People’s Historians Online: Black Left: 1930s to the Early 1950s

Everyone was on the edge of their seats as Robin D. G. Kelley described and challenged stereotypes about communism in U.S. history in the People’s Historians Online mini-class on May 22. Kelley was in conversation with Cierra Kaler-Jones for a talk on the Black Left: 1930s to the Early 1950s. 

Participant Michael Anderson, like most people in the session, listened while taking copious notes.

Kelley proceeded to tell stories about Anne Braden, Lemon Johnson, Claudia Jones, Mildred McAdory, Estelle Milner, Cedric Robinson, the Scottsboro Nine, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and more. Here are two comments from the close to 300 educators and students who participated.

There is such a rich legacy of radical organizing! Each present-day movement and cell of organizing has an antecedent that reaches back to colonization. .  . . And the fight for Black lives does require bold, physical, push-back. We can’t “petition” our way to liberation.

I was enthralled listening to Dr. Kelley. His storytelling was so rich and also easy to grasp meaning from.

In this post, we offer a video of the full session, resources recommended by the presenters and participants, tweets, and more participant reflections.


Video of the full event, except the breakout sessions.


Listen to the recording of the session on these additional platforms.

Overcast Logo Google Podcasts Logo Pocket Casts Logo


Here are many of the resources recommended by the presenters and also by participants in the chat box.

Reading the “Sharecroppers’ Voice” during an outdoor Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union meeting in 1937. Source: Louise Boyle, Kheel Center.

Anne Braden in the SCEF office where she edited The Southern Patriot, Louisville. Photo from Wisconsin Historical Society.

Films and Radio

Anne Braden: Southern Patriot. “A magnificent portrait of the Anne Braden I knew: courageous, militantly anti-racist to the core. Anne Braden changed my life; this film will change yours. — Robin D. G. Kelley

The Great Debaters. Feature film about the debate team at Wiley College in Texas and includes a scene with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

How ‘Communism’ Brought Racial Equality to the South. Michel Martin interviews Robin Kelley for “Tell Me More” on NPR.

Salt of the Earth. This classic, powerful film about a miners strike in New Mexico can be used to teach about the intersection of class, race, national origin, and gender.

Scandalize My Name. Documentary about the impact of the McCarthy era on African Americans in the film industry.

Du Bois SNYC 1937

Key Events, Groups, and People

Participant Reflections

Here are some of the responses by participants from the session evaluation.

What was learned.

It’s so hard to pick one thing! The idea of the memory of Reconstruction was so powerful to me. We learn history in these hermetically sealed chunks, and don’t think about how they might affect each other. But obviously southern Blacks would remember Reconstruction and recognize Communist organizing when they saw it as something they wanted to be a part of. SO POWERFUL!

The importance of bringing organizing history from Reconstruction through to Civil Rights and more. Instead of making it seem like events that “just handed.”

Everything. This is one topic that has flown under my radar. I especially loved the “Theory and Practice” story because it’s a true example of resilience and the fight for our rights.

I learned that there were Black Communists in number greater than the NAACP members.

What did Black communists bring to the Party, rather than the other way around. Use this to teach history in totality, rather than the compartmentalized version in standard textbooks.

The agency of the left prior to Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Teaching about activists goals of curbing state violence and advancing criminal justice as core goals of the Civil Rights Movement.

The story of Lemon Johnson — theory and praxis. All the names of Black women in the movement, some of whom I hadn’t heard of before whom I’m looking forward to learning more about.

Lemon Johnson’s story was one that I hadn’t heard. Another is the realization that Black folks brought their culture of organized resistance with them to this movement.

It is very hard to choose. I learned the longevity of resistance and collective and effective struggle of people who were enslaved. I plan to see how I can include some of this history into my Becoming a Social Justice Educator course for first-year college students who plan to become teachers.

The right to live and to end the war on Black People is at the center of every social justice movement for emancipation and liberation. I just really appreciate every bit of history and detail because it is in these narratives that we can reimagine and organize around a more just future. Thank you.

The idea that the Communist party was less about “socialism” and more about advocating for human rights and basic needs.

