Author talks of life as 'Red'

The Daily Pennsylvanian
January 21, 1999

Sherman Labovitz, standing at 5'7" tall with silky gray hair and a warrn smile, hardly looks like he could ever be considered a threat to the United States government.

But on a hot July night in 1953, the FBI waited outside his house in Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion section and arrested Labovitz for just that crime.

A group of 25 students, faculty members and area residents gathered Tuesday night at the Kelly Writers House to hear Labovitz speak about his experiences as a Communist leader and discuss his book, Being Red in Philadelphia: A Memoir of the McCarthy Era. During the speech, Labovitz attempted to convey the "pervasive fear" society exhibited during the Red Scare and the govemment's abuses of the First Amendment throughout the period. Labovitz defined the Red Scare as spanning from 1946 until the early 1960s, a time under the influence of Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, "that erstwhile devil from Wisconsin."

During that period, Labovitz was openly Communist and served as the business and circulation manager for The Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper "Thousands of people were affected," Labovitz remembered. "People were afraid to express their political and ideological views to others. People wouldn't talk to their neighbors for fear they might find their name in a headline somewhere."

Congress passed the Smith Act to make it illegal to "teach or advocate" the overthrow of the U.S. government or to be a member of any party that did. It was under this act that Labovitz and eight other Communist leaders were arrested and imprisoned. Some of the crimes listed in Labovitz's 29count indictment included attendance at a Communist meeting and involvement with The Daily Worker . Labovitz explained that he felt it was unjust to arrest him for non-violent activities. "You could say I was arrested for selling newspapers," he joked. The nine Communist leaders found difficulty finding an attorney, as even the American Civil Liberties Union refused to represent them. Eventually, Thomas McBride - then a Philadelphia lawyer and later a State Supreme Court Justice - insisted on heading their defense team. Labovitz attributes McBride's decision to the "Philadelphia lawyer tradition of [defending] the right to free speech."

Although Labovitz was intially convicted, an appellate court later dismissed the case. He spent two months in jail from the time he was arrested until bail was posted. The U.S. Senate eventually censured McCarthy for his conduct and the antiConununist frenzy passed. "This was a horrendous period of attack upon constitutional rights and particularly the First Amendment," Labovitz said. "It's important to see the resilience of the first amendment and the need to fight for it." The audience reacted with confusion and amazement to Labovitz's depiction of the McCarthy era. "I don't think I could grasp the cloud which [America] was under," College sophomore Greg Steirer said. "I can't imagine being that afraid." Paddy O'Flynn, a visiting Chemical Engineering professor from University College Dublin, added that "the times I've been in America, it's struck me as odd that socialism or liberalism is a term of political abuse."

Labovitz's presentation was part of the Alumni Writers Series sponsored by the Kelly Writers House.