You are currently browsing the daily archive for July 18, 2011.

In this instalment from School of Darkness, Bella Dodd describes her work for the Teachers Union of New York after she resigned from Hunter College.  We also discover more about the influence the Communist Party had on teachers and the union.  Then, too, we read of the wealthy women descended from the first families who settled the United States;  they gave support and money to the Communist Party.

However, the main takeaways from this chapter are how the Party organises and executes campaigns according to plan.  These strategies are still being used today and will be familiar to anyone who follows news stories closely.

Chapters 8 through 10 are available online.  Emphases below are mine.

Chapter Nine

I GAVE up my Hunter College work mainly because I felt I could not serve two masters. If I remained a teacher, I felt my undivided attention ought to be given to my students and not shared with outside organizations. I was afraid also that, if I remained a teacher, as many teacher politicians did, there would be a conflict between my desire to serve the interests of the college and my sense of dedication to the interests of the “downtrodden.”

I made the choice without regard for the future, confident that in the working class I should find satisfaction and security. As the legislative year again approached, I became a full-time employee of the Teachers Union at sixty dollars a week. This is the salary I received during the years I worked for the Union. I did not then or later ask for an increase. I was sensitive about workers’ money …

The WPA teachers, the substitutes, the instructors’ associations in the colleges, were goaded by a sense of injustice and a fear of failure. This was the lush soil in which the communist teachers’ fraction in the Teachers Union flourished …

In the substitute teachers’ campaign I attracted thousands of nonunion teachers. I felt I had to find a way to help them. And in a quiet way they began to be grateful to the Communists.

There were dark by-products of the struggle. The younger teachers who had been forced into the WPA and substitute-teacher categories were the children of the most recent immigrants, the Italians, the Greeks, the Jews from Russia, and the Slavs. Merging with this group were the children of the expanding Negro population of the city who were qualified educationally for professional jobs. The positions of power and of educational supervision, however, were held mostly by persons of English, Scotch, and Irish origin.

The Communists, who are unerring in attaching themselves to an explosive situation, had their answers for these troubled young teachers. Their chief answer was that we had reached the “breakdown of the capitalist system.” To those who were self-conscious on race or religion they said that “religious or racial discrimination” was the cause. When individual instances of bigotry and discrimination arose, the Communists were quick to note them and to exaggerate them. So a cleavage was established between the older teachers, who were largely Protestants, Catholics, and conservative Jews, and the new teachers who were increasingly freethinkers, atheists, or agnostics, and sometimes called themselves “humanists.”

I now began consciously to build new Party leadership in the Union. I surrounded myself with younger Party members who were more alert to new situations and did not think in rigid Marxist patterns.

We did not succeed in passing the substitute-teacher legislation for which we fought at Albany. But we made it the most controversial legislation of the 1938 sessions. Later, when it was passed by the legislature, Governor Lehman vetoed it reluctantly after the entire Board of Education had used its power against it. However, in vetoing it he urged New York City to do something about the situation. He added that if the city failed to do so he would act favorably on such legislation in the future.

The Union and the communist group grew immeasurably in stature and prestige among the new crop of teachers and among other civil-service employees. Even politicians and public officials respected us for our relentless campaign.

In the fall of 1938, the American Labor Party nominated me for the Assembly in the old Tenth Assembly district, the area including Greenwich Village …

That year John [Dodd, her husband] and I were living in a small and charming house on West Eleventh Street. My parents occupied one floor, John and I the next, and the duplex above us we rented to Susan Woodruff and her husband. Susan was a dear old lady whose husband was a Princeton graduate and a Republican. Susan, on the other hand, was an avowed Communist and admirer of the Soviet Union, though like her husband she traced her ancestry to the early settlers of America. Later she became one of the three old ladies who ostensibly owned the Daily Worker.

She had gone to Russia in the thirties and had taken pictures of Soviet scenes. These she had arranged in slides and she offered to show them free as well as give a lecture to churches and Y’s. She genuinely believed that the Soviet Union meant an advance for humanity and she was eager to do her part in strengthening it.

