Chattanooga's Radical History

  • Monday, March 25, 2013
  • Chuck Hamilton

Historically, the “Chattanooga Country”, while often thought of as being socially and culturally conservative to the point of stagnation, has frequently proven very progressive, even standing at the vanguard of movements for reform, rebellion, even revolution.  During Herbert Hoover’s Great Depression, in fact, it became the center of activity for the efforts of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in the tri-state district (TN, GA, AL) and the whole South.  But there were other occasions that preceded it.


 The earliest recorded instance of this recessive feature among the area’s inhabitants comes from the 1560’s, chronicled by the historians of Miguel de Luna’s expedition from Mobile.  In this case, the local people in three towns or villages here were refusing to pay tribute to the regional power, the paramount chiefdom of Coosa, at Coosawattee in Murray County, Georgia. 

 Called the Napochi by their enemies, these people were the ancestors of what came to be the Tuskegee tribe of later historical times, some of whom joined the Cherokee on the Little Tennessee River and the rest became a founding tribe of the Muscogee Confederacy.  At the time of the rebellion, they inhabited three settlements here: Opelika (Olitifar of the Spanish chronicles) at the archaeological site at Audobon Acres; Tasqui, on the archaeological site called Citico after the much more recent Cherokee town there, later owned by the Gardenhires; and the large chief town of Tasquiqui (Tuskegee) at the Hampton Place site on Moccasin Point.

 The Tuskegee were probably relatively recent newcomers to the area.  The Citico site had once been the dominant chiefdom for centuries but at the time of the de Luna expedition was much deserted but for the cousins of the refugees from Opelika.

 A little over two centuries later, the Chattanooga Country became home to the militant Cherokee who rebelled against their headmen and refused to make peace with (submit to) the frontier people from Virginia and North Carolina.  Living in eleven area towns in all between 1777 and 1782, they were called the Chickamauga Cherokee after the town where their leader, Dragging Canoe (Tsiyugunsini) lived.  After 1782, they relocated west out of the local area.

 Civil War Era

 Some seventy-nine years later, local leaders from Hamilton County, especially the colonel of its militia, were at the forefront of the movement for the anti-slavery, pro-Union, anti-secession counties of Tennessee to secede from the state and form their own.  Col.

William Clift was, in truth, one of the more radical and insistent in East Tennessee.  It was in Hamilton County that two of the three successful attempts in the East Tennessee Bridge Burning Conspiracy too place.

 Though many historians have hypothesized that the Irish workers who laid the tracks of the Western & Atlantic and East Tennessee & Virginia railroads left the area with the disappearance of Irish Hill neighborhood (Cherry, Lindsay, 8th, and 9th Sts ) in the war, I know not all of them did so because one was my great-great-great grandfather, John Horn.  In addition, there is no doubt that the area hosted a large chapter of the Irish republican Fenian Brotherhood, the members of which could not all have been veterans of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland.

 The Fenian Brotherhood, founded in New York City by John O’Mahony in 1858, was the Irish-American counterpart to the Irish Republican Brotherhood founded by John Stephens the same year.  The Chattanooga area contributed a “regiment” to the Fenian Brotherhood’s Army of Irish Liberation (also called the Irish Republican Army) which invaded Canada on several occasions in 1866 through 1871.  Dispute over the raids led to the FB splitting into three factions and to the Irish Republican Brotherhood dropping its connection to the FB and recognizing the Clan na Gael as it American counterpart in 1867.

 The Fenian Raids also led directly to the formation of the Confederation of Canada in 1867, and to the eventual collapse of the sponsoring organization in 1880.  The organization of which it was formerly the American counterpart, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, guided republicans through the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish War for Independence of 1919-1921, dissolved itself in 1924 on the grounds that the Free State met its goal of an Irish Republic, as did the Clan na Gael, or at least its wing under John Devoy.  The Joe McGarrity wing continued as the Clan na Gael in partnership with the Irish Republican Army, reorganized in 1923 as a clandestine organization, until disintegrating in the early 21st century.

