A Life in Red

A Life in Red

by David Beasley



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780895876225
Publisher: John F Blair, Publisher
Publication date: 10/06/2015
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

David Beasley is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For 25 years, he was a reporter and editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Beasley is the author of Without Mercy: The Stunning True Story of Race, Crime, and Corruption in the Deep South, and co-author of Inside Coca-Cola: A CEO's Life Story of Building the World's Most Popular Brand. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia

Read an Excerpt

A Life in Red

A Story of Forbidden Love, the Great Depression, and the Communist Fight for a Black Nation in the Deep South

By David Beasley

John F. Blair, Publisher

Copyright © 2015 David Beasley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89587-622-5



The story of Jane, her fame and her infamy, always seemed to center around her father, in the great contrast between them — the radical Communist and the American Legion commander.

It was almost as if John Emery's life had been scripted for a patriotic path. He was born on the Fourth of July in 1881 in the furniture-making city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Patriotism was always the song he sang and the life he lived. It was more than just a belief for Emery. It was his persona, his occupation.

"I am for America, first, last and always," he would say.

His father, John Emery Sr., was an immigrant from Scotland and the owner of a stable and long-lasting wallpaper and painting business in Grand Rapids. It was a reputable entrepreneurial life, and his son followed that path but on a higher level, becoming a real-estate agent, developer, and insurance broker. John Emery Jr. was the kind of man who joined every civic group and every fraternal organization, and who ultimately was elected president of each group he joined. He was a natural leader.

Emery fathered two daughters, the younger named Esther. The family lived peacefully, respectfully, prosperously in Grand Rapids. Jane's chief memories of her childhood were idyllic: drifting asleep to the sound of her mother playing Schubert on the piano downstairs.

Her father "loved to play with my sister and me," Jane recalled. "He romped with us, invented games which we played together." Her mother, Ethel, was "playfellow, teacher, comforter." This upbringing made Jane's later conversion to Communism, her complete defiance of convention, all the more puzzling to so many. Why did she despise capitalism when it had given her such a comfortable, secure life?

Her father was of a generation that believed the United States was destined for greatness, destined to be a world leader, a country that could accomplish anything. And when the United States entered World War I in 1917, Emery was quick to sign up. This was the first time America would display its military prowess on the world stage, for all to see. Emery, quickly an officer, served in France with the Eighteenth Infantry's "Fighting First" Division. The American troops turned the tide of the war and forever established the United States as a world military power.

But it was a strange, horrible war, and not only because of the poisonous gas, trenches, and absolute slaughter of troops on both sides. The war unleashed demons that would come back to haunt the United States, including Communism in Russia, fanatical nationalism in Germany, and fear and appeasement in Great Britain. These demons would lead to a second world war just two decades later. The war also fostered disenchantment among African Americans, who fought bravely, only to return to the same degree of racial prejudice they had left behind.

The Great War led to the formation of the American Legion, a group dedicated to supporting war veterans. The weary soldiers did not even wait until they were back on American soil to form the group, so urgently did they feel the need for an organization that would fight for veterans, make sure they were given proper help and respect, and see that their sacrifices would not be forgotten. The American Legion's first organizational meeting was held March 15 through 17, 1919, in Paris, just a few months after the armistice of November 11, 1918. The organization's ranks would eventually exceed two million. Posts were established in virtually every city and town in the United States. But the American Legion would become, its critics later said, a jingoistic platform for blind patriotism. It would become an organization with a chip on its shoulder.

John Emery Jr. was among the casualties of the war, wounded in the left arm by a German shell in Argonne, France, on October 9, 1918, less than a month before the fighting ended. While he was lying on a stretcher waiting to be taken off the battlefield, the Germans fired a shell of mustard gas overhead, forcing Emery, then a major, to don his gas mask.

Jane, his elder daughter, was only nine at the time. Years later, she would remember her mother's expression when she learned that her husband had been wounded. It wiped out the memories of parades, banners, and bugle calls when the war began.

John Emery returned home to Grand Rapids to a hero's welcome. But Jane was horrified by the sight of her "pale, thin, bandaged" father. She was "shaken with joy" to see him again. But he was not the same person, not the same father. And neither was Jane the same daughter.

Jane was an extremely intelligent child who read voraciously. At the public library in Grand Rapids, she read "every book on the shelves. History and historical fiction fascinated me." But why was so much of history about war? she wondered. "Wars, wars, might making right," she remembered. And here was her father, a symbol of war. It horrified Jane that her father, even wounded, vowed that he would fight again if his country needed him. He stated this flatly during speeches across Michigan. "We men are in the service for the rest of our lives," Emery said.

The young Jane believed her father should have taken an opposite approach. "I felt that he who had seen what war was should be the first to use all the influence at his command to avert any repetition of such horror," she later wrote.

