By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
As a high school U.S. history teacher for 20 years, I struggled to find a good way of teaching the McCarthy Era. So most of the time — I am embarrassed to admit — I skipped it altogether. Instead, I tried to weave threads about anti-communist politics into my units on the Black Freedom Struggle, the Cold War, and nativism.
This mixer activity is a lesson I wish I had written earlier in my career. In it, students meet 27 different targets of government harassment and repression. Some of these individuals are communists (and Communists), some are not. Most are politically engaged in some form of organizing, but not all. They are men and women, immigrants and native-born, young and old, racially diverse, in government and outside it, affluent, middle class, and poor, Queer and straight. Students encounter Josephine Baker, the U.S.-born star of the Paris stage, Frank Kameny, a gay astronomer working for the U.S. military, Harry Bridges, a longshoreman and union activist organizing dockworkers on the West Coast, and many others.
These are the inspiring, poignant, and fascinating stories of McCarthyism that students are denied in the version found in most textbooks.
Throughout the 20th century, the government and powerful elites mobilized anti-communist politics to stamp out the efforts of some of the United States’ most dynamic activists and political organizations — like Emma Tenayuca, who led the pecan shellers strike; Hallie Flanagan, who headed the Federal Theatre Project; or Louise Thompson Patterson, one of the founders of Sojourners for Truth and Justice. Whenever organizers challenged the status quo — racism, sexism, capitalism, militarism, and colonialism — its defenders screamed “communism.”
Our students deserve to know that anti-communist repression has always been about a lot more than Russian spies, a blustering senator from Wisconsin, and a blacklist in Hollywood.
The Red Scare offered up in this lesson restores the powerful and inspiring stories of the wide range of activists and organizations who were its victims. One of the guiding tenets of the Zinn Education Project is that the transformational social change so desperately needed will never come from above, from presidents and CEOs. It will come from people like us, like our students — and like the many everyday people profiled in this lesson.
- Esther Cooper Jackson, Southern Negro Youth Congress
- Frank Kameny, The Mattachine Society of Washington
- Marcelle Henry, Voice of America
- Harry Bridges, International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU)
- Coleman Young, National Negro Labor Council
- Louis Jaffe, New York City Teachers Union
- Emma Tenayuca, Workers Alliance of America
- Albert Maltz, Hollywood Ten
- Claudia Jones, The Communist Party
- Bruce Scott, Department of Labor
- Jack O’Dell, National Maritime Union and Southern Christian Leadership Conference
- Madeleine Tress, Department of Commerce
- Lorraine Hansberry, Inter-American Peace Conference
- W. E. B. Du Bois, World Peace Council
- Alvah Bessie, Hollywood Ten
- Paul Robeson, Civil Rights Congress
- Louise Thompson Patterson, Sojourners for Truth and Justice
- Josephine Baker, Performer and former member of the French Resistance
- James Matles, United Electrical Workers Union
- Herbert Biberman, Hollywood Ten
- Frances Perkins, Department of Labor
- Sam Wallach, New York City Teachers Union
- Hallie Flanagan, Federal Theatre Project
- Elizabeth Catlett, Taller de Gráfica Popular
- William Worthy, Baltimore Afro-American newspaper
- Charlotta Bass, Sojourners for Truth and Justice
This lesson also seeks to clarify how powerful interests seek to discredit anyone who tries to challenge their power. Whereas “communist” became shorthand for any undesirable person or belief in the eyes of the elites, so today “voter fraud” is used by Republicans to disenfranchise “undesirable” voters who threaten to upset their traditional seats of power, and Critical Race Theory acts as a sweeping indictment of white supremacy’s critics. This lesson aims to help students become alert to the way shiny new terminology can advance very old forms of oppression.
The Red Scare was a scorched-earth policy against the country’s most progressive forces. But their legacies live and grow. Today, activists who call for abolition of prisons and police, or a complete moratorium on fossil fuel extraction, or a jobs guarantee for every American, are often dismissed as impractical, imprudent, utopian, and yes, sometimes they’re red-baited as well. But our students deserve to know there have always been savvy dreamers, clear-eyed critics of the status quo, who believe — and act like — a better world is possible.