How do you stop a blacklist?

August 4, 2016

The drive to blacklist those who support justice for Palestine has its roots in a half-century-old war on civil liberties and democratic freedoms. Elizabeth Schulte explains.

"IT'S YOUR duty to ensure that today's radicals aren't tomorrow's employees," says the promotional video on the Canary Mission website.

The site features profiles of individuals and groups who support campaigns calling for justice for Palestinians--particularly the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid, which the website's authors claim is "anti-Semitic."

The opponents of BDS are also promoting legislation in Illinois, New York and California that would require state governments to keep public lists of individuals and companies participating in boycotts of Israel. In June, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from doing business with groups that support BDS.

If this language sounds familiar, it's the same kind that was used by anti-communists during the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s. The lists of communists or sympathizers who should be barred from employment was called the "blacklist"--and the blacklist is back today.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy (left) interrogating a witness during hearings
Sen. Joseph McCarthy (left) interrogating a witness during hearings

The McCarthy era--named after Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who led the drive in Congress to investigate "un-American" activities--saw thousands of communists and other radicals called up before Senate and House committees to reveal their ties to what was then considered the "red menace."

Today, even Republicans consider the McCarthy era to be a dark spot in American history--a time when a Hollywood movie star, a union activist or an ordinary worker could find themselves trapped in the snare of the red scare, with no recourse to find justice.

Yet the opponents of BDS and Palestine solidarity want to revive the blacklist for a new era. They claim that anyone who protests Israel's apartheid system is standing against "freedom" and "democracy." Pretty much the same language was used in McCarthy's time to justify the witch hunt against the left.

While McCarthy was eventually discredited as a rabid right-winger, he succeeded for quite some time in focusing national attention behind the right wing's crusade against the American left. The scapegoating of Communist Party members, past or present, and other radicals fit in with the Cold War climate of the late 1940s and 1950s, with the U.S. government ramping up fears about the threat from the former USSR, including its communist sympathizers at home.

The hysteria wasn't just the ravings of a fanatical Wisconsin senator, nor even the Republicans alone. The Loyalty Order in 1947--which required government workers to sign anti-Communist oaths to keep their jobs--was issued by Democratic President Harry Truman.

Before that, the Smith Act, as the Alien Registration Act of 1940 was known, criminalized membership in or support of any organization that advocated the "violent overthrow of the government." It was signed into law by liberal hero President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Thousands of workers lost their jobs and were barred from further employment as a result of the blacklist. Best known is the blacklisting of directors, writers and actors in Hollywood, where many careers were indeed ruined. But lives were destroyed in other industries and professions.

In a sense, the blacklist against leftists in the entertainment industry had the greatest impact on those who never set foot on a movie set. Because of its prominence in the public eye--something the witch hunters made sure of--it sent a message to every person who lived and worked in the U.S.: If they can go after celebrities and stars, they can go after anyone. Unionists, teachers, government workers--all were called under suspicion.

In many cases, the targets were people whose only connection with the Communist Party was donating to a fund to aid orphans of the Spanish Civil War or signing an antiwar petition.

Workers called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) who refused to say anything, invoking their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves, were fired. After a HUAC hearing in Baltimore in 1957, 15 of 22 workers who pled the Fifth lost their jobs.

Leftists went to prison, where they were victims of neglect and abuse by guards as well as fellow prisoners. Black CP leader Henry Winston lost his eyesight from lack of medical care while he was incarcerated in a segregated Indiana prison. Inmates beat Philip Frankfeld, thrown in prison under the Smith Act in 1953, so viciously during his time in the Atlanta Penitentiary that he was almost blinded.

So-called "anti-American" elements--meaning communists, but also immigrants--were threatened with deportation. In 1952, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, also called the Walter–McCarran Act, which allowed for "aliens" to be arrested without a warrant, held without bail, and deported.

According to David Caute's book The Great Fear, the Truman administration had arrested 140 "political" aliens for deportation by the end of 1949; by December 1951, 205; and by 1953, some 300.

Over the course of almost 20 years, the federal government tried to deport Harry Bridges, the Australian-born leader of the San Francisco longshore strike of 1934, one of the great struggles that opened the way for the mass industrial union drives of the era. Despite the government's attempts to coerce his union brothers into naming Bridges as a communist, the Feds failed.

