“We’re CIOs From Alabama!”

The reminiscences of Sidney Rittenberg, a lifelong Communist activist, remind us what it meant to be on the Left in the 1940s.

Sidney Rittenberg as a G.I. in uniform at Stanford University. Sidney Rittenberg photos

Sidney Rittenberg has had an extraordinary life. After joining the US Communist Party (CPUSA) in 1940, he organized workers in the American South — not only to “get more pork chops,” as he puts its, but also to dismantle Jim Crow segregation.

World War II took him to India and China, where he served as an army translator. The poverty he saw in Asia deepened his commitment to communism, and he eventually joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Rittenberg stayed in China for thirty-five years, but as an American communist, he would always remain suspect in the party’s eyes. He was imprisoned by the government twice, for a total of sixteen years. Rittenberg recorded his experiences in China in The Man Who Stayed Behind.

Here, we publish just a few of his reminiscences from the early organizing work he carried out in North Carolina and Alabama in the early 1940s.

Joining the Party

I grew up in a comfortable middle-class family. My father was a self-taught lawyer who couldn’t afford college, let alone law school. My mother came from emigre Russian revolutionaries. They were Mensheviks, but her father worshiped Lenin.

When my parents married, he took her back to Charleston, South Carolina — where she converted into a Bourbonish Southern Lady and he became a liberal New Dealer, eventually serving as president of city council and mayor pro tem.

My “emancipation of mind” came in two stages. First, when studying Kant at the University of North Carolina, I felt for the first time the tremendous power of human reason when scientifically applied. This thrilled me and relieved the sense of weakness and low self-esteem that had always plagued me.

Second, my radical student friends introduced me to labor union activists — the Durham tobacco workers, the Durham Hosiery Mill, the High Point Highland Silk Mill — and I felt the formidable power of united working men that could make weak intellectuals who wanted to change the world powerful too.

I began to help the unions publish little mimeographed labor newspapers and ran classes in Marxist political economy, hoping to explain to workers why they were poor and how they could improve their lives. I don’t know how much they learned from me, but there is no doubt that I learned life’s most powerful and important lessons from them.

This was during the Soviet-Finnish War, a prelude to World War II. I was very anti-war and therefore “anti-anti-Soviet.” I found that those student activists who agitated against the Soviet Union usually stopped working for equality and civil rights in the South as well. The ones who stood firm were the Communists, so I supported them.

I learned from the eloquent working-class and black agitational speakers and acquired some fame as an attack dog against the anti-communists. But I didn’t think about joining the Communist Party until I read that the Dies Committee — later to become the House Un-American Affairs Committee — had sent two investigators to Chapel Hill to look into charges against our university president, Dr. Frank Porter Graham.

Dr. Graham was a great mentor for me. He was definitely anti-communist; he just believed in free speech for everyone, including Communists. One of Graham’s sins, in the eyes of the conservative state legislature, was that he had refused their demand to fire a distinguished English professor who had dared to go to Raleigh and have dinner in a black restaurant with the Communist candidate for vice president, James Ford. Graham’s responded that the legislature could fire the professor, provided that they fire him first, which they didn’t dare do.

When I read in the Daily Tarheel that Graham was being investigated, I said to my roommate, “They want Communists? Let’s give them Communists!” and I shocked the local party representative by demanding that my roommate and I be accepted into the CPUSA.

He gave me two copies of the party constitution and said we should study it carefully and decide whether we were really ready to make the commitment. I remember agonizing some that night. Was I really ready to give my life, if need be, for the cause of the proletariat? I decided that I was, but with a sneaky little caveat — it would probably never come to that, given my father’s influence. So I could postpone the issue for a while.

The towering figure in the Communist Party of North and South Carolina was Bart Logan, district organizer. We all worshipped him.

Bart was a cool and quiet former electrician, who had spent time in Bull Connors’s Birmingham jail. He contracted tuberculosis in that hellhole and nearly died. Intensely loyal and dedicated to a Marxist solution for America, Bart also knew that we were fighting for civil rights in the South, not asking for revolution.

He and his Georgia sharecropper wife Belle and their baby daughter Elaine (Lainey) lived in a tenement and survived on a pittance from the party center. I was there a number of times when Belle picked edible weeds and stewed them for the dinner table.

After joining the party, I was sent to the CP convention in New York in the spring of 1940, where I heard Earl Browder and William Z. Foster speak and met famous people like the Congressman Vito Marcantonio, Mother Ella Reeve Bloor, Woody Guthrie, and Angelo Herndon. After the meetings, I went to a special Southern cadre training camp in New England for eight weeks, where the teaching amounted to unquestioning loyalty to Stalinism. I did well in my studies, and graduated number one.

