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Chapter 1: Cobblestones
Two young women climbed the stairs to an elevated rail platform in Brooklyn during the summer of 1929. One of them walked with a cane, and the other's legs were hampered by a long black coat that was anything but stylish. Their school day had just ended, and they stood a few paces apart waiting for the train to Coney Island. On the street below, nothing stirred unless it had to. Glass, steel, stone, concrete: everything in the borough absorbed the sun and was too hot to touch. Carefully shaded groceries were rank and rotten by midmorning, while fat flies swarmed around the steaming trash piled on the sidewalk.
Evelyn Wiener, known to her Yiddish-speaking friends as Chavy, was taking summer classes because she had flunked geometry. Only fifteen years old, a childhood case of polio forced her to walk with the aid of a wooden cane. Her father had been a charter member of the American Communist Party, and Chavy remembered well the night when the czar had been overthrown. She had been only three in 1917 and had toddled out in wonder to watch her parents and all their friends drinking vodka in celebration. She had grown up in the Party. As a girl she had been a Young Pioneer and recently, though she was not yet sixteen and had lied about her age, she had joined the Young Communist League.
Chavy and her radical friends had their own language and style. The men wore leather jackets, and the women went without makeup. Looking at the second girl on the train platform, Chavy thought she spotted a fellow traveler. Only a Red would wear that loose-fitting coat that whipped around the stranger's legs every time a train tornadoed by.
The girl in the distinctive outfit was Annie Steckler, my grandmother. She was a year older than Chavy and also in summer school. Until recently she had been a fine student, but her father, Philip Steckler, had died a few years earlier, and her mother had sent her to stay with relatives and gone looking for a new husband. Annie, not surprisingly, had developed a willful stubbornness, a temper, and a sharp tongue.
But as Chavy discovered after a brief conversation, she was no radical. Jumping at the chance to make a convert, Chavy started bragging about the fearsome strength of the Young Communist League. Finally, carried away with enthusiasm, she warned, "We are becoming a menace!"
"What," Annie asked, "a little two-by-nothing like you, a menace?"
The conversation might have ended there. Instead both girls boarded the same train, and Annie listened to stories about the Party. By the time they reached Coney Island, the girls were friends.
A year later, when Chavy turned sixteen, Annie gave her a copy of Marx's Das Kapital. "If you must be a Communist," she said a bit scathingly, "at least you should know what you're talking about."
Annie's father had a widow's peak like a ship's prow. He could comb it forward, backward, or to the side, and still it would point down unmercifully to the bridge of his nose. Philip Steckler was born in 1875 in the village of Romny in the Ukraine, which had served for centuries as a farmers' market and a Cossack stronghold against the czars. Narrow and uneven stone streets separated short and moldy stone buildings. It was a place one hardly needed an excuse to leave, but for an ambitious Jewish man, there were excuses aplenty. Violence against the Jewish communities in Russia could break out at any moment, and when Steckler was twenty-eight, it did.
Kishinev, near the Ukraine's southwestern border, was the kind of city that a young bumpkin from Romny might someday aspire to visit. It was a commercial hub where Jews and Moldavians, Russians, Bulgarians, and Albanians tolerated each other with varying degrees of loathing. In April 1903, during the Easter festival when religious zeal was at its annual zenith, the Christians of the city sacked the houses of the Jewish quarter. After two days of rapine and slaughter, the Jews of Kishinev had forty-three new graves to dig. In the telegraph age, the details of the Easter pogrom were printed in the world's newspapers without delay. International committees denounced the czar, and benevolent societies from every Western capital gathered alms for the victims. Jews living in the town of Romny, one province over, didn't think of Kishinev as a far-off place. For them, the violence was a present threat. Within a year of the pogrom, Annie's father had left the Ukraine and stood on a quay in Hamburg, Germany.
It was a late December day when he clutched his ticket and climbed uncertainly up a narrow gangplank of the steamer Patricia. The ship's great black stack burped out a breath of coal smoke, and her twin screws started churning the greasy waters of the River Elbe. Philip leaned over the rail or, unused to the motion, lay in his berth as the vessel gathered way toward two European stops at Boulogne and Plymouth and then the open ocean.
