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From the Depression and Spanish Civil War to the HUAC hearings and the McCarthy era’s end, the author weaves his father’s story of inquisitors and defenders as the family struggles with racism, fascism, communism, and tenuous first amendment freedoms
Most Americans know the song “MTA,” popularized by the Kingston Trio in 1959. It’s the one about a “man named Charlie” doomed to “ride forever ’neath the streets of Boston . . . the man who never returned.” What’s forgotten, however, is that the song was originally made for a left-wing political campaign. In 1949, the Boston People’s Artists wrote “MTA” for a left-wing candidate. The song became a hit — the man behind it disappeared.
When Irish left-wing labor leader James Larkin arrived in the United States he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) and the Socialist Party. A supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, Larkin was arrested during the 1919 Red Scare and sentenced to hard labor at Sing Sing. There he was visited by Charlie Chaplin who described the prison as "grimly medieval," and wondered "what fiendish brain could conceive of building such horrors."
Passed into law in 1940, the Smith Act made it illegal to "teach, advocate or encourage the overthrow" of the government and extended to any member of an organization that allegedly did so. The notion that in 1956 the Communist Party was interested in, let alone capable of, overthrowing anything was patently absurd. From a 1940's peak of around 80,000, the CP's national membership had dwindled to perhaps 10,000 by the time of the hearings in Connecticut.
"Letters from Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond" is both a compilation of an intriguing exchange of letters among five heroic African Americans and a loving tribute to the letter writers from the daughters of four of the writers: Evelyn Louise Crawford and MaryLouise Patterson.
After World War II, the Red Scare built the careers of redbaiters like Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon while undermining the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and stifling prospects for progressive politics in America, a tale touched on by the movie, “Trumbo.”