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The Skotsboro Boys in Soviet Minsk

Andrew Sloin

On March 14, 1932, the Belorussian branch of the International Organization to Aid Revolutionary Militants (MOPR) published a short 15-page pamphlet, Gedenk vegn Skotsboro! (Remember Scottsboro!). The pamphlet informed readers of the arrest and trial of 8 Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama, ages 12-20, sentenced to death on the false allegation of raping two white women. Issued in 10,000 copies – a sizable run for a Yiddish work published in the years of acute scarcity that accompanied Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan – the pamphlet was dedicated to the protest-campaign against “the death sentence that the American bourgeoisie delivered to eight young worker-Negroes (yunge arbeter-negers).” 1 1 Throughout, the text consistently utilizes two terms to refer to Black actors. Primarily, the text employs the term “neger” (or “arbeter-neger”), or Negro, the term utilized in the Communist Party press of the era in English as a term designating respect. The text also employs the terms “shvartse,” or “shvartshoytiker,” or “black-skinned,” yet does so exclusively in adjectival form, used invariably to describe workers. This choice appears to convey the idea that the essential characteristic of these actors was not their skin color, but their social identity as laborers. I utilize the terms employed by the author to remain faithful to the text as an historical document and to avoid linguistic anachronisms. The introduction to the pamphlet called on Soviet citizens to join protest campaigns and support MOPR in its ongoing fight against the execution of the accused on April 6. Intended to jolt Soviet citizens to action, the pamphlet denounced the trial and “lynch justice” that prevailed across the American “Black Belt,” the former slave plantation regions of the South. In the pages that followed, the Scottsboro case became a prism to refract the long history of racial and class domination in the United States and a rallying cry to cultivate the spirit of internationalist socialist solidarity among Soviet readers.

Published by a Soviet institution affiliated with the Communist International, or Comintern, through the Yidsekter, or Yiddish sector of the Melukhe-farlag fun vaysrusland (the state press of Belorussia), Gedenk vegn Skotsboro! was clearly a work of propaganda. A short, anonymous introduction and concluding proclamation by the MOPR Central Committee in Minsk framed the entire narrative to drive home the didactic point: while the Scottsboro case appeared as an episode of racial terror, it was driven by the overarching logics of class domination. The introduction identified the nine accused teenagers – identified as Clarence Norris, Charlie Vilio (sic.) [Weems], Ozie Powell, Olin Montgomery, Willie Robertson, Eugene Williams, Heywood Patterson, and the brothers Andy and Roy Wright (the youngest defendant, whose trial ended in a hung jury) – not simply as “worker-Negroes” and children of the Black working class, but as “revolutionary proletarians” in their own right. “Based on numerous pieces of evidence,” the authors maintained, “[t]he American Section of MOPR confirmed… according to provisional research, that the entire guilt of the condemned existed in the fact that they were revolutionaries.” Far from passive victims of systemic racial oppression, the Scottsboro boys, they claimed, “actively strove to institute a united front of white and Black workers to fight against the lowering of wages, against mass layoffs, and for the introduction of state help for the millions of unemployed.” 2 2 MOPR, Gedenk vegn Skotskboro! (Minsk: Melukhe-farlag fun Vaysrusland yidsketer, 1932), 3-4. I would like to thank the librarians and staff of the Center for Eastern Literature of Leninka, the Russian State Library in Moscow, for their friendly and invaluable help in finding this pamphlet, one of the inumerable gems held in their treasure trove of Yiddish pamphlets. This was their true crime. Adding to its propagandistic value, the body of the pamphlet celebrated the heroism of the American Communist Party, MOPR, and lawyers from the Communist-affiliated International Labor Defense (ILD) in defending the accused, while the “petty-bourgeois Black association, the NAACP” initially accepted the charges and, at first, refused to offer legal help to the accused. 3 3 Ibid., 12-13. NAACP national secretary Walter White did indeed refuse to get involved with the case, in part because he refused to work with the Communist-affiliated ILD, which he viewed as a pawn of Moscow. See Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 78-91, esp. 80.