Patricia was one of the Hamburg-American Line's newest steamers, built a few years earlier with room for nearly 2,500 passengers. She offered a luxurious crossing for the lucky few who could spend at least fifty dollars for a private cabin. The remaining four-fifths, almost certainly including Steckler, settled for third-class berths on the lower decks, where they slept in bunks and ate in a common mess. At an average speed of thirteen knots, the passage, even during the rough winter months, was scheduled to take twenty days. Steckler's trip was marred by head winds and heavy seas, including a tidal wave that staggered the ship just as she was entering the Atlantic. Even Captain Reessing, a mariner with more than twenty years of salt in his blood, was rattled by the storm. "I have not known such weather for many years," he said. "The winter of 1882 was very similar to this, but none since then has been nearly so bad."
On January 11, 1904, the ship, only two days late, navigated between the ice drifts of New York harbor. Steckler's traveling days were nearly done. He had just a few miles more to cross, from Ellis Island east to Brooklyn. Once settled, he married Bessie Volozhinsky, who also came from the Ukraine, and moved into a tenement on Siegel Street in Williamsburg. He and his wife had three daughters: Frieda, Sylvia, and, on March 3, 1913, Annie.
Siegel Street ran just a few blocks from Manhattan Avenue to Bogart Street, through the center of the busy neighborhood. Shop signs advertised in English and Hebrew. The streets were paved with bumpy stones and carried a stream of trucks to the local centers of industry Max Blumberg's Lumber Yard and the six-story factory of the New York American Bed Company which were the Stecklers' near neighbors. Annie was raised amid the ruction and grew as accustomed to it as her cat, Beryle, who liked to sleep in the gap left by a missing cobblestone and whose slumber went undisturbed even when the trolley car passed inches above her whiskers.
The Steckler family was poor, but Annie didn't realize it because everyone she knew lived in poverty as well. She shared a bedroom with her sisters, and the only heat in the apartment came from the kitchen stove. On Siegel Street, it was common for several families to use the same bathroom but uncommon for the faucets in that bathroom to run hot water. There were almost no parks or playgrounds in the neighborhood, so Annie would beg her mother for six cents so she could go to Coney Island. The subway ride cost a nickel, and the penny purchased a piece of gum. Then she had to find herself some boy and get him to pay the train fare home.
Annie's father was a pushcart peddler. He sold sweaters on street corners, barking his spiel and haggling with customers from sunrise to evening. During holidays, savvy vendors staked out a desirable location at night and then slept beneath their carts. But on most days, Philip Steckler left for work near dawn and took Annie with him. She watched him unchock the wooden wagon wheels, lean his shoulder-weight against the bars, and creak his rolling shop down the block. It was a delight to go along with her papa, who accented his Old World upbringing with the charming habit of stopping the cart whenever a lady passed so he could bow and doff his cap.
Arriving at his accustomed spot, Philip folded and arranged the sweaters to their best advantage; the merchandise would soon be subject to very close inspection. He could afford to carry only a few sweaters at a time. If a customer tried one on say, a size 36 and found it was too small, Philip would tell her, "Oh, don't worry, I have it in all sizes." Then he would hand the sweater to Annie, who crept down beneath the cart and found not sweaters but boxes each labeled with a different size. She took the same sweater the customer had just declared too small, placed it neatly in a box labeled "Size 38," and handed it to her father. He returned it to the lady, who never failed to proclaim it a perfect fit. Then Annie took the money to a nearby wholesaler and bought a new sweater.
On a summer's night when Annie was ten years old, the thousands of stacked softwood boards in the nearby lumber yard caught fire. Apartment walls along the street were stained black, and windows shattered from the heat while families fled with all their movable possessions. Soon, thousands were watching from rooftops and sidewalks as every single fireman, fire truck, and fire hose in Brooklyn pitched in to stop the blaze from spreading. "The borough enjoyed a spectacle of destruction that grew more beautiful as darkness furnished a background for an acre or so of billowing flame," a reporter for the New York Times wrote, with the placid objectivity of one whose house was far away. The fire leapt from the lumber yard to the adjacent factory. "After that there was only a seething mass of flame-scoured ruins."
