by Noyma Appelbaum
People’S World | November 01, 2019
This is the fourth of a number of excerpted stories from a memoir “Where Were You on May Day? Transitions in Red, 1930s-1960s.” Earlier installments can be read here.
The Communist movement was prolific in its production of books, pamphlets, slogans, popular art, photographs, and music in support of its ideas. Here are fragments of two of the Communist-inspired songs written in the late 1920s and early 1930s I learned and which we sang at meetings and around campfires:
Banker and boss hate the red Soviet star
Gladly they’d build a new throne for the tsar
But from the steppes to the dark British sea
Lenin’s Red Army brings victory.
So, workers, close your ranks
Keep firm and steady
For the workers’ cause
Your bayonets bright
For workers’ Russia, for Soviet America
Get ready for the last fierce fight.
Fly higher, and higher, and h-i-g-h-e-r
Our emblem is the Soviet star
With every propeller roaring,“Red Front!”
Defending the USSR.
These two songs capture some of the ways in which the American Communist movement regarded the Soviet Union. The task of the international working class, led by Communists, was to defend the Soviet Union against capitalist threats and encirclement. At the same time, Communists were enthusiastic about the growing technological and military prowess of the Soviet Union. Its newfound modern-scientific-socialist mode of being increasingly enabled the Soviet Union to defend itself and even to prevail over capitalist efforts to destroy it.
The songs reveal a quasi-military view of the Communist-led workers’ struggle. Citizen soldiers, workers, are engaged in the fight of their lives; they must stand shoulder to shoulder; they must firmly grip their weapons; they must deal the enemy a mighty blow. The Communists did not advocate violent revolution, and the lyrics cast the armed workers’ militant stance as a defensive posture. Communist-inspired songwriters nevertheless portrayed the workers’ struggle in vivid physical terms reminiscent of the soldier-worker struggles in the streets of Petrograd in 1917-18. Songs like these and the images they projected, springing from an earlier sectarian Communist policy, were discarded in the late 1930s as the Communists embraced popular front coalition politics as part of a broader, American-oriented strategy.
In all my years around and in the Communist movement, I never heard any reference to violence as a means of achieving socialism. It was understood that the violence the Russian Communists had to endure was initiated by the enemies of socialism, and the civil war that followed the Revolution was essentially a battle by the Bolshevik-led working class to defend it. The Revolution itself was the only way to stop Russia’s participation in World War I and to bring down a tyranny as powerful as the Czarist government. The Bolshevik seizure of power was justified as an effort to defend the Revolution against the vacillations of the provisional government. Communists in the United States stressed mass action: Industrial strikes, rent strikes, mass meetings, boycotts, picketing, electoral campaigns, petitions, sit downs, slowdowns, and the many other imaginative forms of protest and struggle that a working class in action could devise.
The Communist Party in West Philadelphia
The Communist Party had modest strength in the area in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The characteristics of the population were similar to those of the Lower East Side and The Bronx in New York, where the left, especially the Communists, had great strength. One major difference was the density of the populations. The population of the Lower East Side was and still is many times greater in an area smaller than our neighborhood. The New York Jewish communities had been the scene of many struggles over a long period. Our neighborhood was just coming into being as a neighborhood in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The population of the Communist left was sufficiently large for a time in 1937-8 to support a neighborhood headquarters situated in a storefront on Girard Ave. near 41st St., one block from our apartment. A sign in the window proclaimed in large letters: COMMUNISM IS 20th CENTURY AMERICANISM! At my father’s suggestion, I tried to sell the Daily Worker at that corner on a chilly fall evening. I hawked the paper to people who were getting off the No. 15 and No. 40 trolley cars at that corner. The paper sold for three cents. I held firm from about 5:30 to about 7 p.m., but I did not sell any papers. I did not feel bad. There would be other days.
Another testament to the strength of the Communist left is the fact that for many years both the Daily Worker and the Yiddish-language Morgn Frayhayt were prominently displayed and sold at a newsstand at the busy corner of 40th St. and Girard Ave.
