The 1969 Nixon Inauguration: Horse Manure, Rocks & a Pig

9 Jan

“Wife” of presidential candidate Pigasus after eluding police.  John Bowden, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

By Craig Simpson

It was 1969 and thousands were streaming into the nation’s capital for a Presidential Inauguration…but this time they weren’t planning on throwing confetti.

It was the height of the Vietnam War and many were coming to the first organized protest at an Inaugural ceremony in the country since a small group of unemployed workers staged a counter-parade at Franklin Pierce’s in 1853.

Instead of flowers, horse manure would be tossed at Vice President Agnew’s guests dressed in their finest gowns and tuxedos.  Rocks, tomatoes and smoke bombs would be hurled at newly sworn-in President Richard M. Nixon as his motorcade drove along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Antiwar demonstrators planned to symbolically “In-HOG-urate” a pig as president and hold their own counter-inaugural ball on the National Mall.

The Anti-Vietnam War Movement

The domestic anti-Vietnam war movement was foundering in the fall of 1968. That was a stunning turnaround, as victory had appeared to be within the grasp of war opponents only months before.

Two years of mass demonstrations against the war had peaked in October 1967, when more than 100,000 people had streamed into the Washington, DC area for a march on the Pentagon. Local protests were common on campuses and in towns across the country.

Then in January, 1968, nearly every city in the Republic of (South) Vietnam was hit by an uprising of forces of the National Liberation Front aided by military forces of the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam. A vocal minority was no longer the sole group questioning the war.

Walter Cronkite, the preeminent television news anchor of the time, said, “To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past…To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.”

An antiwar candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), entered the race for president and nearly beat the incumbent Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary of March 12, 1968 with the help of hundreds of college students opposed to the war. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, whom many regarded as an even stronger candidate, entered the race shortly afterwards.

On March 31, Johnson conceded, “I shall not seek, nor will I accept” the nomination for president.

1968 Election Setback

Kennedy was assassinated on the night of his California primary victory in June, 1968, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey went on to win the Democratic nomination after a Chicago convention that featured brutal suppression of antiwar demonstrations by Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley. The Republican Party nominated Richard M. Nixon.

Johnson, Agnew & Humphrey Laugh During Inauguration: 1969

Johnson, Agnew & Humphrey share a laugh during Inaugural ceremonies. Photo: William C. Beall, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

In a matter of months, the fortunes of the antiwar movement had been reversed. The positions of Nixon and Humphrey on the war were virtually identical. The movement believed it had forced Johnson to resign only to get two candidates in favor of further continuation of the war.

On the left, Marxist groups were gaining sway, advocating revolution and the abandonment of electoral efforts. Other antiwar activists were simply discouraged.

Crisis for Antiwar Leaders

The steering committee of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), a broad-based coalition that had sponsored the earlier demonstration at the Pentagon and many of the protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention, met on September 14, 1968 in Washington, DC to consider the next steps.

The group made a decision to escalate tactics by calling a nationwide strike on Election Day and to “descend on Washington with the same determination that brought us to Chicago … on the Inauguration, January 20, 1969, if the Government seems set to launch another four years of war, political repression, poverty, and racism.”

Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, both of whom were among the MOBE leaders, co-wrote for Liberation News Service, “…we believe the movement must organize an election offensive which demonstrates our refusal to accept the election choices offered and repudiates and discredits the system which imposes such choices on us.”

The attempt at a strike during the presidential election failed, with no campuses shut down and only a few relatively small demonstrations staged in major cities. In Washington, DC, over 1,000 rallied near the Lincoln Memorial and marched without a permit to Lafayette Park—attempting to implement a more confrontational approach. However, the small turnouts and limited effectiveness of these actions across the country led to more disillusionment.

MOBE Switches Up Again

After this failure, the MOBE regrouped and began to backtrack on using the politics of confrontation.

The MOBE leadership wooed other organizations that had not previously participated in MOBE activities. These groups had viewed the coalition as too radical.

As plans for the inaugural demonstration moved forward, David Dellinger, chairman of MOBE, repeatedly emphasized in public statements that the demonstration would be a “political, not a physical confrontation.”

In response, SANE (Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), The University Christian Movement and the Universities Committee on the Problems of War and Peace agreed to participate in the counter-inaugural activities along with other pacifist groups.

The Washington Free Press, the local alternative newspaper, wrote after the event that the MOBE  “was trying to woo the right of the left, the liberal and support groups…The MOBE bet that the street people would come anyhow, if unenthusiastically.”

A significant portion of the antiwar movement was opposed to MOBE’s counter-inaugural at this point, including the national leadership of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that voted in December against participating in the protest.   A number of other left wing groups decided to sit it out as well.

But separately, other individuals and groups were making plans to come to Washington and pursue the politics of confrontation, including guerrilla theater advocates Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who reportedly said, “We will bring our revolutionary theater to Washington to inaugurate Pigasus, our pig, the only honest candidate…”

Preparations for Demonstration

Seeking to avoid physical confrontation, MOBE representatives entered into complicated negotiations with the government over permits.

Dave Dellinger 1969

Dave Dellinger & Rennie Davis reach permit agreements with Harry Van Cleve of the government. Photo: uncredited, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post

As the negotiations approached the start of Inaugural activities, a breakthrough was reached on January 15. The government agreed to permit the counter-demonstrators to march from the national Mall near the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Supreme Court on the day before Nixon’s parade.

Congressional leaders later vetoed any use of Capitol Hill, so the ending point was changed to the national Mall near the Health, Education & Welfare (HEW) building at 3rd & Independence SW.

Erecting the Counter-Inaugural Tent: 1969

Erecting the counter-inaugural tent. Photo: uncredited, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

There were no meeting facilities available to the protestors in the city, so the MOBE demanded permission to erect a tent on the Mall to accommodate the counter-inaugural activities. Ultimately a compromise was reached on January 16, and a grassy triangular area south of the Washington Monument and west of 15th Street NW was agreed upon.

MOBE officials announced plans to protest during the Inaugural parade itself at four different locations. Dellinger reiterated, “We have no plans for civil disobedience or disorder or disruption.”

But Dellinger didn’t have the final word on the escalation of tactics as groups and individuals began making their own plans.

The Free Press urged that “All movement action should take place on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, because on the south side there is no place to run if the ‘getting’ gets good.” They added, “On the corner of 14th & Penn. is the Nixon Headquarters. DO IT, DO IT!!…”

They further advised, “Bring a lot of eggs, tomatoes, and rotten fruit,” and, “After the parade, if you’re still up to it, you might like to see one or two other ‘points of interest’ around Washington. Check the map for locations of the Selective Service Board, FBI building, and others…”

Ms. Pigasus Arrives

On January 16, a small guerrilla theater group arrived at the outdoor Sylvan Theater on the Monument grounds, where one participant identified as Super Joel Yippie presented a live pig as “Mrs. Pigasus,” the wife of Pigasus who had been nominated for president during the Chicago convention protests.

Reception for Ms Pigasus: Counter-Inaugural 1969

Reception for Ms. Pigasus. Photo: John Bowden, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

To the delight of news reporters, the pig escaped and was chased by three police officers on horseback, two in cars and one on foot. Super Joel himself eventually caught the pig and brought her back to the stage.  Members of the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), led a rendition of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” that went: “You’re a grand old pig, you’re a high-flying pig…you’re an emblem of the land we love.”

The protestors vowed to “In-HOG-Urate” Pigasus with Ms. Pigasus at his side at the counter-inaugural protests scheduled in a couple of days.

In an event seemingly related to the protests, a Molotov cocktail was tossed through a window of the national Selective Service headquarters at 1724 F Street NW just after midnight on January 18. Police reported that the firebombing caused “extensive damage” to the records of the headquarters of the nation’s draft board, according to the Washington Post.

Day 1: Demonstrators Stream Into Town

The first official counter-inaugural events took place on January 18th. At the Hawthorne School, located at 501 I Street SW, hundreds watched a Black Panther film, discussed labor organizing, traded tips on draft counseling, and learned the fine points of guerrilla theater at the many workshops offered.

One young woman, when asked by a Washington Post reporter why she came, replied with a mischievous smile, “to give Nixon a rousing welcome.”

Women Hit 'Distinguished Ladies': Counter-Inaugural 1969

“Distinguished Ladies” protest. Photo: unidentified, courtesy of Liberation News Service.

Later, approximately 150 women gathered at the National Gallery of Art in a demonstration sponsored by the Women’s Liberation Movement and attempted to break through police lines to enter a reception for “Distinguished Ladies” being held there. During the first attempt at confrontation politics during the weekend, the police lines held and no arrests were made.

Meanwhile, inside the reception three women who had obtained tickets handed out leaflets and gave an impromptu women’s liberation speech to a crowd that included Tricia Nixon, the president-elect’s daughter, and Randy Agnew, the vice president-elect’s daughter.

Another three hundred shouted at attendees of a “Young Americans Inaugural Salute” scheduled by the Young Republicans at the Washington Hilton hotel. A guerrilla theater group wearing white rubber Nixon masks imitated the Gestapo and tore apart and burned a rubber doll while chanting “Kill for Peace.” One man who pulled down some red, white and blue bunting at the hotel was arrested for “mutilation and desecration” of a flag and was later sentenced to 30 days in jail or a $100 fine.

Day 2: Women Reach the Breaking Point

The following day, demonstrators began gathering at the counter-inaugural tent on a cold and rainy day.  Inside the tent, the ground turned to mud.

A parade of male speakers came to the stage, broken up by an occasional folksinger like Phil Ochs, while the crowd became restless. James Johnson, one of the Fort Hood 3–a GI who had refused orders to Vietnam–was heckled. Moderator Dave Dellinger, a long-time antiwar leader, stepped to the microphone and rebuked the hecklers.

The MOBE leadership had invited Marilyn Salzman Webb as one of the official speakers who would address women’s liberation.  Webb, a veteran civil rights and antiwar activist who was a Washington, DC women’s leader, was reluctant to openly criticize the male dominated antiwar leadership.

Shulamith Firestone

Shulamith Firestone circa 1970. Photo: Michael Hardy.

Another branch within the nascent women’s movement, led by Shulamith Firestone of New York, demanded and won the right to speak to the crowd. Firestone planned to direct some of her remarks to the subjugation of women by those in the New Left.

“Perhaps the worst memory of that day was when a woman (I don’t remember who now) spoke about Women’s Liberation and was roundly booed.”

As Webb began her speech, hecklers began shouting, “take it off” and “take her off the stage and f*** her,” according to Alice Echols’ account. Webb recalled later, “It was like a riot breaking out.” When Firestone tried to speak it was worse.

Webb recalled that there were some men in the audience who were opposing the hecklers. For the women, a problem bigger than the crowd was Dellinger’s response. Rather than trying to calm the crowd as he did with the Fort Hood speaker, Dellinger told Webb to “shut Shulie up,” according to the account by Echols.

Firestone wrote a letter to the Guardian after the counter-inaugural rally that addressed the left, “There are millions of women out there desperate enough to rise…and we have more important things to do than to try to get you to come around. She added, “We’re starting our own movement.”

Webb was ostracized from the Washington, DC SDS community after her relatively mild speech.  She went on to start the feminist journal Off Our Backs with others. Webb later reflected that the events forced women to forge their own politics, but deprived them of a base, “The left could have been a base and was a base, because that’s where we all came from…” according to Echols account.

The incident highlighted the weaknesses of MOBE officials that vacillated on many issues and often exercised little or no leadership.

The Counter-Inaugural March

Not long after the women left the stage, a group of New York SDS members approached the podium and asked to speak, but were refused. Angered, they walked out and began an impromptu march.

Inside the Counter-Inaugural Tent: 1969

Rally prior to the march inside the tent. Photo: uncredited, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

“Inside the tent, the speakers were shooting their mouths off saying nothing that we hadn’t heard a thousand times before and everyone wanted to get out of there. They just wanted to go and they started going,” one participant said, according to a government report on the activities.

Hundreds joined this group and started marching along the parade route. Some later turned back and joined the main body. Others continued and finished the unscheduled march before returning to the Washington Monument, where they joined hands and danced around the Monument to “exorcise the country’s need for a perpetual hard on.”

The main march, drawing upwards of 15,000, proceeded not long after the rump group on Pennsylvania Ave. toward the Capitol. There were no incidents until protestors encountered a group of right-wing counter-demonstrators.

“The parade passed by a small group of Nazi [American Nazi Party] counter-demonstrators around 10th & Pennsylvania. They were quickly confronted by demonstrators, some of whom threw rocks and fought with the Nazis.”

The Nazis were quickly driven off.

The counter-inaugural parade was mostly festive with street theater and marching kazoo bands.  The signs and banners reflected a variety of issues with an end to the Vietnam War paramount.

Nixon as a War Criminal: Counter Inaugural 1969

Nixon as a war criminal during counter-inaugural march. Photo: uncredited, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Abolish the Draft,” “Free Political Prisoners,” “End the War,” “Bring the Boys Home, “Don’t Eat Grapes,” “Defeat Imperialism Everywhere,” and “Victory to the Vietcong” were among the messages carried by the marchers.

A brief confrontation occurred toward the end of the march near 3rd Street, Independence Avenue and Maryland Avenue. Police attacked some demonstrators who they believed were trying to march on the Capitol.

Demonstrators responded by throwing sticks and bottles at the police before MOBE marshals formed a line between the two groups, siding with the police against the protestors in the view of many of the crowd. Police arrested fifteen during this confrontation.

Another brief scuffle occurred at the HEW building at the end of the march when some demonstrators tried to pull down an American flag in front of the building.

MOBE marshals circled the flagpole and prevented this from occurring, but several fistfights between demonstrators broke out over the issue, further underscoring differences among the demonstrators. MOBE leaders eventually convinced authorities to lower the flag since it was around 5 p.m. and getting dark anyway.

Horse Manure Thrown at Agnew’s Guests

Several thousand marchers began walking back along the Mall to the tent for the counter-inaugural ball.

“As we were trekking across the Mall back toward the tent, someone was shouting that a reception for Vice-President-elect Spiro Agnew was being held at the History and Technology Museum at 14th Street on the Mall.”

Protestors began gathering near the Mall entrance of the museum (now Museum of American History) on Madison Drive in another impromptu demonstration.

Nearly 5,000 demonstrators converged in close proximity to where guests would arrive on Washington Drive and walk down a block-long red carpet on 13th Street to the entrance of the museum. (Both streets have been converted to walking paths today, but were open to traffic at that time.)

Police on Horseback Move Anti-Agnew Protestors: 1969

Police using horses clear Agnew demonstrators. Photo: US Park Police.

Park police, using horses for the first time in a Washington demonstration, drove the protestors back from the immediate area of the museum entrance onto grassy areas on either side of 13th Street. The use of horses would prove to have mixed results.

A few firecrackers were hurled at the horses who in turn reared up and nearly threw the officers to the ground. As time went on, horses began dropping manure.

Dressed in mink and formal clothes, Agnew’s guests began arriving and contrasted sharply with the demonstrators. The guests were forced to walk a gauntlet, greeted with shouts of “fascist pig” and “imperialists.” And that was not all they were greeted with.

“…demonstrators picked up the fresh, steaming horse manure and began pelting the guests as they walked down a long red carpet that stretched from the street on up the steps of the Museum on the Mall side.”

There were only a few foot police present and there had been no further attempt to move protestors.

As the seventh couple arrived, the man smiled, probably attempting to look unconcerned at the mayhem around him. However, when a firecracker exploded near his wife’s arm, police began moving the crowd back and also making several arrests.

As objects continued to be thrown, police attempted again to move protestors back. This time they lost control and began clubbing people. The police horses trampled several protestors.

The demonstrators began fighting back with rocks and sticks and ultimately their fists.

“I witnessed an individual officer who charged wildly into the crowd chasing someone I suppose he thought was a manure thrower. He suddenly stopped and realized he was surrounded by demonstrators with no other officers around.”

Quickly the demonstrators pounced, removing his helmet, gun, badge, and nightstick and pummeling him with their fists. It seemed like an eternity before his fellow officers realized his plight and came to his rescue.”

Park Police Use Horses to Move Agnew Protestors: 1969

Horses move protestors back at Agnew reception. Photo: US Park Police.

They succeeded in clearing the area after a few minutes and afterwards Agnew’s guests could arrive with little danger of being struck by objects thrown by the crowd. The fighting was largely over and Agnew arrived at some point, skirting the protestors by entering a side door.

However, one protestor who had taken refuge in a tree during the altercation with police was repeatedly clubbed with a three-foot riot baton by a man in a police slicker and a riot helmet. The incident took place in full view of the crowd. The “policeman” was later identified as a part-time police surgeon who was not authorized to wear a police uniform.

Shortly after this incident, a deputy chief of police went alone into the crowd to investigate some small fires. A demonstrator struck him in the back of the head with an improvised wooden club. Two other officers came to his aid and helped him back to police lines.

With nightfall, the falling temperature took its toll on the demonstrators and they began to filter away. When Agnew left the reception around 6:45 pm from another door, the rest of the crowd moved to the tent for the counter-inaugural ball.

Counter-Inaugural Ball

As a light show beamed across the stage, rock bands, including Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, and folk singer Phil Ochs entertained the crowd. Marijuana was smoked openly in the presence of the numerous undercover police officers.

Counter-Inaugural Ball: 1969

Counter-inaugural ball January 19. Photo: Geoff, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Later in the evening a fierce debate at the tent broke out. At a meeting earlier in the evening 200 members of New York based organizations including the state SDS, Co-Aim (a group allied with Youth Against War & Fascism) and the Progressive Labor Party met and decided on a “physical confrontation with police on the following day during the Inaugural Parade.”

Co-Aim seized the headquarters of the MOBE on Vermont Avenue and another group went to the tent and took the microphone about 11 p.m. to announce a march from Franklin Park the next day at noon, urging those with “weak stomachs” to stay away.

After a long discussion between MOBE officials and the group’s representatives, a compromise was reached. MOBE would seek a permit for the group while the militant demonstrators agreed that their march, if permitted, would not be disruptive.

The permit for the ball allowed demonstrators to stay all night at the counter-inaugural, but few remained after midnight in the cold, muddy tent. The In-HOG-uration of Pigasus never actually took place and Ms. Pigasus never made another appearance either.

Day 3: Protestors Line Parade Route

The next day several hundred people gathered in Franklin Park and were joined by many others in route during a march from the park to Pennsylvania Ave.  There were several skirmishes with police and counter-demonstrators along the way that resulted in several arrests.

Nixon's # 1 War Criminal: Counter-Inaugural 1969

March from Franklin Park to Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo: uncredited, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The group gathered at the widest point on the Inaugural Parade route between 14th and 15th Streets NW, on the north side of the avenue in front of the National Theater.  Freedom Plaza had not been constructed at that time and Pennsylvania Avenue ran closer to the theater than it does today.  Another group of about 1,000 protestors gathered on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue closer to 15th Street, where the motorcade would make a turn.