Despite the heavy-handed distortions and liberties taken by the MOPR authors to “proletarianize” the Scottsboro Boys in the introduction, the body of the pamphlet – written by an unknown Comrade Hoder – offered a subtler analysis of the historical development of racial domination in the United States. He subtitled the opening section of his work “Sixteen million slaves,” by which he referred to the 16 million Black inhabitants of the United States in 1932 who descended from generations of enslaved Africans brought to work the “tobacco and cotton plantations.” 4 4 Ibid., 5. This is one of several historical inaccuracies of Comrade Hoder’s text; while tobacco cultivation figured heavily in the early plantation economy, cotton only developed as a widespread primary crop over the course of the 18th and, especially, early 19th centuries. On the relatively late arrival of cotton to the United States, see Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), esp. 100-119. Far from dismissing the legacy of slavery and racial domination, Hoder stressed from the outset that “[t]he rich plantation economy of the United States grew on the blood and on the bones of hundreds of thousands of black-skinned slaves (shvartshoytike shklafn).” He likewise emphasized that, at its core, this system of oppression stemmed from racialized beliefs in human inequality and the basic fact that, “[u]ntil today, the Negroes in the South were not considered to be men.” Yet the author spurned eternal, essentialized racial categories and rejected the primacy of race in explaining the Scottsboro affair and the system of “lynch-justice” that engendered it. Rather, he offered a decidedly historical analysis that located the emergence of modern racial rule in the specific post-slave-emancipation context of Reconstruction, following the Civil War. Or stated bluntly, his analysis located this system in fully-capitalist America, if capitalism is understood, foremost, as a system of production predicated upon the wage labor form, which did not emerge in full until the abolition of chattel slavery.

In seeking to explain the emergence of the “lynch justice” system historically, Comrade Hoder did not deny the role racial discrimination or violence played in that system. On the contrary, he showed how human inequality came to be inscribed socially through new laws and legal frameworks in the post-emancipation era. “In many states,” Hoder noted, “Blacks are forbidden to leave their place of residence, forbidden to reside among the whites; they can reside only in special, defined neighborhoods (kvartaln).” In other cities, Black people are “forbidden to spend the night,” a reference to infamous “sundown towns,” while “in 14 states they cannot travel in a wagon with whites,” and have “separate schools, churches, stores, etc.” Ultimately, segregated rule relied upon the fundamental suppression of democracy itself. “In many states,” Hoder explained, “Negroes were simply not allowed to vote, despite the fact that according to the American Constitution, they could not be denied this right.” Thus, he continued, despite emancipation and political enfranchisement, in 1920, only 80,492 people in total had the right to vote in Mississippi, a state of more than a million inhabitants, more than half Black. In Georgia – a state with more than 1.6 million residents, nearly half descended from former slaves – only 148,000 people could vote. 5 5 Ibid., 6. While highlighting the disenfranchisement of Black voters, Hoder’s statistics pointed to the fact that many measures to restrict voting rights also targeted poor white people. Similarly, while Hoder stressed that the system of rule in the South depended on the “brutal and unconstrained (eygnvilike) justice of the mob (hamoyn) over the Negro,” he emphasized that “lynch justice” cut across racial lines, resulting in the lynching of 3,306 Black and 1407 white people between 1885-1927, and 43 Black and 2 white people in 1930. 6 6 Ibid., 7. Taken together, the legacies of disenfranchisement and violence revealed the degree to which racial politics melded within an emergent system of class domination that targeted white and Black populations.

Rather than attribute this systemic violence to eternal race hatreds, or the continuation of the coercion of slavery in new guise, Comrade Hoder located its origins historically with the start of the Civil War in 1861, “when landowners began to take revenge upon those Negroes who agitated for freedom.” Yet the Civil War, he argued, was itself epiphenomenal, triggered by the expanding needs generated by emergent social relations of capital: “With the growth of industry in North America, with the building of great factories and mills, oil refineries and coal mines, slavery – rooted in the South – became a hindrance to development of the productive powers of the North.” Faced with acute labor shortages and eyeing the “millions of black-skinned slaves” as a potential “inexhaustible source of labor power” for their factories and mills, “the bourgeoisie of the North declared war against the slave-owners of the South for the ‘freeing’ of the Negroes.” 7 7 Ibid., 5.