 Turn of the (19th/20th) Century

 Partly due to the northern industrialists who made up most of the Quartermaster Corps of the Department of the Cumberland (commanded by John T. Wilder), Chattanooga did an abrupt about-face from its ante-bellum reactionary impulses and became one of the most progressive cities of the South.  It was so progressive in most aspects that visitors and newcomers often remarked that it seemed more like a Northern city than one in the former Confederacy.

 As the manufacturing and other industries of the city began to grow into the “Dynamo of Dixie”, Chattanooga attracted outside attention from many quarters.  In 1889, the same year that the suburb of Highland Park was established, representatives of the Socialist Labor Party of America came here to organize.  The SLPA had an excellent socialist pedigree, having been formed in 1876 from the remnants of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ International Workingmen’s Association, whose headquarters were in New York City its last four years of existence.

 As Dr. James Jones of the Tennessee Historical Commission has shown, the community reaction to strikes in 1899, 1911, 1916, and 1917 by the carmen (trolley drivers) of the city’s Local 115 of the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees of America against Chattanooga Railway and Light demonstrated working class consciousness and solidarity of residents with the strikers.  Ultimately the carmen failed, and CRL went under in 1922 as modes of transportation changed.  And too bad, because Chattanooga once sported one of the finest local rail transport systems in the country.

 In 1905, the black community of Chattanooga and its suburbs boycotted the trolley companies in protest against segregation of its cars.  The effort was spearheaded by Randolph Miller, editor of the nationally-syndicated The Chattanooga Blade, and longtime Alderman Hiram Tyree.  It included the operation of three “hack lines”, horse-drawn trolleys from predominantly or entirely black suburbs.  It only lasted about a month due to complete lack of support from black ministers and political leaders other than Tyree, but it was a precursor to the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950’s.

 The Great Depression

 In its 1928 conference, the Comintern (Communist International) voted to support the formation of a “Negro Soviet Socialist Republic” within the Southern United States.  Saner minds within the actual borders of the U.S.A. prevailed, however.  Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, the CPUSA’s American Negro Labor Congress instead adopted a “Bill of Negro Rights” and changed its name to the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR), making poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance Langston Hughes its national chairman.

 Langston Hughes’ poetry, by the way, is what first inspired me to write poetry when I first encountered his work in Susan Ireland’s literature class when I was at Tyner Junior High School in the mid-1970’s.

 Trade unions and labor in general had lagged in organizing and struggle since the nation entered the First World War and Wilson’s administration used the Smith act to prosecute socialists and syndicalists.  The troubles of the working class increased after the Wobblies (IWW, or Indsutrial Workers of the World) and Communist Party were gutted by the Palmer raids and ensuing prosecutions immediately after the war in the shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution spread of revolutionary sentiment across the globe.

 The first break in this downward trend occurred, believe it or not, on this side of the Mason-Dixon line, in Gastonia, North Carolina, when workers of the Loray Mill organized. 

 Partly in reaction to the strength of the Wobblies in New England, the traditional home of the mill industry since the First Industrial Revolution, owners seeking friendlier territory with more submissive workers and fewer protections for those workers’ right, relocated operations south.  What ensued were poor wages, hazardous conditions, and virtual slavery in company towns buying from company stores for the workers, and insane mega-profits for the owners.

 One of the worst examples was at the Loray Mill in Gastonia.  In 1929, well before the stock market crash of October, conditions were so abusive there that they caught the attention of the head of the CPUSA’s National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), Fred Beal, in NYC.  After successfully organizing an NTWU local for themselves, the workers walked off the job on 1 April that year.  The strike lasted until 14 September that year.

 In the literal sense and for the local workers, the strike failed, as none of their demands were achieved.  However, the action signaled a rise in trade union sentiment at a time just prior to that in which millions were going to be thrown out of work after the financial industries of the country wasted their substance in riotous living.

 Just over a month-and-a-half after the Loray Mill Strike ended, the stock market crashed on 29 October 1929, bursting Herbert Hoover’s trickle-down balloon.