It was a gloomy horde of revolutionaries that descended on Union Square around midday on May 1, 1932. Bucketfuls of rain collapsed their hat brims, warped their placards, and threatened to turn their May Day into a depressed and drippy mess. Still, 35,000 braved the weather and gamely tried to sing the "Internationale," though the words, instead of rising up to frighten the capitalists in their skyscrapers, got trapped beneath all the umbrellas.
May Day had begun in America fifty years earlier. Originally held in honor of the anarchists executed in Chicago after the Haymarket riots of 1886, the date was adopted and embraced by the world labor movement. By 1900, the world's assembled Marxists, anarchists, Proudhonistes, Mensheviks, and Bakuninites urged workers in all nations to put down their tools each spring and march in a massive demonstration of unity. While it grew in Europe, the tradition wasted away in America. The previous parade, in 1931, though held in perfect weather, had drawn fewer than ten thousand workers. Only now, with the Crisis as the Communists called the Great Depression lengthening and worsening, were the crowds beginning to demonstrate again in force.
The gray and dismal day dampened their enthusiasm, but still they looked formidable trudging past William Z. Foster, the leader of the Communist Party, who watched from a reviewing stand. The country's capitalists had taken only token steps to ease the economic crisis and by their unconcern had given the Communists the means to make a movement. They had, in effect, written these signs these sodden placards heavy with damp that named the demands that workers were suddenly willing to march for: free rent, free coal, free food, unemployment insurance, pensions, work.
The crowd showed its first spark when it passed by the rival gathering of Pinks in Rutgers Square. The only thing a Communist could tolerate less than a capitalist was a Socialist, and as they passed by the headquarters of the Jewish Daily Forward, the Socialist newspaper, they whistled and jeered. "Down with the yellow press," they shouted. "Down with Socialism!"
Otherwise, the procession's only outward vigor came from the students who marched under banners from Columbia, New York University, and City College. The women wore red dresses and kerchiefs; the men had blue shirts and caps. They were happy and fervent despite the slick streets and heavy downpour. Every so often they shouted, "We Confess Communism" and then burst into self-conscious laughter or looked around to see who was yelling loudest.
For Annie, a sophomore at Hunter College, and Chavy, who had never completed high school, May Day was the highlight of the year. Entering from any of the narrow streets into the open space of Union Square, they could see crowds of people packed in, craning and peering at the speakers. The square had been the site of protest rallies for Emma Goldman in the 1890s, and though it was actually named for the intersection of the Bowery and Broadway, the name Union Square had an irresistible attraction for the labor movement. Walled in by fading stone and brick office buildings, the square had movie theaters and discount department stores that were popular with working-class crowds. Standing side-by-side-by-side on Fourteenth Street were the offices of the city's three progressive newspapers: the Forward, the Daily Worker, and the Yiddish-language Freiheit.
After a few hours of marching, Annie and the other students arrived at the rally point. There they learned that the adults had thrown in the towel and cancelled the speeches. Still in a holiday mood and with the sudden gift of a free afternoon, they dispersed noisily into the subways. May Day was over; leaflets and signs littered the sidewalks. The city's capitalists were safe for another year.
The Depression was an exhilarating time to be young and radical. Annie had rarely been outside Brooklyn a trip to Coney Island had been a holiday but in long discussions about international affairs or abstract economic questions, she widened her world far beyond the boundary of Kings County. There was a range of political opinion available: one could be a Socialist or a Communist. The Democratic Party was for the Irish. As for becoming a Republican, neither Annie nor any of her wide acquaintance could ever recall meeting one.
New York was the center of it all. There, young workers and young students could read dozens of newspapers or listen to soapbox street speakers. Unlike other cities, New York also had two free institutions for higher learning. City College, in Harlem, was overrun with Jewish radicals who scorned their tired old professors and skipped class to hold rambunctious debates in odd corners of the cafeteria. Hunter College, with campuses on the East Side and in the Bronx, provided the best, and usually the only, chance for New York's poor but promising girls to attain their degrees. The students came from workers' families that could spare the extra paycheck that a girl could bring home from the typing pool or shirtwaist factory. Hunter women were acutely aware of the opportunity they had being given and remained impeccably respectable in their marcelled hair and V-neck sweaters. But by the time Annie arrived in 1931, even they were dabbling in politics.