Far from bringing long-desired freedom, Hoder suggested, emancipation replaced the direct domination of slavery with new forms of abstract compulsion and domination. He argued that, having been promised emancipation, “the ‘freed’ Negroes quickly realized that they went from one slavery over to another.” As more and more freed slaves entered industry, wages fell, and the conditions of factory work proved, in the commonly hyperbolic analogy of the day (which ignored the centrality of coercive violence to the slave economy), “no better than the slave conditions of the plantation.” Meanwhile, back on the plantations, emancipation without land transformed slaves into small farmers, “arendators” – the term employed in the pamphlet for sharecroppers who paid rent to their former enslavers – or “landless workers for a small wage,” in the suddenly capitalist plantation economy. In short, adopting a rather schematic Marxian analysis, he explained to readers how “the bourgeoisie” manipulated war and emancipation to transform former slaves into a “reserve labor army,” formally free but subject to “the worst exploitation,” and drew them into factories, fieldwork, and sites of production as competition for scarce work. “This competition,” he added, “allowed the bourgeoisie to lower wages, worsen work conditions, and kindle hatred of the Negroes among white workers, who saw in the negroes the source of their suffering.” Rather than constituting an end in itself, “the factory owners and landowners specifically propagandize race-hatred, which weakens the class struggle and breaks the unity of Black and white workers.” The inculcation of racial hatred, in other words, solidified the rule of the “bourgeoisie” and the social relations of capitalist ownership and production. 8 8 Ibid., 6.

In Comrade Hoder’s reading, the propertied classes incited racial terror, first and foremost, to maintain control over Black populations. “In order to terrorize the exploited Negro masses, in order to suppress in them any sign of protest against their prison-camp existence (katerge-badingungen ekzistens), the landowners and the industrial bourgeoisie of the South practice lynch justice…” Relying heavily on functionalist logic and the impersonal voice, Comrade Hoder made clear that the underlying aim of racial politics was to maintain tenuous class rule through racial violence:

There arose the fascist organization of the bourgeoisie, the Ku Klux Klan. However, the job of this organization was not only to fight against the ‘insubordinate’ Negroes, but the fight against the revolutionary movement between the Black (shvartse) and white workers. To the growing sympathy of the Black proletariat and the small farmers for the Communist Party and the revolutionary trade unions, to the solidarity, which developed quickly between the Black and white proletariat – the bourgeoisie of the South answered with the growth of White Terror, with the growth of lynching and murder. 9 9 Ibid., 7.

In one short passage, Comrade Hoder drew a direct line between racial violence and class rule, which linked the system of murderous systemic class violence of the South to the murderous, systemic class violence of the global fascist movement, on the verge of breakthrough in Germany. As any Yiddish reader understood, in denouncing the reign of “White Terror” in the South, he also drew a historical line to the violence of Russia’s own Civil War, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which triggered waves of horrific anti-Jewish pogroms across Ukraine and southern Belorussia, resulting in the slaughter of approximately 100,000 Jews. 10 10 The numbers of victims range from absurdly low estimates of 50,000 to likely inflated Soviet figures of some 200,000 Jewish pogrom victims. The estimate here is taken from Brendan McGeever, Antisemitism and the Russia Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 2. On the legacy of the pogroms in the Soviet era, see Elissa Bemporad, Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

At the same time, Comrade Hoder stressed that the systemic violence he outlined was not localized in the American South. Throughout the North, especially in places like Chicago – “a city of great slaughter-houses and terrible exploitation of the proletariat” – and New York, the ruling powers utilized the intense competition for labor, mass evictions, and police brutality to dominate laboring populations. These systems of violence and abstract coercion intensified massively with the global crisis in 1929 and rapid deterioration of conditions for workers. As in the South, the brunt of the social impact fell overwhelmingly on Black populations. In New York and Chicago, the global crisis brought mass unemployment and mass evictions, mostly in the Black quarters of the city. In Chicago, he noted, protests against evictions in August 1931 led to the murder of three “worker-protesters” by the police, triggering mass confrontations. In short, wherever the social relations of capital spread, they produced systems of coercively violent rule that manifested in racialized politics intrinsically bound to the politics of class domination. 11 11 MOPR, Gedenk vegn Skotskboro!, 10-11.