 After the crash, the CPUSA’s efforts to organize the whole country and the South went into overdrive, especially given the Comintern’s focus.

 The CPUSA’s first inroad into the city of Chattanooga came in 1930 via the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL).  The TUUL was the CPUSA’s arm for organizing labor at the time, setting up parallel organizations to and within existing trade unions as well as organizing the unorganized.  Its headquarters was at 2207 South Broad Street, a building which no longer exists due to US 27 (formerly I-124).  The local was staffed by Amy Shechter, Fred Totheroe, Red Hendrix, and an “unnamed Negro”.

 The TUUL was the CPUSA’s component of the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern), by the way.  Profintern had been founded in 1921.

 The chapter’s existence was attacked by the mayor, condemned by the city’s black ministers (given its announcement that one of its main functions was to fight for black rights), and marched against by the local klavern of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

 Tom Johnson came to Chattanooga as chief organizer for the entire Southern region and as the Chairman of CPUSA’s District 17 (TN, GA, AL).  Regional and district headquarters were here.

 Sherman Bell, already a resident of Chattanooga and major figure of the black community here, served as chairman of the local branch of the party’s League of Struggle for Negro Rights, founded the same year.

 One of TUUL’s first organizing activities in the area created an Unemployed Council for the city’s many, many hard hit unemployed, the chairperson of which was Amy Licht.  Another was an anti-lynching conference in 1930.  The TUUL, and later the local party, also produced information forums, held conferences and conventions, organized demonstrations, and supported anti-eviction protests.

 “James Allen” (aka James Bigelow, both pseudonyms for Solomon Auerbach) and “Helen Macy” (Isabelle Auerbach) came South in 1930 to begin publication of the party’s Southern Worker, a version of the national Daily Worker targeting issues in the South.  “In comparison with Deep South cities, Chattanooga appeared almost Northern,” Allen observed upon his arrival.

 The shop which actually printed the publication was in Rossville, GA.  Harry Wicks took over in 1931 when Allen became CPUSA’s emissary to the newly-organized Partidio Komunist ng Pilipinas (PKP; “Communist Party of the Philippines”), and Elisabeth Lawson (real name Elsa Block) replaced him in 1933, serving until the paper’s end in 1937.

 On 6 March 1931, the first demonstration of the Unemployed Council, to support the Lundeen Bill for relief, unemployment insurance, and Social Security, was aborted because the city police, on orders of the mayor, arrested Shechter and the other speakers for on charges of sedition.

 Licht later noted that in no other location across the country were the designated speakers arrested for sedition, least of all before they had even had a chance to commit it

 In 1931, recently arrived from his time training in Moscow, Mack Coad, a black CPUSA leader, ran for city judge.  He did not win.  He did, however, remain in the city to help organize the working class, especially after what happened a few weeks later.

 On 25 March 1931, a freight train left Chattanooga bound for Memphis, carrying a number of hoboes which included nine young black men, a roughly equal number of young white men, and two female mill workers who had on occasion worked as prostitutes.  At the Stevenson, AL, station, a dispute broke out along racial lines, and the blacks disembarked.

 The black men soon found themselves arrested for rape of the two white women, but they escaped being lynched by the angry mob because they were fiercely protected by the sheriff to whose jail they were brought.  Tried by an all-white jury in the seat of Jackson County at Scottsboro (thus, the “Scottsboro Boys”), they were all convicted.  With the exception of the 13-year old defendant, all were sentenced on 9 April to be electrocuted on 10 July that same year.

 Licht read of their plight while she was in jail awaiting trial.  That lasted three days, ending in freedom for the defendants.  After that was finished, Licht related the whole story to the lawyer who defended them in court for the International Labor Defense, the party’s legal arm, Joe Brodsky.  They went to see the two mothers of three of the defendents, she explained her experience from a defendant’s point-of-view.