In a questionnaire given to Annie's class of 750 incoming freshmen, only one girl reported that she intended to marry. Most of the others planned careers in medicine, journalism, teaching, and the law. Between cigarette advertisements for Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields, the Hunter Bulletin was crowded with their intellectual activity: from debates on the "Present Economic Status of Woman" or the "Prospects of British Empire" to reviews of the college production of The Mikado. These refined attainments masked the fact that the Hunter girls were drifting to the Left. In the 1932 election, when Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt knocked Hoover into a cocked hat, beating him by 7 million votes, he failed to carry Hunter College. Instead, the students handed Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate, an easy victory.
The time seemed right to start a militant campus organization, so Annie joined with the boys at City College and founded one: the National Student League. They rented an office in Union Square and put out a magazine, the Student Review. Most of the league's objectives would be familiar to student protesters of a later era. It was antiwar and opposed the presence of the Reserve Officer Training Corps on campus. Its members were horrified by the brutal conditions faced by striking coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, so they sent two busloads of freedom riders to investigate the conditions in the South. When the bus, "with which most of the Hunter group were," attempted to cross the state line, officials were waiting with a lynching party. "Several members of the delegation were beaten," reported an eye-witness in the Hunter Bulletin. "One, a teacher in a New York public school, was hit on the head with a revolver."
Annie's first organizing lesson came as she was gliding down an escalator into a train station. In her arms she carried antiwar propaganda to hand out to army recruits setting off for basic training. "The American bosses are preparing and arming themselves for the coming world war," a typical Party leaflet ran, "Fight for the overthrow of the bosses' government and for a workers' and farmers' government. Join the Communist Party of the United States of America, 26-28 Union Square." Annie came to the bottom of the escalator, and as she stepped off, she tripped over her own feet and sent the pages flying all over the room. The army recruits, chivalrous young men, bent down and picked up all the leaflets, gathered them together, and politely handed them back to her.
From that beginning, she spent more of her spare hours at the league headquarters. She was elected to the position of secretary, a post she would hold in many future organizations. Membership expanded monthly, and the increasing subscriptions for the Student Review, at seventy-five cents a year, nearly covered the cost of publication.
Millions seemed to share Annie's vision of the future, and the fiery red center was the Soviet Union. In November 1932, members of the league issued a warm greeting to their Bolshevik counterparts: "You are now celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the October Revolution. You are now glorying in the fulfillment of the Five Year Plan in four years. You are now reviewing the new life you have created upon the ruins of the old. We, the revolutionary students of America, are proud to call you brother."
Annie and the others understood that the Soviet Union was still a new experiment, but it had existed their entire conscious lives. So far, they had no hint that this nation was other than a paradise. Joseph Stalin was just beginning to eradicate his rivals and it would be years before most American radicals heard about the Moscow trials and learned to dread the word purge.
Two of the three leaders of the National Student League were members of the Young Communist League. Annie, the third, had so far avoided joining the Party. The others urged her to get her card and in the meantime held fraction meetings without her. They made the important decisions behind closed doors and admitted Annie only once most questions had been reconciled with the Party line.
The league had a membership of a few thousand students, but its influence spread far beyond its numbers. Some of the greatest writers of the day Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and Malcolm Cowley put their names on an appeal in the Student Review, saying, "The new student movement has crystallized around the alert organization known as the National Student League. The League has affiliations now on more than one hundred campuses. It has shown infectious vitality....So far the students have done all we older men and women off campus could have expected...and more. Let us now do our part."
The adult Communist Party had been unable to capitalize on the Depression, even though the Crisis was in its fourth year. Membership remained below 20,000 in 1933, and most of these were unemployed. Far from building a revolutionary proletarian movement, they couldn't even find jobs in the factories themselves. There were so many Jews in the party that a few years before Annie got involved, the Young Communist League had gloatingly reported on a membership drive: "The results are also good in national composition, the majority of the new recruits being young Americans and not Jewish."
The main thing holding back Communist Party membership was the unwillingness to cooperate with other leftist groups. Socialists were not seen as allies but as "social fascists." When the New Masses, a literary magazine published by the Party, editorialized about the movement, it praised "the militant sections of the working class, the living core of which is the Communist Party." For the remaining "enemies of the working class, the upholders of capitalism: bankers, militarists, imperialists, Fascists, labor fakers, Social Fascists, and all other open or hidden defenders and apologists of the capitalist order," the Communists had nothing but contempt.