In the summer of 1939, the 24th Ward CP section sponsored a block party that took up a long half block on Leidy Ave. near 42nd St. Staging a block party required cordoning off a large section of Leidy Ave. and adjacent sidewalks from early evening into the night for several successive days. Both the City and affected residents had to sign off on the party. The fact that the Party was able to hold a block party on a major neighborhood street under its name is a sign of its modest strength and acceptance in the community at that time. This event was held not long before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939. Since the Pact shocked so many leftists and Jews who saw it as an unacceptable accommodation to Hitler, the block party might not have come off only a few weeks later.
My father was responsible for much of the decoration and equipment at the party. He led a work group that strung blue and yellow pennants and light bulbs on trees and wooden poles around the perimeter of the block party. He made the large oilcloth sign that stretched across Leidy Ave. advertising the party, and several artists did the lettering. The block party drew hundreds of people, many of whom participated in games of chance, ate hot dogs, drank soft drinks, and picked up Communist reading material at the inevitable literature table. The event included a variety of booths and an excellent caricaturist who did a clever rendering of me that displayed the prominent gaps in my front teeth.
Knowing that the CP had a modest following in the neighborhood helps one understand the overall social/political composition of the community. The Communists were the largest group on the far left. There were other leftist and left-leaning groups, Socialist, Trotskyist, and Labor Zionist. Such groups comprised a significant minority of the community.
During the early days of World War II, we watched with alarm as Hitler conquered most of Europe, and the German air force blitzed the British Isles. The Communist Party campaigned against American involvement in what they considered an imperialist war. The Party posed the slogan “The Yanks Are Not Coming” and opposed the draft, which was instituted in 1940.
The Almanac Singers, a new entity on the cultural left, changed the lyrics of the song T is for Texas as follows:
C is for Conscription,
And C is for Capitol Hill
And C is for the Congress
That passed that goddamn bill.
The Party changed its position to support of the war immediately after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
2019 marks a century since the founding of the Communist Party USA. To commemorate the anniversary of the longest-surviving socialist organization in the United States, People’s Worl launched the article series: 100 Years of the Communist Party USA. Read the other articles published in the series.
Despite its modest strength in the neighborhood, angry Jewish counter-demonstrators broke up several of the Party’s efforts to hold outdoor meetings in early June 1941. Over the previous year, the local press, at the instigation of the Dies Committee, printed the names of people who had signed petitions to allow Communists appear on the ballot in local elections. The printing of names intimidated some people into saying that they had been misled as to what they were signing.
One of the incidents involved people who lived on the first floor of our apartment house. My father was one of those who supposedly had misled them about the petitions. His name appeared in the local press, which hammered on the event for many weeks. I knew that he had not misled anyone, because I often accompanied him and observed the careful way he solicited signatures. He took great pains to explain that the signatures were intended only to allow Communists to appear on the ballot as provided by the laws of Pennsylvania. They were not intended as an endorsement of Communists or Communism.
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union brought about a change in public attitudes. Within one year, sometime in the early summer of 1942, a neighborhood branch of Russian War Relief sponsored a large outdoor rally in support of the Soviet Union at the same intersection, 42nd St. and Leidy Ave., at which the CP rallies had been broken up in 1941.
The organization of Russian War Relief involved a broader group of people than Communists, and represented a general community consensus about the importance of defeating Hitler. Setting aside the local Jewish suspicion of Communists at least for that day, neighborhood residents thronged the rally. I worked hard with the rally chairperson, Harry Coverman, to promote the meeting. Coverman, a left-leaning but not Communist local activist, was a peer of my parents. Coverman was a lumberyard operator and after World War II created a large building materials business.
Many people who ordinarily would not be interested in supporting the Soviet Union rallied around Russian War Relief. The name of the organization itself was significant. Support of the Russians did not imply support of Communism. Russian War Relief sponsored a rally attended by 20,000 people in cavernous Convention Hall in the winter of 1944 that registered appreciation for the struggle against the Germans. The program featured a diverse group of community leaders. Representatives of various groupings within the Jewish community spoke. A high official of the Russian Orthodox Church offered traditional deep-throated liturgical chants. Paul Robeson sang selections that he had recorded in his album, Songs of Free Men. That same winter, I joined a large group of young people at a dance sponsored by Russian War Relief at a synagogue at 33rd and Diamond.
