Reference Entry

Gray, Ralph

Steven J. Niven

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Gray, Ralph

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sharecropper and communist martyr, was born in Tallapoosa County, Alabama, a white majority county in the state's eastern piedmont. One of fifteen children, Gray was born into a family with a strong radical tradition. His father, whose name and occupation are unknown, was the son of Alfred Gray, an African American state legislator in Perry County, Alabama, during Reconstruction who famously vowed to fight for the Constitution “until hell freezes over.” A critic of both white racism and the inadequacy of the Freedmen's Bureau, Alfred Gray recognized that his outspoken militancy came at a price. “I may go to hell,” he told an interracial gathering in Uniontown in 1868, “my home is hell, but the white man shall go there with me” (Kelley, 39). Ralph Gray, who was only one year old when Reconstruction ended in Alabama, grew up hearing stories of his grandfather's radicalism. But like most of his black neighbors, he also suffered from the failure and suppression of that radicalism: working long hours on his parents' farm from an early age and migrating to the rapidly industrializing city of Birmingham in search of work in the early 1890s before returning to Tallapoosa at age twenty-two, in 1895, to marry and become a tenant farmer.Gray and his family remained in Tallapoosa until 1919, when they migrated west, first to Oklahoma and then New Mexico. In both states he found work sharecropping, and he managed to save enough money to buy a small farm upon his return to Alabama in 1929. Although he barely managed to eke out a living from his small acreage, Gray avoided debt, and as one of a small but growing number of tenant farmers who owned a car, he traveled the state in search of cheaper supplies. Hoping to increase his holdings by renting a farm from John Langley, a white Tallapoosa merchant, Gray applied for a federal loan in early 1931 only to see Langley cash the low-interest loan check and withhold his share. Gray protested the merchant's actions by filing a complaint with the state Agricultural Extension Service, prompting Langley to confront him and attempt to beat him, in the time-honored tradition of labor relations in rural Alabama. Gray, however, beat Langley. Gray also became increasingly interested in the Communist Party's newspaper, the Southern Worker, whose articles on the plight of tenant farmers and sharecroppers and their efforts to fight back against unscrupulous merchants and landlords struck a chord with his own experiences.Alongside his brother Tommy Gray, Ralph Gray joined the Communist Party and helped found a Tallapoosa branch of the Croppers' and Farm Workers Union (CFWU) in April 1930. The timing was propitious, since it coincided with a decision by several landlords in the county to withdraw all cash and food advances from their tenants to try to force them to seek work in a recently opened sawmill that the landlords also operated. The CFWU's demand that landlords restore the traditional cash advances struck a chord with Tallapoosa blacks, as did its program calling for a minimum wage of a dollar a day, the right of tenants to market their own crops, the extension of the school year for black children to nine months, and the provision of free school transportation.By July 1931 the Grays, assisted by Mack Coad, an unemployed black Communist steelworker from Birmingham, had increased CFWU membership in Tallapoosa to eight hundred but had achieved few concrete victories other than the restoration of cash advances for a few tenants. Nevertheless, the simple fact of black political organizing, not to mention the involvement of the Communist Party, terrified the region's white power structure and made a violent confrontation almost inevitable. On 15 July 1931 Tallapoosa County Sheriff Kyle Young deputized a posse of whites to break up a meeting near Camp Hill, where eighty CFWU members had gathered to discuss the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American youths falsely accused of raping two white women who had been sentenced to death by an all-white jury five days earlier. After assaulting many of the unionists, both male and female, the white vigilantes moved on to the home of Tommy Gray and attacked him and his wife, who suffered a fractured skull. The beatings ended after the timely arrival of an armed and extremely angry Ralph Gray. Upon discovering copies of the Southern Worker, the police arrested two of the unionists for possessing Communist Party literature.Unbowed, a crowd of 150 CFWU members gathered the following night at a church near Camp Hill. Expecting white vigilantes or the authorities—the two were barely distinguishable—Ralph Gray established a picket line and stood guard a quarter-mile from the meeting. When Sheriff Young, his deputy, and Camp Hill's chief of police approached Gray, an argument ensued, and shots were exchanged. A New York Times report claiming that Gray fired first was based largely on police accounts. Within moments both Young and Gray were on the ground, the sheriff shot in the stomach, Gray unable to move because of several bullet wounds in his legs. While Young was rushed to a nearby hospital and a posse moved on to break up and fire on the CFWU meeting, Gray was left at the side of the road to die. Some comrades rescued him, however, took him home, and called a doctor. The physician responded to the call but also apparently alerted the police to Gray's whereabouts, prompting the heavily armed white posse, now 150 strong, to descend on Gray's home. There one of the posse forced a pistol into Gray's mouth and shot him dead. After burning down his home, the mob then placed Gray's brutally beaten and bullet-riddled body on the steps of the county courthouse, a clear warning to other Tallapoosa blacks of the consequences of joining the Croppers' Union or the communists.In the days that followed, the police arrested as many as fifty-five union members, all of them black, charging most with weapons offenses but indicting five for murder. Many of the unionists were beaten by the police and white mobs, and an uncertain number were killed, though several escaped, fearing that the Camp Hill police chief would succeed in his professed desire to “kill every member of the ‘Reds’ … and throw them in the creek” (Kelley, 41). Efforts to stifle sharecropper activism briefly succeeded, but the worsening plight of tenant farmers throughout the South soon led to other organizing efforts, including the founding of five chapters of a revived CFWU, now known as the Sharecroppers Union (SCU), in Tallapoosa County in August 1931. Among the SCU's first members in Tallapoosa was a young sharecropper named Ned Cobb, whose story was told pseudonymously by Theodore Rosengarten in the book All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (1974).As a native of Tallapoosa County, Gray gave the lie to efforts by the Alabama authorities to blame the Camp Hill violence on outside agitators seeking racial intermarriage and social equality. Like Hosea Hudson and other native-born southern communists, Gray was far more concerned with matters of economic justice and legal and political equality. As the first black, southern communist martyr, Gray was honored in the party's literature and iconography. Most notable of these was a poem by Ruby Weems, “The Murder of Ralph Gray,” which depicted him as a Stakhanovite John Henry, “a scepter of militant Negro manhood …. His muscles swelling into a mighty challenge / Mount into a vision of a million clenched fists” (Kelley, 46). Leftist gatherings in the 1930s and 1940s even alternated Gray's name with that of the Soviet founder V.I. Lenin when singing “Give Me That Old Communist Spirit,” an SCU reworking of the African American spiritual “Give Me That Old Time Religion.”

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Subjects: History

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