The MOBE bought 200 tickets to the official bleacher seats on Pennsylvania Avenue and on 15th Street. Demonstrators filled those with varying signs and banners as well as flags of the insurgent Vietnamese National Liberation Front.  Still another group of several hundred gathered at 12th & Pennsylvania Ave. NW in front of the American Security Building. Individual protestors were scattered along the parade route.

“As I joined the crowd that morning, I noted that anything that could possibly be thrown had been removed from the area. In addition, the area was surrounded by men in trench coats (and also dispersed in the crowd) that were obviously undercover police of one variety or other.”

The area in front of the National Theater was the scene of intense skirmishing between police and protestors prior to the motorcade.

Police were outraged that the demonstrators were burning small American flags given out by the Boy Scouts, and would periodically reach across the steel cable barrier to grab and arrest a protestor.  One man who wrapped a small flag around his fingers and raised them in a “V” sign was later convicted for flag desecration and sentenced to 60 days in jail.

Protestors threw objects at the police, who occasionally responded by charging into the crowd.

One officer had his cap taken when he tried to tackle a demonstrator burning a flag, and a police captain was clubbed over the head when he entered the crowd alone to put out a small pile of burning flags.

Johnson, Nixon, Graham & Agnew Pray During Inaugural Ceremony: 1969

Johnson, Nixon, Rev. Billy Graham & Agnew pray at Inauguration. Photo: William C. Beall, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The Nixon motorcade began to make its way from the Capitol, where he had been sworn in, to the White House reviewing stand, and authorities acted to ensure there would be no parade disruption.

“Approximately fifteen minutes before the parade reached the intersection which the crowd occupied, units of the C.D.U. [Civil Defense Unit – the riot squad] moved into position behind the demonstrators. Units of the Regular Army 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg, in dress uniform, formed a line behind the police and linked arms. They carried no rifles. Two companies, totaling approximately 200 National Guardsmen, were ordered to 13th and Pennsylvania from their position behind the District Building. Wearing battle gear and carrying rifles, they lined up shoulder-to-shoulder next to the Army troops. Tension among the demonstrators mounted,” according to a government report made after the demonstration.

A police captain tore down an antiwar banner and when questioned by a MOBE attorney, he shoved his baton into the attorney’s stomach, pushing him across the cable into the demonstrators.  One city official observing the captain said, “He looked like a mad dog. He was salivating at his mouth and sweating all over.”

Rocks Thrown at President’s Limousine

Nixon was riding in a black bulletproof limousine with the top affixed and had the windows rolled down for most of the parade. As he passed the demonstrators at 12th Street, he waved to the crowd opposite the demonstrators from an open window while the windows facing the protestors were closed. However, all the windows on the car were closed as it moved toward the main body of demonstrators.

Secret Service Ducks Rocks Thrown at Nixon: Counter-Inaugural 1969

Secret Service duck rocks while one jumps on back of Nixon limousine. Photo: uncredited, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

As the Presidential car approached 14th Street, a smoke bomb was tossed seconds before the car passed. A thrown missile felled a National Guardsman. Two cans with smoke coming out were thrown at the President’s car. One landed in front of the car while the other rolled underneath.

“The motorcade sped up as it neared the intersection, and I was surprised when it was still greeted by a barrage of rocks. The Secret Service must be given credit. I didn’t see a single rock strike the car as they deftly caught them or batted them away.”

A rock did hit the side of the car and a Secret Service agent was struck near the rear of the car.  Another batted down a bottle. The official count was twelve hard objects and many softer ones such as tomatoes and tin foil.

Final Confrontation

After the Presidential car passed, the demonstrators who were gathered in front of the National Theater began moving toward the area of the White House reviewing stand by heading north on 14th Street and then west on H Street, while most other protestors at the parade dispersed.

Fighting between police and demonstrators broke out on H Street near Lafayette Park, with police clubbing demonstrators.  The fracas took place within shouting distance of the President.

As the clash continued, about 200 African American young people, drawn to the area by the commotion, joined the predominantly white protestors in the battle.

Police Grapple with Demonstrators: Counter-Inaugural 1969

CDU police grapple with demonstrators after Inaugural Parade. Photo: Geoff, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The deputy chief of police in charge of the Civil Defense Unit (CDU–the riot squad) was in his car and was being pelted by stones and bottles. He radioed, “Mayday. These hippies should be arrested without hesitation.”

A running battle soon developed with demonstrators throwing rocks and bottles and police arresting anyone who looked like a protestor.

Police soon lost control. They beat a young woman medic who was administering first aid. A city official restrained another officer from chasing an 11-year old boy. The official then took the child to a nearby church.

Still another officer repeatedly clubbed an 18-year old woman with his nightstick.  The police surgeon who beat a demonstrator coming out of a tree the night before was back again clubbing anyone who came near him.

Demonstrators fought back with rocks, bottles and fists in running battles that frustrated police, including a contingent on scooters. Helicopters circled looking for groups of demonstrators.

As these skirmishes drew to a close, the deputy chief in charge of the CDU was told 90 arrests were made. “Not near enough, not near enough,” he replied. The counter-inaugural protests were over after three days of confrontation.

Aftermath

Following the brutal suppression of antiwar demonstrations in Chicago the previous summer, the failure of a national strike on Election Day in November, and the disillusionment with the election of a president vowing to continue the Vietnam War, the protest served notice that opposition to the war would not die.

The Washington Free Press wrote, “…it’s hard to see how things could’ve gone much better than they did at the Counter-Inauguration. Hardly anyone got hurt, we didn’t have the usual heavy financial drain of bail, fines and court costs, and we did just about what we intended.”

Antiwar Protestors Giving Kazoo to Nixon: Counter-Inaugural 1969

Giving Nixon the kazoo during counter-inaugural. Photo: uncredited, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

In the end, the injuries to police and demonstrators were minor and while some were treated at area hospitals, no one required hospitalization. Police reported a total of 119 arrests over the three-day period of the demonstrations. Authorities were also pleased because their worst fear of protestors breaking through barriers and overturning the President’s car was not realized.

Despite the weaknesses of a demonstration that was poorly organized and led and of a movement that would splinter into a hundred different tendencies, the counter-inaugural activities served to revitalize the antiwar movement and sharpen the debate over moving from passive resistance to active opposition.

Sally Lasselle of Liberation News Service wrote, “The movement did not demonstrate their grievances to him [Nixon] to ask for his help. It is up to the people to change the country. This means organizing and fighting…”

Allen Young, another correspondent of Liberation News Service wrote, “Essentially, the Washington actions sharpened the contradictions between the pacifist moral witness approach to politics and the combative anti-imperialist socialist tendency.”

Antiwar Protestors Salute Nixon: Counter-Inaugural 1969

Peace sign & middle finger as Nixon’s limo passes demonstrators reflect debate at 1969 counter-inaugural. Photo: uncredited, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The debate among demonstrators wasn’t as simple as violence versus non-violence. It was more about whether the antiwar movement would adopt confrontation tactics on a widespread scale.

The sometimes-pointed discussion played out across the three days between those attending. According to an account by Allen Young of a communal dinner at St. Stephens Church on January 18, several speakers challenged the MOBE slogans saying, “’Peace Now’ doesn’t say anything. What we’re about is liberation.” A member of a draft resistance group responded, “This meeting sounds like a hate rally.” Mike Spiegel, a former SDS national secretary responded, “To talk about hate obscures the point. What we are is angry.”

The Washington Free Press wrote after the events, “…there are tens of millions of young people who whether the Man’s tactics are hard or soft are not taken in and are out to knock him off his perch. And whether they dug the action in person, by word of mouth or through the media, they dug it.”

The debate was largely won by those who sought an escalation of tactics, as millions joined the moratorium, a national strike against the war, on October 15, 1969, followed by a huge national demonstration in Washington, DC on November 15 of that year. In 1970, students at more than 500 campuses across the country went on strike against the war for several weeks. In 1971, thousands more streamed into Washington in an attempt to shut down the government.

Secret Service Guard Nixon Limo Against Rocks: Inauguration 1973

Nixon’s limo is again pelted with rocks at 1973 Inauguration. Photo: Liberation News Service.

Nixon began withdrawing combat troops in response to the continued shift of the US public opinion from pro-war to antiwar and the ongoing fighting by the Vietnamese. He soon entered into negotiations with his Vietnamese adversaries.

However, he increased aerial bombing, and over the Christmas holidays in 1972 he staged the largest US bombing since World War II against infrastructure in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

This was met by a demonstration involving nearly 100,000 people at his second Inauguration in January, 1973. Once again his limousine was pelted with rocks during his Inaugural Parade.

The US combat role in the war ended with the Paris Peace agreements shortly afterwards.


Author’s Notes:

The quotes that are offset in this article are from my own recollections entitled, “My Most Memorable Antiwar Demonstration” written for a reunion of University of Maryland activists in 2005.

Most other information for this article was compiled from The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Daily News, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Free Press, Echols’ “Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, Liberation News Service and a staff report by Joseph Sahid, et. al. for the National Commission on the Causes & Prevention of Violence.

At the time of this demonstration, I was a 17-year old high school senior and attended nearly all of the activities described. My own recollections of specific events largely parallel the National Commission on Causes and Prevention of Violence staff report with several minor differences. Liberation News Service also provides three accounts that do not differ substantially.

There were no media reports of the altercation with the American Nazi Party January 19, but two of my high school classmates were directly involved and I and other friends witnessed the end of the encounter.

There were no press reports that horse manure was thrown at arriving guests at the Agnew reception January 19. However, others who were present at the event have confirmed my recollection. The staff report relied on news media reports of “mud” being thrown.

My recollection of a police officer’s gun being taken during the confrontation at the Agnew reception on January 19 is probably wrong. I may have mistaken some other object as the officer’s gun since there were no reports of a missing service weapon.

The staff report implies that objects hurled at the President’s limousine only came from the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue near the National Theater on January 20, but objects were tossed from both sides of the street.

My recollection that no objects hit the President’s car is contradicted by the staff report that indicates that one rock struck the vehicle.

I recalled the limousine speeding up as it approached the main body of demonstrators at 14th Street and this is confirmed in a Liberation News Service account, while the staff report has the vehicle doing a steady 3-4 mph.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Want to see and read more?

  • See more photos related to the 1969 counter inaugural activities here:  and of the 1973 protests at the inauguration here.
  •  See many additional photos and read the staff report of the National Commission on the Causes & Prevention of Violence on the 1969 counter-inaugural activities here:
  •  For a few additional photos and several lengthy write-ups, see Liberation News Service January 23, 1969 packet at the LNS archives:

Coming soon: A link to a footnoted version of this article.

Standing Against the Maryland Klan 1971: A Personal Memory

2 Jan
Klan Protests Black Minister In Camp Springs MD: 1966

Klan rally in Camp Springs, MD, 1966. Photo by Walter Oates. Courtesy DC Public Library, Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

by Bob Simpson
Cross-posted at The Daily Kos

I don’t mind telling you how scared I was that morning of June 20, 1971. That was the day we were going to Rising Sun, Maryland to picket the Klan at a picnic they were sponsoring. The fear was deep and profound. Butterflies in the stomach? Well, I had a gang of scorpions brawling down there.

Sure, this was Maryland, not Mississippi. It was 1971, not a few years before when the Klan was still leaving a trail of bodies all over the South. But part of the Klan’s power was its ability to install fear in people. It was sure working on me.

So why was I going to travel through rural Maryland to picket a Klan picnic? Well, a few weeks earlier the little Maryland radical collective I belonged to had received a call. It came from a socialist group based in Wilmington, Delaware. They were members of an organization called Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF).

They told us that the Klan had been causing trouble in a workplace where YAWF had connections, pitting workers against one another along racial lines. People were afraid and YAWF wanted to cut through that fear by standing up to the Klan. The Klan was also blanketing the tri-state area of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware with hate literature.

In 1967, the KKK had launched an arson attack on Laurel, Maryland’s small black community, sparking 3 nights of racial violence. Laurel African Americans organized armed patrols in the community until the Klansmen were arrested. The small Maryland Klan was still a potential threat and was showing signs of life again. YAWF wanted us to bring as many people as we could to Rising Sun, where the Maryland Klan traditionally had their gatherings.

St Marks Church Target of Klan in 1967

Laurel, MD church target of Klan attack in 1967.

Based out of Prince Georges County, Maryland our little group called ourselves the Mother Bloor Collective, after an early 20th century American radical. Most of us had been associated with University of Maryland Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in our student days. Early in its history, around 1964-1965, University of Maryland SDS had confronted the Klan in Prince Georges County at open housing protests, so we were part of a tradition.

Several of us (including me) were also union activists. I belonged to the Washington Teacher Union (AFT) and we had several people in AFSCME. We also had friends and allies all over the DC area. We knew that the greater our numbers, the better our chance to confront the Klan successfully.

Maryland, My Maryland: A legacy of white supremacy

Although now considered a generally blue liberal state, Maryland was not always like that. Just check out the state song with its pro-Confederate, anti-Lincoln lyrics. Located south of the Mason-Dixon Line but north of the Old Confederacy, Maryland has been contested racial terrain since it was founded as one of the 13 original colonies.

Maryland’s racial nightmares began in the 17th century when European colonists defeated the Piscataway and the other Native American nations of the Chesapeake region with guns and disease. Maryland soon turned to chattel slavery to develop an economy heavily dependent on the drug trade, i.e. tobacco. This was racialized slavery based on naked white supremacy.

Enslaved Marylanders resisted whenever they could, the most famous being Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who both  joined the abolitionist movement. Harriet Tubman supported armed revolution against slavery and was one of the conspirators involved in supporting John Brown’s raid.  By the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860, half of Maryland’s black population was already free because of opposition to slavery and the decline of the tobacco-based economy.

As the outbreak of Civil War approached in 1861, Maryland’s loyalty teetered between Union and Confederate. Lincoln resorted to preventive detention of Confederate sympathizers to keep the state in the Union. Marylanders fought on both sides, with the bloodiest battle of the war fought along the quiet ripples of Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln, was a pro-slavery Marylander.

Slavery was abolished in the state in 1864, but was replaced by Jim Crow segregation, although that was applied unevenly because of the state’s economic diversity. Maryland also had its raging white mobs and lynchings. In the 1920s the KKK could assemble crowds in the thousands but also faced strong opposition. Baltimore citizens rioted when a Klanswoman tried to speak at a Baptist church in the city, and arsonists tried to burn down the offices of the Thomas Dixon Branch of the Klan.

Women Break Up Klan Rally: 1966

Two women who broke up Klan rally leaving the Hyattsville, MD police station in 1967. Photo by Randolph Routt. Washington Star Collection© Washington Post.

The civil rights movement finally put an end to formal segregation, sometimes against violent resistance, as in the long and difficult struggle in Cambridge, Maryland. Sometimes however, resistance to segregation took a more comical turn. In 1966 the Klan was holding a small rally in Mt Rainier Maryland when two women grabbed the Klan bullhorn and started singing “We Shall Overcome”. The stunned Klansmen called the cops claiming that the women had slapped them and torn their robes.The Klan was always more “courageous” away from the light of day. There’s a reason why they were called night riders.

George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who stood in the schoolhouse door, always did well in Maryland presidential primaries between 1964-1972, but was also met by militant anti-racist demonstrations. In 1972, there was an assassination attempt against Wallace while he was speaking at a Laurel, Maryland shopping center.

Maryland was far from being another Mississippi, but believe me, Dixie-style racism was still very much alive in the state in 1971.

You don’t just walk into a confrontation with the KKK

The great thing about fear is that it focuses your attention. We had made careful preparations for our protest against the Klan picnic. I knew YAWF mostly as the group with the most colorful taffeta banners at antiwar protests as well as by their combative style if right-wingers or police physically attacked them. They fought back.

I soon learned that they were also meticulous planners. The parent group of Youth Against War and Fascism was the NYC based Workers World Party (WWP). The descendent of many splits in the Marxist left, the WWP had some experienced people among its leaders.

Entrance to Town of Rising Sun, MD: 2012

Entrance to the town of Rising Sun, Maryland shown in 2012

Our collective had a meeting with some of the NYC leadership to plan for the picnic confrontation. They came with maps of the Rising Sun area and had already worked out escape routes if things got too ugly. The Klan picnic was not in the town of Rising Sun, but at a nearby farm on an isolated two-lane rural road.

The idea was that we would park our vehicles and picket alongside the road next to the farm. The KKK also promised a cross burning that evening, but we had no intention of being around for that. At night on a lonely country road with revved up racists in sheets? No thank you.

The issue of firearms came up. Eventually it was decided that one car would have weapons in the trunk and people would be assigned to armed self-defense if it came to that. To my great relief, I was not chosen to be one of those people. I could hit a paper target with the .38 caliber revolver that I owned, but I had never pointed a gun at another human being. I was unsure how I would I react in the fear and confusion of an actual shootout.

Our collective organized some friends and allies who agreed to come. We estimated a turnout of maybe 50.  That was when the local authorities pulled a fast one on us. Somebody scouting out the location a couple of days before noticed that there were now “No Parking” signs all up and down the road near the site of the picnic. Since the Klan could park on the farm property, the signs were clearly aimed at us. You may have heard the chant, “Cops and Klan work hand in hand!” This was a concrete example of that.

No problem. We would just assign one person per vehicle to drive up and down the road and just trade off drivers periodically. I wish we had thought to attach signs to the side of the vehicles, though. That would have been more dramatic.

Demonstration Day Arrives

The morning of the demonstration I placed an old axe handle in the back of the Ford van I owned. It was intended for self-defense. Segregationist Lester Maddox had used an axe handle to stop black civil rights demonstrators from entering his Georgia chicken restaurant in 1964. Maddox and his axe handle became a symbol of die-hard Jim Crow. The irony of taking an axe handle to an anti-Klan protest appealed to me.

We assembled at a house shared by three of our Mother Bloor members to caravan to Rising Sun, about an hour’s drive away. One of our members tearfully announced that she had lost her nerve and was going to stay back. I tried to console her because she agreed to sit by the phone until people returned safely. In the days before cell phones and Skype, that was an important job.

Part of Former Boyle Farm in Rising Sun, MD

Part of former farm in 2012 where a 1971 picket of a Klan rally was held near Rising Sun, MD.

When we arrived at our destination near Rising Sun, we met up with the people from Delaware and NYC, and began picketing next to the farm where the KKK picnic was scheduled. We were soon joined by state police and some plainclothes cops that I assumed were FBI. They kept their distance.

We numbered between 50-60 as we chanted, marched, and switched off with the drivers. We really couldn’t see the picnic, but periodically Klan members would approach us on their side of the fence and exchange jibes.

My personal fear had largely evaporated in the warm Maryland sun and the anti-Klan energy we were generating. Nothing really threatening had happened yet and we had no intention of invading the picnic. The presence of the cops nearby was another factor in keeping Klan members from acts of blatant violence.

