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Smoke Screen — the Red Scare
by Anne Braden
(Publications Director, Southern Conference Education Fund)

Originally published in Freedomways, 1st Quarter, 1964

See also Southern Conference Education Fund for web links.

One of the most crucial questions the southern civil rights movement faces today — although many people in the movement would rather not talk about it — is how it will meet efforts to place a "subversive" label on it.

This is not exactly a new problem, but it is one that has been intensified within the last year, simply because the charges of subversion in regard to the southern movement have intensified.

It is in this context that the recent attack on the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) in New Orleans becomes important. For this attack is much more than an effort to destroy one organization; it is part of a stepped-up attack on the entire southern movement.

The attack on SCEF began in early October, 1963, when state and city police raided SCEF's main office in New Orleans, confiscated its records, and arrested its executive director, James A. Dombrowski.

They also raided the law office of Ben Smith, SCEF treasurer and a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana; and they arrested him and his law partner, Bruce Waltzer, who with Smith has handled many key civil rights cases. Homes of Dombrowski, Smith, and Waltzer were also raided.

The police had acted at the request of the Louisiana Joint Committee on Un-American Activities (LUAC) , a creature of the state legislature modeled after the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of the national Congress. The three men were charged with violating the state Subversive Activities and Communist Control law by operating a "subversive" organization and by distributing "communist political propaganda" (SCEF literature) .

Just three weeks later a Louisiana judge, J. Bernard Cocke, dismissed all the charges for lack of evidence and said the arrests and raids had been illegal. He ruled that LUAC had acted on the basis of "opinion" instead of evidence.

Police-State Methods

However, that by no means closed the matter. LUAC went right on with its attack on SCEF, holding hearings and issuing reports. It refused to return the seized records; in the meantime U.S. Senator James 0. Eastland of Mississippi, who heads the Senate Internal Security subcommittee, subpoenaed the records. When SCEF filed court action to enjoin him, Eastland took the records across the state line into Mississippi. SCEF counterattacked with various damage suits and a suit to test the constitutionality of the law under which the raids occurred. The SCEF board and other groups asked the U.S. Senate to censure Eastland for his lawless actions.

It seems likely that the various battles growing out of the raids will be going on a long time. I am a part of SCEF, serving as editor of its publications, and for us who are part of this organization all of this seems like an old story. We are so used to being called "subversive" by some "investigating committee," that it has a little of the quality of "water off a duck's back."

As we look back on the history of these charges, it provides a liberal education in the reason for red-baiting, for one can so easily trace the charges back to their source and discover the reason for them.

The charges against SCEF actually date from charges against its predecessor organization, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW). The latter organization was a coalition of Southern liberals and radicals that emerged in support of the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It got labeled "Red" by HUAC, which was led in that period by Reps. Martin Dies of Texas, John Rankin of Mississippi, and John Wood of Georgia, all men whose political power was threatened by what the Southern Conference for Human Welfare represented.

From there the charges of subversion were handed along from one investigating committee to another — each one quoting a report of the other as its authority and in that way avoiding any necessity for proof of anything that was said. Thus the Eastland Committee issued a report labeling SCEF as subversive and quoting HUAC as proof, and thus legislative committees in the various southern states issued their reports, in turn quoting Eastland as authority. Conveniently, each of the committee attacks always came just as SCEF was engaged in some specific action challenging segregation in the state in which the report was issued.

SCEF's special emphasis in the civil rights struggle has been an effort to stimulate white southerners into action against segregation, and to join white and Negro southerners in the movement. This probably partly explains the fact that it has borne an especially heavy brunt of red-baiting down through the years. Actually, segregationists accuse all civil rights organizations in the South of "communism," but they seem to be especially frightened by the break in the supposedly solid white wall that a militant interracial organization represents. The same factor helps explain the persistent attacks on Highlander Folk School, whose center at Monteagle, Tenn., was finally destroyed. It, too, has brought Negro and white southerners together in joint struggle.

But as routine as the subversion charges are to us in SCEF, there are certain new and important elements in the New Orleans raids.

A Concentrated Attack by the Segregationists

For one thing, this is the first time that witch-hunt investigating committees have moved beyond the area of name-calling and resorted to overt acts tb destroy an organization. To reverse the old saying, "Words can never hurt us, but sticks and stones may break our bones."

In this instance, police used a sledge hammer to break into the wrong office, looking for SCEF; arrested people with absolutely no evidence of anything, and confiscated all the property of an organization. The seized material included the names of 8,000 supporters of SCEF which LUAC and Eastland could not have gotten by legal means because of court decisions protecting such lists. As the SCEF board said in a statement on the raids, "These are the methods of a totalitarian state and betoken the breakdown of all law."

Obviously if the segregationists get by with these police-state tactics against SCEF, they will try the same thing against other civil righs groups.

The other important aspect of the new SCEF attack, I think, is that it is not really aimed at destruction of SCEF itself so much as it is an effort to set up SCEF as a bogeyman for the growing red-baiting attack on the entire movement.

SCEF has done and is doing many good things in the South, and as a militant interracial organization has a special role to play. It is not especially credit-conscious so it does many things it never seeks public credit for. On the other hand, it is not really so important and dangerous as its enemies like to pretend. This is where the bogeyman concept comes in.

The dictionary defines "bogeyman" as a "kind of imaginary goblin or specter, used to excite needless fear, as in children."