Yet John Emery's service in the war, his wounds, his hero status would be a boon to his career. He was elected to more boards, served with more organizations, including the Salvation Army. He won a seat on the Grand Rapids City Council. Naturally, he joined the American Legion. The Grand Rapids post was the second formed in the United States.

The American Legion fought for veterans. It fought for more hospitals for the wounded, for cash bonuses for those who served at low wages while others stayed home and worked in lucrative war-industry jobs. Robert Burns, a New York City accountant before the war, was one of those veterans who returned home to find no jobs. An ex-soldier "was looked upon as a sucker," Burns later wrote. "The wise guys stayed home, landed the good jobs or grew rich on war contracts." Burns became a drifter and eventually a convict on the Georgia chain gang.

Burns was a white man. For black soldiers, the feeling of rejection, of betrayal after loyal, life-threatening military service in a foreign land, was even greater.

A young man from Chicago named Harry Haywood belonged to an all-black National Guard unit federalized during the war. On July 25, 1917, his unit was ordered to Camp Logan near Houston for training.

The spirits of the black soldiers were dampened when they learned that a race riot was raging at Camp Logan involving black members of the Twenty-fourth Infantry Regiment. A black soldier had questioned a white police officer who was roughly arresting a black woman in Houston. White officers began beating the black soldier, a private.

"I beat that nigger until his heart got right," one of the white policemen later said. "He was a good nigger when I got through with him."

A black military police officer, unarmed in deference to the white citizens of Houston, who feared black soldiers with guns, approached the white police officers, trying to intervene. The black officer was beaten and arrested as well.

The black soldiers at Camp Logan were outraged. Their white superiors, fearing revenge by the black troops, ordered the soldiers to surrender their arms, which they did. Black soldiers then killed a sergeant and retrieved their weapons before marching into town, searching for anyone who even looked like a policeman. They killed seventeen whites, thirteen of them policemen. Martial law was declared.

Subdued by a division of white soldiers with the help of armed white civilians, the black soldiers were taken to Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Thirteen were executed and forty-one sentenced to life in prison.

This was Harry Haywood's introduction to the United States Army as his regiment, the Eighth Illinois Infantry, headed to the same facility, Camp Logan, for training. The white community in Houston made it clear the black soldiers were not wanted. The chamber of commerce and scores of white citizens contacted the Texas congressional delegation and urged it to divert the black soldiers from Houston. Major General George Bell Jr. said it was Washington's decision but added, "I will say, however, that I do not believe any more Negro troops should be sent here."

When the troop train crossed the Mason-Dixon line headed south to Houston, Haywood and his fellow black soldiers were still "brooding" over the Camp Logan riot. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, a crowd of white and black citizens greeted the troop train. "We were at our provocative best," Haywood remembered. "We threw kisses at white girls on the station platform."

As the soldiers — required to leave their army-issued Springfield rifles on the train — walked to crowded stores near the station, some started looting. "In the stores, some bought, some stole," Haywood wrote. "This spontaneously evolved pattern was employed in raids on all stores in Jonesboro and at other stops along the road to Houston."

They arrived in Houston five days after the riot and were told their pay would be docked for the looted goods on the trip south.

Strangely, the racial atmosphere in Houston had cooled after the violence. Haywood attributed this to the black soldiers. "The whites, especially the police, had learned they couldn't treat all Black people as they had been used to treating local Blacks," he wrote.

On the battlefront, Haywood and his fellow soldiers were attached to a French army unit that treated them as equals. The United States Army constantly warned the French to avoid fraternizing with the black soldiers, to keep them in their place. "Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being," American general John J. Pershing wrote the French. "We must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers. We must not eat with them, must not shake their hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside the requirements of military service."

Despite these warnings from the Americans, Haywood liked the French and experienced little racism within their ranks. He served in the trenches, coping with constant struggle with lice and rats, but saw only light combat. He soon found himself discharged from the army and back at home, working as a waiter on the Michigan Central Railroad.

In ex-soldiers such as Robert Burns, Harry Haywood, and many others, the resentment would fester for years. As the Great Depression worsened in 1932, seventeen thousand veterans, called "the Bonus Army," camped in Washington to demand payment on the IOUs Congress had issued for their bonuses, which could not be redeemed until 1945. After a few violent clashes between the former servicemen and police, President Herbert Hoover ordered the army, led by General Douglas MacArthur and six tanks, to drive the protesters and their families out of their camp. It was not until 1935 that the bonuses were paid.

The American Legion, its meeting halls cropping up across the country in small towns and larger cities, was a constant, powerful advocate for the ex-soldiers. Yet early on, the organization found itself involved in controversies that did not involve veterans. At times, the American Legion took on the air of a vigilante group.

In late 1919, a performance in John Emery's hometown of Grand Rapids by Fritz Kreisler, the Austrian violinist, was canceled after the American Legion objected to the appearance of an "enemy alien," even though the war had been over for more than a year.

In January 1921, lawyers for the American Legion informed two Japanese families who purchased farms in Texas that they would have to leave. A Texas law, the attorneys said, prohibited "alien nonresidents" from owning farmland.