My first journalistic forays
During 9th grade, I tried to begin acting like a journalist. Paul Robeson was to sing at the Academy of Music for the benefit of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. I called the Committee’s office and asked them to arrange for me to interview Robeson for my school magazine. They were very cooperative, arranged the interview, and provided a free ticket to his concert. I do not remember what transpired at the interview other than that Robeson was most kind and gracious. He took the time to answer my questions. His qualities as a human being are evident in his generous attitude toward an unknown and unimportant 13-year-old admirer. Success in arranging for and conducting the interview, which appeared in the school magazine, helped me feel like a real journalist.
Writing for the high school newspaper, the Overbrook Beacon, was the school activity I enjoyed most. A war-induced paper shortage forced us to reduce its page size and number of pages. It printed stories I submitted on a variety of topics. I saw myself as a generalist interested in all sorts of subjects. They included such issues as the history of Lancaster Pike, the major highway on which the school was located; the meaning of the Pesach (Passover) holiday in Jewish life; the presidential election of 1944; the story of Overbrook students, of whom I was one, who had worked on Vermont farms during the summer of 1943; and a second interview with Paul Robeson.
In 1944, Paul Robeson performed in Shakespeare’s Othello at the Locust Theater in Philadelphia, one stop on an extensive road tour. I interviewed Robeson in his dressing room as he prepared for that evening’s performance. We spoke as he put on his costume and make-up. I do not remember much about that interview either except that he mentioned issues connected with growth during adolescence and that our society should expand cultural activities, even during the war, as was being done in the Soviet Union. I nodded vaguely when he mentioned “adolescence,” not being certain what that word meant. Robeson did not indicate that he remembered me from my interview with him three years earlier, but once again, he was very kind to give me his time.
For us in the Class of June 1945, there was a second, uniquely profound factor. It was an unarticulated awareness that World War II was ending. Our senior class collectively heaved a sigh of relief, a massive psychic release of tension. The war that had accompanied our lives for six years was winding down—it actually ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, only a few weeks before our commencement—and we were safe, intact, and together. We figuratively embraced each other in the shared knowledge that we would not personally face the physical danger, emotional stress, and dislocation of war. The Japanese had not yet been defeated, but victory on that front seemed to be only a matter of time. We would live to tell the next generation what we experienced in World War II.
During my final term, the school district presented us with a series of achievement and vocational aptitude tests. The tests showed that because of my interests and apparent facility with language, I would be most comfortable in newspaper work. The test battery included the College Board examination, the precursor to the SATs. My scores placed me in consideration for a scholarship from Temple University. A committee of three Temple professors interviewed me as part of the award process. Several weeks later, I received a letter stating that I had won a “cooperative” half-scholarship to Temple, whose terms required that I work a number of hours for the University each week during one semester of each college year. The half-scholarship meant that if I worked part-time during the school year and full-time in the summers, I could earn enough to pay tuition ($220) for the semester that was not covered, books, and my daily expenses. My family would provide room and board, but it was not necessary for them to pay one cent out of pocket for the cost of my college education.
My apprenticeship at the Philadelphia Inquirer
The Philadelphia Inquirer hired me as an editorial clerk (copy boy) within weeks of my graduation from high school at the age of 17. My duties included typical office flunky responsibilities: maintaining files, distributing copies of the Inquirer and of its competitors, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and the Philadelphia Record, to various editors, and supplying the city editor with large quantities of sharpened fat yellow pencils he used to edit copy and stir his coffee.
I also had other duties required in newspaper offices. I answered the City Desk phones, took messages for the editors, and connected rewrite men to calls from District reporters. I brought teletype dispatches to the various editors from the wire room. Bells announcing urgent news bulletins rang frequently on the teletype machines that summer. I was in the newsroom when I learned of the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the triumphant news that Japan had surrendered. The Inquirer had prepared its front page well in advance of V-J Day. PEACE printed in giant letters covered the entire eight columns of the front page above the fold on the day of the surrender.
I enjoyed my job, even the part that required me to bring coffee to the editors and sharpen pencils. At an important time in history, I was in a place where news reports from all over the world came in and often I was the first to read them. My job allowed me to read newspapers published in major U.S. cities and all of those published in Philadelphia. They were paying me to do what I had enjoyed most from my earliest years—read.