“You Stick First”

When I returned to Chapel Hill, I received a letter from twelve workers in Roanoke Rapids — later the locus of the film Norma Rae. They had all lost their mill jobs in the great textile strike of the mid-thirties, when a crooked labor organizer “took our money, slept with our wives, and disappeared.” But they had continued to put one dollar a month in cigar boxes, against the day they could find an honest organizer to lead them.

They had observed me at YWCA Student/Worker Council meetings in Durham and asked if I would be their organizer. They could only pay six dollars a week, but Mrs. Glasgow’s boarding house would give me room and board for that, so I could get along. They had a hall that still belonged to the union: they just needed an organizer. And I just needed a place where I could serve the working people.

I started by organizing Saturday night square dances in the union hall — their brilliant idea. Everybody came — even the mill security thugs — and it was a rip-roaring, jolly time.

The twelve veterans who had invited me would introduce me to possible union members, whom I would visit at home and take to small, secret meetings. Typically they would say, “I’m for it, but you can’t get these other guys to stick together.” And I would say, “Well, you stick first, and then we’ll get another and another to stick with you.” Gradually, we developed a core of around thirty-five prospective union members.

Our left-wing unions in North Carolina had to fight two different opponents: the mill owners with their security thugs and the KKK; and the “labor fakers” — the bureaucrat union leaders, who would sell the workers out as soon as they got a good deal for themselves.

One night a week, I taught a class in Marxist political economy, based on the Soviet textbook by Lev Leontief. I explained to the workers why they were poor, how they were exploited for surplus value, and how to fight for their rights. Their thirst for learning was moving. One of the veteran mill workers, Walter Pleasants, had been unemployed ever since he was fired in the 1930s and was eking out a living on relief and odd jobs. Every week, rain or shine — sometimes, heavy rain — he would walk the four miles from his home to be there for the discussion.

Sometimes, I would walk to his home and have dinner with the family. Dinner consisted of Hoe-Cake, turnip greens, and a bit of Fat Back. I had to swallow it down and pretend to like it.

After dinner, Walter and his wife and their six or seven children would each get some stringed instrument and transform into an orchestra. Playing in perfect harmony, they sang the sweetest country songs I have ever heard: “Beautiful Brown Eyes” and “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” and “Wabash Cannonball.” Years later, in solitary confinement, I was strengthened by the sound of that sweet chorale and the memory of those fine people.

Another veteran, old man Mason, whose wife had worked in the mattress factory for twenty-eight years and who got sick and died without a mattress to lie on, exclaimed after one study session, “Here I’ve been a commune-st all my life, but I just didn’t know it.”

“We’re CIOs from Alabama”

Just as we had started getting the textile workers organized, the party made me head of the League of Young Southerners, which was the youth section of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, a liberal Popular Front organization that had Eleanor Roosevelt’s support. I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where I had a one-room office and an enthusiastic secretary, Margery Gelders.

Margery’s father, Joe Gelders, had been a physics professor at Tulane before becoming an active member of the CPUSA. One day, Tulane’s president handed him Volume One of Stalin’s lectures on Leninism. “Here’s some light reading for you, Joe,” said the president, chuckling over his joke. But Joe took the book home, sat up most of the night reading about “scientific socialism,” and the next day went back to ask for Volume Two. “This is the first attempt I’ve seen to apply science to society,” Joe said to the astounded president.

Long story short — Joe was fired. He packed his wife and two daughters in their car and drove straight up to Communist Party headquarters in New York City, where he astounded party leaders by demanding to join. They were very unsure about this college professor with a strong Southern accent who didn’t have to be recruited. So they sent Joe to Birmingham to do civil liberties work, not telling him any party secrets.

Joe waged such an effective struggle against the poll tax that the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped him one night, beat him almost to death, and left him for dead on a mountainside outside of Birmingham. A local farmer got him to a hospital. Joe’s heart had been punctured by a broken rib, and the doctors told him that he would have to avoid excitement and hard work for the rest of his life. But as soon as Joe was released from the hospital, he went right back to his civil rights activity, working as hard as ever, in spite of his wife Esther’s urgings that he take it easy.

In those days, Birmingham was the Pittsburgh of the South, a major center of heavy industry. There were a number of big coal mines in the suburbs and nearby Bessemer had “hard rock” mines, rich in iron ore. Thanks to these resources, a sizable steel industry had arisen.

The CIO had organized coal miners, iron miners, and steel workers, but the unions were conservative and bureaucratic — typically, the same group attended all the meetings, and decisions were made without the kind of lively discussion and democratic participation that we wanted.

Our aim wasn’t just to get the workers more pork chops and better conditions, but also to educate them. Unfortunately, that laudable mission was hampered by our insistence on getting the unions to pass resolutions supporting Soviet foreign policy. It was this divided loyalty — to the workers, but also to Stalin — that later led to the defeat of the progressive trade unions.