The hysterical atmosphere created by the blacklist and congressional hearings encouraged right-wingers outside Washington to attack leftists, as well as anyone deemed to be "suspicious" at work and elsewhere.

A particularly bloody example was a 1949 concert in Peekskill, New York, featuring Black singer and communist Paul Robeson. Right-wing veterans groups--inflamed, according to one account, by "the fact that the concertgoers were not only reds but n----s and kikes"--ambushed the crowd, half of them women and children, after the concert. At least 150 people were injured, according to Caute.

CONSIDERING the purpose to which the blacklist is being put today, we should remember that the witch hunts of the 1950s were anti-Semitic to the core. Jewish workers who took part in left-wing causes were singled out for special treatment--those who had nothing to do with politics were coerced into implicating others to "prove" their dedication to "American values." According to Caute:

The great majority of New York teachers purged in the 1950s were Jews...In 1952, a group of about 300 mothers asked the Board of Education why it invariably suspended Jewish teachers. A research student who recently investigated the subject reports: "As for anti-Semitism, 80 percent of the dismissed teachers that I interviewed cited anti-Semitism as a cause for dismissal."

Among the teachers dismissed or suspended were 27-year veteran Celia Zitron, who was responsible for introducing Hebrew into the New York City school system, and Cyril Graze, an outspoken critic of the school board because of its "tolerance for teachers and textbooks hostile to Jews, Blacks and the foreign-born," Caute writes.

This history is doubly ironic, because the BDS activities that are getting people blacklisted today have nothing to do, as their opponents claim, with anti-Semitism. As Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace said on Democracy Now!:

[T]he Boycott National Committee, which is the representative of all the Palestinian organizations that have called globally for support for BDS...calls very much for universal human rights. That includes speaking out against anti-Semitism, against all forms of oppression and racism...And so we're very proud and honored to be part of that movement fighting for human rights, fighting against Palestinian dispossession.

THE CASE of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is the one of the most tragic examples of the depths to which the federal government would sink to persecute communists. Accused of stealing the "secret" of the atomic bomb, the couple was executed in 1953.

As the evidence proved years later, the government had no case against Ethel Rosenberg, but the Feds continued to press for her execution, calculating that her husband Julius might eventually succumb to the pressure and admit guilt. But the couple could not be broken and continued to stand by their innocence until their dying day.

While the Rosenberg case should be remembered as evidence of the ruthlessness of the U.S. government against dissenters, it also produced a flowering of solidarity. An international defense campaign for the Rosenbergs won the support of noted artists and writers, and the backing of millions of ordinary people who attended rallies or took part in petition drives.

This was evidence, even in the heart of the McCarthy era, that masses of people would stand against the government's trumped-up charges implicating a couple whose only crime was being communists.

There were many examples in the time of people who failed to stand up. But others followed the example of the Rosenbergs and refused to capitulate.

Some confronted the government in the courtroom, like Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett, who refused to answer questions about the names of the trustees of a defense bail fund--even though he didn't even know who they were--and went to prison for six months as a result. Or Seattle trade unionist Tony Starkovitch, who told HUAC, "I do have contempt for this committee...a phony question from a phony congressman...I think you guys should be investigated by psychiatrists."

The McCarthy era and its blacklist sent a chill through U.S. society. Its impact is still felt today, as the left tries to rebuild after decades of having been scapegoated and ostracized. The radical working-class tradition that was once so implanted in the U.S. was banished during the witch hunts, and now must be rebuilt.

The tide only turned against the McCarthyite assault and the broader rightward atmosphere of the 1950s with the development of new social struggles and the slow birth of a new left as the 1950s turned into the 1960s.

When HUAC tried to bring its hearings to the Bay Area in May 1960, students inspired by the civil rights movement in the South confronted the blacklisters. Hundreds of mostly college students protested outside San Francisco's City Hall and turned back the committee. This protest signaled the beginning of the end for the McCarthy witch hunters--and the beginning of the beginning for the student struggles that would emerge with the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley.

The larger political struggles that championed civil rights, freedom of speech and other calls for justice created the atmosphere where McCarthyism could finally be turned back for a whole era. But that struggle against the right and to rebuild a much-needed left isn't over.

Thanks to Annie Zirin for suggesting the topic of this article.

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