Then a large blond Klansman sauntered slowly over with a broad grin on his face. Resting his elbows on his side of the fence, still with that silly smile, he looked us over. He really did resemble the Nazi Aryan ideal. I kept my eye on him as we marched around when suddenly he spat directly in the face of a short skinny YAWF member. Without hesitation, the YAWF member spat back directly back into the Klansman’s face. Adrenaline surged through me as I stood my ground and thought, “Oh shit, this is it!” I was expecting the worst.

The Klansman stepped back looking shocked and bewildered. The dumb bastard had no idea what to do. Turning slowly, he walked away accompanied by some rude verbal encouragement from us. A small victory for our side. Shortly afterward the owner of the farm approached the fence and assured us that he didn’t want any trouble and hoped we didn’t either. I don’t recall what we told him, but we were planning to leave soon anyway.

Laurel MD Arms Against Klan: 1967

Klan graffiti in Laurel, MD circa 1967. Photo: Joseph Silverman. DC Public Library Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

We stayed a while longer and then packed up and left. I felt we had made our point. That night Klan honcho Tony LaRicci charged in on a horse to lead a good old fashioned cross burning. It was ironic that the Maryland Klan had a leader with an Italian name. The KKK was once fiercely anti-Italian when Italians were not yet considered white people. Go figure.

Days later Wilmington YAWF contacted us and said the demonstration had helped ease the grip of Klan fear as they had hoped. They considered the protest a success.

Damn, that news felt good.


Author’s Notes:

Special thanks to Craig Simpson and Ron Jacobs for research help. Resistance to the Klan in Maryland” by Craig Simpson, “Cecil County Klan Rally draws nearly 400” — the Baltimore Sun June 21, 1971, “No incidents reported at Klan rally”— the Washington Post June 21, 1971, Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia by Michael Newton & Judy Ann Newton.


Robert “Bob” Simpson is a former University of Maryland and Washington, DC area social justice activist who moved to Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1970s. He is one half of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. Bob remains active in greater Chicago and is a regular contributor to the Daily Kos, Counter Punch and has his own blog The Bobbosphere.


See more related photos from the Washington Area Spark Flickr set: Resistance to the Klan in Maryland


Spark 4th Quarter in Review

26 Dec

Miss our earlier posts? Catch up here!


Fighting Capital Transit’s Jim Crow Hiring

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)by  Craig Simpson
Posted October 14

A struggle initiated by a group of young African American union leaders against the most visible symbol of Jim Crow hiring in the District of Columbia reaches a peak with a 1943 wartime march against racism.

It is derailed by the duplicity of a President in 1945 and the post World War II anti-communist crusade that destroys many of the campaigns’ leaders and weakens their unions. The fight is not won until schools, parks, theaters and restaurants fall in the battle to desegregate Washington and a brash new union leader confronts the future. Read it here.


Beltsville Strikers Block Truck & Win Strike

Confrontation at Mineral Pigment 230Posted October 19

A strike wave swept the country in the early 1970s as workers resisted attempts by management to increase profits by squeezing more work out of fewer workers. At a small plant in Beltsville, Maryland that manufactured the pigment that colors steel, workers waged a fierce battle against a management determined to win.

For a moment in time, the workers won a decisive victory. Watch the slide show as management attempts to move a truckload of pigment out of the plant and past the strikers. The workers stopped the truck and won their strike. Watch it here.


Meat Cutters Strike Betrayed

Meat Cutters Strike Betrayed 1973 photo 3Posted October 26

The meat cutters union was one of four unions important to winning wage and benefit gains in the retail grocery industry in the 1970s. The others were the retail clerks and separate teamster locals that represented warehouse workers and truck drivers. Normally if one union struck, the others would honor their picket lines

In 1973, the meat cutters struck Giant Food and the other grocery chains locked them out. The teamster locals and the retail clerks union all voted to support the butchers, but national teamster president Frank Fitzsimmons overruled the local unions and refused to authorize a work stoppage. The meat cutters were forced to accept an offer that few would have voted for before the strike.

The solidarity broken at that time has never been fully repaired. Read it here


Washington Free Press Battles Suppression

Free Press Response to Obscenity Convictionby Craig Simpson
Posted November 7

Before blogs there was the alternative press and the local Washington Free Press hit authorities where it hurt. They published articles on revolution and how to grow marijuana, they posted undercover policemen’s photos and addresses, and broke barriers to free expression wherever they could.

Maryland authorities hit back with a grand jury investigation into “subversion” conducted by the paper. An epic back and forth battle ensued between the paper and authorities in Maryland, Virginia and the District that featured charges of pornography, multiple arrests of vendors, evictions, police break-ins, picketing a judge’s home and  outbursts in court. In the end, neither the Free Press nor laws on subversion, pornography or restrictions on news distribution survived this battle in the greater Washington, DC area. Read it here.


Maryland Marriage Equality Retrospective

Washington, DC Gay Liberation Front: 1970

Posted November 14

The victory for marriage equality in a November referendum in Maryland owes its success to years of struggle and sacrifice by countless people.  This retrospective takes a few photos from the early days of Mattachine Society, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance to show appreciation for those pioneering efforts.

The three chosen? A 1966 picket of the White House, the third conducted by the Mattachine Society.  An undated photo of early gay liberation activists at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in late 1970 or early 1971.  A torchlit march against police repression at the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, VA in 1972. See them here.


Marie Richardson Remembered

Marie Lucinda Richardson (Harris)by Craig Simpson
Posted November 19

Marie Richardson organized a women’s auxiliary to Washington Red Caps union while a teen. According to the Washington Afro American, she was the first black woman to serve at a national level in a major trade union and helped to organize federal workers in the city. She headed up the Washington, DC branch of the National Negro Congress where she fought employment discrimination, against lynching and worked to aid predominently African American labor unions.

She received little recognition for her efforts after a federal prosecutor decided to make an example of her during the McCarthy era and charged her with failing to disclose her membership in subversive organizations.  She was sent to jail for four and a half years before being paroled and she died in obscurity.  Read about her here.


Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention

Big Man Speaks to the Press 1970Posted November 25

The Black Panther Party set an ambitious agenda to hold a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention that would provide a unified platform for the disparate groups and struggles of the late 1960s.

In 1970 they held a successful rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and drew 10,000 to Philadelphia for what was termed a plenary session. However, they were unable to find a venue for the Washington, DC convention as thousands streamed into town. Shortly afterwards internal divisions and FBI dirty tricks set in motion a downward spiral for the group.  See photos here.


600 Crab Pickers Hold Out Against Terror

A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938by Craig Simpson
Posted December 5

In a town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore beset by unemployment and surrounded by racial terror, 600 black women take on the packing houses in 1938 and win.

The five week strike saw a CIO organizer’s car overturned and burned. Strike leaders houses were broken into. Vigilantes ran a federal mediator and union organizers out of the county and town leaders blocked food shipments to the strikers.

But the women stood strong and the packers gave in. They won a restoration of their pay rates and their union.  Read it here.


Pressmen Take on The Washington Post

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1by Craig Simpson
Posted December 12

The influential and powerful Washington Post prepares for battle with its unions by training management to publish the newspaper without union workers. Some pressmen disable the presses before walking out on strike.

The battle ebbs and flows through the city for two and a half months in 1975 as the unions push a boycott and the newspaper has criminal charges brought against the pressmen.  The tide finally turns against the pressmen and the city’s labor movement suffers one of its biggest defeats.

Could the pressmen have won?  Read about it here.


Gay Teacher Fights to Stay in the Classroom

Joe Acanfora Winter 1972by Craig Simpson
Posted December

Attending Penn State on a Navy ROTC scholarship, Joe Acanfora quits the program and changes his major to education and joins with other early gay activists to form a rights group on campus.

He successfully fights to finish his student teaching assignment then prevails in a battle for a teaching certificate against those who question his moral fitness.

But Montgomery County Maryland transfers him out of the classroom and eliminates his job, setting off a firestorm of protest. The courts are determined to keep him out of the classroom and use every conceivable excuse to do so.

What happened to Acanfora?  Read it here.


 

MoCo Gay Teacher Fired 1972; Justice Denied for 40 Years

20 Dec
Joe Acanfora Winter 1972

Joe Acanfora, winter of 1972. Courtesy of the Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved

By Craig Simpson

On August 29, 1972, Joseph “Joe” Acanfora III began his teaching career at Parkland Junior High School in Rockville, Maryland, instructing students in earth science.

The Montgomery County school system was not his first choice as he prepared to graduate from Penn State University the previous June.  He had hoped to teach in Philadelphia, but the Montgomery County, Maryland schools were considered strong and Acanfora was excited to begin his career.

All seemed to be going well in the classroom. Acanfora developed a rapport with his students and they seemed to be interested in what for many students was a tedious subject.

However, less than a month after starting, Acanfora was handed a letter informing him that he had been transferred to “a temporary alternate work assignment” at the school system headquarters.

Acanfora was gay.

Campus Activism

Gay activism was still in its infant stage in 1972, but it was spreading rapidly across the country, fueled in part by the energy of a generation that questioned every existing institution.

The Stonewall rebellion in New York, often cited as the birthplace of the new activism, had occurred only three years before. An explosion of varied gay and lesbian groups, from the Gay Liberation Front to the Furies, challenged the foundations of society.

The first known campus group chartered was the Student Homophile League at Columbia University in 1967. By 1971, there were at least 150 student groups across the country with names like FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression) at the University of Minnesota and RAGE (Rutgers Activists for Gay Education). Many just went by Gay Activist Alliance or Gay Women’s Alliance. Some provided a comfortable social setting for gay people while others were activist organizations. Most performed some degree of both functions.

Capping off 1971 at the  National Student Association convention, Warren Blumenfeld led the successful effort to establish a National Gay Student Center to be “staffed by gay people who were chosen by gay people and responsible to gay people on campuses throughout the nation.”

Penn State Joins Upsurge

Penn State was part of this upsurge and in 1971 students formed a campus group called Homophiles of Penn State (HOPS). Acanfora soon became its treasurer. The group was granted a charter by the student government in April, 1971, which meant the group could utilize campus facilities for meetings and post materials. Acanfora told his parents of his homosexuality shortly afterwards.

Penn State Gay Rights Banner

Homophiles of Penn State banner. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved

The university moved quickly against the group.  In May, administrators tore down the group’s bulletin boards, suspended its charter, and opened an investigation into the legality of a gay organization.

Students rallied to defend HOPS and staged a picket line in front of the administration building, supported by the student government and nearly two dozen other organizations.  “We are protesting the very fact that an investigation is being made,” Acanfora was quoted in the campus paper The Daily Collegian. With that quote he became a public spokesperson for gay rights.

Acanfora hadn’t started at the University as an activist. He had graduated from Brick Township High School in New Jersey as class valedictorian in 1968 and entered Penn State in the fall on a Navy ROTC scholarship.

By 1970, he was wrestling with his choices in life and with his own sexuality.  He quit his NROTC scholarship and changed his major to education.  He had his first date with another gay man.

As he agonized over his sexual attractions in a rigidly straight society, he sought advice from Penn State’s student counselors on what it meant to be gay and how to meet other gays. In an amiable conversation he was urged to read as much as he could on the subject, but counselors could suggest little on meeting other gays except, in so many words, to cruise downtown and make eye contact.

Acanfora knew something was radically wrong. He attended a “Free University” class on homosexuality in the fall of 1970 that first brought him into contact with others who thought like him.

Public Fight Over Homosexuality Ensues

The university completed its investigation of the student group by the fall semester and on September 1, 1971, denied a charter to HOPS.

They wrote in part, “We are advised that, based upon sound psychological and psychiatric opinion, the chartering of your organization would create a substantial conflict with the counseling and psychiatric services that the University provides to its students and that such conflict would be harmful to the best interests of the students of the University.” At that time, mainstream psychiatry regarded homosexuality as a mental disease.

Acanfora at NYC Gay Pride Parade 1972

Acanfora at NYC Gay Pride, 1972. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.

As HOPS kept up its fight for campus recognition, Acanfora began his student teaching assignment at Park Forest Junior High School in State College, Pennsylvania, in January, 1972.

On February 11th, HOPS filed suit against Penn State, attempting to reverse the school’s denial of recognition as a campus group. Acanfora was one of the plaintiffs and was quoted in the Pennsylvania Mirror as saying that HOPS was “primarily educational in nature.”

Penn State reacted quickly and terminated Acanfora’s student teaching contract on February 14th. Local school officials acknowledged that there was, “no question as to [Acanfora’s] performance as a student teacher,” according to the Pennsylvania Mirror. However, they requested his removal alleging HOPS objectives “are not compatible with the educational policies of the public school.”

Acanfora responded in the Mirror that,  “I am completely in the right—morally, socially, legally and constitutionally.” He filed for a court injunction against the removal and won.

When he returned to the classroom after a little more than a week, he was greeted with “abundant ‘we’re glad to see you back,’ and ‘glad things turned out the way they did,’” according to the Daily Collegian.  Acanfora was quoted as saying, “…if someone has courage to stand up for his rights even in the face of a powerful oppressor they can win.”

Acanfora’s words were compelling, but the fight had just begun.

The publicity throughout the state helped set off a debate in Pennsylvania over whether homosexuals should be allowed in the classroom, and it put Joe Acanfora at the center of the issue.

Acanfora received letters both pro and con. One person wrote, “I bet your parents wish many times they should have aborted you.” Another, who asked for forgiveness for not voicing public support, expressed admiration for “…the courage you have shown in standing up for your rights as a human being in the face of some formidable efforts to intimidate and silence you.”

He was already contemplating the difficulties he might face obtaining employment and told the Asbury Park Press, “I won’t tell anyone about it [homosexuality] unless I’m asked because I don’t think it has any bearing. If I’m asked, I won’t hide it.”

Penn State Stalls on Certification

Acanfora completed his student teaching assignment and received a B+ for his grade. He submitted a standard application to obtain a Pennsylvania teaching certificate, a normally routine process.

Once again, Penn State threw up obstacles.

Abram VanderMeer, dean of the College of Education, questioned whether Acanfora had the requisite “good moral character” as a self-described homosexual. He convened a university teacher certification council composed of the deans of six colleges at the university.

The panel met several times and at one point two dozen HOPS supporters crashed an education meeting and peppered several deans with pointed questions about the delay in Acanfora’s certification.  The Daily Collegian reported that Robert Lanthrop, associate dean for resident instruction, told them, “It is pointless to pursue this at the university, people are not ready to accept this [homosexuality].”

The certification council called Acanfora before it for questioning. He resisted before agreeing to appear with his lawyer.

At the meeting on July 10, VanderMeer quickly got to the point:

VanderMeer: Then, I would like to ask further: What homosexual acts do you prefer to engage in or are you willing to engage in?

Acanfora: Which homosexual acts?

VanderMeer: Yes, which acts of expression of love, as you put it, for male friends?

Acanfora: Well, there’s a certain tradition of respect for privacy in our country, and especially in an academic community, and I would think that I would ask you to withdraw that question with respect to that.

VanderMeer: I don’t withdraw the question, but you obviously don’t have to answer any questions you don’t want to answer.

The questioning went on in this vein and resembled an inquisition more than an attempt by academics to gather information. Afterwards, the council members deadlocked 3-3 on whether Acanfora met the test of “good moral character” and decided to forward his application to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education without a recommendation.

Montgomery County Schools

Acanfora applied to numerous school systems in April when he realized that his Pennsylvania teaching certification was going to be delayed. Among the systems he applied to were the Montgomery County and neighboring Prince George’s County schools in Maryland.

The Montgomery County school system asked for his “professional, service and fraternal organizations,” and for a list of “extracurricular activities” he had engaged in while in college.  Other school systems asked similar questions.  Acanfora did not list his membership in HOPS on any of them.

Acanfora interviewed with both systems seeking an earth sciences (geology) assignment with secondary students.  The Prince George’s system contacted him and offered a job, but Acanfora waited a few days before accepting to see if any other offers came in.

Frank Massey, an assistant principal of Parkland Junior High School in Montgomery County, telephoned Acanfora and asked him to come in for a second interview.  Acanfora declined because he didn’t want to jeopardize the Prince George’s job where he had only a few days before the deadline to accept.

At that point, Massey offered him the job and Acanfora accepted. A written contract was concluded on August 7th.  Acanfora began teaching earth science at Parkland on August 29, 1972. He was assigned five classes of eighth graders in addition to a home room and occasional bus monitoring.

Acanfora Wins in Pennsylvania

Pittenger Telegram Awarding PA Certification

Pittenger telegram awarding Pennsylvania teacher certification. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.

On Friday, September 22, a telegram arrived from Pennsylvania Secretary of Education John Pittenger informing Acanfora that his “performance academically and in the classroom as a student teacher fully meets the requirements of the laws of the Commonwealth” and that a Pennsylvania teaching certificate would be issued.

Acanfora had won. Pittenger called a press conference the same day to announce the decision.

After receiving phone calls from his attorney and from reporters, Acanfora notified the Parkland assistant principal that the issues surrounding his Pennsylvania teaching certificate might become public knowledge in Montgomery County.  He was interviewed by Parkland principal Guy Smith later in the day and was informed that the information would be passed on to his superiors.

Over the weekend, articles appeared in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Asbury Park Press, Washington Evening Star – Daily News and other newspapers with headlines like “Homosexual Gains Authority to Teach.”

Acanfora told the Asbury Park Press, “I’m happy not because it allows me to teach but because it permits all individuals to choose their own life styles.”  Pittenger indicated in his press conference that homosexuals who were not criminals would be issued certificates.  Acanfora responded in the Asbury paper, “I’m sure the ‘criminal’ pertains to heterosexuals also.”

County Removes Him From Teaching

By Monday, school officials in Montgomery County reacted to the press reports by recommending that Acanfora be removed from the classroom. While in the middle of teaching his last class of the day on Tuesday, September 26, 1972 Joe Acanfora was called to the office and handed a letter by Stephen Rohr, who had initially interviewed him for the job.

The letter, signed by Deputy Superintendent of Schools Donald Miedema, gave him “a temporary alternate work assignment” in the main county school administration offices until “we gather information and assess the circumstances relating to this matter.”

The letter concluded by saying that “This is in no way to be construed as a punitive action. You will receive full salary while you are in this temporary work assignment.”

Acanfora first sought to persuade local administrators and the elected school board to return him to the classroom.  The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and its parent body the National Education Association (NEA) both sent letters requesting his reinstatement.

A petition asking for Acanfora’s return to the classroom was circulated among teachers at Parkland and 61 of 83 teachers signed; 140 students at the school signed a student petition. Both were given to the assistant superintendent of schools in charge of personnel.

On October 25, the Gay Activist Alliance passed out flyers demanding reinstatement of Acanfora at a Montgomery County school board candidate forum held at Walt Whitman High School.

The irony of the venue was lost on the candidates. One ultimately unsuccessful candidate, Robert Brodie, responded, “I feel these people are sick and need help. I do not believe they have any place in the classroom,” according to the Star-News. Other candidates were more reserved, but none openly supported Acanfora’s return.