The organizers of the 1933 May Day parade were determined that it would be a true display of strength. The Daily Worker relentlessly called on its subscribers to attend, promising an enormous turnout. Whether or not the readers believed it, the police certainly did. In the days leading up to the first of May, groups of sergeants were quietly trained in special street-fighting drills. On the night before May 1, the department cancelled all leave and ordered every one of its 19,000 men to remain on duty. The officers' deployments seemed more appropriate to an invasion than a parade:
More than 1,000 policemen will be on duty in the immediate vicinity of Union Square. With about 600 of these in the square itself, another 400 will be stationed in nearby office buildings and on roofs. Another 1,000 men will scatter along the line of the Communists' march. Assisting the patrolmen will be emergency squads armed with tear-gas bombs, machine guns and rifles. Several district squad cars, their occupants armed with rifles, will cruise through the streets to be traversed by marchers.
By 11:00 A.M., tens of thousands of Communists were mobilizing into two divisions. The first, which met at the Battery and was to march north into Union Square, was led by masses of the unemployed, followed by the Marine and Transport Workers Union, the Ex-Servicemen's League, and fifteen antifascist organizations.
Annie and Chavy were in the second division, which met in Bryant Park on Forty-Second Street and was to proceed south to the reviewing stand at Union Square. There, the first column was made of women in "the needle trades." Column Two consisted of tradesmen: builders, shoe and leather makers, metal, office, furniture, and laundry workers. Column Three was set apart for "Fraternal Organizations." Column Four, the important one in Annie's mind, belonged to "Youth and Cultural Organizations."
At noon, the masses started moving. The route was carefully chosen so as to sweep through Manhattan's major business areas. Annie and Chavy swung south on Seventh Avenue, through the garment district, where many onlookers raised their fists in support. But the southern unit, invading Wall Street and passing city hall, was met with a nervous silence. Stockbrokers and bankers leaned out from their office windows and slowly shook their heads at the street beneath them. The workers were an unbroken crowd, punctuated every few yards by angry banners. They kept mostly to the sidewalks, but for as long as their parade passed by, all business was forced to cease.
Instead of marching all together in a unified demonstration, the Socialists staged their own parade, gathering at Union Square earlier in the afternoon and dispersing while policemen kept the two factions apart before the Reds arrived. This division lessened the effect of the demonstration, but, for the first time, it truly seemed as if Chavy's prediction had been correct: the Communists were becoming a menace.
As if to prove this beyond all doubt, Stalin was celebrating the International Day of Labor with a military review in Moscow. At exactly 10:00 A.M., the spectators in Red Square were startled by the sharp report of 101 hidden guns firing a salute from behind the Kremlin walls. Foreign attachés watched in glum silence as the Soviet Army marched the Russian version of the goose step, for two unbroken hours, past their leader. The infantrymen were joined by more than 500 tanks and, overhead, 350 planes executed low-altitude maneuvers above the onion-topped turrets of St. Basil's Cathedral.
Following the military spectacle came almost a million workers and peasants, all straining their eyes toward the reviewing stand near Lenin's Tomb, to catch a glimpse of Stalin, who took his pipe from his mouth and waved.
Back in New York City, the two divisions had converged in Union Square by the middle of the afternoon. The speakers and the crowd worked each other into an ecstasy of passion. Shortly before the meeting broke up at 6:00 P.M., the entire assembly joined together in this solemn promise:
We pledge ourselves to do everything in our power in the shops, unions and organizations to forge the united front of all workers for: Unemployment and social insurance; immediate adequate cash relief; for increased relief and higher wages to meet the rising cost of living...for the immediate safe release of Tom Mooney, the Scottsboro Boys, the Centralia and Kentucky I.W.W., and all class war prisoners; for Negro rights; against the Hitler fascist terror and pogroms; down with the assassin of the Italian masses, the butcher Mussolini; against imperialist war; smash the provocations against the Soviet Union.