Six months later, John Emery became national commander of the American Legion, succeeding F. W. Galbraith, who had been killed in an automobile accident. Emery was the third commander in the group's history. Now a national figure, he would lobby Congress to give veterans their cash bonuses, a debt the country owed the former soldiers for their sacrifice. He would dedicate war memorials across the United States. In a speech in Grand Rapids in June 1921, Emery vowed to fight the flow of immigrants to the United States "for the sake of our country's welfare."

On Armistice Day, November 11, 1921, three years after the war had ended, Emery reminded the country to honor the veterans, particularly those who had died or were crippled in battle. "These are our heroes," Emery said, "our living monuments to America's ideals, to American principles, to American citizenship."

Emery wrote President Warren Harding a scathing letter in July 1921 warning against the pardoning of Eugene Debs, the Socialist labor leader who in 1918 had been convicted of espionage and sentenced to ten years in prison for making an antiwar speech, part of a sweeping crackdown on free speech during the war. While a prisoner at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Debs had run for president in 1920 on the Socialist ticket and received nearly a million votes. Releasing Debs would "do more to license a wholesale disregard of law and order than any one act the President might take," Emery wrote.

Late in 1922, despite the warning from the powerful American Legion, Harding, a Republican, commuted the sentences of Debs and twenty-three others prisoners who, according to a White House statement, had been jailed because they "opposed the war in one way or the other." Even the mainstream press called them political prisoners.

The job of American Legion commander was a high-profile position for Emery. He led some two hundred war veterans to France and Belgium in the summer of 1921, receiving a hero's welcome. In Brussels, King Albert bestowed upon Emery the Gold Medal of the Order of Leopold.

But grumblings came from rank-and-file American Legion members that Emery and other top officers hogged the attention and perks on the trip. Emery, it was alleged, divided the touring group into a headquarters company for the high-ranking officers and four other companies for enlisted men, even though the war was long over and the men were no longer in the military. Emery even established a courtmartial-like system to punish soldiers who were out of line on the trip. The headquarters company enjoyed the best of everything — accommodations, cars, medals — the enlisted men claimed. The men who had died in the war deserved the honors, not officers like Emery. Showing their symbolic displeasure on the voyage home, the enlisted men held "indignation meetings" and elected their own chairman of the expedition, snubbing Emery.

In the fall, French general Ferdinand Foch, Allied supreme commander during the war, attended the American Legion's annual convention in Indianapolis and was greeted at the train station by an estimated fifty thousand Legionnaires. As a follow-up to Emery's strongly worded letter to President Harding, the American Legion adopted a resolution opposing the release of Debs and other radicals. "If there is anyone here who dares to vote no, let him stand," Emery told the convention. No one stood. The Legionnaires called on state legislatures to require schoolteachers to take loyalty oaths. The Americanism Committee called for English to be the only language used in schools and for stronger regulation of "radical activities." It called for a law making it illegal to send anything in the mail that had an "un-American tendency."

Barred from seeking a second term as commander, and unpopular anyway among the rank-and-file over the trip to France, Emery returned to Grand Rapids and soon entered politics. He ran for the United States Senate from Michigan, calling himself a "progressive Republican" and challenging incumbent Charles E. Townsend, whom Emery branded as a machine politician. Emery said his opponents offered him the job of Grand Rapids postmaster if he would drop out of the race, but he refused. Always, Emery appealed to veterans and promoted his own patriotism.

Emery lost the contest, coming in dead last. He returned to real estate in Grand Rapids.

Meanwhile, Jane was rapidly drifting away from her father's world view. In 1922, the year John Emery ran for the Senate, fourteen-year-old Jane won an essay contest. The topic was "What the U.S. Constitution Means to Me." Jane concluded the essay with this sentence: "Rulership is in the hands of the people."

She stuck with that populist view, and as she grew older, it only deepened. She was not only horrified by war but began to notice economic disparities in the capitalist system her father epitomized, particularly as his development business flourished in the 1920s real-estate boom.

"Even in those early years," Jane would later write, "I observed what were to me at the time unaccountable inequalities among the children in my classes. Some were punch-faced, pale and shabbily dressed. Some had clothes better than mine. The shabby ones sometimes had difficulty getting the books they needed. They were sick and out of school often. All this I saw and in my child's mind wondered about the reasons for it."


Excerpted from A Life in Red by David Beasley. Copyright © 2015 David Beasley. Excerpted by permission of John F. Blair, Publisher.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 The Father,
Chapter 2 Music from the Air,
Chapter 3 The Atlanta Six,
Chapter 4 The Greatest Happiness,
Chapter 5 P.O. Box 339,
Chapter 6 Sanity Trial,
Chapter 7 Back to Russia,
Chapter 8 A Native Son,
Chapter 9 Decimation,
Chapter 10 The Uprising,
Selected Works,

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