Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Proletarian Cause

N. Sanders

Let Me Live! a book review

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Editor’s Note

Angelo Herndon was a great hero of the Afro-American people and of the United States workinq class. The fact that a hero as great as Angelo Herndon emerged in the South during the twenties and thirties is testimony to the high- level of struggle waged by the masses of Black and white people in the South.

We must encourage the study of past working class struggles in the United States and bring back to life the examples of past working class heroes such as Herndon. The U.S. ruling class has carried out a campaign to deny the masses of people in the United States their true heroes and their revolutionary history. Periods such as the twenties and thirties in this country are periods of class struggle that showed to the whole world and ourselves the great power, unity, and revolutionary spirit of the American working class. It is this revolutionary spirit and revolutionary history that the capitalists would have us forget.

This particular autobiography is a useful book in encouraging workers to study Marxism Leninism because it shows how the correct application of Marxism Leninism was able to unite Black and white workers and build a powerful workers movement. Herndon’s book is of special value in the South by showing that Black and white workers under true communist leadership were able in the past to unite effectively on a grand scale against their common enemy. We must create again a communist party that is unswervingly committed to leading the U.S. working class to socialism and in the process the workers will unite and many Angelo Herndons will emerge.

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In July 1932, Angelo Herndon, a nineteen-year-old Black organizer for the Communist Party in Atlanta was arrested. He was charged under Georgia’s old slave insurrection laws for “inciting to insurrection.” This autobiography portrays his life: how his oppression as a Black worker led to his becoming a Communist: his leadership in the struggles of workers, unemployed, and sharecroppers in the Black Belt; and his trial around which millions of workers and other progressive people were united by the revolutionary Communist Party, resulting in his freedom.

Angelo Herndon was born on May 6, 1913 in the coal-mining town of Wyoming, Ohio. His father was a miner, forced to slave 10 to 14 hours a day. He died of black lung when Herndon was twelve.

10-14 hours in the mines did not bring in enough money to raise a family, however. At the age of nine, Angelo had to take a job as a delivery boy. It was here that he first began to understand the nature of class and national oppression.

It was then that I fully became conscious of the inequalities of being a worker. . .They (white customers) used to refer to me unthinkingly as the ’nigger boy’ and sometimes would treat me with a callousness quite startling. If I knew what it was to be a ’worker’ I knew even better what it was to be a ’nigger.’ The walls of race, color, and class now rose between me and the hostile world outside. I wondered, in my confused, childish way, whether there would ever come a time when I would be able to scale them.

After his father’s death, Herndon’s mother was unable to make enough money at her job as a domestic worker to keep the family alive. At the age of thirteen, Angelo and an older brother left home for Lexington, Kentucky. Here they went to work in the mines. Paid $17 a week, they worked 10 to 14 hours a night, and were forced to live in the company town, paying exorbitant rent, under the constant scrutiny of company guards. In a struggle over a wage cut, the Herndon brothers quite their jobs. They moved to Birmingham, Alabama where “. . .there were plenty more mines.”

It was in Birmingham that Angelo Herndon learned of the horror of life in the Black Belt. It was in Birmingham also where he found the answer for his class and his people.

Birmingham was not the promised land. After a month of fruitless job-hunting Herndon accepted an offer from a “labor-agent” on a job out of town. He was trucked out with forty others to a dam-building camp on the Alabama River. The job turned out to be nothing less than slave labor.

. . .the workers were not getting any pay and it was impossible to leave the camp voluntarily. Some men tried to escape. . .but they were caught and beaten up to a pulp. . .some men were caught trying to cross the wooden bridge to the other side of the river but were shot down by the guards. Their bodies fell into the river and they were never seen again.

Herndon and seven others managed to escape by swimming across the river and groping their way through the swamps.

This was not his only experience with Black Belt slavery. His next job was building up the Goodyear Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. After a week’s work he was told, “Your earnings this week have been deducted for transportation, food and housing.”

Angelo Herndon’s experiences were not exceptional. They reflect the oppression faced by all Black workers during the so-called “Coolidge Prosperity Era”–an era of economic, political and physical terror for Black workers and farmers.

Angelo Herndon began realizing that Black people had to unite. Speaking of the people’s reaction to the lynch-murder of a Black share-cropping family he points out,

Some Negroes even started buying ammunition and guns with which to resist the Ku Kluxers and the American Legionnaires who used to parade very frequently and provocatively in the Negro neighborhoods of Birmingham. I, too, went about in the very greatest excitement and spoke to anyone who would listen. I argued that if only the Negroes would unite, if only they would pluck up fighting courage and lay hold of stones, pistols, pitchforks and anything else at hand, they could lick the Klan and Legion to a frazzle. After that they wouldn’t dare parade any more in our segregated neighborhoods!

He was about to reach the main turning point in his life.

In June, 1930, walking home from work, he came across a soiled, trampled leaflet.