 That was how the ILD rather than some other entity or attorney ended up as defender of the Scottsboro Nine for their appeals, which eventually reached the Supreme Court.  Brodsky was assisted by fellow ILD lawyers Irving Schwab and Allen Taub, and their base was here in Chattanooga, where from where most of the defendants came.  Though ILD later brought in sympathetic local attorneys to actually fight the case in court, it maintained control over the legal strategy.  In fact, it was the ILD and Southern Worker which made the case a national and international issue.

 Taub left the Scottsboro case to take up defense of striking mine workers in Harlan and Bell Counties in Kentucky in 1931.  Taub and the ILD ended up heavily involved in events in and after the “Harlan County War”, especially after the CPUSA’s National Miners Union became involved.  The United Mine Workers had tried to organize earlier and were unsuccessful due to in part to armed opposition from the mine owners.  The “Harlan County War” lasted 1931-1932, earning the county the nickname “Bloody Harlan”.

 Another venture of District 17, one which had effects that lasted into the 1960’s, was the Share Croppers Union.  Originally based in Birmingham, it headquarters had to strategically redeploy to Chattanooga sometime after its founding in 1931.  The SCU gathered under one roof both black and white sharecroppers, though more of the latter.  Mack Coad was its main liaison with the party, but brothers Ralph and Tommy Gray were the founding officers.  Later leaders included Eula Gray, Al Murphy, and Clyde Johnson, plus several others.

 As one can imagine, the SCU did not organize without being faced with a great deal of violence, and members went armed to meetings.  And needed those arms on several occasions.  In 1937, the SCU merged into the Congress of Industrial Organization’s United Cannery Agricultural Packers and Allied Workers of America.  When Stokely Carmichael came to the area to help register black voters for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee  in the mid-1960’s, he freaked out when those he invited to the meetings came heavily armed.  Veterans of the SCU, they wanted to be prepared.

 Though it was not in Chattanooga, the Highlander Folk School in Summerfield, Grundy County (halfway between Monteagle, Marion County and Tracy City, Grundy County) had a significant impact on the local area.  Its founders in 1932, Myles Horton, Don West, and Jim Dombrowski, were not from CPUSA but Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America.  Many of the labor organizers who helped put together unions or supported strikes in Chattanooga were trained there.

 In 1934, the Great Textile Strike took place when over 400,000 workers in mills in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the South walked out in wildcat strikes not organized by any socialist party or any trade union but by “flying columns” of mill workers going from mill to mill.  Georgia governor Herman Talmadge declared martial law in his state, using the National Guard to round up flying columns and strikers and send them to concentration camps in Fort Oglethorpe which had previously housed captured German soldiers in the First World War.

 In 1935, the CPUSA planned its first Southern regional convention (with delegates from all Southern states, not just the tri-state District 17), to be held in Chattanooga.  After the local Knights of the KKK marched, with arms, down Market Street threatening violence, the convention was relocated to Highlander Folk School.

 Two years later in 1937, the atmosphere had changed dramatically and the party held its regional convention and forum at the city’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Auditorium.  The convention had the CPUSA’s general secretary Earl Browder as its keynote speaker.  Not a single one of the city’s three newspapers—Chattanooga Times, Chattanooga Free Press, Chattanooga News—reported even on the convention taking place.

 With a change in its marching orders from the Comintern shifting from “Third Period” tactics that were more confrontational to the “Popular Front” tactics of resisting fascism, the militancy of the CPUSA declined and so did its local support. 

 The Southern Worker (always published from Chattanooga regardless of what its banner said) ceased publication after its September 1937 issue. 

 Several of its most experienced cadre left as volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battlion of the XV International Brigade fighting Francisco Franco’s fascist Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, including Harold George Forsha and at least four other Chattanoogans in addition to one-time local resident Mack Coad.

 The TUUL had closed its doors in 1935 when the party supported the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  Prointern, its parent international organization, fell to the Popular Front in 1937.

 The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of nonaggression between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in August 1939 served as the coup de grace for many of the CPUSA’s organizations and activities in the USA, including all of those based in Chattanooga.


