At 1 a.m. July 30, 1953, a World War II veteran was awakened by the FBI pounding on the door of his Strawberry Mansion rowhouse. That night he was one of nine Philadelphians arrested and charged under the Smith Act with plotting the violent overthrow of the government.
The Red Scare had arrived in Philadelphia. The U.S. Army Air Force vet, Sherman Labovitz, 29, and the others were Communists, and their sensational 71-day trial electrified the city.
Labovitz died last week at 93. He became a Communist, he wrote in his 1997 memoir, Being Red in Philadelphia, because of the Communist Party’s stated opposition to fascism, capitalism, and racism. It promised economic justice for workers.
“He found the argument of Marx pretty compelling when he was a young man,” says his son Marc, 70, who lives in Philadelphia and runs bridge tournaments around the country. Labovitz believed in the Communist promise of better wages and working conditions, decent housing, health insurance, and the end of Jim Crow and anti-Semitism. Many leftists believed that promise, shared that dream.
Labovitz disparaged Winston Churchill’s March 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech for sparking anti-Communist hysteria. There is some truth in that, and it led to witch hunts by Sen. Joe McCarthy that harmed many innocent Americans. The Scare was excessive, but there were Soviet spies in America from the 1920s through the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Labovitz wrote that in 1956 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union revealed the crimes of the Stalin era, including a tidal wave of incarceration, mass executions, and pervasive anti-Semitism. He and his wife, Pauline, quit the party the next year, but continued their devotion to left-wing causes throughout their lives. She died last year.
I can relate to Labovitz’s story. Eighteen years before his arrest, my own father was charged with calling for the violent overthrow of the government. That was a lie, as my father was a Socialist and pacifist, but the U.S. had the late-Depression and prewar jitters.
With Labovitz, it was the postwar Red Scare.
“Dad said he looked toward the Soviet Union as a model, and then a number of reports came out of the Soviet Union,” said his younger son, Gary, 65, a musician who makes his home in Toronto.
“He was a humanitarian,” said Marc. Both sons are left of center but not as “politically energized” as their parents, said Marc. The same is true of me.
In the trial of the Philadelphia Nine, the attorneys used the same tactic as the one used by my father’s young lawyer, Arthur Goldberg, who later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice. The defense was based on the First Amendment — the right to free speech.
Local lawyers, at first reluctant to take on toxic clients, were recruited by Bernard G. Segal, the chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, who demanded that the accused get the representation to which they were entitled, no matter how odious their political ideas.
Goldberg got my father off, but the Bar Association All-Stars lost their case. Labovitz was sentenced to two years but never served a day of it. While the case was on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that membership in the Communist Party was not a violation of the Smith Act. The Philadelphia Nine were set free, perhaps to ponder that such a judicial outcome would not have happened in the Soviet Union.
With his life handed back to him, Labovitz returned to school and earned a doctorate. He taught at Temple University for three years before being hired in 1972 as a professor of social work at what is now Stockton University in New Jersey. He was a founding member of the Afro-American studies program there and, naturally, was a leader of the teachers’ union. He remained at Stockton until his retirement in 1994, when the former Communist became the school’s first professor emeritus.
He felt he was lucky, he said in a 1997 Inquirer interview. He avoided prison, he said, but many others did not, and “not one of them was any more guilty than I was.”