My father passed away on January 11. We had a strained relationship for most of my adult life. One of my biggest regrets about losing him is that I didn’t get to learn about his life story. He was an interesting, but broken man. I only knew him when he was broken. He was a wonderful storyteller, but he was reticent to tell the details of his adult life except for snatches of memories and the more mundane events that happened to him. The heart of his life was told only in fragmentary, hushed whispers. The rest I heard haphazardly from my mother.
The defining moments of my father’s life were his time in federal prison and how he got there. This was tragic and vile, and it represents one of the worst, darkest parts of this nation.
I know that he was a union organizer in the south some time during the 50s, which was a dangerous and life-threatening activity. I know that, at one point, he was an officer of the statewide CIO in Colorado. I know he tried to unionize the primarily black dock workers (stevedores) in Houston. My mother told me that the Houston police picked him up for his activities, and harassed him with Russian Roulette.
My mother also told me that he had to hide in the trunk of a car while traveling through Alabama while Bull Connor chased after him. This was before I knew who Bull Connor was. Only later in college did I learn the degree to which my father was considered dangerous. Or at least he associated with known dangerous elements.
My father was jailed under the Taft-Hartley Act, which is a labor act that basically gutted the unions of most of their power. Under the Taft-Hartley Act, it is illegal to be a member of a union and the communist party simultaneously. Doing so is considered to be “inciting violent overthrow of the government.”
The events that led to my father’s arrest are particularly tragic. My father claimed that the FBI wanted him, as a low-level worker, to “rat out” the higher level officials of the party, so they set him up. According to my father, the FBI even went as far as to send a woman to entrap him. Apparently he fell for her pretty hard, they became romantically involved, and she then testified against him. My father always said that he did not name names during his trial and so he was sent to prison. Sadly, I don’t even know the dates of his sentence.
As a federal criminal, my father lost many privileges that most of us take for granted, like his right to vote and his ability to work with certain chemicals. Prior to prison, he was a chemist and he worked in oil fields, so he was stripped of his livelihood. In addition, he believed he was hounded by the FBI for the rest of his life. He lost job after job, attributing each loss to the FBI calling his workplace and reporting that he was an ex-con who was jailed for communist activities. He believed his mail was opened and the phones were tapped. I don’t know how much of this is accurate and how much is justifiable paranoia.
I vaguely recall in high school, my father found an organization dedicated to help people who were jailed under McCarthyism. I’m not clear on this part of the story. My father claimed that the representatives of this organization in Houston told him he was too much of a political “hot potato” to help. He was very bitter about this.
He grew increasingly paranoid as he aged. It was difficult to live with. Toward the end of his life, he tried to get a copy of his birth certificate from Dallas. The clerk told him that the birth certificate was lost. He believed the loss was somehow related to the FBI. He eventually got a copy, but he never gave up on the idea that there was something “fishy” going on beyond typical bureaucracy and the usual problems of finding birth certificates dated from the 1920s.
My father does not merit even a footnote in history, although his appeal is cited in legal cases. What happened to him never received comment in any book that I’ve ever found. I did find a reference to him in a trial transcript dated from 1956 — an investigation of communist activities in Colorado before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities. It is the only reference that I’ve ever found in any document. I’m sure his trial and sentence are a matter of public record. Maybe someday I will try to get his file from the FBI under the freedom of information act. I was raised to believe that I could never get a job in the state department, government, NASA, or any other agency that required security clearance.
I’ve known all my life that we lie when we say there are no political prisoners in America.