Thus if the segregationists can attach a "subversive" label to SCEF, this can be used to convince the gullible that there is something "subversive" about the entire movement. And if they did not have SCEF to use as the bogeyman, they would use some other group.

The SCEF attack came just as the segregationists were trying desperately to pin the "red label" on the entire southern movement, and especiallyon one of its symbolic leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This was the burden of what Governor Wallace of Alabama and Governor Barnett of Mississippi had to say in testimony against civil rights legislation before congressional committees last summer.

There is also good reason to believe that one of the immediate causes of the new attack on SCEF was an effort to smear the militant movement in Birmingham, Ala. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Birmingham leader, has long been active in SCEF and is now its President. After the Birmingham upsurge of 1963, the Alabama legislature set up its own committee to investigate "subversion," and this committee announced that it was working closely with the Louisiana one. When the SCEF office in New Orleans was raided, a Birmingham daily newspaper carried articles about it with big headlines on the front page, "Shuttlesworth Group Raided Under Anti-Communist Law." When the charges were dropped three weeks later, this same paper carried not a line!

Nor is it only against Dr. King and SCLC that the stepped up "red" charges are being hurled. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is also under attack, as is CORE, wherever it is active in the South. A district attorney in Louisiana recently declared that many of the CORE national officers had been named as "communist-fronters." His authority was the House Un-American Activities Committee. The NAACP has long been labeled as "communist-dominated" by southern segregationists. Again the authority is HUAC. A similar committee set up by the Florida State Legislature harassed NAACP chapters for years.

It seems obvious that these charges are intensifying at this particular moment in the Deep South because the segregationists are desperate. When people are desperate to keep things as they have always been, the "red" cry becomes their last resort.

A Challenge to the Southern Freedom Movement

The important question is whether the civil rights movement as a whole runs from this kind pf attack now or decides to fight back.

SCEF itself has always refused to run. In contrast to some other organizations, it has refused to try to meet such attacks by conducting its own internal witch hunt or excluding people because of alleged political beliefs.

There are those who say that this is precisely why it has continued to be a main target for the red hunters. Maybe so; an organization sometimes gains a temporary advantage by going along with the witch hunt. But we in SCEF have always felt that such tactics are self- defeating in the long run, and we think history is proving us right. In the long pull, SCEF's greatest contribution to the southern struggle may be that by fighting back on this issue it kept the door open for other groups to take a principled stand against the witch hunt when the moment came that this was crucial, as it has now. For even if there was a time in the past when a ccivil rights group could gain some temporary advantage by trying to prove to the world that it was not "subversive," the times and demands of the future are such that this preoccupation will surely render any organization useless in the struggle.

To understand this, one must first see that the southern segregationists who yell "red" at the integration movement actually do not care about communism or communists at all. That is not really what they are looking for, because in the first place most of them do not know "communism" from rheumatism. One of the members of the very committee in Louisiana which attacked SCEF once said on the floor of the legislature that "Integration is the southern expression of communism." That is what most of the southern witch-hunters truly believe; so it is obvious that to quiet them down one would simply have to quit working for an end to segregation.

But more than that. Not only in the south but all over the country today, those who are talking about the danger of "communists" in the civil rights movement are actually talking about anyone who is critical of our present economic and political structure.

To all with eyes to see today it is becoming obvious that one cannot talk about real "racial equality" unless some changes are made in our political and economic framework. Norman Thomas recently told a SNCC conference that it was impossible to think of fair employment any more until we can rearrange our economy to provide full employment, and actually this concept is becoming fairly generally accepted among civil rights forces. If Mr. J. Edgar Hoover is going to label all who raise such questions as "communists," he is preparing a very big net indeed — almost as big as the one southern legislators have created when they labeled all those who advocate integration as "communists." And if the civil rights movement should make the mistake of attempting to prove itself "pure" by such yardsticks, it will surely dry up on the vine, because it will have no answers big enough to meet the challenges of our times.

If, on the other hand, the civil rights movement meets the new attacks of the red-baiters simply by ignoring the charges, by keeping its eye on the ball, and by pressing on toward its goal of full freedom, it may be on the eve of its most creative period. It should be recognized that the new red-baiting attacks are a sign of the weakness of the segregationists, not of their strength. It is a sign of desperation. And the answer is not to waste time trying to prove what one is not, but simply to be what one is. What the civil rights movement happens to be is the most vital force in the nation today; a force that carries the potential for pumping new life into our entire society and making the democratic ideal real for the first time. When that is what a movement is, there is little need to prove to anyone what it is not.

One of the first steps taken by those who would destroy by red-baiting is to divide and conquer. Fifteen years ago, that happened to the labor movement when the CIO expelled unions attacked as "red." Today even some of the trade-unionists who went along with the purge say they were wrong and this action weakened the entire labor movement. There seems to be a good chance that the civil rights movement will do better on this question than the labor movement did.

One purpose of the SCEF raid was undoubtedly to divide and conquer. For the time being at least, it did not work. Both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which are really the heart of the new and indigenous southern movement, refused to let SCEF be isolated. Both immediately condemned the raids and arrests and offered support and help to SCEF. Civil rights groups in New Orleans did the same, as did grass-roots organizations throughout the South. If the southern movement can continue in this manner, refusing to let itself be divided or deflected from its aims by arguments about "subversion;" it will fulfill its goal of winning freedom for all our citizens and saving the soul of the nation.

Copyright © Anne Braden, 1964.

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