It was an overwhelming moment, as if just to speak these goals meant that they were as good as accomplished. Annie looked around at the faces and recognized the power and discipline of the masses. Uplifted and exuberant, she found a recruiter and joined the Communist Party.
When she wasn't quaking the knees of capitalism, Annie lived with her sister, Sylvia, in an apartment on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. The two had always been a team, adventurous and independent, allied against their mother and their dour eldest sister. Sylvia was older, taller, blonder, and more beautiful. She attracted a solar system of orbiting admirers while Annie sat by unattended. Once a friend had tried to comfort her. "Sylvia," he said, "is a fine French pastry but you are a loaf of brown bread." Somehow this didn't have the intended effect. All photographs of Annie taken without exception in dim light and out of focus suggested a crisis in self-confidence.
Before he died, Philip Steckler had graduated from pushcart peddling to owning a small store on Myrtle Avenue. When he died from a heart attack in 1925, he left enough money to provide all three of his daughters with funds for a college education. Frieda, the eldest, married a Zionist and left for Palestine. Sylvia was still playing the field. On Friday nights, she and Annie hosted parties at their apartment, and Sylvia's various boyfriends would come to visit. Chavy went home and mentioned Sylvia's affairs to her mother and was instantly banned from ever going back to the Steckler sisters' bohemian love nest.
One of Sylvia's men had a friend, Arthur Stein, and he took notice of the younger sister. He was five years older than she, athletic and handsome, though his red hair was already receding. To strangers he seemed brusque and brooding. In company, he could disappear from conversation until everyone forgot he was there, only to surprise them twenty minutes later with a wicked rejoinder. Chavy refused to be in the same room with him lest he turn that wit on her. Before the Depression, his family had been wealthy by Annie's standards. The Steins had had a chauffeur and could afford to send their son to Columbia University.
But by 1933, when Arthur was taking mathematics courses in graduate school, his father's business had been ruined. Arthur got a job as an accountant and considered himself lucky. From the Columbia campus, he could see the makeshift houses of a Hooverville in Riverside Park.
Arthur's father, Charles, had come to America from Mazritch, a shtetl in Poland. The tiny village which the family referred to in Yiddish as a fevorvineh vinkel, or a little nothing had, centuries earlier, been home to a Hasidic holy man called the Maggid of Mazritch. The pious would come to worship in the town, and somehow the spectacle was enough to create in Charles Stein a disgust with religion that he would keep faithfully his entire life. Charles married Sadie Gordon, a trash collector's daughter from Minsk, and went into business in the Bronx at first as an umbrella manufacturer and later as a speculator in real estate.
Arthur attended Evander Childs high school in the Bronx, where his IQ was tested and rated at 150. His professor of statistical inference at Columbia remembered that he "possessed ability well above average and a character beyond reproach." He was a powerful swimmer and had fenced when he was younger, but Columbia's school physician examined Arthur and diagnosed him with an "arrested pulmonary tuberculosis condition." Medical wisdom of the day recommended that an underdeveloped heart be protected from exercise, which in effect made a weak muscle even weaker.
Arthur skated through four years at Columbia without straining himself. He never joined a club or made a single appearance in the school newspaper. A mathematician coming into Butler Library to interview Arthur for an important job found him fast asleep with his head down on a table. He didn't even show up for senior picture day, preferring to leave a blank space beside his name in the 1929 college yearbook.
Annie Steckler became Annie Stein on August 12, 1933. She was twenty years old. New York State law allowed underage couples to be married only in religious ceremonies, so they found a rabbi willing to perform the service in his own basement apartment. Arthur's parents didn't come. Though he was the family's pride and joy, they refused to set foot inside a rabbi's house. The wedding was so poorly attended that they fell short of the minyan of ten men that was required by Jewish law for important ceremonies. Luckily, in the Depression this was not such a problem. The rabbi went into the street and rounded up some vagrants to fill the void and make everything kosher.
The young couple moved into a modest apartment on Maple Street in Brooklyn, one of the few properties that Charles Stein had managed to retain. Annie was frustrated with her husband's lack of politics. Then she got some advice from a columnist in the Daily Worker who suggested leaving copies of the Worker around the house so that the benighted husband would be forced to read it. Inevitably he would be overcome and converted. So Annie left newspapers in every room, on each table and chair. Artie found them and at first threw them in the garbage. But it wasn't long before he started reading them himself.