DC Blade Covers Acanfora 1972 vol 4 no 2

DC Gay Blade covers Acanfora, Nov. 1972.

The alternative press also weighed in.  “Joe Acanfora…no longer teaches; now he’s pushing a pencil at school headquarters in Rockville. Why? Because Joe is gay and admits it openly,” wrote The Gay Blade.

The Montgomery County Spark wrote, “Joe teaches a class in Earth Sciences, which has nothing to do with sex. His sexual preference has nothing to do with his job. He is not preaching homosexuality, but even if he were, he would be only one voice against all those who not only preach heterosexuality, but expect it of everyone, even homosexuals.”

Acanfora Files Suit in Federal Court.

However, these efforts did not persuade the administration or the school board to act, despite the statement of a board spokesman who said “there was never any question about his teaching ability,” according to the Washington Post.

On November 7th, Acanfora filed suit in federal court, with the help of NEA, seeking reinstatement to the classroom.

Once again, media coverage followed with articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and local papers in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Acanfora’s parents went on a public television segment to support him. Joe Acanfora Sr. recounted that when his son told him he was gay he’d said: “I loved you then, I love you now, and I’ll love you afterwards…we’re with you,” according to The Advocate.

At a Parkland Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting, some parents stood up and opposed gays teaching in the schools.  “I don’t want a homosexual teaching my boy sexual behavior”. Another added, “I don’t want any of those 61 teachers who signed the petition supporting Acanfora teaching my child…” Principal Smith added his two cents, “I personally feel what I do outside the school has to do with what I do within it,” according to the Montgomery County Sentinel.

On January 24, 1973, Penn State University entered into a settlement with HOPS to recognize the group as a bona fide campus organization. The original battle that led to Acanfora’s teaching woes had been won.

The CBS television show 60 Minutes produced a segment on the Acanfora case that aired February 25. The show featured Parkland teachers, students and parents speaking in a positive way about Acanfora.

“I’m interested in a good teacher for the kids and I saw every indication that he was exactly that. She [my daughter] really enjoyed him as a teacher in his class. His private life – I didn’t know anything about it, and I didn’t care,” said one parent on the show.

County: Wouldn’t Have Hired a Gay

Acanfora Hate Mail: 1973

Acanfora received both support and hate mail. Courtesy of the Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.

The proceedings got underway with a hearing in February on the school board’s motion to dismiss the case and Acanfora’s motion for an injunction that would return him to the classroom.

Robert S. Bourbon, attorney for the Montgomery County school district, argued in the pretrial hearing that Acanfora was “militantly activistic” as a result of appearances on television shows.  He went on to say that the board believed there were not only grounds for transfer but also sufficient grounds for dismissal because “if Acanfora had admitted he was a homosexual…they would not have hired him in the first place.”

Miedema, the deputy superintendent, filed an affidavit with the court stating that, “It is likely that he (Acanfora) will not be recommended for continuation of hire for 1973/74 nor will he be recommended for tenure.” According to the Sentinel, Miedema further indicated, “if Acanfora’s homosexuality had been known in the first place, the teacher wouldn’t have been hired and the defendants wouldn’t be involved in this litigation.”

Judge Joseph H. Young did not grant either motion and set the case for trial.

Acanfora did not back off making public statements after the hearing. According to the Daily Collegian when “asked what he thought of homosexual marriage Acanfora said he thinks it is fine, citing tax breaks married individuals receive as one reason why.”

County Testimony Calls Acanfora a “Hazard”

The hearings on Acanfora’s suit began in Federal District Court for Maryland on the cold, icy morning of April 12, 1973. Acanfora was joined in the Baltimore courtroom by family, friends, gay activists, several teachers, and a group of seminarians.

The county laid out three basic arguments for transferring Acanfora: Acanfora’s homosexuality would influence children in an undesirable way, Acanfora’s public statements forfeited any protection, and Acanfora had withheld relevant information on his employment application.

MoCo School Chief Opposed Gay Teachers

Montgomery County, MD School Superintendent Homer Elseroad in an undated photo (center) testified that gays should not be teachers

Superintendent of schools Homer Elseroad confirmed that he would not hire a gay teacher or put Acanfora back in a classroom without a court order “because teachers have a tremendous impact on students and it is not possible to separate where a teacher stops being a teacher and acts as a counselor, chaperone at social functions or as a coach.”

Dr. Reginald S. Lourie, professor of child health at the George Washington University School of Medicine, testified that Acanfora’s return to the classroom would be a “hazard” to their development and would deny them “free choice” of their sexuality. He argued that Acanfora would serve as a “model” that “vulnerable” boys would seek to emulate.

Acanfora Wanted “Equal Par”

Acanfora sought to counter this testimony by taking the stand himself and bringing in his own expert witnesses to testify about the positive effects having a homosexual teacher in the classroom would bring. His attorneys offered court cases in support of his rights.

“I never did discuss my own private sexual beliefs or feelings or I never discussed the sexuality at any level with any student in or out of the classroom,” Acanfora said under oath.

Acanfora explained that he did not list HOPS on his teaching application because “It was based primarily on the experience I had just had with the State College School Districts. I realized I had just completed four years of training to become a teacher and was judged perfectly qualified; and I realized had I put down the Homophiles of Penn State as an organization or as an extracurricular activity that I would not be given a chance to even go through the normal application process for a teaching job; that I would not be considered on an equal par with all other applicants and, in fact, would guarantee that I would not receive any sort of teaching job.”

One of Acanfora’s attorneys introduced the transcript of the 60 Minutes program, stating “…we have never subscribed to the relevancy of the post-September activities of Mr. Acanfora. It is being offered in response to the School Board’s position that he is an active, militant homosexual, as reflected on his television and radio appearances. We want the Court to have the record before it, as to what was said on those occasions.”

Dr. William R. Stayton, a psychologist and sex counselor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, testified that Acanfora’s presence in the classroom would help in “breaking down homosexual stereotypes” and “affirm the self-image” of those students who were gay.

The trial concluded after four days of testimony.

Judge: Acanfora Beyond “Bounds of Propriety”

Acanfora Loses MD 1st Round 1973

Washington Post headline June 1, 1973 after court ruled against Acanfora.

In his May 31st decision, Young blasted Acanfora’s appearance on 60 Minutes and ruled that his public statements and appearances after the transfer were beyond “the bounds of propriety which of necessity must govern the behavior of any teacher, regardless of sexual tendencies.”

In language that provided some consolation, Young also wrote that the “mere knowledge that a teacher is homosexual is not sufficient to justify transfer or dismissal. In addition, the homosexual teacher need not become a recluse, nor need he lie about himself. Like any other teacher, he may attend public gatherings and associate with whomever he chooses.”

Asked for comment by the Sentinel after the decision, Acanfora responded, “The judge said my appearances incited controversy.  I say my appearances, in fact, allayed controversy. I talked about a homosexual teacher fighting for civil liberties.”

Acanfora quickly filed an appeal with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals with the help of the NEA and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But on August 15th Acanfora got more bad news when the Montgomery County board of education voted 4-0 against renewing his contract because his job was “no longer existant.”

Board member James Daugherty questioned the move saying, “when a position is eliminated and the person has performed well in that position we usually make extreme efforts to find other jobs” for him.  Daugherty was not present for the final vote.  Of the 20 non-tenured teachers that were not brought back, only Acanfora was dismissed because the job no longer existed.

Appeals Court: Must Disclose Homosexuality

Acanfora With NEA Caucus Shirt

Acanfora with Gay Teachers Caucus NEA t-shirt. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.

In a February 7, 1974 ruling, the 4th Circuit Court upheld the county school board on the transfer, but switched its reasoning. The judges held that Acanfora should have disclosed his membership in HOPS on his employment application.

“Acanfora purposely misled the school officials so he could circumvent, not challenge, what he considers to be their unconstitutional employment practices. He cannot now invoke the process of the court to obtain a ruling on an issue that he practiced deception to avoid,” the decision concluded.

The ruling was puzzling for several reasons. The county had confirmed in open court Acanfora’s beliefs that they would not hire him if they had known he was gay.  Further, HOPS was not a recognized campus group at the time Acanfora applied and the county did not raise the issue of the employment application during the transfer process nor did Judge Young when he made the initial ruling on the case.

However there was important language in the decision. It read, “There is no evidence that the [news media] interviews disrupted the school, substantially impaired his capacity as a teacher, or gave the school officials reasonable grounds to forecast that these results would flow from what he said. We hold, therefore, that Acanfora’s public statements were protected by the first amendment and that they do not justify either the action taken by the school system or the dismissal of his suit…”

Acanfora commented after trial to the Pennsylvania Mirror, “They try something new every time.” He went on to note in regard to the application, “I didn’t put that I was a member of the Peace Coalition either.”

The End of the Road

The NEA’s DuShane Foundation agreed to fund an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and it was filed in June, 1974. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., to help bolster the case, filed an amicus curiae brief.

But in the fall the Court denied certiorari, which effectively upheld the lower court decision and ended the case. Three and a half years after becoming involved in trying to gain recognition for a campus gay rights group, Joseph Acanfora was barred from teaching in Montgomery County without further appeal.

Acanfora never taught again. “I was not motivated to fight another uphill battle trying to secure another teaching position — remember, this was 1973-75,”Acanfora said in a recent interview.

He found work in the Washington, DC, area after losing his teaching job, then relocated to California in 1978. He began a 25-year career with the University of California — first in contract and grant administration, and later in technology transfer (patents & intellectual property management).

Acanfora had a 22-year relationship with a man in Berkeley and “dabbled in gay politics over the years – taking the lead in getting Oakland, California’s gay non-discrimination ordinance on the books; helping set up administrative systems at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in its beginning days…”Acanfora said in the interview.

Joe Acanfora with Husband

Joe Acanfora with husband in 2011. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.

Joe Acanfora retired from the university in 2003 and now lives in Saigon in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with his Vietnamese partner, whom he married in South Africa in 2011. Acanfora writes mainly about his passion for food in his blog and also occasionally reports on the gay life in the country.

When asked recently how he views the tumultuous period of his life in the early 1970s, he responded,

“It changed my life.  Established a very supportive relationship with my parents and sisters. I learned so much — but feel I helped “teach” so many people beyond the classroom about gays and justice and personal conviction. Overall, one of the most meaningful and important events of my life — one I’d repeat again in a minute.”

Forty years have passed since Joe Acanfora was transferred out of the classroom and ultimately lost his job. Despite the changing attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the country as a whole and in Montgomery County, Maryland, in particular, Acanfora has never received any acknowledgement from any official in the county that actions taken against him were wrong nor have they offered to let him teach again.


Author’s Notes:

Acanfora’s battle was one of many waged across the country that brought the issue of LGBT rights to forefront and forced many people—gay and straight—to confront their own feelings and prejudices. That process has resulted in tangible progress in civil rights, but that fight also continues today.

While Acanfora’s teaching career ended 40 years ago, it’s not too late for Montgomery County to admit the position they took was fundamentally wrong and acknowledge the role he played in breaking down barriers.

Most of the information for this article can be found on Joe Acanfora’s website.  A recent interview with Acanfora also contributed to the material.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.

The Washington Post Strike at the Crossroads, December 1975

12 Dec

by Craig Simpson

Post Pressmen & Supporters Picket George’s Store

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 3

A mass picket line by striking pressmen and supporters in front of a George’s appliance store in Greenbelt, Maryland in December 1975. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

The International Printing and Graphic Communications Union Local 6, the pressmen’s union, was engaged in a bitterly fought strike at the Washington Post that reached a turning point in December 1975.

When the strike first began on October 1, a number of advertisers switched to the rival Washington Star as the Post struggled to publish a credible newspaper. It appeared for a time that the Star might supplant the Post, unless the strike was settled.

But the management gradually produced more and more pages per day without union workers, and advertisers began switching back to the Post. Picket lines were set up at stores around the metropolitan Washington area at George’s, a local discount appliance store, and K-Mart in December 1975, but failed to dissuade the advertisers from returning to the Post.

Origins of the Strike: The 1973 Printers’ Dispute

Post Printers Lockout

Printers’ union members picket the Post in November 1973 after union member Michael Padilla was fired for engaging in a slowdown at the paper. When printers stopped work, the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals. Photo by Michael Dresser, some rights reserved.

The tipping point in labor relations at the Post came during a November 1973 dispute with International Typographical Union Local 101, the printers’ union.

The Post was a profitable newspaper, but its margins were slipping compared to its other holdings. New management at the paper made the determination that profits could be increased by squeezing more out of fewer workers.

The Post prepared for a confrontation with its unions and trained non-union personnel at an anti-union facility in Oklahoma to produce the newspaper in the event of a strike by one or more of its unions. It also opened its own training facility in Northern Virginia where non-union staff were trained on the relatively new “cold” type press production that needed fewer workers.

The printers were the largest union at the Post and prepared the molten lead “hot” type for printing. They stood in the way of the Post’s drive to cut costs and increase profits.

The printers began engaging in a work slowdown to pressure management to back off its aggressive bargaining posture as they approached the expiration of their labor contract. The management retaliated by firing one printer, Michael Padilla, for engaging in the slowdown. The union responded with a sit-down strike and the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals.

The Post management then prepared an edition of the paper with non-union staff and prepared to run the presses themselves.  Members of the pressmen’s union were made aware of the Post’s plans by other union members in the building and entered the Post’s facilities saying that they were the only ones entitled to run the presses and they intended to do so.

However, they quickly staged their own sit-down strike and some minor damage was done to a few presses. They halted the paper from publishing and took the position they would not work until all other unions returned.  The Post negotiated a quick settlement with the printers and reinstated Padilla.  All the unions returned to work with nothing said about the minor damage. The pressmen were heroes to other craft union members.

But to the Post management, including publisher Katherine Graham, they had a bulls-eye painted on them and over the next two years a number of smaller skirmishes were fought leading up to the expiration of the pressmen’s labor contract.

Pressmen’s Strike Begins October 1, 1975

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1

Pressmen outside the Washington Post building in the early morning hours of October 1, 1975. Photo: Pete Schmick, Courtesy DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post, All Rights Reserved.

The regular pressmen numbered about 200, of whom only about 100 were long term employees. Most of the others migrated to Washington from out-of-town papers for higher wages or because their local unions had been broken during strikes at other newspapers.

The pressmen were viewed as the strongest union at the Post and set the pace for the other nine unions.  Their contract was due to expire September 30, 1975, but the pressmen didn’t plan to strike.  Instead they planned to continue to negotiate while honoring the picket lines of the smaller machinist union at the newspaper whose contract expired at the same time.

However, the machinists were forced to back off of a strike at the last-minute when the Post invoked a binding arbitration clause in the machinists’ contract.

The pressmen’s union leadership decided not to call a strike right away, but a relatively small, organized group of pressmen began disabling the presses at about 4 am and detained and injured a manager. A small fire was set in the printing press room. The strike was on when workers left the building and set up a picket line.  The union leadership then passed out strike signs that had been previously printed in the event of a work stoppage.

The Post was unable to publish for a day, but cobbled together non-union offset print shops around the region to print a reduced version of the paper on the second day and began returning their own presses to running order. They flew the paper produced at the Post by helicopter to printing facilities located within 200 miles of Washington. Later they printed the Sunday and other supplement material as far away as Miami and had it trucked to Washington, DC.

The other unions at the Post either went on strike or respected the picket lines of the pressmen. The exception was the Newspaper Guild, which twice held fierce debates over supporting the strike. Reacting to reports of physical abuse of some members who crossed the picket lines and the damaged presses, they overrode their leadership and voted to continue working on two different occasions, although a minority of Guild members did honor picket lines.

The striking unions called for a boycott of the Post that was supported by local organized labor, but its effects were limited. The Post’s newspaper sales dropped by about 35,000 and advertising fell from about 70% of the newspaper market to about 65%–significant, but not crippling. Some major advertisers switched to the Star and others advertised more heavily in the rival paper.

The Post’s public relations successfully exploited a highly exaggerated version of the pressroom damage (The Post filed suit for $25 million, but the actual damage figure did not exceed $270,000) as an attack on the “free press.” Later the Post demonstrated its power when a grand jury was convened to investigate strike activities, further demonizing the workers.

As advertisers began to return and revenue began to rebound by late November, the Post made a final offer to the pressmen’s union, a formality before hiring permanent replacements.  The offer would have essentially torn up the expired pressmen’s contract, while providing for some nominal pay raises.  The offer was rejected by a vote of the union members and the Post began advertising for permanent replacements for the pressmen in December.

The Post also isolated the pressmen’s union from much of the rest of the city by repeatedly pointing out the lack of any significant number of African American or women press operators in a city that was nicknamed “Chocolate City” and had more women than men.

They moved to further divide the unions from the city’s working people by exploiting long-standing charges of discrimination against the craft unions and reached an agreement with the Washington Printing Specialties & Paper Products Union, whose members moved the heavy rolls of paper around the shop and performed other manual labor.

The 100 member union was predominantly African American and had been battling the mainly white craft unions over discrimination against its members before the strike and had filed suit against several–although not against the pressmen’s union. They  returned to work and joined many of the Newspaper Guild’s members  crossing the picket lines. While not essential to publishing the paper, the agreement with the paper handlers union legitimized the Post’s position and further discredited the strikers in the eyes of many African Americans.

The momentum in the battle had clearly swung toward the management.

1,000 March & Burn Katherine Graham in Effigy

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 28

Over 1,000 striking pressmen and supporters staged a march and rally on the one year anniversary of the strike on October 2, 1976 that culminated with burning Katherine Graham in effigy in front of the Post headquarters. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

As the strike moved into 1976, the Post was effectively producing the newspaper at its own printing plant with the permanent replacements of the pressmen and non-union pressmen imported from other areas of the country. The permanent replacements were mainly African Americans along with a few women. The diversity of the replacements was showcased by the Post.

The Post unions had a support committee that worked hard to convince the broader public to back the strike. At one point a petition was circulated among prominent local residents asking that the dispute be submitted to binding arbitration.  The Post refused arbitration. AFL-CIO president George Meany held a meeting with publisher Katherine Graham, but accounts of the meeting indicate that Meany didn’t push hard and Graham was firm that the pressmen had been permanently replaced.

With defeat staring at them, the other Post unions undertook serious negotiations with management over resolving their own issues. Individual members of the various craft unions began drifting back to work.

On February 17, 1976 the mailers’ union, who sorted and bundled the newspapers, reached an agreement with the Post. They returned to work along with the printers’ union—representing about half of the 1,400 craft union workers. The other unions and their members followed shortly thereafter.

The strike was lost at this point and the pressmen’s union was broken. They were now out on their own–along with a few members of other unions who refused to go back and a committed group of supporters.

The U.S. Attorney obtained indictments against 15 pressmen while none of those who crossed picket lines and assaulted strikers were charged.

On the first anniversary of the strike– October 2, 1976–over 1,000 pressmen and their supporters rallied at McPherson Square and marched to the Post building where they burned Katherine Graham in effigy. The march was defiant, but for the pressmen it was more like a funeral.

