serving as a deterrent to violence that would otherwise have been routine.

The nine Scottsboro defendants included brothers Roy and Andy Wright and their fellow Chattanoogans Eugene Williams and Haywood Patterson. They hailed from a city with a large, stratified African American community whose brick churches, separate YMcA's, black medical institutions, philanthropic groups, educational facilities, and traditions of self-organization grew up in the midst of widespread unemployment and deep poverty. Those defendants who were from Chattanooga were not from families prominent in this milieu, but in the small-city atmosphere their relatives did not remain unknown to most African Americans for very long. The Georgians among the defendants were strangers to one another; each had slipped across the northern border of his home state to Chattanooga-the largest rail center in proximity to Atlanta. They were Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery (partially blind), Charlie Weems, and Willie Roberson, who had syphilis. The accused had Southern lawyers during the first set of trials held in Scottsboro in 1931, sixty miles from Chattanooga. Their first, Stephen Roddy, an incompetent with a Ku Klux Klan record, was hired by the black interdenominational Minsters' Alliance. An International Labor Defense (ILD) lawyer later stated that Roddy was given to the ministers by a crooked black city politician, W. M. James.

Chattanooga remained the center of family activity on the defendants' behalf. The widowed mother of Roy and Andy Wright was quickly approached by the regional communist party headquartered there, the Tennessee border city being a safer town for communist activity than Birmingham; it boasted a significant Jewish population that included the family of Adolph Ochs who owned two newspapers-the Chattanooga Times and its celebrated northern cousin, the New York Times. Chattanooga had a history of labor organizing in the midst of Klan and segregationist violence and was the American Communist Party's (CPUSA) "best foothold in the South." In 1930 the communists held a conference there of its front, the Trade Union Unity League, and five or six hundred people reportedly came to the odd demonstration or public meeting called in the city. Yet that summer, the district CPUSA organizer, tom Johnson, wrote candidly to the distant New York leadership of the party. "our forces here in general altho all good comrades and hard workers, are hardly experienced enough for the tasks set them." it was tough to cover Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama from a base in Chattanooga, and "impossible to handle the three states in this district on thirty dollars per week without a car," especially when the regional communist paper Southern Worker was also published and distributed from the city. Johnson had just been released from jail after an arrest for vagrancy. In July he wrote to New York, "We must get guns at once. This is no joke but might turn out to be a life or death matter to us.... we might have to leave town ahead of a lynch mob." And when arrests came in the region, legal help was slim. Johnson wrote of a sympathetic attorney named Rosenthal, that it was "impossible to get another man in Birmingham who is worth a whoop in hell to take our cases."

Johnson was picked up by a car of plainclothes officers who drove him from a demonstration to the city line of Birmingham, stripped him, dumped him, and told him that if he set foot in the city again, he was a dead man. He crawled naked, to uncertain safety. It was so risky for the women communist organizers, green and from the North, to live among African Americans, that they had to make their homes separately lest a black man suffer the consequences of being seen with them in the segregated and impoverished no-go zones of the African American neighborhoods. In 1932 with the case already in full swing, comrade Martha Hall wrote despairingly to the central committee in New York: "it is difficult for a woman to work among negro workers in the South, because of their fear of being framed. I do not think it impossible, but it is certainly much more difficult for a woman."

Fears of miscegenation and opposition to any type of mixed company resonated that night in Paint Rock, providing a pretext for the defendants' accusers, the found "hoboes" Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, to cut a deal. The defense lawyers and the campaign organizers described them as "prostitutes" in a professional sense, but Price and bates were ordinary, largely unemployed mill workers, who had occasionally taken cash from male companions with whom they enjoyed an evening out. In keeping with new Comintern doctrine that emphasized the Negro's plight and centrality to its causes, the communist party was quick to respond to the case. Its persistent legal counsel team, first represented in a visit to the defendants in the Birmingham jail by prominent left attorney Joseph Brodsky, necessarily caught the interest of the defendants' families. Lawyers Allen Taub and Lowell Wakefield reported to New York on their progress: "On our instructions all families have been visited and welcome our coming into the case." Tom Johnson struggled with the national leadership to soften the algebraic language of party slogans, urging them to recognize the need to establish their clients' innocence and to acknowledge the white poverty and ignorance of the region, rather than to paint an illusory portrait of the context in which the defendants found themselves. Johnson directed his venom at Southern elites: "The white landlords and bosses care nothing for the protection of the 'virtue of white women' but this is an excuse to incite racial hatred."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from FROM SCOTTSBORO TO MUNICH by Susan D. Pennybacker Copyright © 2009 by Susan D. Pennybacker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures vii
Acknowledgments ix
Abbreviations xv
Introduction 1
Chapter 1: Ada Wright and Scottsboro 16
Chapter 2: George Padmore and London 66
Chapter 3: Lady Kathleen Simon and Antislavery 103
Chapter 4: Saklatvala and the Meerut Trial 146
Chapter 5: Diasporas: Refugees and Exiles 200
Chapter 6: A Thieves' Kitchen, 1938-39 240
Conclusion 265
Chronology 275
Notes on Sources 279
Notes 283
Glossary 341
Bibliography 353
Index 371

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