I was inspired by some of the anecdotal histories that illustrated the broader face of the struggle for human dignity. I was fulfilling to be in a space where people didn’t recoil at the sound of the word “communism” or the ideal of an equitable “welfare state.”

There were so many salient stories and ideas presented today. The first was the lesson that there were African Americans in the South who were Communists (and that Bayard Rustin wasn’t the only African American Communist in the movement). Moreover, I appreciated the language of “anti-Communist folklore.” I didn’t realize that African American Communists have likely intentionally been disappeared from history and textbooks because of the fear that Communism was associated with interracial sex, more than socialism, and a fear of Black men having access to the white female body. Finally, learning about the Southern Negro Youth Congress was also very helpful and the long history of state violence and organizing against the long history of state violence will stay with me. “Resistance is our heritage.”

This talk was so timely as I’m learning more about transformative justice and redefining safety. I used to feel overwhelmed by all the various causes and calls to action, but Dr. Kelley’s revelation that state violence was a priority for all these groups puts things in perspective. I want to find this thread in future research and help uncover that concept in all resistant communities.

So much important stuff! I loved hearing this broad timeline of the Black Freedom Struggle, and how even in the 1930s, organizers were inspired by the movements during Reconstruction. Too often we are taught (and teach!) that the Civil Rights Movement is contained between Brown v. BOE and the Voting Rights Act. I also loved hearing anecdotes about powerful organizers, especially women, like the laundresses who would smuggle literature. These sorts of anecdotes are what really stick with my students, and I can’t wait to pull them into my classroom to show how ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and have been doing so throughout our history!

Wow. I went to middle school in Georgia. I remember our textbook was called Georgia on our/my mind. With the little bit of Alabama’s history that we learned today, my textbook did not scratch the surface of Georgia’s history. Timelines matter, where the timelines start matters, the voices and perspectives amplified matter. Thank you for reminding us to always seek knowledge outside of our textbooks and teacher’s lectures.

Two things. 1. Everyday stories of resistance by Alabama CP members, and 2. The long persistence of resistance to police brutality and state sanctioned violence as a priority of civil rights organizing in the very long term, Reconstruction to now. I’m working on building ways to help high school US history students see patterns over time in US history (re: the “justice” system and land/housing/wealth/property) and both these things can help me provide students stories/models of everyday people resisting — things that even they could do and that have concrete, see-able effects (connecting electricity, postcard threats to landlords). I really want students to see themselves as effective actors, and I really want students to see the vastness of the activism and resistance to larger systems of oppression. And this, hopefully, allows them to see movements like Black Lives Matter or Criminal Justice Reform as not new things or anomalies, but as historically-rooted, natural outgrowths of the past.

So much — took three pages of notes! But loved the story-telling (Lemon Johnson!) and the idea that the culture and organizations of the Black community influenced the way the CP operated in the South. Also good reminder that the Black left in the CP was primarily based in practice, not ideology (which concerns me when I listen to the jargon of *some* of the Black left today). And . . . the memory of enslavement and Reconstruction (“they didn’t have to read DuBois”) . . . and so many connections to the kind of organizing we were doing in SNCC in terms of basing the organizing on the actual needs of the communities we were working with. Shoot — I learned so much from Robin in this short session that I can’t even list it all!

There were many important stories and ideas shared by Dr. Kelley, but one theme resonating with me was the importance of stories and the role of memory in teaching and organizing for freedom in the radical tradition. Communist organizers in the South during the end of the Populist Era used “tropes of the trickster” to create engagement in participation. “Stories that carried weight” galvanized communities to action, politicizing, educating, and inspiring urgency and activism amongst working class Southern African Americans. What may I do with what I learned? As a high school teacher of social studies and humanities, I am further committed to always inject stories of resilience and resistance when teaching events of extreme oppression, violence, and trauma; that people by nature are always in conversation with another and within that dialecticism, victimhood is never stasis or singular, but coupled with a people’s agency to resist and dissent their conditions, as well.

So much great information; hard to choose. I was inspired by the way folks brought organizing experience from churches, lodges, mutual benefit associations, and gospel quartets (!) into the movement — seems like a great model for today.