The pressmen continued to picket the Post through the judicial proceedings. On May 20, 1977, after plea agreements were concluded in court, fourteen pressmen were given sentences that ranged from fines for most individuals to a year in jail for one pressman. The light sentences for most pressmen vindicated their account that the initial disabling of the presses was relatively minor, but it was a hollow victory.

Local 6 was decimated by the strike and ceased to exist after the Washington Star newspaper folded in 1981. The strike was one of the biggest defeats ever suffered by organized labor in the District of Columbia.

Could the Pressmen Have Prevailed?

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 30

Helicopter at Post building one year after strike began. Management used helicopters in the early stages of the strike to ferry ready-to-print versions of the paper to offset print shops within 200 miles of Washington. Photo: Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

Most accounts written after the strike point to the initial disabling of the presses on October 1, 1975 as sealing the pressmen’s fate, but that is an oversimplification.  Even with the Post’s account of “violence” monopolizing the media, the outcome was not certain two and half months into the strike.

Certainly the property damage was a factor in the Guild’s decision not to honor picket lines and gave the Post ammunition to use against the strike. But a significant number of Guild members would have crossed the picket lines in any event and the Post intended to publish utilizing non-union labor even if no damage had occurred.

Simply pointing to the “violence” in which one person was hurt and some relatively minor damage done to property does not take into consideration that the Post settled the 1973 dispute after similar, although not as widespread, disabling of the presses.

The larger error that the pressmen made was viewing the impending confrontation as a traditional battle fought by a group of skilled craftsmen who were necessary for production against a management that was making unprecedented demands but could be forced to back down as they had in the past. The pressmen applied the lessons they had learned from previous battles, like the printers’ dispute, and believed they could prevail by withholding their labor. The rump group that disabled the presses followed this thinking to its logical–but ultimately wrong–conclusion.

Instead, the pressmen faced a powerful enemy who had negated the crafts’ advantage in earlier labor confrontations. The pressmen failed to grasp the impact that technological improvements like cold type would have on the ability to produce the paper in the workers’ absence. They further underestimated the ability of replacements and management to print a paper, despite the printing craft unions’ experience in other cities. They believed that the “liberal” Washington Post would not openly “bust” a union. Perhaps most critically, they didn’t have a winning strategy to sway the broader public to their cause.

In such circumstances, the pressmen were unprepared to cast their battle as part of a larger struggle of working people that were then vigorously resisting similar demands. Employers during the 1970s sought to reverse hard-won work rules and increase productivity while holding down wages due to increased international competition and flattening profits. Workers in the Washington area and around the country were waging strikes, both legal and illegal, over the employers’ demands for more work with less pay in order to maintain their profit margins.

The craft unions at the Post did ultimately realize their need to wage a broader struggle after the strike began. They banded together and formed a “Post Unions United” group and organized a strike support committee–gathering support from other unions and activist groups throughout the city. They launched a campaign to boycott the Post, trying to identify their struggle with broader struggles with a “No Grapes, No Lettuce, No Post” slogan. They hit back at the Post for “union-busting.”

However, these slogans did not resonate. Some accounts after the strike simply noted that Washington was not an industrial city with strong unions.  This is not entirely accurate either.  The city is not industrial in nature, but the upswing in public employee unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s actively engaged tens of thousands of workers in and around the city. Strong established unions already existed in the hotels, grocery,  communications, transit, trucking & warehouses and in construction as well as other sectors.  And, workers were in a fighting mood, like those across the country.

The problem with the campaign message is that it did not capture the reason why the workers were striking and translate it into a just cause that other working people could embrace. The message used would not override the Post’s campaign against “violence” and defense of a “free press.”

Further, the pressmen left themselves vulnerable to be divided from a large, natural ally in the metropolitan area–African Americans who supported unions in much higher percentages than other population groups.

Of the craft unions, the pressmen weren’t the worst when it came to discrimination. They were not one of the unions sued by the paper handlers at the Post. They had taken on some African American apprentices and junior apprentices and had a few black journeymen. However, that didn’t alter the fact that they were overwhelmingly white in a city that was overwhelmingly black, and the larger public didn’t make fine distinctions among the various craft unions.

Unlike the city’s transit union leadership which helped force a desegregation of operator ranks within the union in 1955 prior to a long strike with the Capital Transit Company in order to diffuse the issue, the pressmen’s union did not fully recognize the damage that would be done to their position. And that’s without considering the good will that would have been generated by strides toward full desegregation of their ranks.

It’s easy now to look back and debate what should have been done 40 years ago to prepare for this confrontation and it should be remembered that the pressmen and the other craft unions, despite whatever weaknesses they had, waged a toe-to-toe battle against a determined foe for nearly three months before the tide turned against them.

We’ll never know if a clear message linking the Post unions’ struggles with those being waged by other working people, along with a reputation as a progressive union, would have made a difference in the outcome. But we can know that doing so would have made for a more effective boycott, reducing subscribers and thereby keeping more advertising dollars away from the Post. This in turn would have strengthened the rival Washington Star, putting increased pressure on the Post to reach an agreement.

Author’s Notes:

As a young union activist, I brought the Post craft unions’ boycott materials to my transit union meeting. Some of the officers of the union removed the material from the sign-in table and castigated me for supporting a strike of unions that had discriminated against African Americans. We argued for a while and a lot of the rank and file at the meeting listened in interest, but the damage that was done to the strike’s cause by unions that had failed to take meaningful steps to integrate their ranks cannot be overstated.

Most of the material for this article came from the Washington Star, New York Times, Washington Post, Washington City Paper and flyers produced by strike supporters.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


For more photos of the strike

For more photos of the one year strike anniversary march and rally

600 Black Women Stand Strong: The 1938 Crab Pickers Strike

5 Dec
A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938

Pauline Schofield with CIO button, Crisfield, MD, May 1938. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Working people in Crisfield, Maryland, were in desperate straits on the first of April in 1938.

The Great Depression hadn’t lifted yet, and 300 garment workers, mostly women, had been thrown out of work two weeks earlier when two factories had closed. One town official estimated that 90% of the Crisfield workforce was unemployed at that time.

Then, on top of everything else, on April 4th the town’s packing companies cut the amount paid to hundreds of crab pickers from 35 cents per gallon to 25 cents per gallon. The packers might have figured that the pickers would just be thankful to have a job.

Instead, two days later, 600 predominantly African American women crab pickers walked out on a five-week strike. They demanded that the rates be restored to 35 cents and that the packing companies recognize the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) as their union.

They defied mob intimidation and long weeks of privation, but won their strike—and a union.

Climate of Racial Fear

The town had a mixed history of race relations. It had experienced brutal racial violence, but also cooperation at times among black and white workers against the packinghouses.

Crisfield, previously named Somers Cove, had a population of about 6,000 in 1938, over one-quarter of whom were African American. The town, located near the southernmost portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, was heavily dependent on the seafood industry.  It billed itself the “Seafood Capital of the World.”

The town took its name from John W. Crisfield, one of the largest slave holders in the state during the 1860s and a pro-slavery congressman during the Civil War. He was defeated in 1863 by abolitionist John Cresswell in what is widely believed to be vote fraud conducted by federal troops in the state. Crisfield secured the financing that brought the Eastern Shore Railroad to the town in 1867 and the town’s name was changed to honor him.

Lynching occurred all too frequently on the Eastern Shore up into the 1930s. One had occurred in Crisfield 30 years before and there were several others in surrounding towns in more recent years.

In 1907, James Reed allegedly shot and killed Crisfield police chief John H. Daugherty.  Reed was captured while fleeing the town by boat. He was beaten to death and hung from a telegraph pole and his body was later buried in a marsh. Unsatisfied, white rioters dug up Reed’s body, cut it up, shot it with bullets and then threw it into a bonfire.  Following this, the mob ran through the black community pulling people from their homes and beating them.

Thirty miles away in Salisbury in 1931, Matt Williams suffered a similar barbaric death administered by a mob. Again in 1931, a gang of whites in Snow Hill, 35 miles from Crisfield, beat white International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and a male and female companion when they couldn’t find their African American target Euel Lee.

Twenty miles away in Princess Anne in 1933, George Armwood was dragged from the local jail with a rope around his neck, beaten, stabbed and kicked. The mob tied him to the back of a truck and dragged him down the street to a large tree. The crowd cut off his ears, took his gold teeth, and then repeatedly dropped his lifeless body from a large limb to the ground. They then dragged Armwood’s corpse back to the courthouse in the center of town where it was hanged from a telephone pole and set on fire.

Racial Solidarity in 1931 Strike

The virulent racism that characterized some sectors of the population wasn’t the whole story in Crisfield, and 1938 was not the first year crab pickers had resisted the packinghouses’ attempts to reduce their pay.

Housing at W. T. Handy Packinghouse 2: 1940

Workers who picked crabs, shucked oysters or canned vegetables were paid little and had little. Shown is housing for permanent workers at the W. T. Handy plant in Crisfield, MD  ca 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1931, the packers also reduced rates from $0.35 per gallon to $0.25 per gallon (the equivalent of seven cents to five cents per pound) of picked crabmeat.

Leroy R. Carson, who owned one of the largest packinghouses in Crisfield and also owned a packinghouse in Hampton, VA, led the move.   In what would become a recurring practice, Carson reduced rates in Hampton and used the Virginia competition as a reason to reduce rates in Crisfield.

In response, on September 8, nearly 300 crab pickers quit working and went on strike.

The strikers marched from door to door through working class neighborhoods enlisting support. Their ranks bolstered, they marched through downtown Crisfield.

In all, between 700 and 800 crabmeat pickers—of whom about 100 were white—from 22 crab-picking plants joined the strike.

They had the backing of a racially mixed group of oyster shuckers whose season was about to begin and who feared their rates would also be reduced. The U.S. Department of Labor, US Conciliation Service’s Georgia Johnson stated, “Much solidarity is reported between all workers, white and colored…”

Johnson went on to say that, “The operators are holding out, because they wish continued wage reductions through the oyster-shucking season which opens today; and that this reduction is chiefly to fix oyster shucking wages through the autumn, winter and spring seasons.”

The owner of one of the three largest seafood businesses in Crisfield, J. C. W. Tawes, was quoted as saying that “…rather than submit to the strikers’ demands he would sell out and leave Crisfield.”

Tawes demanded that Mayor William H. Bradshaw order out the police, arm the citizens or order out the militia, ostensibly to protect black women who he claimed didn’t want to strike.  He alleged they were intimidated by a mostly white, male group of oyster shuckers.

Instead, Bradshaw brokered an agreement where some packinghouses agreed to a compromise rate of 30 cents per gallon. Both the packers and the strikers were dissatisfied with Bradshaw’s deal and the packers quickly reneged and kept the rate at the 25 cent reduced level.  The strike had ended in defeat.

Labor Unrest Continues

Women Picking Crabmeat in MD: 1940 ca

Crab pickers at Milbourne Oyster Co., Crisfield, MD, 1940 ca. Image courtesy of Maryland State Archives, educational use only.

Labor unrest continued in subsequent years and there were allegations of intolerable working conditions and of the exploitation of children. Worker advocates called for crab pickers and oyster shuckers to be classified as wage workers and paid an hourly rate.

In response to federal inquiries, the packers raised the rates back to the 35 cents per gallon level.

However in February, 1934, packinghouse owner Carson told a National Recovery Act administrator that crab pickers in Crisfield were lying about conditions.  He insisted that it was not rates that were to blame for poor conditions of workers in Crisfield, but instead the federal government: “I can prove that one family there is getting $15 a week federal aid.  The wife won’t pick crabs and the husband won’t shuck oysters.”

He went on to say that the rate for crab pickers should be about 5 cents a pound and that he was opposed to an hourly rate.   He reasoned that the crab harvest was unpredictable and thus could not be subjected to an hourly wage.

In December, 1935 the packers again unilaterally reduced rates and 100 workers struck, temporarily closing all but three packinghouses that had not reduced rates.

CIO Organizing on the Shore

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore unions were scarce and organized African Americans were almost unheard of. But by 1937, the CIO was leading a movement that organized male and female, black and white workers into single industrial unions.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937

Black & White workers at the Phillips plant in Cambridge MD unite during 1937 strike. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The first big battle in the packing industry on the Shore occurred at the massive Phillips packing plant in Cambridge, MD, during a strike in 1937. Over 2,000 black and white workers united and waged a vigorous two-week struggle demanding wage hikes and unionization.

At one point a group of several hundred white and black strikers marched on the city jail and freed a black striker. They ultimately lost the strike and did not achieve a union independent of the company, but the effort was well publicized throughout the Eastern Shore.

The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, CIO that had been active in the Phillips strike began organizing in Crisfield.  In November 1937, three organizers of the cannery union were run out of Crisfield by a crowd of about 50 whites while trying to organize among oyster shuckers.

Leif Dahl, east coast organizer and national executive board member of the union, telephoned Governor Harry W. Nice and asked for protection for Michael Howard, secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, and his other organizers.

Crisfield Chief of Police Willard Laird claimed no knowledge of the incident but Mayor Bradshaw said he told the organizers to “withdraw peacefully” from the town because it “was not the proper time for their efforts”, according to the Washington Post.

Dahl vowed that the organizers would return to Crisfield, and the union representatives came back to organize quietly among oyster shuckers and crab pickers. Despite the intimidation, one of the smaller crab picking houses was organized in 1937.

The Strike Begins

In 1938, pickers’ pay was back up to 35 cents per gallon. At that rate many pickers earned between $1 and $1.50 weekly, although faster pickers could make as much as $5 per week or more. Out of these earnings, workers paid 35 cents weekly for removal of the crab shells they had picked.

A reduction back to 25 cents a gallon meant many workers’ already meager earnings would be cut by as much as a third.

The packinghouse owners announced the cut April 4, with the exception of Nelson R. Coulbourn’s packinghouse that continued to pay the old rate of 35 cents per gallon.

Pickers at every packinghouse except Coulbourn’s walked out April 6 and the packinghouses shut down.

The packers may have initially thought that the women would cave after a few weeks and the houses would be open in time for crab season that was to begin May 2.

The packers may also have considered the timing of their rate reduction.  The 1931 rate reductions occurred just before the beginning of oyster season and threatened the rates of oyster shuckers.  This reduction occurred near the end of the oyster season, making the oyster shuckers’ support of a strike less of a factor.

Shiloh United Methodist Church, Crisfield: 2012

Shiloh ME Church, Crisfield, MD shown in 2012. The CIO crab pickers union held meetings in the church & the grassy area in foreground is where a union organizer’s car was overturned & burned.

Local stores were pressured to cut off credit to the strikers, but Howard organized a food committee and began raising funds and food for strikers among the CIO unions and churches in Baltimore.

The workers—mostly African American women—held meetings to keep the strike organized and cope with their lack of income at the Shiloh ME (United Methodist) Church just off Route 413 on N. Fourth St. at the entrance of the town.

As the strike began its third week, Robert W. Knadler, a field examiner for the National Labor Relations Board, arranged a meeting between the packers and Howard. The conference quickly broke up when Howard demanded a contract guaranteeing rates for a definite period.

As the strikers held firm, the packinghouses, watermen and farmers combined forces. The watermen who set the lines to catch crabs were nearly all white, and the season was about to start with the packinghouses closed. Local farmers feared the cannery union would organize agricultural workers like it was attempting in New Jersey.

Mob Terrorizes Community

A white crowd estimated at between 100 and 300 gathered near a black section of town on N. Fourth Street on April 21. The mob broke into the home of two sisters who were on the strike committee, Eleanor Coulbourne and Martina Cooper.

Afro on Crisfield Strike with Headline, Article & 3 Photos: 1938

Afro American April 30, 1938 with banner headline “Troopers Halt Crisfield Mob,” story, “600 Girls on Strike” & 3 photos of strike, including Howard’s overturned & burned auto.

Mob leaders declared they would “ruin” Cooper and Howard if they found them, according to the Afro American newspaper. They broke into at least one other house on the street, but couldn’t find Cooper, Howard or another strike leader whose name they said was Terry Fowler.

Unable to find the strike leaders or the CIO organizers, they turned to the Shiloh Church on N. Fourth St. where Howard’s auto was parked. The mob overturned Howard’s car and set fire to it in front of the church.

The Associated Press reported, “The men were said to have been incensed because the organizers had been seen often in the Negro settlement.” According to oral history in Crisfield, Howard was hidden in Upturf, another black neighborhood located on Collins Street, about a half mile north of the church.

The local strike leaders stayed at home during the day, but took refuge with friends at night. Unable to find any of the organizers or strike leaders, members of the mob threatened to “burn the whole block,” according to the Afro American.

Mayor Bradshaw blamed the incident on “radical” and “hot-headed” persons, according to the Associated Press. The Afro American reported that Bradshaw said he was “not sure” whether the mob burned the car at all or whether it “caught fire itself.”

Union Organizers Forced Out of Town

Crisfield Sheriff William Dryden said he and his deputies were out of town during the car burning and when they returned did not make any arrests. The next day, Dahl reported from Salisbury that he had been “forced out of town” by vigilantes. He sent a telegram to Governor Nice requesting protection. Mayor Bradshaw denied any knowledge of Dahl’s eviction from the town.

Upturf Area, Possible CIO Refuge in Crisfield: 1938

Upturf area of Crisfield where CIO organizer Michael Howard may have been when his car was overturned & burned. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The following week, another CIO organizer was accosted. The men stopped an unidentified Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) union representative in front of Boycraft factory, where 200 shirt makers were employed.

He was taken down a dirt road to the Somerset County line and was warned not to try to organize workers.  “We don’t want to hurt you, but you got to get out of town,” said one member of the mob.  According to the Washington Post, the departing organizer stood up in his automobile and said, “I am a CIO organizer and I don’t want to get hurt, but I’m coming back.”

Federal Conciliator Evicted From Crisfield

On April 28, the same day the ACWA organizer was run out of town, federal mediator Stanley White was also ushered out.

In the morning, a group estimated at 150-200 men, who thought he was Howard, stopped White and detained him, then let him go.

When he went back to his lodging, proprietor James Byrd ordered him out of the Somerset Hotel.

“I ordered him out because back of him there was possible trouble. For three days he has been riding around town with Michael Howard and has been a bigger nuisance than Howard. He has even started more trouble,” Byrd said, according to an account in the Washington Post.

Byrd contacted US Rep. Thomas Goldsborough (D-MD) and asked him to get White recalled by the federal government.  A telegram arrived to that effect several hours later.

Before he left town, White went to a meeting where town officials, packinghouse owners and union representatives were to meet and confer.

A. Stengle Marine, Maryland Commissioner of Labor and an Eastern Shore resident, was asked by the governor to attend to help attempt a settlement. Governor Nice also dispatched Major Elmer P. Munshower, commander of the state police, to Crisfield to “report the true facts.”

Before Marine or Munshower arrived, some of the vigilante crowd began tossing firecrackers at White, the federal mediator. The situation became uglier and White left the meeting and went to his car.  When he cranked the ignition, a blast was heard and the auto rocked violently.  Someone had rigged a type of loud explosive to go off when the car was started, although no actual damage was done to the auto. White was then escorted out of town.

