My article, “Misplaced Memorials, Preservation and Civil Rights” was just recently published in Issue 7 of the new Bay Area arts journal, Art Practical. This contribution is my first in a three-part series of essays loosely titled, Memory in Place in which I examine how site contains and conveys collective histories and memories of events, including public artworks and political action. “Misplaced Memorials, Preservation and Civil Rights” was conceived of during my time in Greensboro, North Carolina. In this essay I look to the transformation of the F.W. Woolworth’s Department store, the site of the first sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement into the International Civil Rights Museum and Center as a means of exploring the function of monuments and most importantly, how we can memorialize something as important as the fight for racial justice without regulating it to a thing of the past. You can read it in full here.
My paternal grandfather, Joseph Roberts (whose given name is Samuel Gobeloff) was a Russian immigrant and member of the American Communist Party. In 1953 during the McCarthy Era, he was convicted under the Smith Act for conspiracy to overthrow the United States government. I met my Grandpa Joe once although I was too young to remember. Growing up I knew only a few facts about him: he was Russian, Jewish and a Communist. Over the past several years I’ve grown curious about the threads connecting my father’s radical family history to my own life and politics. This fall I traveled with my dad to Philadelphia, to the neighborhoods where he was raised and asked him to tell me about growing up as a Communist’s son, what he remembers about his father’s arrest and how his upbringing influenced his own politics and parenting.
Adrienne Skye Roberts: I want to start by asking what you remember about the time that your father was arrested.
Rick Roberts: It is hard to know what are memories and what are stories that were told to me. I was only 3-years-old during the time of the Smith Act trial. Our family was hiding out in Atlantic City because it became apparent that my Dad and the other Communists were being followed by the FBI. During this time other people around the country were being arrested under the Smith Act. My father stopped going to the Communist Party Office in Philadelphia in hopes of evading the FBI. During this time, I slipped on a beach ball and broke my leg. I was in the hospital and I remember that my father stopped coming to the hospital because he had been arrested. There was a feeling of loss and confusion about why my father stopped coming to the hospital. Again, coincidentally when he got out of jail, I recently got out of the hospital and we were reunited. So, we had sort of coincidental incarcerations of two different kinds at the same time. At such a young age this was all very confusing for me.
ASR: Can you describe the Smith Act and the trial process after your father and the eight other defendants were convicted?
RR: My father and eight other Communist Pary members were indicted under the Smith Act for conspiracy to overthrow the United States government. After the first trial which was a judge-only trial, they were convicted. The evidence in the trial mainly consisted of witnesses who said they were at specific meetings, speeches or rallies at which somebody, not necessarily one of the defendants, talked about the need to change the government. It was understood that that meant violent overthrow of the government, as opposed to a democratic process. The one specific and most damning testimony was given by an FBI agent who said he directly overheard my father and some of the other defendants talk specifically about the idea of overthrowing the government while in a bathroom at a public location. During the months before the second trial, it surfaced that some of the witnesses were fellons whose sentences were reduced or suspended as a result of their testimonies against the Smith Act defendants. The FBI agent who said he overheard my father admitted that he fabricated the whole thing. The judge who had convicted them after the first trial was to be the same judge on the second trial and rather than undergo the scrutiny of those first trial testimonies, the judge dropped the charges before the second trial started.
ASR: So, the Smith Act and investigations or witch hunts that your father and the others were subjected to were a part of the broader McCarthy Era and a product of the very real fear that the American government would be taked over by Communists.
RR: Yes. What was so bizarre about the claim of a violent overthrow of the government was that my father was a sort of an unofficial pacifist. His basic philosophy was that non-violent action and protest. He wasn’t a violent man. He did volunteer for the Army during WWII but was turned away because of his Communist Party membership. My father’s Communist affiliations kept me from being drafted in Vietnam, as well. Within a few weeks of registering for the draft, I received a 4-F card which basically means that the military doesn’t ever want me, for any reason at all, period.
ASR: Back to the trial, I remember you mentioned that it was Quakers who ended up representing the Smith Act defendants, can you talk about that?
RR: That’s right. Quaker lawyers volunteered to represent the eight men when it became apparent that no other lawyers would come to their defense. Although they didn’t know the defendants, the Quaker ethic is to allow everybody to have a say. They defended them on first ammendment rights. The lawyers and the community came upon a very unique way to get the bail for the defendants: people signed the titles of their houses as collateral. They would have forfeited their houses if the defendants jumped bail. What I remember about the years after the trial were lots of fundraising events and parties: Hannukah and Christmas parties with both the African-American and the Jewish communities in Philadelphia, all to raise funds for to pay the lawyers. All the social events in my early years were around the defense of the 9 guys who were indicted in Philadelphia.
ASR: Were you taught about Communism at home?
RR: No. I think it was imbedded in all of the different types of teaching. My parents were both very open-minded and liberal. We talked about the Civil Rights Movement. They were open in teaching about sexuality; my family were nudists. My parents definitely did not sit me down and say, “This is Communism. You need to learn about it.” They talked about fairness and equality. When my father first came to New York City from Dnepropetrovsk in the Ukraine when he was fifteen he worked in the garmet workers industry and joined the union. Later he became a union organizer and that is where he was introduced to the America Communist Party. In fact, he ran for burrough counsel under the Communist Party in NYC in 1934 and lost. So, learning about communism never came across as formal teaching, per say, it was more like learning family history.
ASR: When did your Dad leave the Party?
RR: My Dad left the Party, along with many other people, when the news came out that Stalin had a lot of people killed in the Soviet Union. Until that point, he and his friends had an obviously idealistic view of the Soviet Union. They thought it was going to be leading the way and teaching that Communism was the best structure for government as opposed to capitalism. That dealt a big blow to their beliefs. It was hard to believe in Communism after Stalin had so many people killed. It created a schism in the Party.