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The woman behind International Women’s Day

Clara Zetkin, militant socialist & anti-racist

Published Mar 25, 2011 6:25 PM

German socialist Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) is known as the 1910 founder of International Women’s Day. One of this day’s basic tenets is demonstrating worldwide solidarity among working and oppressed women.

Zetkin belonged to the German Social Democratic Party and later co-founded the Communist Party of Germany. An internationalist, she opposed all discrimination and injustice and promoted solidarity with the working and oppressed peoples of the world.

Zetkin was fiercely anti-racist and joined worldwide protests and condemnations of Jim Crow racism in the U.S. South.

On March 25, 1932, nine innocent African-American teenagers, known as the Scottsboro youth, were arrested on the concocted charge of raping two white women. An all-white jury found the nine guilty; the state of Alabama sought to railroad eight of them to death. A mistrial was declared in the case of the ninth; he was only 12 years old.

It took a major national struggle by African Americans, socialists and other progressive forces to turn this around. Clara Zetkin played a part in this struggle. One of the two women, Ruby Bates, denied having been raped and joined this movement demanding the freedom of the eight.

Angela Davis praised Zetkin for the “important role” she played in “the extension of international solidarity to the struggle for Black equality in the United States” in her introduction to “Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings,” edited by Philip Foner. As the leader of International Red Help, Davis explained, Zetkin “appealed to progressive people [worldwide] to defend the Scottsboro youth.”

Zetkin’s 1932 call to “Save the Scottsboro Black Youth” rallied the international progressive movement to “Raise your voices.” “You must act immediately and with all all of your energy,” she appealed, “so that eight young lives will be spared. ... Let us get the eight Black youths off the electric chair and out of prison.”

Not only were the charges a “conscious” lie, said Zetkin. She blamed wealthy land and factory owners for seeking to “incinerate those Black youth to terrorize the Black masses, which are rising up against their exploitation.”

“It must not happen that alongside these luminous pages of history appears an augmentation of the blood-stained chronicles of lynchings and judicial crimes by the murder of eight Black youths,” she insisted. “The strong, irresistible shout of the ... innumerable masses must overcome the verdict of race hatred of the judge. ... It must drown out the scream of the lynching beast. The [masses’] hands ... must be clenched into one gigantic fist which will tear up this judgment and topple the electric chair.

“The battle for the rescue of these eight young lives from the torture and murder of the electric chair is part of the worldwide historical struggle between unbiased humanity and narrow-minded, brutal and bloody race hatred. ... In this struggle, humaneness must emerge victoriously.” Zetkin asked that all “work and fight with devotion” and called for international solidarity among all workers from all countries.

The death sentences were finally dropped, although the Scottsboro defendants were imprisoned for years despite their innocence. The last one was not released until 1950.