The crowd, unsatisfied at evicting White turned their attention to Howard. After much shouting and firing weapons into the air by the crowd, Howard was also escorted out of town.

Mob Violence Begins to Backfire

The anti-strike group had overplayed their hand. Running union organizers out of town usually didn’t attract a lot of attention, but evicting a federal mediator not far from Washington, DC was perhaps like poking a sleeping bear.

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Meeting of CIO crab pickers union at the Shiloh M E Church May 1938. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The Baltimore Sun editorialized, “One need not pass judgment on the merits of the strikers’ demands to insist that a community has failed in its duty when its police do not protect a labor organizer or an official interested in settling the strike. The situation at Crisfield is confused by the race issue, since the crab pickers are almost entirely Negro women, but that fact, while it may explain the antics of the vigilantes, does not excuse them.”

The Afro American was more direct: “Observers here point out that the defiance of the packers is one of the most open revolts against the National Labor Relations Act and are watching to see what the NLRB will do in the Crisfield situation where both labor and racial rights have been invaded.”

“So grave is the situation that the slightest untoward happening, it is said, would act as a spark to begin an orgy of lynchings, murders, burnings and the general destruction of property,” the Afro American wrote.

An in-depth article in the Baltimore Sun by Alfred Charles, an Eastern Shore resident, was published April 30 with the headline, “Crisfield Merchants and Citizens Lay Crab Pickers Strike to CIO.” The piece gave the impression that the packers might be willing to settle the strike, but not to bargain or sign a contract with the CIO.

Food Shipments to Strikers Blocked

Vigilantes began stopping all cars coming into Crisfield and demanding that occupants state their business.

Howard had collected 1,000 pounds of food to distribute, but was prohibited by town authorities from moving it in, according to the Afro American. Dahl asked Gov. Nice to provide an escort for the food, but Nice stalled for time.

The Afro wrote, “Crab packers, who have openly defied all constituted authority, together with local officers and leaders, have resorted to the tactics of starving the striking crab pickers out in order to force them back to work.”

N R Coulbourn: Packinghouse Did Not Reduce Rates: 1938

Virginia Lankford or Jackson at N. R. Coulbourn packinghouse in May 1938. Coubourn did not reduce rates and workers did not strike this plant. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Throughout the strike, the women had not engaged in picketing and had instead organized quietly out of the public view.

Five smaller packinghouses opened back up with the start of the crabbing season May 2, one paying the old rate of 35 cents and the other four paying the reduced rate, in addition to the N. R. Coulbourn house that had operated continuously since the strike began. This first chink in the strikers’ armor now put some pressure on the strikers, although the large packinghouses remained closed.

Perhaps coincidentally with the reopening of some of the packinghouses, twelve extra state troopers began appearing in Crisfield, assigned by Munshower to keep order in the town. In any event, no arrests were reported of those involved in illegal activities designed to intimidate the striking women.

Women Head to Washington

On May 3, the striking women made their next move. Three of the striking crab pickers, along with Howard, traveled to Washington. There, Senator Robert La Follette (Prog.-WI) promised careful consideration of their request for an investigation after hearing of the deplorable working conditions and the violence directed toward the strike organizers and leaders. The women, whose identities were closely guarded, also met with Maryland’s two senators, Labor Department officials and federal conciliators.

The packers again failed to appreciate the politics of their actions. The Afro reported that “Packers have let it be known that the women sent to Washington to complain to the government won’t be safe if they return to Crisfield.”

The same day, the union filed charges that eleven Crisfield packing companies were violating the National Labor Relations Act.

Packers Change Their Tune

Now understanding for the first time that the tide was beginning to turn against them, the packers altered their public position.

Back in Crisfield, Marine reported the packers did not attend scheduled meetings on April 30 or May 3 to attempt to settle the strike because—they now claimed—the plants were closed because of unprofitable operations and not because of any refusal to deal with the CIO.

Marine went on to report that J. C. W. Tawes told him, “When we are ready to operate we will deal with the representatives of the workers.”

The women were holding firm while pressure was mounting on the packers. The widespread press exposure of mob activity and resistance to the Depression-era labor laws brought political pressure from both the Governor and the federal government to settle the strike..

As the strike moved into the crab season, watermen were forced into longer, more expensive trips to sell their crabs elsewhere and the Crisfield packinghouses were losing money to packers in other towns.

Victory for the Strikers

CIO Union Wins at Crisfield: 1938

May 13, 1938 edition of the Labor Herald, an independent Baltimore based labor newspaper.

On May 9, most of the large packers broke ranks and gave in.  Meeting at the Cambridge home of Marine, representatives of eight packinghouses and Howard agreed to the terms of a contract.

The agreement was signed May 10 to restore the rate to 35 cents a gallon and recognize the CIO cannery union as the bargaining agent for the workers.  Howard, whose auto had been burned and who had been run out of town more than once, signed for the union.

Tawes, who once said in 1931 that he would close the plant rather than accede to strikers’ demands, was a signatory.  The N. R. Carson Company, which had led the drive to reduce the rates, was another signer.  In all, the agreement signed by eight packinghouses covered well over half of the crabmeat pickers in Crisfield. It was among the first large seafood worker contracts on the East Coast.

Aftermath

The national cannery union had only been formed in 1937 and achieved explosive growth, particularly among African Americans in the South and migrant workers in the West. By the Spring of 1938 it had 347 locals and 118,000 members. The cannery union also made progress in Crisfield and was able to organize oyster shuckers at a number of plants in Crisfield by 1942.

The cannery union quickly came under attack for communist influence. US Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), who chaired the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, took testimony before his committee that named Dahl as a member of the Communist Party in 1938. In 1941, the Washington Post reported that the Dies committee named Michael Howard as a communist.

Leif Dahl, East Coast Cannery Union Leader: 1936

Leif Dahl, in charge of East Coast organizing for the CIO cannery union shown at a New Jersey meeting of agricultural workers in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The American Federation of Labor, in a bitter rivalry with the CIO at the time, sent in its own organizers to try to wrest some of the packinghouses from the CIO union and organize the unorganized. They gained a foothold at several packinghouses in Crisfield in the early 1940s, including the W. T. Handy Co., one of the larger packinghouses where the CIO had not obtained an agreement.

In 1944, the cannery union became the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America (FTA) and was by then a leader among unions for the rights of women. Sixty-six percent of the contracts nationwide contained “equal pay for equal work” provisions, 75% contained maternity leave without loss of seniority provisions, and 44% of its elected representatives in the food service division were women.

However, after World War II, the FTA came under vicious red-baiting attacks by AFL unions, employers and elected officials, and it began losing units as quickly as it had gained them in the late 1930s.

By 1948, the AFL Meat Cutters & Butcher Workman’s Seafood Workers Local 453 were voted as the exclusive bargaining agent for nearly all packinghouses in Crisfield including J. C W Tawes & Son and C W. Howeth, completely supplanting the CIO union.

In 1950, the FTA was expelled from the CIO with nine other unions for alleged communist influence. Already in decline, it fell apart quickly after the expulsion and its few remaining workers were folded into the Distributing and Processing Workers of America.

Seafood Workers Local 453 continued to represent the workers in Crisfield and made significant improvement in wages and working conditions from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s. However, the ongoing decline of the Chesapeake Bay crab and oyster harvests and the related closure of nearly all packinghouses meant a long, slow decline in membership.  The closure of a Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish plant put an end to the union in March 1990.

(This post was updated 12/10/2012 to include Addendum 2 as part of this post.)

(This post was updated 12/28/2012 to include the Labor Herald image  in Addendum 2)

Author’s Notes

This 1938 strike led by black women workers that ended in a tangible victory is remarkable for many reasons and it represents one of the few victories on Maryland’s Eastern Shore by African Americans fighting against determined resistance prior to the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

The material for this article is derived mainly from resources in the Maryland State Archives, the National Archives, The Crisfield Heritage Foundation, The Baltimore Sun, The Afro American, The Washington Post, Pedersen’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, Reutter’s Making Steel, & Feltault’s It’s How You Pick the Crab.

Accounts of this strike would be strengthened by original material from the strikers themselves—oral history, letters, diaries etc.  Hopefully future researchers will bring more of this remarkable story to light.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Addendum I: Crisfield Heritage Foundation – “Returning Home: Photographs from 1938”

In Aug. 2009, a photography instructor in California who had historical images of the Crisfield area contacted the Tawes Museum.

They are well composed, high quality images taken during or immediately after the strike (a wall calendar in one of the photos is turned to May 1938). However, the photographer, purpose and how they ended up on the West Coast are unknown.

The style, subject matter and medium are similar to US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographs from that period and cover most aspects of life in Crisfield.

Ten of the images are on permanent display at the Tawes Museum at 3 Ninth St. in Crisfield. Call ahead at (410) 968-2501 to arrange to see all of these stunning photos (there are 88 total images).

The images shown from the collection on this site are low-resolution, distorted versions of the photos and it is worth the trip to see the whole collection and the detail portrayed in the collection. The images shown on this site do not do the originals justice.

One of photos in the collection may show the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters marching in Crisfield, while others show farm life, scenes of the town, industry and the people who lived in that period, including a number of photographs related to the crab pickers strike.

The photographs in this series are property of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation. All rights are reserved.


Addendum 2: Michael Howard – Fighter for Workers

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Union meeting at Shiloh ME Church in Crisfield MD, May 1938. Speaker is possibly Michael Howard. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Michael “Mike” Howard (formerly Smith—he took his wife’s last name when they married) joined the Young Communist League in 1932.

By 1936 he had joined the Communist Party (CP) and secured work at the Eastern Rolling Mill, a steel plant of about 1,000 workers just outside of Baltimore. Bethlehem Steel owned the plant and was fighting unionization tooth and nail at all its locations.

Howard put the first chink in the company armor when he successfully led a strike at the mill in 1936 that led to wage and benefit gains for the workers.  In 1937, he obtained union recognition for the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers Local 1245 and signed the first contract as president of the local union.

He served as secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, the umbrella group for CIO unions.

As an organizer for the cannery workers’ union, he traveled constantly through hostile territory on Maryland’s Eastern Shore . He helped guide the largely African American women crab pickers to victory in their 1938 five week strike against the Crisfield, Maryland packinghouses, despite being run out of town on several occasions and having his car overturned and burned.

In 1936, as a member of the CP, he helped a team recruit new CP members from Cumberland, MD at the huge Celanese Mill. They ended up forming much of the core for the successful CIO organizing in Western Maryland.  Howard became the liaison between the CIO and the Communist Party in Maryland.

Eastern Rolling Mill Strike Won: 1936

Howard led the strike at Eastern Rolling Mill to victory in 1936. Labor Herald, Vol. 1, No. 5, June 26, 1936.

As a CP member in 1936 he also volunteered to go door-to-door in East Baltimore to gain support for unionization at Sparrow’s Point, the massive mill in Dundalk outside of Baltimore. He worked briefly as an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America before securing employment himself at the Point.

He worked hard to persuade his co-workers to vote for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in a 1941 National Labor Relations Board election. Following the union victory, he was elected zone committeeman in charge of all grievances for 2,400 workers in the open hearth department, the biggest in the mill.  Notably while there he fought for promotions for black steelworkers. Eventually he was chosen to chair the whole mill’s grievance committee.

When President Harry Truman seized the coal mines during a 1946 strike and the Taft-Hartley anti-labor, anti-communist act passed in 1947, Howard felt Truman was moving to reverse all the gains that labor had made. He threw himself into the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 and quit attending CP meetings when he felt they were not sufficiently backing Wallace’s candidacy.

The steelworkers union was backing Truman and promptly removed Howard as zone committeeman on trumped-up charges of malfeasance. In 1951 he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) where he refused to answer questions about individuals, despite the CP expelling him three years earlier.

The company didn’t fire him as he expected, but he was stung when his coworkers, whom he had fought so hard for, stopped speaking to him. Many eventually came back around but, in a 1982 interview with author Mark Reutter for the book Making Steel, he reflected:

Really, I thought I was fighting on a different level. I was fighting on a level which went to my Marxist beliefs, and I was working for them on a level which represented only their particular interactions with the company. And perhaps it shows what a poor job I did in radicalizing and politicizing the people in my department. Perhaps I should have done a better job of bringing the two together. I’m sure I could have done a better job than I did.

Isolated from his coworkers and his comrades and frozen out of his union, Howard quit the plant in 1953, went back to school, and later worked conducting experiments with precision instruments that he had first encountered in the steel mills. Michael Howard died on June 30, 1986.

Black Panther Party Revolutionary People’s Convention: November 1970

25 Nov

The Black Panther Party’s influence peaked in September 1970 when 7,000 attended a plenary session of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia PA. Many believed that an organized, broad-based revolutionary movement would follow the adoption of a common platform at the full constitutional convention Nov 27-29, 1970 in Washington, DC.

This movement toward bringing together the many threads of struggle in the US under a unified program was halted when authorities in the Washington, DC area refused to permit the Panther-sponsored group to meet or imposed financial barriers that were impossible to reach.

Thousands arrived in the District to find no adequate meeting space and the unity sought proved elusive. Soon afterward, the Panthers were wracked by an internal split and declined in influence.  Much of the rest of the New Left splintered as US involvement in the Vietnam war winded down.


Elbert Howard & Ossie Davis, June 1970

Big Man & Ossie Davis at Panther Rally 1970

Elbert “Big Man” Howard and actor Ossie Davis at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, June 19, 1970 to announce the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. Photo by Bernie Boston, courtesy of DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.


Panthers Banner in DC, June 1970Panthers Raise Banner at Lincoln Memorial 1970

Rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial June 19, 1970 attended by about 1,000 calling for a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention that would unite the struggles of black liberation, independence for Puerto Rico, students, women’s, gays, workers and other fights behind a common program. Photo by Thomas J. O’Hallorgan & Warren K Leffler, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Call to Philly Plenary, Aug. 1970
Call To Philly Panther Convention 1970

Image from page 23 of the August 29, 1970 issue of the Black Panther that advertises the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention plenary session scheduled for Philadelphia, PA Sept. 5-7, 1970.

The Philadelphia plenary drew over 7,000 (the Panthers claimed 15,000) and generated much excitement that unity would be achieved among disparate struggles in the country.

Image is from a microfilm copy of the newspaper and posted by the Rainbow History Project.


DC Convention Call, Sept. 1970
1970 Black Panther DC Convention Call

An unsigned and undated flyer following the Black Panther Party sponsored Philadelphia plenary session of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in September 1970. The flyer is a call to come to Washington DC to unite under a revolutionary banner Nov. 27-29, 1970.

Thousands had rallied in Philadelphia and expected that the Washington, DC convention would be the culmination of an effort to forge a revolutionary program and unite many sections of the American left.


Panther Press Conference, Nov. 27, 1970
Big Man Speaks to the Press 1970

Black Panther Party leader Elton “Big Man” Howard speaks to the press in front of the Washington, DC Panther Community Center at 1732 17th Street NW on Nov. 27, 1970.

Howard demanded that Howard University drop its $10,000 deposit requirement and provide free space for the Panther sponsored Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. Authorities had pushed institutions hard to deny space to the Panthers.  The DC Armory Board and the University of Maryland had already turned down requests for facilities.

At the press conference, Howard said that revolutionaries arriving in the city would stay three days or three weeks if they had to. Ultimately, no adequate space was found. A rock concert was held Nov. 27 in Malcolm X Park (Meridian Hill) that drew over 5,000 and churches provided some space to the gathering. However, most of the meetings scheduled to hammer out language could not be held.

Huey Newton, chair of the Panthers who had been recently released from jail, spoke Nov. 29 to 600 packed into St. Stephens of the Incarnation Church located ironically on Newton St. NW while another 2,000 listened though loudspeakers outside.

Newton promised another gathering to finalize the new constitution, but none was ultimately written or adopted. The Panthers soon underwent a decline, along with the New Left that provided much their external support, as internal splits and a dissipating movement took their toll.

Photo by John Bowden, courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post.


To see more information on the history of the Washington, DC Black Panther Chapter, see the Washington Area Spark Flickr set description “DC Black Panthers 1969-74.”

To see more information and photos on the Black Panther Party and what former Panthers are doing today, visit It’s About Time.

A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson

19 Nov
Marie Lucinda Richardson (Harris)

Marie Richardson, a labor & civil rights leader in the 1940s, was imprisoned during the McCarthy era for 4 1/2 years. Photo D A Harris, ©Afro American Newspapers.

By Craig Simpson

Marie L. Richardson (Harris) was a leading organizer for civil rights and labor unions in the District of Columbia from the late 1930s until 1950.

Her pioneering work helped to organize the predominately African American Washington red caps union and their women’s auxiliary while still a teenager. She was a leader of the early fight to integrate Capital Transit operator jobs.  She was an active member of the National Negro Congress and served as the executive secretary of the local branch.   

According to the Afro American newspaper, she was the first African American woman to hold national office in a major labor union. In her role as national representative of the United Federal Workers, CIO she helped lead the union’s organizing drives and battles against discrimination inside the federal government in the District.

The price she paid for her leadership was four and a half years in a federal penitentiary, a victim of  McCarthy-era persecution.

Fighter In Her Youth

Marie Lucinda Richardson was born September 4, 1920 to Mattie and Griffin Richardson in Washington, DC and grew up in a row house at 1638 Florida Ave. NW along with her brother Thomas “Tommy” Richardson.  She attended the segregated District of Columbia schools, graduating from Morgan School in 1932, Garnet-Patterson Junior High School in January 1935 and Cardozo High School in January 1938.

DC Red Caps Union: 1938

Griffin Richardson (back row, 2nd from right) with Washington red caps union in 1938. Photo: Scurlock, courtesy National Archives.

Her father had been a baggage handler at Union Station since it opened in 1907 and was an officer in an early association of red caps. On July 5, 1933, he was a founder of the Washington Terminal Station Porters, a red caps unit fighting for better working conditions.

While still in high school, Marie Richardson helped her father organize the group into a union. The effort inspired red caps in other cities and in January 1938, they banded together to form the International Brotherhood of Red Caps later renamed the United Transport Service Employees.

In 1939, Richardson helped organize the women’s auxiliary of the union and was chosen as a national officer of the auxiliary in January 1940.  She was re-elected in 1942.

Youth Organizer and Early Work

After graduating from high school, Richardson attended Howard University and Terrell Law School and during that time worked at the dean’s office at Howard for two years. From 1940-42, she worked at the Office of War Information as a messenger and the Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard as a machinist, where she was also active in the United Federal Workers (UFW), CIO.

Cardozo High School Class: 1938

Marie Richardson (3rd row, middle, surrounded by those in white) with Cardozo High School 1938 mid-year class. Photo: Scurlock, courtesy National Archives.

In 1941, Richardson was an organizer for the National Conference of Negro Youth and served as acting secretary of the “Washington Initiating Committee” of the conference.

