The case of labor organizer Angelo Herndon made national headlines in the ’30’s and called to attention the racist practices of the justice system in the Deep South. Henderson was arrested for planning a peaceful and racially integrated Communist Party march for employment in Atlanta, and charged via an obscure law created during the Reconstruction period.
Herndon was born May 6, 1913 in Wyoming, Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati. As a teenager, the coal miner traveled to points South to find work and discovered a Communist Party faction in Birmingham, Alabama. Attracted to the party’s message of racial inclusion and equality, he began organizing labor groups recruiting Black and White members on its behalf.
In 1932, at 19 years of age, Herndon was arrested in Atlanta after organizing a hunger march and planning an integrated march for unemployed people in the region. Charged with an obscure law made during the Reconstruction Era, Herndon served six months in jail for insurrection. However, after facing an all-white jury for organizing the non-violent march he was sentenced to a chain gang for 18 to 20 years in 1933.
Herndon’s sentence caught the attention of communist groups worldwide and made him a “cause celebre” among them. The party’s International Labor Defense organization hired a Black attorney, Benjamin J. Davis Jr., a notable Black communist, to represent Herndon. Protests from communists and other well-wishers both Black and White supported Herndon, who believed he was treated unfairly due to the anti-communist ideals of the time along with abject racism.
The case was resolved in 1937 when Herndon’s charge was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Herndon went on to found the Negro Publication Society in the ’40’s, which published the radical Black newspaper, The People’s Advocate, in San Francisco.
Herndon died in 1997.