Three different student organizations had plans to hold their national conventions in Washington during the Christmas vacation of 1933. The first was the National Student Federation, from 250 "leading American colleges." The organization had met annually for a decade and each year resolved agreeably to do nothing about anything. The Washington Post greeted their arrival with a paternalistic chuckle. "The boys and girls," the paper reported, "are taking time off from holiday festivity to settle a few world problems before classes recommence in January." Franklin Roosevelt was glad to have these students in the capital and sent an encouraging statement to be read at their convention.
The members settled comfortably into a fancy hotel where a room ranged in price from $4 to $15 per day. In the glittering lobby, baize-covered registration tables had been provided by the Washington Board of Trade. "A half dozen young ladies sat there ready to sign up students and hand out programs," reported one observer. The students themselves were "slick-haired fraternity men and authentic sorority girls, strolling among the great potted plants and marble and bronze statuary." Their usually placid affairs were interrupted by the two other groups present in the capital, whose passionate meetings were making the federation's convention look like a tea party.
No Board of Trade was rolling out a red carpet for the Student League for Industrial Democracy. Yet few viewed this moribund socialist group as much of a threat. In previous decades, it had claimed John Reed, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair as members, but for the 1933 convention, fewer than fifty delegates bothered to make the trip to Washington. It would be thirty years before the League for Industrial Democracy would spring to life again under a new name Students for a Democratic Society. In the meantime, its former leaders had been driven even further to the Left, into the waiting arms of the third group.
Annie and the other delegates of the National Student League had come to Washington by bus. Arriving at 3:00 a.m. and finding that their hotel refused to rent rooms to blacks, they marched right out of the lobby and back onto the bus to spend the night. Their convention was bent on action, and the Washington Post had warned of their coming: "Radical Group Is On Its Way Here...and There May Be War."
Representatives of the league, which at the time claimed 5,000 members nationwide, met in a spired red-brick chapel on the campus of Howard University. Racial issues had never been the league's priorities. "The section of our program on the problems of the Negro students had reposed rather peacefully since the day of its writing," Annie confessed in an article in the Student Review. But at this convention, the three hundred delegates turned toward integration. The league hosted interracial dances, and Annie wrote that "Howard students attended the sessions and participated in the discussions....For three days Negro and white students shared the same dormitories, ate at the same tables and worked out a line of attack on common problems."
After a long day of discussions, Annie and a group of students walked down Connecticut Avenue in downtown Washington. None of the city's restaurants would willingly serve a black customer, but the students, still feeling powerful and inspired from the day's speeches, marched in and demanded service. And they "were not thrown out. There were too many of us," Annie reported. "It struck some of us that a sizable N.S.L. group could make jim-crow restaurants tremble." It was an idea that she wouldn't forget.
On December 29, the three conventions wrapped up. "Early in the afternoon," reported the Washington Post:
The League for Industrial Democracy and the National Student League, numbering several hundred students, paraded before the White House with placards demanding an end to war and R.O.T.C. At the same time the National Student Federation, which considers the former groups "too radical," was having tea with the First Lady inside the Executive Mansion. L.I.D. officials previously had termed the N.S.F. group "stuffed shirts."
Annie rode the bus back home to her husband in New York City. Her twenty-first birthday was a few months away, and after that it was only a few more months before her graduation from Hunter College with a degree in math. Already, she had made one of her strongest public impressions. In front of hundreds of spectators, she had risen to defend the league against charges of being a front for the Party. "The National Student League is not a Communist organization nor one affiliated with any political party," she said, although by joining the Young Communist League on May Day, she had in fact made it just that.
"Let's not spend our energies proving that we are not Reds," she said. "If fighting for lower tuition fees, for the rights of the Negro, for higher wages for student workers, for lower prices for the lunch room if that be a Red then let's be Reds."
One of the listeners in the audience, someone with a pen and pad, probably wearing nondescript clothing and trying not to attract attention, wrote down her speech, noting especially the remark, "If that be a Red then let's be Reds." From that day forth, for the rest of her life, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would carefully watch Annie and all her activities.
Copyright © 2004 by Thai Jones