My friend and I sat down on a house step and began reading it. We read it over and over again, not believing our own eyes, as if we had been living in an evil dream all the time and suddenly awoke to reality with a bang. The writing on the handbill discussed unemployment, hunger and suffering of both Negro and white workers in Birmingham and throughout the whole country. It called upon all Birmingham workers to attend a meeting under the auspices of the Unemployment Council that afternoon.

Herndon began attending meetings of the Unemployment Council. Here he heard speakers from the Communist Party and read the Party’s literature. “. . .it was at last necessary for me to revise my attitude toward white people. I had discovered at last the truth that not all white people were enemies and exploiters of the Negro people. In fact, the same vicious interests that were oppressing Negro workers were doing the same thing to white workers, that both black and white workers could solve their problems only by a united effort against the common enemy: the rich white people, they who owned the mines, the mills, the factories, the banks.” Never before was I so full of determination, so fired by fighting spirit. No, my discovery of Communism did not bring me religion, or a mystic faith; it gave me a purpose in living, in doing, in aspiring. Rational and scientific in its base, ethical in its motives, it is the only philosophy of living worthy of a thinking civilized man.

Up to the time I had met the Communists I did not know how to fight the lynching of Negroes and Jim Crowism. . .All of a sudden I found myself in an organization which fought selflessly and tirelessly to undo all the wrongs perpetrated upon my race. Here was no dilly-dallying, no pussyfooting on the question of full equality for the Negro people. The Communist position on this question was clear-cut and definite.

Being a Communist in Birmingham was no easy task. The Unemployment Councils, the trade unions, and other mass organizations, as well as the party itself, were ruthlessly suppressed. In his work as an organizer for the Trade Union Unity League and the Unemployed Councils, Herndon was arrested and beaten many times. There was nothing that the authorities feared more than a Communist with strong ties to the workers and Black people. This harassment did little to deter him from the class struggle. “Every time I went to jail, every time I was brutally tortured and given the third degree, I felt myself bound closer to the Communist movement. . .Although I was then only seventeen years old. I had the conviction that only death could stop me from working for the social revolution in America.”

It got to the point where he was spending more time in jail than on the streets. He was transferred to New Orleans, back to Birmingham and, finally, to Atlanta. During this period he organized dock workers for the Trade Union Unity League, worked on the Scottsboro defense, and built the Unemployed Councils.

In Atlanta, Herndon continued his work in the Unemployed Councils, as well as working on the 1932 Communist Party presidential campaign of William Z. Foster and James W. Ford. This campaign, conducted in a revolutionary manner among workers and poor farmers, put forth the following platform:

1) Unemployment and Social Insurance to be paid at the expense of the state and employers.
2) Against Hoover’s wage-cutting policy.
3) Emergency relief for the poor farmers without restriction by the government and banks; exemption of poor farmers from taxes and from forced collection of rents or debts.
4) Equal rights for Negroes and self-determination for the Black Belt.
5) Against capitalist terror; against all forms of suppression of the political rights of the workers.
6) Against imperialist war; for the defense of the Chinese people and of the Soviet Union.

Their work had to take place in the strictest secrecy, yet they still managed to reach out to the masses of poor and working people, Black and white.

In June 1932, 23,000 families were dropped from the relief rolls in Fulton County. Hundreds of unemployed workers were being arrested and sent back to the farms to starve. The Unemployed Council demanded an end to these fascistic policies. 10,000 leaflets were distributed, exposing the fraud of city, county, and agency officials, and calling for all workers. Black and white, men and women, to attend a demonstration at the county courthouse.

At ten o’clock about one thousand workers, of whom more than half were white, formed ranks, and marching shoulder to shoulder, oblivious of color difference, filed into the courthouse building. . .This meeting in front of the courthouse was unprecedented in Atlanta. Never had such a huge gathering of black and white workers taken place in all the South. . .this was truly an historic occasion. . .But for all progressive workers this was a field day. It was a demonstration of the Southern worker’s power. Like a giant that had been lying asleep for a long time, he now began to stir.

It was this historic demonstration that led to Angelo Herndon’s arrest, and the five year struggle to save him from the chain gang and certain death. This defense brought into play the true power of the masses of people. The attack on this Communist was recognized as an attack on the working class, and on all progressive people. The tens of thousands who participated in this struggle proved the truth of Herndon’s words: “You may be able to kill me, but you cannot kill the working class.”

Angelo Herndon was not an exception, a freak. Hundreds like him emerged out of the class struggle of the 1930’s. The bitter oppression and exploitation of workers and Afro-Americans can only be brought to an end with a socialist revolution. It is inevitable that, with the leadership of a revolutionary Communist Party, they will come to see this. It is inevitable that the most far-sighted, selfless workers will see that Marx ism-Lenin ism sums up their experiences. They will take up this science as their own, and they will take the lead in the struggle for a socialist America. The sleeping giant has indeed begun to stir.

N.Sanders was a member of the student movement and has worked in factories in the South in the past few years.