Growing Up Radical: Stories from a Son and Grand-daughter

Red Diaper Kids, children of Communist families in Fairmont Park, Philadelphia in 1953. My father, Rick Roberts and his sister, my aunt Deborah pictured on the bottom row, on the left.

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.

Smith Act Defendants handcuffed together in pairs, walking with their attorney's to their arraignment in July 1953. My grandfather, Joseph Roberts pictured on the left with Sherman Labovitz.

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.

Joseph Roberts working as an editor at The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper in New York City.

ASR:  I’m curious about the work that your father did within the Party.

RR: In New York City my father worked as an editor for the official publication of the American Communist Party, The Daily Worker. When he moved to Philadelphia he stopped working for them and he became a district organizer of the Communist Party. It was his job to uphold the structure of the organization and find new members. When he left the Communist Party, he began working for the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) which was not a Communist organization although it had ties to the Party. The CRC was a Civil Rights organization that provided legal defense and political action surrounding labor rights for both black and white radicals. This organizing work was similar to the work my father did in the past, yet it was not under the umbrella of the Communist Party.

ASR:  In his book Being Red in Philadelphia Sherman Labowitz describes your father as very stern when he was doing business. I’ve heard you say that this characterization wasn’t recognizable to you.

RR:  Yes, that was part of my Dad, but it was an unusual part, especially for me. He never seemed to me to be a really strident person. He was very gentle and so hearing him speak passionately and seriously was just a different side of him, which I guess I got used to seeing. The same people who had political meetings and at our house also had poker games and would drink and have a great time. But when they were talking politics they were very, very serious. They were debating how the Soviet Union should govern, how the United States should change, how the Civil Rights Movement should be forwarded. I got used to seeing this serious side of my Dad and as I grew older, especially after he left the Party and he stopped giving the speeches, his softer, gentler side came out more of the time. One wonderful thing about those meetings is that they were arguing because they were passionate about the same thing.

ASR:  Yes, and it was just a matter of how to achieve the goal. Your mother was also a radical. Can you talk about your mother’s involvement with the Party and her politics?

RR:  My mom was radical before she met my Dad. Her first husband was a leftist and she met my Dad through demonstrations. The wives of the Communists were certainly not subservient to the men, they were in there arguing with them but the men were definitely the people on the line who had the official Communist Party positions. When it came down to being indicted and giving public speeches it was mostly the men. Towards the end of my father’s involvement with the Party, my mother went to school at the University of Pennsylvania for social work. After she got her degree she started working with a Quaker foster care program as a case manager. Once we moved to Los Angeles in 1966 my mother took over an existing sex therapist’s practice. By the 1970s she instituted the practice and use of surrogates and became the first sex therapy practice in the US to use surrogate therapy. And it became very controversial. It was right on the edge of legality.

ASR:  Your mother’s story deserves an entirely separate interview! It seems as though your parent’s politics were embedded within your home environment and therefore passed on to you by observation and informal teachings, do you think that the culture of fear and silence indicative of the McCarthy Era was also passed on?

RR:  I don’t remember being told to be quiet about being a Communist family. I don’t remember being called a “Commie.” Myself and my friends were probably too young to grasp any of the fear. When my Dad left the Party I think I was around 8-years-old, so what could have been a very devisive issue in my life as I got older wasn’t because he was no longer active in the Party. So, I was fortunate. I never felt a whole lot of fear whereas I imagine the older kids did. However, I remember knowing that my family was different. We were one of the only white families living on our block, the only nudists around and Communists. It became normal to be different.

ASR: After leaving Philadelphia and moving to Los Angeles with your mother, you quickly moved to San Francisco in 1967 at the age of 16. As you look back on your participation in what became a very legendary time in the Haight-Ashbury, do you see any connections between the political and cultural environment you were raised in and the culture in San Francisco that you helped to shape in the 1960s?

RR:  Yeah, definitely. I didn’t think about it then but I do believe that the “hippy” culture, for lack of a better term, was an outgrowth not necessarily of left-wing politics but of the belief in equality and freedom. Of course, at that time a lot of it was centered around the Vietnam War. I do believe the freedoms that we were trying to live grew out a reaction to the McCarthyism and Red Scare of our childhoods and also grew from the Civil Rights Movement and eventually affected the feminist movement. I think the community that formed in the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s was our way of expressing or rather, living those politics.