From the standpoint of present day discourses of racial justice, Comrade Hoder’s analysis may appear as a class reductionist analysis that denies the primacy of racial politics. Our collective contemporary consciousness, thoroughly steeped in the logics of early 21st century “inclusionary” capitalism, probably cannot read Hoder’s critique of the function of racial politics within capitalism without instinctively dismissing this as a work of mere Communist propaganda. To be certain, and to reiterate, the piece was a work of Communist propaganda, intended to provoke outrage and impassioned responses from readers at the violation of justice committed in Scottsboro. While less egregiously so than the anonymous authors of the pamphlet’s introduction, Comrade Hoder nevertheless took liberties with the case in order to emphasize the proletarian nature of the arrested teenagers. He suggested, for example, that all were unemployed laborers who had taken the train from Chattanooga to Memphis in search of work in textile mills, only to be arrested at random after a fight broke out on the train between groups of white and Black hobos. While recounting the story of the trial, Comrade Hoder also used the Scottsboro case to bludgeon non-Communist groups for their inaction, attacking the “yellow, social democratic so-called American Federation of Labor” for tacitly supporting segregation by refusing to fight for integrated trade unions, while smearing the NAACP as the “Black Ku Klux Klan” for refusing to defend the accused. 12 12 Ibid., 7, 13.

The most sensationalist and provocative aspects of the text came, however, not from these propagandistic embellishments and manipulations, but from the plain truth that anchored Comrade Hoder’s account of the violation of justice in Scottsboro. In succinct fashion, he chronicled how, following the fight on the train, police investigators cajoled Victoria Price and Ruby Bates – two women passengers identified in the text as ”well-known prostitutes” (bevuste prostitutkes) known throughout the region – to accuse the arrested teenagers of rape. Clearly, Hoder employed highly gendered and indeed quite bourgeois language of moral propriety to discredit the accusers. Yet he also explained that allegations of rape and claims of “defending white women” served as common pretexts for lynchings, adding, “it was enough that a white woman should scream that a Negro threw her an ‘intense look,’” to justify lynchings in the eyes of the “mob” (hamoyn). 13 13 Ibid., 6-7.
He then walked readers through the details of the kangaroo court process that led to the conviction of the Scottsboro boys on trumped-up charges and false testimony. Despite an acute lack of evidence, he recounted, and even a medical examiner report indicating that neither of the women accusers had in fact been raped, the jury nevertheless sentenced eight of the nine young men to death by the electric chair, with only the youngest spared due to a hung jury. 14 14 Long before the first appeal trial in March 1933, Ruby Gates confessed that both women lied about the rape at the order of the police. Nevertheless, despite her testimony, the all-white jury again convicted. See Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 86, 90. On April 6, the day the jury read the verdict, a holiday (yontev) atmosphere resounded in Scottsboro, as “the mob stood under the windows of the court and demanded the death sentence, threatening to lynch the accused.” At news of the verdict, the crowd erupted in celebration, while an “orchestra played in the streets.” 15 15 MOPR, Gedenk vegn Skotskboro!, 8-9.