The League of Young Southerners set up youth clubs that would activate young workers and train them to be good unionists. The clubs would also bring black and white workers together and campaign for civil rights. We worked with another left-wing organization, the Southern Negro Youth Conference; they were a predominately black but interracial body, while we were a predominantly white but interracial body.

It was extremely gratifying to see how young white coal miners who had grown up feeling that they could not socialize with black people would very quickly change their ways. Once it was established that they shared common interests — that Jim Crow kept both white and black Southerners poorer than people doing the same work in the North — they understood that in a union there is strength, and the rest was easy.

A good example of this was the three Lowry brothers, coal miners at the Tennessee Coal & Iron Company’s Hamilton Slopes mine. They were typical young miners — between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three, working together as their forefathers had done in Wales. Three young kids, really, all married, fun-loving, tow-headed boys who understood the vital importance of a strong union. It was 1940, John L. Lewis was still in his progressive phase, and the six hundred thousand–strong United Mine Workers of America was a behemoth of worker power.

The Lowry brothers joined our youth club. Solidarity was strong, but there was no social mixing between white and black workers. Young white people would tell you that they could not eat with a black person — they claimed it would make them throw up.

Our youth club sponsored discussions among black and white miners about how the establishment used race prejudice to divide and conquer the unions. That’s how black miners got jobs originally — as strikebreakers. Now they had learned their lesson and sang to the tune of the old hymn, “Black and White together, we shall not be moved!” After one or two good discussions, we would lay out refreshments — and the young workers of both races found themselves eating together, very naturally, as though it had always been that way.

There was a big conference in New York City, and it fell on me to drive the three Lowry brothers and two black activists up to New York. We knew that if a Southern cop saw us riding together there would be trouble, so we raced from Birmingham to Washington, D.C.

Once in our nation’s capital, we stopped at a diner to eat. We all went in, sat down, and ordered sandwiches. The (white) manager immediately pointed to our two black members and said, “They can’t come in here!” We didn’t know that Washington was, as Leadbelly used to sing, “a Jim Crow town.”

We got our sandwiches to go and went back to the car to eat them. But when the eldest Lowry brother paid the bill, he got it together in coins and flung the coins out across the diner’s floor, so that it would take forever to gather them together.

The manager glared at him and said, “What’s going on here, where are you boys from?”

“We’re CIOs from Alabama, and there’re gonna be lots of changes around here!”

The Lowry brothers had made the switch at lightening speed — from shutting black people out of their social life to being proud of breaking down racial barriers.

Black and White Together, We Shall Not Be Moved

Another moving example happened the next year, in Bessemer, Alabama, Birmingham’s iron-mine suburb.

I was working for the Transport Workers of America, famous for organizing the New York City subway workers. This was a Communist-led union, with a very active membership that packed the local meetings and held democratic discussions of all-important decisions. They hired me to organize the city bus drivers in Bessemer, who had asked the union for help.

At that point, a hotly contested strike broke out among the town’s laundry workers. There were three laundries: one owned by a local judge, another quite prosperous, and a Chinese hand laundry where black women did the wash for a pittance a day. I heard that the two big laundries had forced the Chinese owner to take a tough stance toward his workers in order to both break the union and remove the Chinese laundry from competition.

So the black women at the Chinese laundry went on strike and formed a picket line to prevent scabs from taking their jobs. But the owners started busing in a gaggle of white sex workers — “hookers,” as they were referred to — every morning. The black women strikers couldn’t interfere with white women crossing the picket line, so the scabs would just go in and sit down for a while; they had no intention of working — but they threatened to break the strike.

What could I do?

Meanwhile, the Merita Bakery workers in Birmingham had been on a marathon strike. They were all white, and they belonged to a bitterly anti-communist, racist AFL union. So I suggested getting the bakery workers to come to Bessemer to hold the picket line. Everyone thought it was a crazy, impossible idea: “They’ll throw you down the stairs of the union hall if you even suggest it!”

But I believed in the appeal to common interests. I went to the Merita union meeting and explained what was happening in Bessemer. I reminded the workers that if you let them break one strike, they can break another one, and asked them to come out and hold the picket line.

They loved it! The next morning, shortly after five o’clock, a busload of bakery girls came out to the Chinese laundry and formed a phalanx in front of the doorway. When the van full of sex workers appeared, the strikebreakers got out of the van, only to be assailed by umbrella-waving bakery workers. They turned and fled and were never seen or heard from again.

This was another powerful object lesson for me: black and white workers could unite around common interests in the South, and we could work our way out of poverty. It also confirmed another belief of mine: that while we need to make a clear-headed assessment of the forces that oppose us, we mustn’t listen to the “tired liberals” who insist “you can’t do that” and “it’ll never work.”

Jacobin thanks Daniel Bessner and Gregory Guldin for helping to arrange these reminiscences.

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About the Author

Sidney Rittenberg joined the Communist Party USA in 1940 and lived in China for thirty-five years. He now lives in Washington State.