The job paid $18 per week for 40 hours, as provided in the paper’s contract with the American Newspaper Guild. In the fall, when I entered Temple University’s Journalism Department, I continued to work on a part-time basis, earning $9 for a 20-hour week. For the next two-and-a-half years, I worked at the Inquirer part-time during the school year and full-time in the summers and during holiday periods. As planned, my yearly earnings covered all my tuition and personal needs, including cheap Saturday night dates, while my parents covered my room and board costs.
The Inquirer job was precisely the right one for me at that time. I picked up practical skills and bits of knowledge that would prove useful in newspaper work. These included reading and correcting proofs, editing newspaper copy, writing headlines, laying out a newspaper page on a dummy sheet, and cropping photographs. As a copy boy, I did not perform these newspaper functions, but I was a close observer of how experienced newspapermen did them.
Temple’s journalism classes gave me theoretical knowledge and practical experience, which supplemented my on-the-job observations. They taught me the basics in writing newspaper stories (who, why, what, when, where, how), and in writing features and magazine articles. Fred Hyde, the Inquirer’s book editor, gave me the opportunity to review several books for publication in the Sunday edition. I was pleased to see my reviews in print followed by the initials “N.A.” At about that time, the Inquirer launched a Sunday book review supplement, and hired David Appel, formerly the prominent editor of the Chicago Daily News book section, as the editor. Appel, interested mainly in publishing reviews by prominent writers in an effort to build a prestigious book section, terminated my nascent book review career.
Moe Annenberg, who also owned the Morning Telegraph, a racing newspaper, had purchased the Inquirer in 1936. Years earlier, he had been William Randolph Hearst’s circulation director in Chicago, where he led violent newspaper street wars against Hearst’s competitors. Moe accumulated a fortune from a lucrative racing wire service, and had connections among major crime figures. He died shortly after his release from jail where he had served two-and-a-half years for income tax evasion. The government also charged Moe’s son, Walter, in the case, but dropped those charges in a plea arrangement. Walter became the paper’s publisher and ultimately the billionaire head of a media empire that included TV Guide, Seventeen, and several TV stations. Walter Annenberg was a major Republican Party financial contributor and became the American ambassador in London as a reward for supporting Richard Nixon.
The Annenbergs inherited the Inquirer’s staff, to which they added some of their cronies from the newspaper wars. They staffed the newsroom in part with tough, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, white newspaper types. There were no black employees in the Inquirer building, including the composing room, the press room, and the business and advertising offices, other than the elevator operators. The newsroom furniture amounted to a collection of battered old desks, some laid end-to-end, at which rewrite men took telephone reports and pecked out stories on equally battered old typewriters. Various editors, including the day city editor, telegraph editor, and makeup editor, manned a central row of desks. At the farthest end of the room, at the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, copyreaders edited news reports and wrote headlines. The appearance and quality of life in the newsroom evoked the rough-and-tumble newspaper world prevalent in the early part of the 20th century. The computers, modern desks, and modern lighting characteristic of today’s newsrooms were installed decades later.
One elderly man nicknamed Studs sat with his feet up at a desk in the newsroom each weekday chomping on a stogie. He literally did nothing other than sign off on the eight-column front-page banner headline of the first (Bulldog) edition. I suppose the do-nothing job in his declining years was a reward for past loyal service to the Annenbergs. Several reporters were cultivated soldier-of-fortune types who wore trench coats and had colorful backgrounds. Some reporters had close relations with police and political figures, and had knowledgeable contacts in City Hall. Several of the rewrite people were women, one of whom was an attractive but not very talented girlfriend of a married editor. Not one woman occupied an editor’s or copyreader’s chair.
Many of the staff, especially the editors, were conservative politically, and identified themselves with Republican Party factions. Several columnists served openly as mouthpieces for the local and state GOP. A few were rabidly anti-labor, anti-liberal, and anti-Communist. A scattered few of the staff were liberal in their politics, and several, I learned later, were Communists or unaffiliated radicals. Eventually, I learned that with the exception of Annenberg’s cronies and a few editors, editorial writers, and columnists, most of the large staff was militantly pro-union and strongly supported the American Newspaper Guild.
