Periyar’s brush with the mockingbird

An account of Periyar E.V. Ramasami’s little known encounter with the Scottsboro Boys Case that influenced the writing of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

August 22, 2015 01:55 am | Updated March 29, 2016 04:40 pm IST

Imaging: Satwik Gade

Imaging: Satwik Gade

In December 1931, Periyar E.V. Ramasami, the leader of the Self-Respect Movement, set out on a European tour. By the time he returned to India a year later, he had travelled the breadth of Europe, visiting Soviet Russia, Germany, Britain, Spain and Portugal. This tour brought him in touch with several progressive movements of the time. His three months in the Soviet Union gave him a sense of the achievements of the socialist republic, in industry and in social engineering, even as the world was reeling under the Great Depression. In Germany, he met with the Comintern-inspired League Against Imperialism that had motivated anti-colonial nationalists across the world, Jawaharlal Nehru not excepted. During his travels, Periyar encountered various radical groups such as the Nudists, Free Thinkers, Atheists, émigré revolutionaries, Communists and socialists across the continent. These were undoubtedly exciting times. What is unknown is that during this tour he encountered the race question for the first time.

While in Britain in the summer of 1932, Periyar spent 20-odd days interacting with Shapurji Saklatvala, the first British Communist Member of Parliament and Clemens Palme Dutt, a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and elder brother of the more famous Rajani Palme Dutt (who played an influential role in the affairs of the Communist Party of India), among others. He also visited the offices of various Communist fronts and organs such as the League Against Imperialism, Workers’ International Relief and the offices daily of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the Daily Worker . Periyar met Saklatvala on the fourth day of his English trip, and spent the rest of his time in Britain in his company. He also addressed a massive workers’ rally where he roundly criticised the British Labour leader George Lansbury.

It was during this brief interlude in Britain that Periyar had a brush with the dramatis persona of the celebrated Scottsboro case that is said to have inspired Harper Lee’s cult novel To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.

On March 25, 1931, nine African–American youths boarded a train at Chattanooga, Tennessee in the U.S. Soon they were arrested on the charge of raping two white women who were dressed as male “hobos” or migrant workers. Given the racial bias of the times, when lynching of accused African-Americans, all-white juries, and frame-ups were commonplace, the arrested youths did not stand a chance of a fair trial. All but one were condemned to death. The American Communist Party, however, intervened and played a stellar role in their defence.

Ada Wright, mother of two of the defendants, Roy (14) and Andy (17), was approached by the Communist party and asked to carry forward the legal battle. A massive international defence campaign was launched, analysed in Susan D. Pennybacker’s intensely researched From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain.

Ada Wright was a most unlikely star of this campaign. Born circa 1890, she was the granddaughter of a slave and, like Calpurnia in Harper Lee’s novel, was a domestic help. A member of the Primitive Baptist congregation, she had little to do with politics until then. By force of circumstance, Wright, who had lost her husband eight years earlier, and who until then had not even crossed the borders of her home state, began a tour of Europe. In the long months leading up to her visit to England, British communists mobilised various organisations to extend support. Saklatvala played a key role, and Pennybacker devotes a full chapter to him. A month before Wright’s visit, the Daily Worker reported that a Scottsboro Day had been organised on May 7, 1932. A massive protest demonstration was also planned at Trafalgar Square on June 19, and included members from the Negro Welfare Association and the League Against Imperialism. But Ada Wright’s visit did not take place easily. Initially, the British Foreign Office stopped her from landing in Britain and she could not join the aforementioned protests. The authorities later relented but Wright was given a visa for exactly 10 days.

These 10 days coincided with the few weeks that Periyar spent in Britain before he was hounded out of the British Isles by the police. On June 28, 1932, immediately after Wright’s arrival from Paris, a workers’ meeting in solidarity with the Scottsboro boys was held at the Club & Institute Hall, Clerkenwell, London. According to the Daily Worker of June 30, 1932, ‘inspiring scenes were witnessed’ as Wright opened her campaign in Britain. As she walked to the platform, she was escorted by ‘Negro and Indian comrades’ and ‘the audience broke into rounds of cheers and spontaneously rose and sang the International’. ‘The toil-worn woman’, ‘the Negro mother told her story as only a mother can. Just a simple story of life at home, the departure of the boys in search of work, and then — prison, the menace of the electric chair,’ reported the paper.

In the 500-strong crowd was the bearded Periyar, then aged 53 with Saklatvala. He was among the audience which ‘strained to catch every word’, though we do not know what Periyar made of Ada Wright’s words as she ‘spoke quietly in the soft, pleasant drawl of the South’. But when she uttered the fervent words, ‘I appeal to you all here tonight to free my two boys and the other seven boys. When you are fighting for the Scottsboro’ boys, you are fighting for the class war prisoners all over the world,’ it moved the audience.

Indian parallel Saklatvala, in his speech to the gathering, referred to the ‘many Scottsboros’ taking place in India. He criticised the reformist trade unions in the U.S., which barred African-Americans, and declared proudly that only the Communist trade unions admitted all workers regardless of race. Many others from the CPGB spoke. A deputation was elected to convey the resolution to the American Embassy. The speaker who impressed Periyar the most was Isobel Brown (of Workers International Relief), who concluded the meeting by outlining practical ways to continue the fight by trade unions.

Jim Headley of the London Negro Seamen, who chaired the meeting, appealed for a collection: a total of 13 guineas was raised. An auction followed. Periyar, ever the penny pincher, was impressed enough to buy a German silver chain for the not inconsiderable sum of half a pound.

Periyar’s avowed purpose in setting out on his European tour was to enrich his new movement by engaging with other progressive movements around the world, and the serendipitous encounter with Ada Wright and the Scottsboro case perhaps added one more dimension to his understanding of social inequalities that plagued the world.

(A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian of the Dravidian movement. )

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