The Party was always happy to use such voluntary propagandists. Even anti-communists never attempted to show such people as Susan that Communists and their fellow travelers were helping to undermine not a selfish capitalist class, but the very life of her own group. She was surrounded by like-minded people, Mary van Kleek of the Russell Sage Foundation, Josephine Truslow Adams, Annie Pennypacker, and Ferdinanda Reed. When I saw Susan and others of old American families devoted to the principles of service to humanity it helped to allay any doubts I had …

The legislative session of 1939 had reflected the now deepening depression which had been gathering momentum. The public hearings on the state budget which took place on Lincoln’s Birthday brought demands for a cut in state aid to education. It was a struggle now between the organized taxpayer group with the slogan, “Ax the tax,” and the Teachers Union which led an army of teachers and parents with the counter slogan, “Don’t use the ax on the child.” But a ten per cent cut in state aid was passed — a cut which we felt endangered the education program and meant a loss of teachers’ jobs.

At the end of the session the legislature passed a resolution calling for a legislative investigation into the costs of education and of the administrative procedures of education. There was a rider at the end calling for an investigation into the subversive activities of teachers in New York City.

I called immediate attention to the fact that the study of the costs of education was tied to one for investigating subversive activities. I concluded that the legislative leaders wanted to reduce costs, but that in order to do so it would be necessary to smear the teachers. I charged they were using a Red-baiting technique to undermine education.

Neither Mayor LaGuardia nor the officials of the American Labor Party would move to ward off this attack.  A legislative committee was appointed, headed by Senator Frederic Coudert, a Republican from New York City, and Herbert Rapp, a Republican from upstate. Other teacher organizations discounted this attack on the educational budget and regarded it merely as an attack on the Teachers Union, and no doubt were secretly pleased.

In April 1939 John called me in Albany and urged me to come home immediately. My father was dying in St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie …

As I stood by my father’s bedside looking at him, my hand over his, he opened his eyes, still so blue and bright, and, though he could not speak, he looked at me steadily, and then a single tear fell from his eye. It cut into me and troubled me for years afterward, for somehow it seemed to represent his sorrow about me. I thought, with remorse, how in these cluttered years I had failed him as a daughter and had left him without my companionship …

The Communist Party had been quick to realize that to avert the attack on the communist teachers, a thing which might lead to the heart of the Party, it must help the campaign against the pending Rapp-Coudert investigation. In a move to spare the Union the strain of all this and also to bring people other than teachers into the fight, we organized a committee called “Friends of the Free Public Schools.” Under its aegis we collected funds, more than $150,000 the first year. We published attractive booklets which we sent to teacher organizations, to trade unions, to women’s clubs, to public officials.

I set up a booth and an exhibit at the New York State Fair in Syracuse and I covered numerous county fairs, issuing a strident call for aid to the public schools. We got free time on dozens of radio programs. We put on interesting programs over a radio station in New York. We organized “Save Our Schools” community clubs, made up of teachers, parents, trade unionists, students, and young people. We were a well-trained army and by our well-organized action we gave people a feeling that in the long run we would win.

That summer saw a new attack on the New York Teachers Union. Friends of Dr. Lefkowitz, largely from the professorial group in the American Federation of Teachers, together with a socialist bloc, some old-line A.F. of L. members, and some anti-communists, were organized …

They planned to take the leadership in the Federation from the Communists …

To make matters worse, news of the Soviet-Nazi pact broke during the week of the convention, with the result that we were now driven into a minority position. Even though some hidden Communists remained in office, we were powerless to use the American Federation of Teachers to help the distraught New York locals. We feared that the newly elected officers would do their own investigating of the New York situation, and perhaps lift our charters.

The Soviet-Nazi collaboration came at a time when the civilized world could no longer remain silent at the Nazi atrocities against Jews and other minorities … Now these people were genuinely outraged at the picture of Molotov shaking hands with Von Ribbentrop.

The Jewish people within the Party were also disturbed and quite a few left it. Those who remained, rationalized the event on the ground that the warmongers of the West wanted to destroy the Soviet Fatherland, so in self-defense it had outfoxed the Western “warmongers” by making an alliance with their enemy. I was too busy with the teachers’ problem to give much attention to this outrage though it troubled me.