Several of the editors and all of the copyreaders were well educated. All of them were skilled newspapermen and worked well under pressure. The Inquirer was a morning newspaper and its first (Bulldog) edition deadline was 6 p.m. In the afternoon hours leading up to the deadline, the quiet hum of activity in the newsroom gradually mounted to a low-grade roar. The clack of the linotype machines in the nearby composing room sounded a counterpoint to the rattle of the teletype machines in the wire room, the jangle of telephones in the newsroom, and the click-click of typewriters on which rewrite men hacked out last-minute stories. The copyreaders, facile in working with words, quickly edited copy and wrote headlines literally in the shadow of the clock.
We copy boys and girls silently moved copy from desk to desk and to the composing room. We retrieved proofs and brought the corrected ones back to the composing room. Precisely at 6 p.m., the click-clacking and jangling sounds reached a climax, and abruptly stopped. The Bulldog Edition, its leaden lines of type locked in metal forms, had gone to bed. It would hit the streets at 6:30 p.m. I brought the first ten copies of the Bulldog edition off the rotary presses located several levels below the newsroom up to the editorial department and distributed them to the various editors.
A newspaper strike breaks out
In 1946, a major newspaper strike occurred in Philadelphia. The Record was a morning newspaper published in a building a half block from its competitor, the Inquirer, which was located in an architecturally unique building at Broad and Callowhill Sts. J. David Stern, who at that time also published the Camden Courier-Post and the New York Post, owned the Record, and presumably was responsible for its liberal and pro-Democratic Party policies. Stern and the American Newspaper Guild were deadlocked in contract negotiations. They had reached an impasse on several key economic issues. The most important one was the Guild’s demand for $100 a week salary for reporters and copyreaders, an advanced demand in those days. Prolonged negotiations broke down and the Guild struck the Record.
By this time, I had become the shop steward for the copy boys and girls and worked actively in support of the strike. The union opened a strike headquarters at 15th and Race Sts. that served as a gathering place for strikers and was the site of union meetings. I spent hours at the headquarters doing small chores in behalf of the strike. The Record staff was creative and energetic. They published a free strike newspaper, The Real Record, which printed both general news and the union’s position on strike issues in the Record’s typographic style. I spent hours on several Friday evenings at 15th and Market Sts., a major center city intersection, distributing the union’s newspaper to rush-hour crowds.
The Record’s editors and management staff continued to publish the paper during the strike. Truck drivers, whose Teamsters union did not honor the strike, distributed the papers to newsstands. Strikers and Guild members from the Inquirer and the Record picketed the Record’s truck garage located on a small street adjoining the newspaper’s building. Sizable numbers of pickets gathered each afternoon between 5:30 and 6 p.m. to block the trucks whose drivers were to distribute the first edition.
Many of the pickets were Inquirer staff people, who exhibited a remarkable level of activism and militancy. In one mass demonstration in which I participated, pickets surrounded the first newspaper delivery truck to emerge from the garage and tried to turn it over and block the entrance. We rocked it back and forth almost to the tipping point, but foot police assisted by officers on horseback, pushed us away from the vehicle.
I was 19 years old at the time. Inspired by the example set by the older men on the picket line and propelled by a sudden rush of adrenaline, I momentarily lost my mind. Impulsively, I evaded the police, jumped into the cab of the truck, and reached for the driver in order to pull him out. A helmeted police officer grabbed me and threw me into the crowd. We surged around the truck again. The police forced us back and allowed the trucks to proceed to the Record’s loading platform. Similar demonstrations occurred almost every day for a protracted period. The union people threw marbles under the hooves of the police horses in an effort to destabilize them. They tried to flatten the delivery trucks’ tires by throwing nails onto the street. In the end, despite their militant efforts, the union failed to block the trucks. Most Philadelphians knew nothing about these militant picket line struggles. They occurred out of the public eye in the silence of very narrow, deserted, old center city side streets. The Record certainly would not print anything about them, and the Inquirer and Evening Bulletin, the city’s other major newspapers, deliberately suppressed reports about them.