In key aspects, Comrade Hoder’s account largely conformed to the historical record. Subsequent research largely substantiates not only his account of the Scottsboro trial, but also his broader claims about the imbricated nature of class and racial violence and the vibrancy of labor and Communist party activism in the South, which appear, at first glance, among the most “propagandistic” claims. As the scholarship of Robin D. G. Kelley, Mark Solomon, Gregory S. Taylor, Jacob Zumoff, and others have shown, the onset of the Great Depression sparked widespread conflict between workers, bosses, and plantation owners throughout the South. The Communist Party made the cultivation of support in and for the Black Belt a primary thrust of Comintern policy in America in 1928, actively working to draw in Black farmers, mill workers, and metalworkers in Alabama and North Carolina and fighting to forge links of solidarity between white and Black laborers, particularly in multiethnic cities. 16 16 See Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African American, 1917-1936 (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1998), Gregory S. Taylor, The History of the North Carolina Communist Party (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), and Jacob Zunoff, The Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), esp. 287-364. Moreover, as Robin Kelley demonstrates most vividly, the Ku Klux Klan directly targeted Communist Party activity, broke up meetings, and attacked Black workers and suspected party sympathizers. 17 17 Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 74-76. The terroristic activities of the Klan mirrored the rhetoric of more respectable bourgeois organizations. In the pages of its ironically-named organ, The Labor Advocate, the Birmingham Trades and Labor Council denounced the activities of Communist agitators sent “from Moscow,” who “openly preach social equality for the black race…,” adding that “any man who seeks to disturb the relations of the races is a dangerous character, and should be squelched now.” 18 18 Quoted in Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 29.

Although clearly polemical, Comrade Hoder strove to record and render the events in Scottsboro faithfully. The MOPR introduction to the pamphlet, however, contained numerous glaring distortions, including one particularly egregious manipulation that cannot be attributed to mere error or lack of reliable information. Published on March 14, 1932, it informed readers that “the American bourgeoisie is now readying the electric chair for April 6, for our Negro brothers in Scottsboro,” but left out the year, intimating that the accused would be executed in a matter of weeks. As Comrade Hoder’s account made absolutely clear, the eight Skotsboro boys had indeed been sentenced on April 6, quickly following the arrests on March 25. But that was March 25-April 6, 1931, a year before the publication of Gedenk vegn Skotsboro! 19 19 Complicating matters further, the verdict was in actuality announced on April 9, 1931. See Walter T. Howard, Black Communists Speak on Scottsboro: A Documentary History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 10. Moreover, as Hoder’s narrative explained, the 1931 sentences were not carried out, as the Communist Party, MOPR, and the ILD stepped in and continued to fight for the defense of the accused, appealing the verdict and transforming the Scottsboro case into an international cause célèbre. The first appeal of the case was not, in fact, heard until March 1933, long after the publication of the pamphlet.

Clearly, the authors of the introduction wanted potential readers to believe that the Scottsboro affair was hot off the presses and breaking in the present. In all likelihood, the omission was a deliberate but subtle manipulation made so that readers, encountering the story, would feel the immediacy of the historic event, of class struggle, and of history itself unfolding around them. The document itself suggests a more prosaic explanation for this desired urgency. Omitting the year allowed the MOPR author to appeal to readers to participate immediately in the struggle to save the Scottsboro teenagers by “acting locally,” entering MOPR en masse as volunteers, “over-fulfilling and surpassing the production program of 1932, the Fourth year of the First Five Year Plan,” and donating to the campaign to raise 3.8 million rubles to support “revolutionary fighters” internationally. 20 20 MOPR, Gedenk vegn Skotskboro!, 4. In other words, among its many functions, the pamphlet was also a fundraising brochure imploring readers to support MOPR itself, one of the endless voluntary pledge campaigns that constituted a regular practice of the construction of Soviet socialism. Like all fundraisers in conditions of acute scarcity, the MOPR authors likely fudged the dates to gin up interest.