ASR:  It seems as though the parallels that run through these parts of your life extend beyond shared politics. You describe growing up in a tight-knit community of Communists where people are always at your house, discussing issues related to the Party and they are also just having a good time together and enjoying each other’s company. I imagine San Francisco in the 1960s as a similar sort of expanded family and community based on politics, but also on inclusiveness, diversity, and ethics of fairness and open-mindedness. And perhaps I am romanticizing it a bit, but this is the sense I get.

RR:  Yes. There were some people in the Haight-Ashbury who became very political. The Diggers who were the original Food Not Bombs had free food in Golden Gate Park everyday. The first night I spent in the Haight was at a Digger’s house. They were practicing real Communism right on the street everyday. There was a free store where you could exchange clothes, there was certainly an inclusiveness for lesbian and gay people, there weren’t any prejudices about people. This was almost a fault because we accepted people into our communities who actually threatened our safety. In those days it was almost understood that anybody was allowed to come and live and share with you.

ASR:  Let’s fast forward again to when you became a Dad.

RR:  I did, obviously! You are proof!

ASR:  I am curious about your role as a parent in relation to your family’s history and your experience in the Haight. I feel like in some ways I was raised in a very traditional context:  public school, predominately white suburb, middle-class. Yet on the flip side, I always felt a little bit different. Being even the slightest bit politically aware as a teenager set me apart from my peers. I feel like this political awareness was a product of you and mom. I’m not sure if it came from specific teachings or an intention or if it emerged through being aware of your histories. Did you and mom talk about raising your children with any intentions, politically or otherwise?

RR:  There was sort of a turning point when mom was pregnant with Alicia. We were living in New Hampshire and could have chosen a more rural, “hippy” route. We felt that Novato was a good place to raise kids. We fell into a more normal suburban life and I had to get “real jobs” and make money. We started to get back to ourselves and beyond that suburban, “normal” life when we became involved in the Gaia movement or ecological feminism. I think that started us back towards thinking about politics. We were always liberal. You and Alicia getting older allowed us to more fully express ourselves more radically. We knew that we weren’t like the neighbors that we had in Novato. And today there is some hope that a more liberal agenda can govern our country. I think we both feel more natural and at home now. Although I defintely identify as a socialist and we’re never going to be liberal enough for me in my lifetime.

ASR:  But it’s less risky to say that now as opposed to when you were growing up or perhaps, even a few years ago.

RR:  That’s absolutely true. I do not fear saying that anymore and when I did realize that I was a socialist and probably always had been I wouldn’t say that to people. And now I will say it to people that I know are probably surprised by that and maybe even think negatively towards me, but I think that they should hear that I’m a socialist because so many people have a skewed view of what that means.

ASR:  What does it mean to you to identify as a socialist?

RR:  It means that nobody is intrinsically worth more than anybody else. It means that nobody should make an exponentially larger amount of money than anyone else. As a result I’ve had a difficult time in some jobs that have expected me to treat people that I supervise against those ethics. It also comes down to interpersonal realtionships: how you treat people and how you see them.

ASR:  It’s interesting, I feel like I continue to get more and more radical as I get older and I’m only twenty-six.

RR:  I think that I do, too. I don’t know where that line stops. I don’t think I’m a Communist who thinks that everything should be shared completely equal but I do believe that there is enough so that nobody should be wanting. Somebody who does excel and work hard shouldn’t be earning a whole lot more than a person who might not have the abilities to earn more and “excel” or whatever. At a very young age I remember thinking, “Why is somebody who digs a ditch not worth as much as the grown-ups who I saw in suits and ties?” and I still think that. To me that is the real core way of thinking about it. And that I remember just thinking about on my own and it always seems to come back to that. Why is this person who dig ditches without enough money to survive and has all these challenges? They are not worth less in any intrinsic way than the head of a corporation and they shouldn’t be worth less monetarily.

ASR:  Our society has a really skewed version of what is valued and what it means to be a contributing member of society based on what you do. I really feel like the ethic of fairness that you just described has been passed on to me, too.

RR:  Yes…passed on from my parents through me and on to my own kids. The dreams that my father had about a fair and just society has not come to be. Capitalism seems to have taken hold and made a lot of negative impact on the world. But I believe you can still raise your children in such a way that they become involved and aware of how to apply, not necessarily the Communist ethic, but a fair appraisal of values and participation, especially at local levels in political organizations and systems that employ those same fair values.

An edited version of this interview was recently published in the zine Rad Dad, Volume 16. To order your own copy check it out the blog.

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