Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe

Review By Mumia Abu-Jamal

 Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, Fred W. Morrison Series in Southern Studies, New Edition, By Robin D.G. Kelly

Noted historian and pubic intellectual, Robin D.G. Kelley is brilliant, productive and talented, but all this could be seen in the beginning of his career a quarter of a century ago, when the University of North Carolina Press published Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.  By “Alabama Communists,” Kelley means (for the most part) Black Alabamans, workers, miners, agricultural workers, trade unionists, who struggled through the 1930s to build a Communist Party against the forces of the armed state and fascist rightwing terrorists, who beat, shot, assaulted, raped and murdered people who tried to unite and fight for better wages and a better life.

Who knew that there were hundreds and perhaps thousands of Black Communists organizing in Alabama during the ’30s?

Well, Robin D.G. Kelley did, and his book is nothing short of a revelation. This hidden, little-known history of Black revolutionary organizing at a time of fascist reaction in America (and especially Alabama!) is what I call underground history.  History lived at a high level of resistance, seldom reported and afterwards all but forgotten, reminds us that Black history is often revolutionary history, yet it is rarely acknowledged as such. 

Kelley’s usage of personal interviews with former party members, his study of union newsletters and files of groups active during the Depression gives us valuable insights into how revolutionary Black life was lived during times of arch-repression.

Sometimes, a book comes along that transforms our thinking of how history is understood. For example, Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts or C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins (on the Haitian revolution) changed everything that preceded it, as well as all that followed. 

Robin D.G. Kelley’s remarkable work, Hammer and Hoe (originally published in 1990) does similar work.

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