Whatever the economic logics of the pamphlet as a fundraising tool for MOPR, the overarching purpose of the work was to sound the alarm about Scottsboro, raise historical consciousness of economic and racial exploitation and violence in the United States, and integrate readers into a global struggle for social revolution. Deliberately internationalist in orientation, the pamphlet invited readers to view, contemplate, and reflect upon the experience and plight of a people that was not “their own,” and one far removed from Minsk, Vitebsk, or Slutsk. Repudiating principles of nationalist thought, the pamphlet invited readers to think internationally and recognize the plight and suffering of “others” to be not simply “as important,” but more important in that moment than their own. In the process, it asked readers to think through and beyond their own historical past of violence to recognize the injustices perpetrated upon non-Jews, and non-white populations, and to see in their suffering the sufferings of fellow humans. As such, while a thoroughly Soviet document, the pamphlet also constituted one tiny piece of a long global movement to consciously cultivate internationalist thought throughout the global Yiddish reading world. In Soviet Minsk, as throughout the Yiddish world, this spirit of internationalism found its central literary expression in the form of the historical pamphlet. 21 21 This global internationalist project emerged from the very earliest days of the emergence of the commercial Yiddish press in the last decades of the nineteenth century. For a wonderful introduction to one early iteration, see Eli Rosenblatt’s translation of “Di shklaferay oder di layb-eygnshaft,” an 1868 Yiddish “translation” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by the nineteenth century maskilic pamphleteer extraordinaire and one of the patrons of Yiddish internationalism, Isaak Meir Dik. Isaac Meir Dik, “Slavery or Freedom,” In Geveb, (Nov. 2015), https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/slavery-or-serfdom.

Viewed in this light, the pamphlet appears not simply as a work of recent history, but as a document in its own right, written in Yiddish, in Minsk for Jewish audiences in post-revolutionary Soviet Belorussia. Therefore, the pamphlet was also a work of translation that sought to render a distant episode of racial oppression intelligible to a reading population steeped in its own recent memories of racial violence. 22 22 As a work intended to translate the experience of class and political oppression, the pamphlet resonated with global efforts of both the Communist international and the Jewish Left to cultivate solidarity across transnational spaces. See, for example, Amelia M. Glaser, Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020), and Meredith L. Roman, Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Yet, as a work of translation, the attempt to render in Yiddish the events of Scottsboro and the phenomenon of anti-Black violence in the United States necessarily inflected and subtly transformed the meaning of that history. In suggesting, for example, that many Black people became “arendators” in the plantation economy following emancipation, the author employed a term that held specific connotations in the Jewish past. In the distant pre-revolutionary era of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the term was used to refer to individuals, overwhelmingly Jews, in Poland and Ukraine who paid rent to acquire monopolies, use-rights, or leases on noble estates. For many Jewish readers, the term likely served as a signifier that made the experience of anti-Black animosity comprehensible, insofar as it suggested that the violence experienced by Black Americans, like anti-Jewish violence in the Tsarist era, emerged from the precarious social positionality of both groups within “plantation” economies. Similarly, in describing the legal restrictions enacted against Black people in the American South, the text emphasized restrictions on movement, residency prohibitions, and ghettoization in sectors and kvartaln of cities. Such descriptions likely conjured specific historical recollections and geographic imaginaries for Jewish readers, who either remembered firsthand residency restrictions in the Pale of Settlement, or had relatives who did. Finally, most readers, and Comrade Hoder as well, likely read the story of “White Terror” and lynch justice in the U.S. South through their own historical experience of racialized violence and the historical memory of pre- and post-revolutionary pogroms and popular anti-Jewish terror. In translating the Black experience in the United States into terms comprehensible for Jewish readers in the B.S.S.R., the authors effectively rendered Black Americans as being more or less like Jews, and vice versa: a liminal, marginalized social group subject to systemic danger in a post-emancipation world.