Though the Communists supported Mayor LaGuardia in the election campaigns I became impatient with his attitude on teacher problems and finally to exert pressure we threw a picket line around City Hall. We made a singing picket line; twenty-four hours of it, an all-day and all-night picketing and, as a publicity stunt, I announced to the press that there would be prayers at sunrise. I tried to get a Catholic priest to say the sunrise prayers for us, but even the priests from the poor parishes around City Hall looked at me oddly and said they could not do it without permission from the chancery. I offered to pay them, to make a contribution to their charities, but they only eyed me more oddly and refused with thanks. Eventually a liberal minister agreed to come and lead our pickets in prayer.

This episode ended my friendship with LaGuardia, for he was furious at the adverse publicity. It did accomplish something. The Board of Education was ordered to look into the situation of the substitute teachers.

By fall of 1939 the Rapp-Coudert Committee had settled down to work with a score of investigators. On the committee were men I could not dislike …

Assemblyman Rapp was an up-stater concerned chiefly with educational finance and administration. So he played a negligible role in the investigation.

That left one person on whom to turn our combined fury. Senator Coudert was a Republican, cold and patrician in appearance. Because of his international law firm with an office in Paris and the fact that it acted for many White Russians, we looked on him as an agent of imperialism. From the Communist Party and from the men who represented the Soviet interests in this country we got the go-ahead signal to make him our target. The Party placed its forces at the teachers’ disposal, since the teachers were now in the vanguard holding the line in defense of the Party itself …

There was general consultation. The Party established a joint chief-of-staff group with several from the teachers’ fraction … The strategy decided on was to defend the teachers by defending the Party. The lesser policy, or tactics, was to be established from day to day.

For the “Committee to Defend the Public Schools” we hired a battery of lawyers, as it was impossible for one lawyer to attend to the many demands. We decided to fight the seizure of our Union membership lists all the way to the Court of Appeals. This would gain time and enable us to continue organizing the mass campaigns against the legislative committee. It would also serve to wear out the investigating committee

The Party now placed at our services its intelligence apparatus, for the Communist Party has its own intelligence officers, in splinter groups, in the trade unions, in major divisions of our body politic, in the police departments, and in intelligence divisions of the Government. I was to see some proof of its efficiency. For no sooner did the Rapp-Coudert Committee begin to issue subpoenas than I got a message from Chester, who was in charge of the Party Intelligence, assuring me he had arranged for a liaison who would meet me regularly with information on what was going on in the Rapp-Coudert Committee …

The Coudert Committee issued more than six hundred subpoenas. The teachers over whom the Party had control followed our directions and instructions. Because they were forewarned by us they were able, with our assistance, to prepare defense stories to give the Committee. After each person had been down to the Committee meeting he was instructed by us to write an exact resume of what had transpired with all the questions and answers, and these were delivered to our Defense Committee. We studied these resumes for possible evidence of the trend of the Committee’s inquiry so that we could better arm the next batch of teachers to be called.

There is no doubt that the Rapp-Coudert investigation of New York City schools provided the legislature with a great deal of information on how Communists work. It also provided a good example of how they fight back, sometimes by a defensive fight against those conducting the investigation and with every weapon at the Party’s disposal, including smearing, name-calling, frameup, careful combing of each investigator’s history and background. If there is nothing that can be attacked, then some innuendo is whispered which by repetition snowballs into a smear and makes the public say, “Where there is smoke there must be fire.”

Sometimes the campaign is on the offensive. Some angle is found to explain the evil motives of those who are conducting the investigation, perhaps to show that the investigation is itself a blind for some ulterior motive and that the result will deprive people of certain rights. In the teacher fight we steadfastly kept before the public the idea that the investigation was intended to rob the public schools of financial support and to promote religious and racial bigotry.

Little by little we won the campaign, at least in the opinion of many people; and we distracted the attention of the public from the specific work of the Committee. Support for the teachers, which at first had come only from the Communist Party, increased and included liberals, left trade unions, national group organizations, religious organizations, then political parties of the left, then leftwing Democrats, then so-called Progressive Republicans. All the support, however, was for tangential issues and not the basic issue. It did not matter to us so long as they marched at our side. Their reasons were unimportant to us …

In 1940 I had been selected by the Party to lead a committee called Women’s Trade Union Committee for Peace. We raised money, hired a young man to do public relations, and arranged a mass delegation to Washington. There we lobbied with representatives and senators. We went on the air with pro-German speakers. We set up a continuous picket line in front of the White House.