My experiences in these demonstrations taught me several things. Even though they were white-collar people, some of whom considered themselves intellectuals, many workers on both newspapers had a surprisingly combative, oppositional attitude toward management that was not obvious in their daily behavior. Clearly, they distrusted, even detested, management enough to take risky physical measures. The newspaper world apparently was a tougher one than I had realized. Its workers found it imperative to protect themselves by taking militant action.
I also learned that I should not let my youthful enthusiasm and impulsivity overcome good sense. The police officer who threw me back into the crowd had every legal right to club me if he had so chosen. I had acted provocatively when I went after the truck driver, and I had no practical or legal defense against violent police retribution. In a larger sense, though, I had the right all workers have because of where they fit in society, the right to defend and enhance their position in a world that pits them against the people who own but do not create society’s wealth.
The Record strike lasted many months and attracted national attention. The Communist Daily Worker sent reporter Bernard Burton to Philadelphia to cover the story. Despite an energetic and creative strike strategy, the union did not prevail. Stern eventually stopped publication of the paper and sold it to the Evening Bulletin. The Inquirer gained the most from the Record’s demise, since the two were competitors in the morning newspaper field.
Analyzing the Annenbergs
The Inquirer had always been a conservative newspaper and became rabidly reactionary under the Annenbergs. A.J. Liebling, in a series of articles about American newspapers, said the Inquirer did a good job in reporting fires, shipwrecks, natural disasters, and murders. While Liebling’s comment was accurate as far as it went, I would add that it did a poor job in reporting on the needs and problems of ordinary people, especially those of African Americans. I recall sitting next to an assistant city editor as he talked on the phone about a murder victim. The first question he asked was, “Is he black?” If the victim were black, the report would stop there. The lives of black people were not worthy of the paper’s attention. That kind of mentality about most social issues dominated the outlook of the paper’s editorial management.
Walter Annenberg used the paper to enhance his own pet enthusiasms. He courted the conservative element in the Catholic community, and promoted a narrow kind of Irish nationalism. One St. Patrick’s Day edition carried the slogan in large green letters at the top of the front page above the masthead, “Erin Go Bragh!” (Ireland Forever!). He pointedly avoided identification with the Jewish community even though he was a Jew. At no time did he promote or publicize a major function or aspect of Jewish community life.
I worked at the Inquirer during the virulent anti-Communist movement that developed in the middle 1940s. I recall carrying the wire copy that reported on Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s persecution of Communists and other leftists and radicals. Annenberg was proactive and a leader in promoting anti-Communist hysteria. One of his favored writers, Oliver Crawford, prepared a special series of articles “exposing” Communists and their activities nationally and locally. I read Crawford’s articles after they were set in type and sat on the “stone” in the composing room awaiting publication. They were not legitimate news reports. They were propaganda statements masquerading as news.
For years after I left the Inquirer, the paper frequently published leaks from so-called news sources like HUAC and J. Edgar Hoover about Communist “plots,” intended to contribute to the belief that Communists were engaged in sinister, undercover, “anti-American” activities. The Inquirer, at Annenberg’s direction, was more than willing to act as an aggressive mouthpiece for extreme right-wing politicians and government personalities. Despite its reactionary politics, the Inquirer thrived in the absence of competition in the morning newspaper field and achieved a daily circulation of 700,000 and Sunday circulation of more than 1,000,000.
After Annenberg sold the Inquirer to the Knight Newspapers in the 1970s, the paper’s editorial direction changed. No longer was it a personal instrument for the promotion of its publisher’s whims. New editors, some with a national reputation, changed the paper’s editorial direction, and it became a more balanced paper. Today, after two additional ownership changes, its staff includes many African Americans, among them the editor of its op-ed pages. The Inquirer also suffers from the competition of the internet, as do most newspapers. Its circulation is depressed and its journalistic quality ranges from mediocre to good. It does present well-researched articles on corruption and major failings in public life, but it rarely touches on the major failings of American capitalism.
Annenberg eventually became a major art collector and philanthropist. He gave billions toward the establishment of media centers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California, and to charitable institutions. His philanthropic activities obscured the public’s perception of his origins. His family built a financial empire on a foundation created by gangsters, violence, shady horseracing activities, criminal connections, and a retrograde political outlook that promoted witch-hunts.
My apprenticeship in the newspaper business would lead to a future with the Communist press, a forthcoming episode in People’s World in the very near future.