She led the organizing of the three-day November conference of the organization enlisting the support of prominent civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, popular entertainer Fats Waller and arranging for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to speak at the conference.

In her role as youth organizer, she began fighting to desegregate government and industry in the District. “Our purpose is to give special attention to Negro young people who have been discriminated against in Washington or who have been working at jobs not commensurate with their qualifications,” she said in a statement.

Richardson’s committee began the early work on ending Jim Crow hiring at Capital Transit by soliciting letters and petitions from groups and individuals in support of hiring African American streetcar and bus operators. This work laid the groundwork for the eventual integration of operator ranks at the company in 1955.

First Black Woman National Representative at Major Union

She was selected national representative of the United Federal Workers (UFW), CIO in the Spring of 1943, becoming one of the first (perhaps the first) African American women to serve at that level in a major labor union.

Richardson worked to organize federal workers and the cafeteria workers employed by quasi-private contractors in federal and defense department cafeterias.  She helped lead the UFW organizing efforts and fights against discrimination at Freedmen’s Hospital, teachers at Howard University, the Bureau of Engraving, Federal Security Agency and US Treasury Department.

During the World War II years she also volunteered for the Office of Civilian Defense where she received two commendations for her work as a sector air raid warden.

Executive Secretary of DC National Negro Congress

Richardson had been active in the local chapter of the National Negro Congress (NNC) since the late 1930s.  The NNC was a broad civil rights organization based in the black working class that emphasized direct action in contrast to the legal strategy of the NAACP.

She was selected as executive secretary of the District of Columbia unit of the NNC in 1945 where she continued work on police brutality, voting rights for District of Columbia residents and desegregating the operator jobs at the Capital Transit Company.

When Charles Hamilton Houston resigned from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) in protest of President Harry Truman’s thwarting an order forcing the transit company to hire African American operators, Richardson drafted a letter from the local NNC blasting Truman.

The letter charged that Truman’s actions were “in substance, a declaration of support of the Jim Crow laws in operation” in the District. “Your letter [Truman’s] is a cynical welcome for colored veterans returning to their homes in Washington looking for fair employment without discrimination,” the letter continued.

Marie Richardson at Home at Her Desk

Marie Richardson at Florida Ave NW home in 1946. Photo: D. A. Harris Jr.©Afro American Newspaper.

While at the NNC, Richardson led the local campaign to pass a bill for a permanent federal FEPC. Despite the Capital Transit debacle, the FEPC had helped to desegregate some of the defense related industry during World War II.  When a filibuster was conducted in the U.S. Senate to stop the bill, Richardson led picketing at the home of each Senator blocking the bill (see photo of Richardson picketing here, click “browse this newspaper” & navigate to Feb 2, 1946 edition, page 24).

The bill ultimately died in the Senate. However, President Truman issued an executive order in 1948 prohibiting employment discrimination in the federal government.

She organized an outdoor anti-lynching rally in July 1947 that drew 500 people where Savannah Churchill, a popular singer, declared that “people must unit themselves to stop the terrible crimes” of lynching. As organizer of the event, Richardson offered resolutions adopted by the group in support of federal anti-lynching legislation and condemning discrimination in the District of Columbia.

In late 1947, the NNC merged into the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a group that had originally been created to pursue legal and legislative strategies.

Richardson’s work with the NNC spilled over to the CRC and she helped build support for the strike over wages and benefits by Local 471 of the United Cafeteria Workers (UPW, CIO) union in 1947 and again in 1948 when the union waged an 11 week strike after a government-sponsored corporation refused to bargain with a “red union.”

In 1948, she took a job as campaign manager for Joseph Rainey, Progressive Party candidate for Congress in Philadelphia.  Rainey’s grandfather was the first black congressman during Reconstruction and Rainey had been elected magistrate in Philadelphia and had served as president of the Local NAACP chapter. Rainey lost, but out-polled Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in the district.

After returning to Washington, Richardson assisted Henry Thomas’s Building Laborer’s Local 74 in their one-day strike in June 1949.  In the post WWII years, Richardson was also active with the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Council of Women and the Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax.

In 1950, Richardson moved to New York City with her husband, Rev. Benjamin Harris who became the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia in Long Island.  The two operated a dry cleaning establishment to make ends meet.

Federal Loyalty Oath

In March 1947, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order requiring loyalty oaths of all government employees.  Current and prospective employees were required to pledge they were not members of the Communist Party and to disclose, in writing, current and past membership in organizations deemed “subversive” by the Attorney General.  It was the opening salvo in a series of actions that drove most communists and other left-wing activists out of jobs in government and private industry and out of the labor and civil rights movements.

The initial “subversive list” was published in the federal register March 20, 1948 and included the National Negro Congress, the Civil Rights Congress and the Communist Party.

The order did not provide criminal penalties, but set up “loyalty boards” to fire employees it deemed guilty of disloyalty.

Shortly after the order went into effect in 1948, Richardson applied for and was hired for a temporary clerical job at the Library of Congress where she worked for three months.  In May 1949, she re-applied and was hired again for a clerical job at the Library where she worked for several months before her move to New York.

Markward Infiltrates Communist Party

Long before the loyalty oath, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was spying on left-wing organizations, including the Communist Party.

Mary Markward Testifies Before HUAC: 1951

Mary Markward testifies before HUAC. Her testimony helped convict Marie Richardson and send her to prison. World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The FBI approached Mary Stalcup Markward in March 1943 to infiltrate the District of Columbia Communist Party after the FBI determined that several of her beauty shop customers were associated with the group.

Markward worked diligently at routine Communist Party tasks and was elevated to local treasurer and a member of the governing board of the Maryland-DC state party. Markward was in charge of membership, including the collection of dues from District of Columbia party members.  During this time Markward made regular reports to the FBI.

In June 1951, Markward began testifying in secret before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) about communist activities in the Washington area, ultimately naming over 200 people as members of the Communist Party.  In July, Marie Richardson and her father Griffin were named in newspapers as members of the Communist Party identified by Markward.

Richardson Indicted, Faces 40 Years

By November 1951, it was the height of the Korean War where the US sent troops against communist-led forces. Eleven national unions had been expelled from the CIO labor federation for alleged communist ties, along with numerous members of individual AFL and CIO unions. Julius & Ethel Rosenberg had been sentenced to death for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Leaders of the US Communist Party were jailed under the Smith Act and many more members and left-leaning activists were under investigation or facing trial.  None were convicted for any specific alleged acts to overthrow the government, but were instead jailed for alleged communist beliefs or membership in the Communist Party.

Some were jailed for contempt when they refused to answer questions in Congressional hearings about their beliefs, organizations they belonged to or people that they knew or may have known. Others had their names and addresses published in newspapers, were fired from their jobs and blacklisted.

Richardson was indicted November 30 for “false and fraudulent statements” stemming from her signed loyalty oaths and her job applications for the library clerical jobs in 1948 and 1949.  She faced a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for each of eight counts that charged she had not revealed past membership in “subversive organizations.”

Critics of loyalty oaths contended that they accomplished little and the government was determined to prove them wrong.  Richardson’s imprisonment would show that the loyalty oath program worked.  Further, jailing Richardson who no longer lived in the area or worked for the federal government would bolster the message that anyone who was affiliated with left-leaning unions and civil rights organizations were not safe unless they renounced other members and the organizations.

William Hitz, Assistant United States Attorney sent out a chilling message that, “he expected there would be many more [indictments] here and elsewhere.”  He made a point to say that Richardson was “uncovered” during a “routine” FBI loyalty check, although authorities were well aware of Richardson for years.

Among the organizations Hitz cited in support of the indictment were Richardson activities with the National Negro Congress, American Youth Congress, Americans for Peace Mobilization and the Americans for Democratic Action along with the Communist Party.

Arraignment & Suppression of Defense Committee

At Richardson’s December 14 arraignment, she was released on $1,000 bond pending trial set for January 17, 1952.  Before she could leave the courthouse, Richardson was detained by US Marshals who demanded the names of those who had helped her with bail money.  Richardson refused to answer their questions.

Ralph Powe, a prominent CRC attorney from New York, represented her at the arraignment and charged that it was “…another attempt on the part of the government to silence outspoken colored leaders.”

If anyone doubted the government’s desire to make an example of Richardson, that notion was quickly dispelled.

Committee to Defend Marie Richardson Pamphlet: 1952 ca

Committee to Defend Marie Richardson pamphlet, 1952 ca.

January 13, 1952, police raided a party to raise money for Richardson.  Twelve police officers broke up the party attended by about 60 persons and arrested one for selling whiskey without a license.  According to the Afro-American, police seized an envelope marked “Marie Richardson Defense Committee” containing $980 as evidence.

Richardson was detained, but not arrested by police.  However, police took the names and addresses of all persons at the party “in case witnesses were needed,” and confiscated the list of contributors.

The drive to sandbag defense efforts later resulted in the 1953 attorney general listing of the Committee to Defend Marie Richardson  as a subversive organization.

Trial and Conviction

Powe put together a strong legal defense team for Richardson.  James A. Cobb was a former municipal court judge and a vice-dean of the Howard University law school. George A. Parker founded the Robert H. Terrell School of Law in 1931 and later was appointed as a federal judgeBarrington Parker was law partner with his father, defended Paul Robeson and W. E. B DuBois and was later appointed by President Nixon as a federal judge. George E. C. Hayes was the lead attorney on the Supreme Court case that desegregated Washington, DC public schools in 1954.  Powe was a veteran civil rights attorney.

However, the team was only able to obtain a brief postponement to prepare and the trial began February 18 before Judge James R. Kirkland and a jury of eight whites and four blacks

The short time between arraignment and trial resulted in long hours for the defense team.  Barrington Parker told the Afro-American newspaper that most of each night was spent in research, resulting in little sleep for any of them.

The government’s called only three witnesses.  The first, Leon W. Seidner, chief of operations at the Library of Congress, testified Richardson denied communist affiliations in applying for clerical jobs in 1948 and 1949.

The legal case against Richardson hinged on the testimony of Markward and that of Henry Thomas, the laborer’s union president who quit the Communist Party in 1949 and denounced those he alleged to be members to HUAC in 1950.

Thomas testified that he had known Richardson since 1939 and had been at meetings of the Young Communist League with her. Thomas further testified that he and Richardson had been at a number of different meetings with high profile Communist Party leaders over the years.

DC Home of Marie Richardson: 2012

DC home of Marie Richardson where she grew up and stayed during her trial shown in 2012.

Under cross-examination defense attorneys quickly had Thomas back peddling on a number of assertions.  He recanted numerous dates and places of meetings when challenged and admitted that he or his wife had invited many of the communist leaders to the meetings, some of which had been meetings of the NAACP. At times Thomas was uncertain whether Richardson had even been present.

Markward’s testimony was more crucial, given her job as keeper of the Communist Party membership records.  Markward testified she [Markward] filled out Richardson’s membership card in her own handwriting in 1946. However, Markward said that Richardson never picked up the card. Markward further testified that she kept the card in her own possession. The card was entered into evidence by the prosecution.

Under cross-examination Markward admitted that she saw no documents signed by Richardson indicating that she was a party member, “I have never seen Mrs. Richardson fill out a party card,” Markward acknowledged.

In other evidence, Markward testified that Richardson once gave a report on the local National Negro Congress of which Richardson was then executive secretary.  Under cross-examination, Markward admitted the aim of the Congress was to “better the status of negroes,” but also testified that the organization received support from the Communist Party.

Defense attorneys challenged her motivation and branded her as a paid informant, but Markward said her work was “without compensation” and denied receiving any funds from the FBI, other than incidental expenses, and said her motives were patriotic.

When the trial ended after more than a week, no Communist Party membership card in Richardson’s writing or dues payment records with Richardson’s name were produced and defense attorney Hayes told the jury there was “no evidence anywhere that Mrs. Richardson ever joined the Communist Party.”

Hayes went on to say that Richardson’s long association with the National Negro Congress only showed that she “dedicated herself to do something for a race of people with which she was identified.”

The jury began deliberations late February 28 and the elder Parker expressed the belief that a hung jury would result.

However, after six hours of deliberations the jury returned to the courtroom. Each juror stood and read his or her verdict on each count.  Two of the African American jurors hesitated for a long moment before softly saying guilty, but Richardson was convicted on all counts. The anti-communist hysteria of the day was ultimately too much to overcome.  Kirkland refused bond and remanded Richardson to jail pending sentencing.

Sentence & Further Degradation

On March 7, Kirkland sentenced Richardson to a prison term of 28 months to 7 years and fined her $2000.  Kirkland gave gushing praise to Markward saying, “she gave valiantly of her services. She deserves to take her place alongside of Molly Pitcher, Barbara Fritchie and Clara Barton.”

He blasted Richardson and admitted he was sentencing her for her beliefs, “Your teachings at your mother’s knee and your American father should not have permitted you to embrace such false doctrines.  You, a highly educated woman, have brought this upon yourself.” Kirkland again refused to set bond during appeal and remanded her to jail.

In another apparent attempt to degrade her and send a message to others, she was hauled before a grand jury investigating drug trafficking almost immediately after sentencing.  When Richardson said she wanted to consult a lawyer, she was not questioned, but the incident was publicized by the local newspapers. Assistant United State Attorney Thomas Wadden, Jr. declined to state to the Washington Post why he was calling Richardson. Richardson was never recalled to testify.

Appeals and Prison

Richardson’s defense team eventually secured her release on $5,000 bail.  David Rein and Joseph Forer, attorneys with extensive experience defending accused communists, assisted with the appeal. A number of grounds for overturning the verdict were raised, but most significantly that Markward had misled the jury on a key point.

After the trial, documents were discovered that showed Markward had been paid a little over $24,000 by the FBI–which equates to about $207,000 in 2012 dollars or about $30,000 per year—at odds with the small-reimbursed expenses Markward claimed during trial.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that “the contentions made by [the] appellants are insubstantial.  There is no reversible error and the judgment of conviction and the order denying the motion for a new trial must and hereby are affirmed.”

Richardson’s attorneys appealed back to Judge Kirkland for a reduction of sentence and sought a US Supreme Court review.  They were turned down on both counts.  In July 1954, Richardson was ordered to jail and sent to Alderson Federal Penitentiary in West Virginia.

Richardson’s Release

Richardson was denied parole several times and served four years before a group of African American ministers persuaded the parole board to reconsider their decision.

Appearing before the parole board on Richardson’s behalf were Rev. Ct. T. Murray, pastor of the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, The Rev. N. H. Travis, Salem Baptist Church; the Rev. Andrew Fowler, president of the Baptist District Convention, the Rev. J. H. Randolph, chairman of the Fraternal Council of Churches and the Rev. Wendell C. Somerville, representing the Baptist Ministers Conference.

Richardson was finally released from prison in October 1958.

Richardson died without fanfare March 6, 1987. Richardson’s final viewing was held March 12, 1987 at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC and her final resting place is in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, MD.

Author’s notes:  Richardson’s contributions to the District of Columbia labor and civil rights movements were lost in the anti-communist frenzy of the 1950s. Her pioneering stint as perhaps the first African American woman to hold a major national trade union office receives scant attention in labor, civil rights and women’s histories. The injustice of four and a half years in prison related to a loyalty oath that was overturned by the Supreme Court years later has also been forgotten.

Most information for this article came from the Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta Daily World, Washington Post, Washington Star, Ginger & Christiano’s “The Cold War Against Labor,” court documents and HUAC transcripts.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by e-mail at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com. 

MD Marriage Equality: Over 50 Years in the Making

14 Nov

Fifty years ago sodomy laws made lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships illegal—defined by authorities at that time as sexual perversion.  LGBT individuals were routinely arrested, fired from employment from both the federal government and private employers and condemned as mentally ill by psychiatrists.

A few images from the early battles in the Washington, DC area…

White House Picket for Gay Rights: 1965

White House Picket for Gay Rights: 1965

The Mattachine Society, the first homosexual rights group in the modern era in the Washington, DC area, was formed by Franklin Kameny and Jack Nichols in August 1961. On April 17, 1965, the Mattachine Society held the first organized public demonstration for gay and lesbian rights in at the White House.

Pictured above is Ernestine Eckstein at the third White House picket sponsored by the Mattachine Society, October 23, 1965.

For some other great images of the early Mattachine Society picket lines at the US Civil Service Commission, the White House and the Pentagon and other actions, please see the Barbara Gittings & Kay Tobin Lahusen gay history papers and photographs on the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Image from Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen gay history papers and photographs.  Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen.  Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection. Permanent link at NYPL: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1605764

DC Gay Liberation Front 1970

Washington, DC Gay Liberation Front: 1970

This photo is undated and at an unidentified location. It is probably at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Washington DC in December 1970 or January 1971, judging by the clothing worn and the slogan “set the date” which was not in widespread use until late 1970.

The image was used to illustrate a Washington Star in-depth story entitled, “The New Radicals,” published January 24, 1971 about the DC Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

The article summarized the Nov. 28, 1970 demonstration at the Zephyr Bar on upper Wisconsin Avenue after four GLF members were refused service.  Several dozen GLF members and supporters came to the restaurant and staged an impromptu demonstration chanting slogans inside the restaurant.  Some minor property damage occurred and twelve GLF demonstrators were arrested, although charges were later dropped.

The Star feature story also outlined the early Nov. 1970 GLF disruption of a conference on the “psychiatric treatment of homosexuals” at Catholic University and the role GLF played in the Black Panther’s Party sponsored Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention also in Nov. 1970.

See the history of the DC GLF and GLF photos on the Rainbow History site.

Explore the many faceted history, documents and photographs of the LBGT movement in Washington at Rainbow History.

Photo by Joseph Silverman published January 24, 1971. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

Gay Alliance Protests US Park Police: 1972

Gay Alliance Protests US Park Police: 1972

On January 5, 1972, members of the Gay Activist Alliance staged a demonstration against US Park Police near the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington Virginia.

Police had arrested over 60 people in a wooded area of the park in the preceding five months for “obscene and indecent” acts.  The Washington Blade reported many of those detained complained they had been entrapped by the eight undercover officers assigned to conduct arrests.

A group of about 20 activists rallied at North Meade St. in Arlington, VA and marched to the memorial chanting and alluding to the entrapment by carrying signs like, “Don’t Expose Yourself, You May be Impersonating an Officer.”

Park police arrested six protesters for “demonstrating without a license.”

In that time period sodomy laws were used to jail anyone deemed guilty of “sexual perversion.” Sexual perversion was defined by police and courts to include anyone gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

This demonstration marked one the earliest open revolts against the use of police to break up activities of consensual adults in the DC area.

See the Gay Activist Alliance press release on entrapment at Iwo Jima. Explore the many faceted history, documents and photographs of the LBGT movement in Washington at the Rainbow History site here.