 During the Second World War, Fort Oglethorpe not only served once again as prisoner-of-war camp and detention center for German resident aliens, it was also home to the main training center for the Women’s Army Corps (WACS), both white and black recruits.  The black recruits refused to acknowledge Georgia’s segregation laws and local customs and ate, entertained, and did business wherever they chose.  No one tried to stop them.  After the war, many of these vets became frontline leaders in the civil rights movements.

 Partly due to the Great Red Scare of the 1950’s and partly due to the astounding growth in material prosperity of the “Golden Age of Capitalism” (the latter fueled by the New Deal and widespread organization of workers into trade unions), open political activism by communists and socialists declined greatly.  Ironically, those same two things led to the New Left, the women’s liberation movement, the civil rights movement, the counter-culture movement, and other progressive trends like environmentalism.

 Highlander Folk School became a significant center for the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and very early ‘60’s.  For example, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott was planned there.  The school closed in 1961 to relocate to Knoxville as the Highlander Research and Education Center, moving again in 1971 to New Market in Jefferson County where it remains today.

 In 1960, sit-ins at downtown lunch counters led by students from Howard High School led to their desegregation in the summer of that year.  A year after the beginning of the sit-in movement, protestors conducted “stand-ins” attempting to buy tickets to venues to which blacks were not allowed, specifically targeting movie theaters downtown.  By the summer of 1963 when I was born, most theaters, hotels/motels, and restaurants had ended official segregation.  Other private venues took more time.

 Of course, success here spawned reaction, and the city became national headquarters for the Conservative Citizens Council of the 1960’s which were dubbed the white-collar KKK.  At the end of the decade, a new anti-integration movement called the Tea Party sprang up here.

 The CPUSA made its first inroad into Chattanooga since the Great Depression when enough citizens signed the petition to allow Gus Hall, chairman of the party, to be placed on the ballot for U.S. President in 1972.  The local press responded by printing the names and addresses of the signatories.

 In the early 1980’s at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, students organized the Myles Horton Club as an umbrella group to coordinate different groups for mutual support.  Among its known actions are the first (and maybe only) anti-apartheid protest in Chattanooga at the first of February in 1986 and one of the largest anti-Reagan demonstrations of his presidency.  Most amazingly, the group included among its membership (at least at first) Iranian students from both pro- and anti-Khomeini factions.

In the 1990’s, a small group met at Wally’s Restaurant on McCallie Avenue to form the Chattanooga Communist Club, the CPUSA’s first official continuing presence in the area since the Great Depression era.  Now moribund, its members participated in nearly every progressive action here in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s, including the movement to prevent the building of the amphitheater on Moccasin Point, several anti-police brutality actions, the national demonstration against burnings of the churches in the 1990’s that took place on the Hamilton County Courthouse steps, and every protest against the Iraq War.  The club also published a monthly newsletter for a time.

 Progressive organizations now existing in the area that I know of include a revived Concerned Citizens for Justice and Chattanoogans Organized for Action.  And we can’t forget that Chattanooga had one of the longest camp-ins of the world-wide Occupy movement.

 Anyone interested in what the CPUSA’s publication Southern Worker was about can find it online at:

Chuck Hamilton


Capturing Lookout Mountain Artistic Perspectives Of The Battle Above The Clouds Program Is June 29
  • 6/14/2024

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park will present a special one-hour program inside the Lookout Mountain Battlefield Visitor Center on Saturday, June 29 at 11 a.m. focusing on James ... more

Curtis Coulter's 2025 Sale Creek Historical Calendar Coming Soon
Curtis Coulter's 2025 Sale Creek Historical Calendar Coming Soon
  • 6/13/2024

Sale Creek historian Curtis N. Coulter (Coulter Publications) announced the availability of the 2025 Sale Creek Historical Calendar entitled “At Home in Sale Creek, Tennessee” beginning next ... more

Michael Thurmond Speaks At Juneteenth Gala Saturday
  • 6/12/2024

Did you know Fort Oglethorpe was named after a well-known slave trader who later became an abolitionist? The city of Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., is named after James Oglethorpe, a British general and ... more