The format.

Having attending many sessions now, I really appreciate the format every time!

Excellent format. Pre-reading options. Excellent and engaging speaker to introduce deeper thinking and consideration, time to break it out into smaller groups for discussion and bringing it back.

Terrific use of the rooms. I appreciate the structure, the format, the content.

I appreciate the increase in time and structure for breakouts! Could we, by chance, have two more minutes?

The interview format worked really well for me. The breakout facilitation worked great to hear others’ views and to put my thinking together.

I was concerned about the breakout session at first, but it actually helped me process some of the information and make meaning of the details that we learned. I don’t have any complaints or suggestions for improvement.

The breakout room this week could have lasted for a long time. There was a lot of energy in that room I could have learned from.

The chat box is amazing but since there are so many participants, I was distracted trying to keep up with the presenter and the chat! But that’s a good problem to have.

The format was excellent. Although I first thought twelve minutes was too short, it acted as an momentum maintainer, and led to more questions — always a good thing.

I loved the inclusion of the poll and the use of breakout rooms to give space for conversation. It would be nice to have a longer breakout session. We only really got through 1.5 questions.

Breakout session was too brief!

Think this should be 90 minutes long so can have more time in breakout rooms.

Format was excellent. breakout groups spaced out the content/listening and were the right length of time.

The format was incredible! The presenters were incredibly engaging, and the breakout groups were a perfect way to digest and reflect on the material. The size of the group was great, and having questions after the group was really effective.

Breakouts were just a hair too short with the number of participants; I think most folks would be fine with going until 3:30? Chat box is always impossible for me to follow . . . hope it comes with the recording!

I see the format improving every week, which is such a feat because distance/virtual facilitation is hard. The group is over 200 people and yet the learning feels so accessible and personal.

Loved the size of the breakout groups for this conversation. It is so wonderful to be able to chat with such a huge variety of people — both times I’ve had high school students in my chat and have loved seeing them there and hearing their thinking.

I thought the format was great. I would be willing to go for 90 minutes if we could have a longer breakout session — I found it really useful to hear from other people to understand their perspectives and how they planned to use the info.

One of the better run webinars I’ve been to, and to have any kind of breakout group when there were 200+ participants is incredibly impressive. I’ve been running tech for study groups of 20-30 people and it’s so chaotic!

Additional comments.

This was amazing. I have another book to add to my reading list.

This routine has really been helpful to me professionally and mental health-wise during this time!!!!

Amazing work. This is such a great series.

Thank you for organizing these Freedom Friday’s sessions! I have learned sooooooo much over the course of these Fridays. Today’s session was even more meaningful for me since I knew so little about the Black Left. Also, Cierra did a great job facilitating the conversation.


What an incredible opportunity — it was a nice, bite-sized bit of info that allowed me to identify new topics to study without overwhelming me. I really appreciated the opportunity to process with others. I could hardly believe that it was free!

This was amazing! It is good to be reminded of all the things I do not know, and this was exactly that. I was exposed to so many new stories and ideas. I am excited to continue researching these topics and to find ways to use this history to contextualize current events for my students.

This was a totally fascinating and energizing session! I can’t tell you how much I learned! Plus, it gave me the energy to do the pile of work I have on my plate on this rather overcast day. Thank you Robin . . . and Cierra . . . and all the ZEP folks for organizing this. It really was a wondrous session!

Thank you for this session — it was brilliant. During the breakout room session a participant shared his experience teaching this specific era and shared, “I had only taught them as victims of Jim Crow.” There was a moment of reflection for everyone in the group. With that, thank you for the work that you do.


Robin Kelley is Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at UCLA. His books include Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination and Africa Speaks, America Answers!: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times. Kelley’s research includes the history of social movements in the United States, the African Diaspora, and Africa; Black intellectuals; music; and more.
Cierra Kaler-Jones is the Education Anew Fellow at Teaching for Change through the Communities for Just Schools Fund. She is also a Ph.D. student in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy, and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work examines how Black girls use arts-based practices (such as movement and music) as forms of expression, resistance, and identity development.


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