Smoke Screen — the Red Scare
by Anne Braden
(Publications Director, Southern Conference Education
Originally published in Freedomways, 1st
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.