It had been at this time that a final break came between my husband and myself. For some time John had been disturbed by my increasing activity with the Communists. He himself was pro-British. He had served in the Canadian Air Service during World War I until America’s entry. He despised what he called the “phony peace” campaigns. There were other and personal reasons why our marriage had not been successful, but the breaking point came at this time. He told me he was leaving for Florida to get a divorce.

It was during these months that I developed my deepest loyalty to the Communist Party. In great part this was because I was grateful to them for their support of the teachers.

I still did not see communism as a conspiracy. I regarded it as a philosophy of life which glorified the “little people.” I was surrounded by people who called themselves Communists and who were warmhearted people like myself. In the world outside there was immorality and decadence and injustice; there was no real standard to live by. But among the Communists I knew there was moral behavior according to well-defined standards and there was a semblance of order and certitude …

In addition to the Teachers Union work I continued as an active leader of the American Labor Party. I was assigned to work with a committee to free the leaders of the Furriers Union who had been sent to prison for industrial sabotage. I organized a committee of women, including the wives of the imprisoned men, to visit congressmen and the Department of Justice.

We talked with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt at her apartment on Eleventh Street. She graciously agreed to do all in her power to get our memoranda into the hands of the appropriate officials. She was sympathetic with the wives of the imprisoned men who had come with me …

In the summer of 1940 we attended the American Federation of Teachers convention in Buffalo, fearful of our welcome … The previous year we had heard of the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact; now came news of the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico … But the real result of that 1940 convention was the fact that … soon after the New York, Philadelphia, and other communist-led locals had their charters lifted. In New York the coveted charter of the American Federation of Teachers affiliation went to … the new organization … the Teachers Guild.

This automatically ended our formal relations with the A.F. of L. The New York Teachers Union was now an independent union not affiliated with either of the great labor movements

I returned to New York to learn more bad news. Nearly fifty of our teachers had been suspended from their jobs.  But perhaps the greatest blow was the indictment of one of our teachers, Morris U. Schappes, on the charge of perjury. An English teacher at City College, an ardent Communist … He had exercised tremendous influence on class after class in the college, and in the organizing of the college teachers into the Union he had worked indefatigably.

… he was to admit he was a Communist and say that he and three others published the Communist shop paper, the Pen and Hammer, which was circulated anonymously at City College …

Morris Schappes was indicted and brought to trial before judge Jonah Goldstein, remanded to the old Tombs, with bail set at ten thousand dollars.

We organized a committee for Schappes’ defense … Meantime, I received ten thousand dollars in cash from one of the Party’s friends and Morris was out of jail pending appeals.

About this case there is still a certain irony. Schappes’ trial attorney, Edmund Kuntz, was one of the trial lawyers in the Rosenberg atom spy case. It is equally ironical that Morris Schappes was one of the teachers who inspired Julius Rosenberg at City College while he was a student there.

At the end of the trial Morris Schappes was convicted and sentenced to two to four years in State Prison.

A new period was at hand, a period of extremes, when the united front of Communists and the forces of national unity in the United States were to work together to win the war. Morris Schappes was forgotten except by his wife and a few loyal friends. The Communist Party was now in coalition with the forces which had prosecuted Morris.

In February of 1941 my dearly loved mother was taken ill. The diagnosis was pneumonia. I was in Albany when word came. I hurried back to find to my distress that agents of the Rapp-Coudert Committee and overzealous newspaper reporters had broken into my apartment in search of teachers’ lists. My mother, in her broken English, had informed them that I was away and would be glad to see them when I returned. She refused to let them look at any of my papers but they had pushed her aside and tried to take over. I was furious when I learned of this illegal invasion of my home. But everyone disclaimed responsibility and my chief concern at the moment was my mother …

For a long time my activities had no meaning to my mother. All she knew was that I worked too hard. But she must have known something in her later days, for once she shook her head and looked at me sadly and said, “America does strange things to children.”

She died in my arms one night several weeks later …

I moved out of the apartment because I could not bear its loneliness. I found a tiny, inexpensive one on Horatio Street on the top floor of an old house near the Hudson River. There was a window beside my bed and from it I could see the morning sky when I woke up …

I still had a room and I still had a family. The room was far different from the one at Pilgrim’s Rest and my family was a great, impersonal family. In its midst I could find forgetfulness when my body was completely spent and my brain was weary.

Tomorrow: Chapter Ten


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