Photo by John Bowden. Courtesy of the DC Public Library, Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

Washington Free Press Battles Suppression 1969-70

7 Nov
Judge James H. Pugh Orders Subversion Probe: 1969

Judge Pugh’s grand jury probe of Free Press “subversion” sets off battle. Photo courtesy of DC Public Library, Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

By Craig Simpson

The Washington Free Press, an alternative newspaper of the late 1960s, published for only three years.  Its legacy was an epic clash with local authorities that ended in a blaze of glory as the tabloid’s battle against suppression gutted Maryland’s McCarthy-era anti-subversive law and helped roll back the definitions of obscenity.

Its greatest victories and defeats came after Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James H. Pugh ordered a grand jury investigation into the newspaper in March 1969 for advocating, “the destruction of the state and destruction between the schools of this county and the duly constituted law enforcement agencies thereof.”

Background

The Washington Free Press started as an intercollegiate paper but began publishing as an alternative newspaper on a two-week basis in March 1967. The issues contained New Left, Old Left, pacifist and anarchist opinions and information mixed with mysticism, advocacy of psychedelic drugs, cultural writings, artwork and poetry.

Alternative newspapers of various stripes were published in practically every sizable city and town in the country during a time when black militancy, the  “counter-culture” and anti-Vietnam war protests and were sweeping the nation.

The Free Press was sold at head shops and other sympathetic outlets, but most of the 20,000 copies each issue were sold on street corners by individuals who paid ten cents per copy to the Free Press and sold the paper for 20 cents.  Often the newspapers were advanced to sellers who were expected to repay out of their proceeds.  Both display and personal advertisements also helped finance the paper. Staff turnover was constant, the newspaper paid only a small stipend per week and most staff lived communally.

The paper began to directly challenge authorities in 1968 when a majority of the staff embraced the Youth International Party politics of cultural and political confrontation.

Newspaper More Provocative

There was always police harassment of street corner sellers and two people hawking the Free Press were arrested for selling obscene material in Rehoboth, DE in 1967, but authorities largely ignored the newspaper.

However, by 1969 the Free Press published the names, addresses and photos of alleged undercover agents, regularly used four letter words and called police pigs. They published articles on how to grow marijuana and wrote about revolution. In the process, they developed a large following among high school students.

Authorities in Montgomery County, MD began a counter-attack in February 1969 when three students were suspended at Gaithersburg High School for distributing the paper.

Police followed up by arresting David Kramer for selling the paper outside of Northwood High School a week later.  They charged Kramer with not having a permit for sales within 500 feet of a school.   However, charges were quickly dismissed against Kramer, the son of Montgomery County council member Rose Kramer, when a judge ruled that the permit requirement was aimed at food trucks and similar businesses.

Judge Pugh Orders Grand Jury Investigation

Undaunted by this legal setback, the county pressed on.  On March 3, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James H. Pugh, citing the 1949 Maryland “Ober Law,” told a grand jury it was a felony to commit “any act intended to overthrow, destroy or alter, or to assist in the overthrow, destruction or alteration of” a political subdivision of the state “by revolution, force or violence.”

He told the grand jury that if they found the Free Press had violated this law, they should, “indict the staff, publishers and printers of the paper,” according to the Washington Post.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) quickly denounced the Free Press investigation.

Pugh was already a well-known opponent of social justice advocates.  In 1960, Pugh imposed fines on five people convicted of trespassing during the picketing demanding integration of Glen Echo Amusement Park telling them, “Imagine, college students from New York and college students from other places trying to force your ideas on the way other people run their businesses.”

He presided over the 1961 rape trial of James & John Giles, after impanelling an all-white jury.  The Giles brothers were accused of raping a white woman.  After they were convicted, Pugh sentenced the brothers to death. The case went to the US Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial.  After a six-year fight by their defense committee and lawyers, prosecutors dropped charges against the Giles brothers in 1967.

Pugh also sentenced a Chevy Chase bookstore owner to six months in jail in 1961 for selling a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, telling Samuel Yudkin he had “flagrantly violated the laws of Maryland.”

When a District man came before him in 1965 for stealing $461 worth of lead bars, Pugh served notice that “the overflow of the criminal element from Washington” can expect harsh sentences.

“This court wants you to know that when criminals such as you come out here to Montgomery County, MD, you are going to be dealt with severely,” he told Eddie Terrell as he sentenced him to a 10-year prison term.

Cartoon Ruled Obscene, 6 month Jail Sentence: 1969

Free Press response to Pugh’s subversion inquiry. From page 7, March 15-31, 1969 issue.

The Free Press Raises the Ante

Free Press responded to the grand jury investigation in its March 16-30 edition by publishing a seven page attack on the judicial system that began with a relatively small caricature of Pugh masturbating while sitting behind a dais where instruments of torture hung.  The drawing was entitled “He’ Comm D’Judje” (sic).

One of the articles specifically criticized Pugh and printed his unlisted phone number and Chevy Chase address advising readers to call or visit him.

The County responded March 21 by having police seize 100 copies of the paper at an Empire Records store on Old Georgetown Road for obscenity.  Owner Jim Seward was told that the paper was “no longer approved,” according to the Washington Post.

Police Arrest Dillingham

That evening Montgomery County activist J. Brinton “Brint” Dillingham began selling the newspaper outside of the Bethesda police station after hearing of the Empire Records confiscation.  Police quickly arrested Dillingham and a 17-year old companion and charged them with possession of obscene literature.  Dillingham was released on bail and a trial date set for April 17.

The Free Press’ printer refused to run another issue and the paper scrambled to find a way to publish the paper before securing a New York print shop.  The delay and subsequent increase in cost forced the paper to publish its next issue two weeks late.

Picket Judge Pugh’s Home Over Subversion Inquiry: 1969

Demonstrators picket Judge Pugh’s home April 4, 1969 over subversion probe and obscenity arrest. Photo: Pike. Courtesy DC Public Library, Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

April 4, more than thirty demonstrators picketed Judge Pugh’s home.  Joe Forer, a longtime attorney of left-leaning defendants who also led the successful appeal of the Giles brothers’ conviction, filed suit in federal court to overturn the sections of the “Ober law” cited by Judge Pugh.

On April 7, Dillingham was tried in a courtroom packed with more than 100 supporters, including one wearing a copy of the Pugh cartoon pinned to his shirt.

During the trial, Forer introduced evidence that Phillip Roth’s best selling novel Portnoy’s Complaint containing explicit sexuality was sold at a Walden Book Store managed by Montgomery County state’s attorney William Linthicum’s wife.  Linthicum, who was prosecuting the case, stipulated that he had no intention of prosecuting the store’s proprietor.

Forer noted that he believed the only reason this case was being tried is because it lampooned a judge.

People’s Court Judge Willard J. Nalls convicted Dillingham of passing out obscenity and sentenced him to six months in jail. Nalls told Dillingham, “I don’t think you have to be an art critic or write for a newspaper to determine whether something is obscene. I think this picture falls clearly within that language.”

Dillingham Convicted of Obscenity in Free Press Case: 1969

Sister, mother & brother of Dillingham outside Bethesda court April 7, 1969. Photographer: unknown. Courtesy of DC Public Library, Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

Judge Nalls set a $5,000 bond for Dillingham prompting Forer to respond, “You’re kidding! I’ve seen murder cases where it wasn’t that high.  As Dillingham was being led away, Dillingham supporter Richard Crouch began rhythmic clapping. Nalls shouted, “You’re in contempt of court!” Dillingham supporter Michael Mage responded, “You’re in contempt of us.” Nails cited and fined both for contempt of court.

A Montgomery County Bar Association resolution condemned the Free Press and supported Judge Pugh saying they were “…outraged at the vilification of a member of our bench.“

Bar president Richard B. Latham, went on to say, “It is inconsistent for persons to flout some parts of our Constitution and then seize upon other parts of the very same Constitution for their protection.”  Forer responded, “They talk about flouting the Constitution.  My opinion is that the constitutional rights of those who publish and distributed the Free Press have been grossly flouted.”

Meanwhile nearly every jurisdiction in the Washington area began a concerted drive against the Free Press.

The Montgomery County Council passed a resolution to investigate Free Press distribution in the high schools.  Prince George’s state’s attorney Arthur “Bud” Marshall called for an injunction against Free Press distribution to anyone under 18.

On April 8, a Washington, DC Free Press salesman was arrested at 16th & K Streets NW after being stopped by police.  His crime was using obscenity when he told an officer, “Arrest me if you want to, I’m tired of this s__t.”  A Kensington youth was charged with possession of obscenity when police stopped him for a traffic violation and found two copies of the paper in his car on April 11.

The Paper Fires a Second Round

The Free Press responded with perhaps its biggest “stick in the eye” when in published its April 16-30, 1969 edition.  It placed a large, self-censored version of the Pugh cartoon on the front cover as a “connect the dots” illustration along with the admonition:

Free Press Response to Obscenity Conviction

Free Press ups the ante in their April 16-30, 1969 issue by placing Pugh cartoon on front cover.

Hey, gang! Connect the numbered dots and display your artwork at the institution of your choice. (Evaporated milk and a sponge will do the job.) The name of the game is “Subversion-Perversion”.

The District opened an investigation of the paper for operating without a corporation franchise license.  The District police carried out a court-ordered search of the newspaper office citing the Free Press publication of excerpts of documents obtained during a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) takeover of the Sino-Soviet studies offices at George Washington University.  Police found nothing.

Two more Free Press peddlers were arrested in Salisbury, MD, April 26 for distribution of obscene material.  District police arrested another two at 15th & New York Ave NW for vending without a license May 12.

Dillingham Repeatedly Arrested

Dillingham’s appeal of his obscenity conviction to Circuit Court was scheduled for June 9 where a trial by jury would take place. Dillingham operated Freedom House, a youth activities center located at 4927 Cordell Ave. in Bethesda as director of Compeers, a social action group.  Police were determined to shut Freedom House and through the landlord had obtained an eviction notice.

Police began harassment of young people in the area of Freedom House on June 3 and continued for next three nights. On June 6 police arrested 21, including Dillingham, in front of the group’s house to “forestall vandalism” and for “loud noise, profanity and general disorder.” A spontaneous demonstration outside the Bethesda police station was staged by about 50 people as word spread throughout the county.

While the arrests were taking place in Bethesda, Detective Gabriel C. Lamastra, who originally arrested Dillingham March 21, appeared before the Society of the Holy Name at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville. Lamastra appealed to those present to attend Dillingham’s upcoming circuit court trial and passed out copies of the Free Press that contained the caricature of Judge Pugh masturbating.  Lamastra was not arrested.

On June 7, Dillingham was arrested again when police confronted youths at a county parking garage across the street from Freedom House.  Dillingham was charged with “failure to move off public property when ordered by a police officer.” In response, 75 young people marched on the Bethesda police station.

By the end of the week, Dillingham had been charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, creating a public nuisance and making excessive noise in addition to the failure to move charge.

Dillingham Re-Tried Before Jury for Obscenity

Dillingham’s re-trial in circuit court began on June 9.  The cartoon was “a shameful and morbid interest in sex, nudity and excretion” and thereby aroused “prurient interest,” according to state witness Ralph P. Oropollo, a Kensington psychologist.

Defense witness Frank Getlein, an art critic for the Washington Star, testified that the caricature was “clearly a political attack on a political figure on the grounds that the severity of his decisions is related to a perverted sexual condition.”

Freedom House Evicted: Bethesda, MD 1969

Dillingham outside Freedom House after eviction June 26, 1969. Photo: Brig Cabe. Courtesy DC Public Library, Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

The jury began deliberations after 10 pm on June 10 and continued for nearly 5 hours.  The verdict of guilty was read at 3 am in front of several dozen Dillingham supporters who stayed through the night.  Later that morning, a court ordered Freedom House evicted.

Dillingham’s bail of $5,000 was continued and his lawyers quickly set about appealing the verdict.

The conviction and sentence drew widespread condemnation in letters to the Washington Post.  Many critics cited the disparity between Dillingham’s sentence and the June 1969 $300 fine given Prince George’s People’s Court Judge Richard E. Painter  for breaking the nose of a woman and threatening her with a revolver.

Drive Against Paper Continues

However, the verdict spurred jurisdictions in the Washington area to raise the level of their own campaigns against the paper.

On June 19, two street distributors were arrested in Arlington, VA and charged with displaying obscene literature for a cartoon contained in the Free Press by Robert Crumb that was then being displayed in an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The following day, Fairfax, VA police arrested the owner of Discount Variety store after a police officer bought the paper.  Billy Morrow was charged with distributing obscene literature.

District police arrested Brian Neville that evening at 2nd and Pennsylvania Ave SE after he sold two copies of the paper to a detective.  Neville was also held on distribution of obscenity charges with a $1,000 bond.

On June 23, Prince George’s County police raided a College Park, MD store, seized 300 copies of the Free Press plus a “Wanted” poster of Jesus Christ.  Lawrence Woodruff, owner of the Joint Possession, and a 17-year old employee were charged with selling obscene literature.  Woodruff was also told he may be charged with “blasphemy.”

June 24, Alexandria, VA ordered police officers to arrest Free Press distributors.  According to the Washington Post, police went to two stores where they believed the paper was sold but came up empty as the owners told them they no longer carried the paper due to legal concerns.

By July, the ACLU filed several suits in federal court to enjoin police in the Washington area from “harassing, intimidating, persecuting and attempting to suppress the publication” of the newspaper. One of the suits sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

Attempt to Suppress the Paper Take a Toll

The crusade against the Free Press was taking a toll on the paper.  Printing and shipping the paper from New York added cost to an already precarious bottom line. The loss of advertisers, distributors and street sellers intimidated by the authorities’ campaign further cut into the finances of Free Press and the staff struggled to continue publishing.

The paper was further hurt by competition from the Quicksilver Times, a similar Washington area alternative paper, which began publishing in June 1969. Quicksilver’s politics differed from the Free Press in that it was more closely aligned with the Revolutionary Youth Movement faction of SDS.  The Free Press was also impaired by internal staff disagreements.

However, the Free Press won its first victory in September when the Pugh-ordered grand jury probe ended with no indictments.  The jury reviewed a number of documents and interviewed detective Lamastra, but concluded that criminal charges were not prudent.

In December 1969, the Free Press published what would turn out to be their last issue and reached an all time circulation high of 25,000.

In January the Free Press office was broken into and their files on undercover police officers were stolen while items of value were left alone.  Holes were knocked through the wall of an adjacent men’s room to gain access.  No arrests were made. The staff continued to struggle to put out another issue that would have covered the December 1969 Chicago police killing of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton.

On January 28, 1970, Prince George’s Judge Roscoe Parker convicted Woodruff of distributing obscene material telling him that the Free Press was a “piece of trash” that “should be banned.”

Parker went to proclaim that, “To say that this is art is ridiculous. It’s obnoxious, truly obnoxious (and) …repulsive to even suggest” that the cartoons were art.  During the trial, Parker refused to allow a Prince George’s librarian to testify on community standards.  The Hyattsville MD branch of the library had the Free Press on its open shelf in the adult section and two other branches subscribed to the paper.

Subversive Law Thrown Out

The Free Press won a resounding victory February 2 when a three judge federal court threw out most of Maryland’s “Ober law” and

Joseph Forer, the attorney whose appeals overturned Dillingham’s obscenity conviction & gutted Maryland’s anti-subversive law in an undated photo.

criticized Judge Pugh.  The court left standing only the provisions that dealt with actual acts of violence and overt acts, striking down any parts dealing with speech or membership.

In specifically rebuking Pugh, the court held that any indictments against the Free Press would have been unconstitutional, “based only on the facts submitted to the grand jury by Judge Pugh.”  State Attorney General Francis Burch was quoted in the Washington Post saying that the “Ober law” was now “almost impotent.”

After nearly three months of struggling to overcome its financial problems, the Free Press officially announced they were unable to continue publishing in March 1970.  The newspaper, however, continued to live and fight in the courts.

Dillingham Cleared of Obscenity

Dillingham received a birthday present July 15, 1970 when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed his obscenity conviction for selling the Free Press.

Judge Charles A. Thompson said in the majority opinion, “Although Freudian concepts of sexual motivation for human conduct, as expressed by the cartoon, have come under fire recently, they are not so discredited that the Court could say those ideas are utterly without social worth.”  The court also found that the caricature of Judge Pugh had not exceeded contemporary community standards and that it did not appeal to prurient interests.

At the time of the decision, Dillingham was continuing his fight against repression by running for Montgomery County Sheriff on a platform of disarming all law enforcement officers and freeing all political prisoners.

The Free Press continued its string of victories after its death when a three-judge federal panel invalidated requirements that determined who could sell newspapers on city streets.  Fingerprinting had been one of the requirements to get a license.  On February 12, 1971 the judges found the city’s bureau of licenses and inspections had “no appropriate standards” to determine who received licenses.

The ruling came over “Tasty Comix” that had originally been distributed as part of the Free Press, but continued to be suppressed as a separate publication on street corners after the Free Press ceased publication.

In August 1971, Federal District Judge Howard Corcoran declared a National Park Service rule that had been used as the basis to arrest street vendors of alternative newspapers unconstitutional.  Corcoran ruled on a suit brought by the long dead Free Press that the rule was “overly broad” and had served as a prior restrain on free speech.

Corcoran warned police that “there should be no repetition of police activities” in which vendors were arrested for lacking a license to sell newspapers.  Parks are “areas traditionally open to the public for the exercise of First Amendment rights…such parks as Dupont Circle, Farragut Square and Lafayette Square lie in the center of business activities…and are often the sites for demonstrations.”

Courts Rule Free Press Not Suppressed

The Free Press wasn’t the only newspaper targeted in that time period.  The Quicksilver Times was declared obscene in February 1970 by a judge in St. Mary’s County, MD  after Scott Bennett was arrested with 50 copies getting off a bus in Lexington Park.  The Voice from the Mother Country was suppressed in May 1970 after an FBI raid on its offices ostensibly looking for Cathlyn Platt Wilkerson, a Weather Underground fugitive.

Black Panther Party newspaper vendors were also harassed.  In August 1970, police arrested a man for selling the Black Panther paper in front of a Montgomery County drug store.

Despite winning in court on nearly every substantial issue, on May 16, 1973, the US Court of Appeals upheld a District Court ruling that metropolitan police had not consistently suppressed the Washington Free Press and Quicksilver Times newspapers, denying their request for claims and the ability to present additional evidence concerning police harassment.

In essence, the string of court rulings gave police the green light to suppress free speech and press activities in the moment while overturning those actions later after the threat had subsided.  Nonetheless, the Free Press wins in court over repressive anti-subversive, obscenity and restrictive news distribution laws were real victories.

Author’s Notes: Many of the participants on the Free Press side of the fight are unknown.  Many went by first names only.  Among those who should be recognized are J. Brinton Dillingham, Joseph Forer and all the Free Press staffers including first among equals, Christopher Webber.  Bill Blum, who founded the paper along with seven others, should also be acknowledged.   And last but not least, all the Free Press vendors and street distributors who took the brunt of the harassment and arrests.

Most of the information in this posting came from the Washington Post, Star and Free Press and from court documents.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by e-mail at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com. 

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