It was perhaps this aspect that resonated most with Jewish readers in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belorussia, who themselves inhabited a distinctly post-emancipation context, insofar as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 claimed to emancipate not only the proletariat, but also oppressed nationalities, like Jews, previously subject to draconian Tsarist regulations, violence, and legal constraints. In all likelihood, the story of racial injustice and violence in the United States and the attempt to analyze the phenomenon of racial animosity generally took on particular salience for readers who knew full well the history of pogroms and terroristic mass violence inflicted against innocent populations. At the same time, as a work of Soviet didacticism, the pamphlet sought to explain the “true” cause of racial hatred in the midst of a global surge in racialized political ideologies and violence. It appeared as Hitler made his final ascent to power and fascism gathered momentum across Europe, phenomena that – contrary to common misperception – received sustained attention in the Soviet Yiddish public sphere thanks in part to the work of MOPR. 23 23 See, for example, Hadad, Fashizm un antifashistisher masn-kamf in daytshland (Moscow: Emes, 1932); Hans Beymler, Inem kontslager Dakhau, trans. Sh. Kashevnik (Moscow: Emes, 1933); M.O.P.R., Der broyner bukh – vegn der untertsindung funem raykhstag un vegn hitlerisher teror (Moscow: Farlag Ts.Ḳ. MOPR FSSR, 1933); and the slew of Yiddish pamphlets published by Soviet presses on the Civil War in Spain, which were full of explications of Nazi and fascist violence. As readers of Soviet pamphlets knew, Gedenk vegn Skotsboro! also appeared on the heels of a wave of antisemitism that broke across the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the USSR in 1928-29, leading to a noisy anti-antisemitism campaign that accompanied the Stalin Revolution and the launch of the First Five-Year Plan. 24 24 On the antisemitic upsurge, see pamphlets like Mikhail Gorev, Protiv antisemitov: ocherki i zarisovski (Moscow: Gos. izdat., 1928), and Yuri Larin, Evrei i antisemitizm v SSSR (Moscow: Gos izdat, 1929).

By inviting readers to “remember” Scottsboro in its title, the pamphlet necessarily invited readers to reflect upon their own emancipation from the lived experience of lynch justice under Tsarism. As a work of ideological instruction published in 1932 – fifteen years after the Bolshevik Revolution and four years into the mass upheaval and forced industrialization of the Stalin Revolution – the pamphlet also served as a reminder of what, exactly, had been overthrown in 1917, and what threatened should the Soviet experiment failed or be defeated. According to the self-justifying narrative of Soviet power, the Bolshevik Revolution had been made not simply to abolish capitalism, but also to emancipate the laboring classes and subjugated national and ethnic groups from the systemic legal discriminations, segregation, and terrorizing class violence of the Tsarist era. By recounting the history of Scottsboro, the pamphlet served as a reminder of the ever-present potentiality for brutalizing, merciless, and racialized class violence on the part of the bourgeoisie and its “fascist organizations,” should they unleash “lynch justice” on defeated socialist enemies. Once again, the greatest propagandistic value of the text was derived from the bitter truth it told, as the ensuing decade would make genocidally clear.

Yet for perceptive readers of the pamphlet, the story of oppression in Scottsboro and the attempt to ground racial oppression, conflict, and violence in the structures of capital must have raised perplexing questions. If racial oppression and conflict were structured by capital and provoked by the malignant bourgeoisie, who incited hatred between workers of different races, how was one to account for the palpable resurgence of antisemitism in post-revolutionary, ostensibly “socialist” Soviet society with the onset of the Stalin Revolution? How did it come to be that the revolution that promised integration appeared to be fostering intra-national strife and antisemitism across the Soviet Union, particularly in Belorussia? Most alarmingly, insofar as factory floors themselves became flashpoints of “national” conflict between workers in the context of rapid, forced industrialization, the Scottsboro case raised a troubling paradox: if proletarian revolution was the only path out of the systemic violence of bourgeois rule, what hope existed for human emancipation if proletarians themselves became agents of social, national, and racial domination? This was also the threat of fascism, albeit in a form that could not be articulated in Stalinist presses or Stalinist public spheres.

But however troubling these questions, we might also imagine that most readers of this pamphlet, however critical, would probably also have had one last similar thought upon finishing: Nu, however bad it is here… it’s worse in Amerike.

MLA STYLE
Sloin, Andrew. “The Skotsboro Boys in Soviet Minsk.” In geveb, June 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/the-skotsboro-boys-in-soviet-minsk.
CHICAGO STYLE
Sloin, Andrew. “The Skotsboro Boys in Soviet Minsk.” In geveb (June 2021): Accessed Sep 24, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Sloin

Andrew Sloin is an Associate Professor of History and Co-Director of the Sandra K. Wasserman Jewish Studies Center at Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY).