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The Story of Hosea Hudson: Lessons of a ‘Black worker in the deep South’ still loom large

By Barbara Jean Hope, People's Weekly World, 4 February 1995

The celebration of February as African American History Month brings to mind the militant fighter against racist oppression and economic exploitation, Hosea Hudson. He spent his early years on farms in the cotton fields of Wilkes and Oglethorpe counties in the "Black Belt" of Georgia, with a grandfather "born a slave in Georgia," then went from back-breaking labor as a sharecropper to back-breaking labor as an industrial worker, Communist Party member and union organizer. The story of Hosea Hudson spells out the ideological growth of a Black worker who became one of the great figures of African American/labor history.

From Georgia to Alabama, from naive worker to a Communist labor leader, the life story of Hosea Hudson is one of committed growth and struggle against the forces of capitalist and racist oppression and super-exploitation.

The introduction to Hosea Hudson's autobiography, Black Worker in the Deep South, [International Publishers, Co. Inc., New York] tells us that "from his early years of striving to eke a livelihood for his family from the unyielding clay of Georgia, through his later years of organizing to wrest gains for workers from the equally obstinate owners of Birmingham's foundries, Hudson's life personified the struggle of southern Black workers for dignity and justice. Even more, Hosea's life epitomized the convergence of three dynamic currents that continue to leave their mark on the course of history: the African American struggle for dignity and justice, the emerging southern section of the trade union movement, and the liberating ideas of socialism."

Hudson was for a time a "sharecropper" in Georgia - which is a misnomer since there was no sharing the profits of one's labor - the crop. In speaking of the farm owner for whom he worked, Hudson reveals, "We would argue back and forth, but it never changed the fact that I was averaging (in 1923) about 33 cents for a 16-hour day. Each workday started at sunup and ended at sundown." From "can't see in the morning to can't see at night."

The physical remainders of the captivity of African Americans were a constant reminder. In speaking of a "white folks" Baptist church, his observation was that in the yard outside "this holy building, in that beautiful yard of spotless white sand on the main highway, stood the remains of the old slave block I old people, born in slavery days, remembering all the horrors of their early years, would see that granite block and, in their minds' eye, still see their loved ones being sold from it."

Going from plowhand to industrial worker in Birmingham, Ala. to support himself and his family, Hudson became a laborer at a Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad shop. "They told me I would be paid 30 cents an hour for a seven-day week, but they didn't tell me how many hours I would have to put in each day. I found that out for myself."

In describing the working conditions at the shop, we understand what began to forge this worker's spine and principles: "The whole interior of the place was as hot as the living hell I Most of us would have on just a pair of overalls I we didn't wear shirts I the men were always thirsty for a drink of water I" In the urge to quench their thirst caused by the brutal working conditions, the workers would drink copious amounts of cold water which caused debilitating cramps.

"There was always a stretcher in the box beside the wall, and when a man fell out, a couple of guys ran and got the stretcher, put him on it and hurried him on to the so-called doctor's office I sometimes, we would get the news the next day that Jim or Big Red or Shorty or Slim was dead."

The company's responsibility for these workers was, "besides furnishing the stretchers, $500 for the family if the worker died; if he lived and was out two weeks or more, they paid him $9 a week up to nine weeks."

From the railroad shop, Hudson went on to the Stockham Pipe and Fitting foundry in November 1924. However, "on a Friday or Saturday payday when Negro workers went up to the pay window to get their checks, they would in most cases find themselves many hours short in each week's pay." The foundry workers were soon told that speed-up on the lines was necessary. Skilled as a molder, Hudson realized that "naturally, wages didn't go hand in hand with the speed-up in production I. Heaped on top of the complaints in the shop was the extra burden the Black workers had to shoulder in the communities where we had to live. The time was ripe for organizations to rise up and struggle against oppressive conditions as well as the persecutions and legal lynchings of innocent Black men - as typified in the Scottsboro case."

As the Depression continued, Hudson's education continued. "My education in the hardships and injustices inflicted on the working class - and, especially, on the Black workers - developed rapidly." To millions in the U.S. and abroad, the name "Scottsboro" became another word for racist inhumanity.

The Scottsboro case involved the accusation of nine young African American men of the rape of two young white women. The case has long been known to have been a frame-up fanned by the fires of racism and it mobilized fighters against injustice, some more committed to working class struggle than others. At an early point, the International Labor Defense, headed by William L. Patterson, fought to prove the charges were a frame-up from thought to deed. To quote Hudson: "A great campaign to enlist world protest was sparked by the Communist Party. The pressure of world opinion, together with the able legal efforts, saved the lives of the [young men] again and again."

During this time, Hudson met a Communist Party member, a "Negro worker" named Al Stewart who had been involved in the struggle to free the "Scottsboro boys," who invited Hudson to a meeting of workers and concerned citizens at his home. In that meeting, Stewart, in speaking of the conditions of Black workers, said, "It's the system itself that brings about these frame-ups and lynchings."

He went on to say that the only way the 'bosses," could prevent the white and the Black masses of people from struggling together was to keep them divided. According to Hudson, "I said to myself, 'This man is a Communist!' I was at a Communist meeting and, though nothing sensational was happening, the idea was exciting."

Hosea Hudson continued to find the idea fulfilling as he became a union organizer of steel workers in Birmingham. In 1931, he became a member of the Communist Party USA. In fighting for the working class, Hudson was pursued by the federal government and became a target of both anti-union, anti-worker bosses and the Ku Klux Klan.

Hudson's autobiography tells of the "rough-and-tumble" struggles and developments for workers in the South, especially in Alabama. His experiences included the Works Progress Administration -- even this progressive project had the taint of racist oppression -- and the Workers Alliance which helped organize steel workers in the CIO in the Hamilton Slope Coal Mine.

Along with Hudson, other Black workers who helped to build the CIO must be saluted: Asbury Howard of Bessemer, who was jailed for defending the rights of Blacks to vote; Henry O. Mayfield, an "old friend at the Stockham foundry;" Lewis Tarrant, the first African American man "around Bessemer or Birmingham" to be president of a local union of whites and Blacks before 1933, and Abe Blackman, who became president of the Bessemer Pipe Shop local.

To further quote Hudson: "In the CIO organizing drive among steel workers, for example, Mayfield and Joe Howard, Asbury Howard, along with me and many other Black organizers, went among our people -- not only in the mines but in the churches, in the civic organizations, in the voters' league and in whatever activity was going on to help enlist their support."

Understanding that the struggle for working class freedom must include voting rights, Hudson between 1944 and 1950 fought for the right to vote for disenfranchised Blacks and continued to educate on Marxist/Leninism. "The Communist Party taught me that the masses of people must be educated politically through struggle -- even the struggle to write a postcard, a letter, sacrificing to buy reading material and struggling to read it. Struggles to achieve people's day-to-day needs are the basis of political education."

And one last quote from the autobiography of Hosea Hudson: "The Negro people will always be struggling and will always face setbacks until the time comes when all of us along with our white [working class] friends can join the ranks and organize the masses in [our] own defense. We'll continue to get a lot of lip-service from the higher-ups and from certain liberals, but struggle and unity remain our only real weapons."

The lifelong fight of Hosea Hudson and his insight have a message for us today as we fight against increased ruling-class-driven racism and economic exploitation. The lessons of the past are for us to build upon -- to continue to build Black, Brown and white working-class unity.

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