For someone convicted of inciting to overthrow the United States Government by force and violent means, Sherman Labovitz (SW'72) comes across as tame.
His talk on Monday, Jan. 18 at Kelly Writers House expanded on the personal and regional encounters with McCarthyism contained in his autobiographical narrative "Being Red in Philadelphia."
"There were real communists running around," he smiled as he addressed the audience at one point. "And I was one of them."
Labovitz was arrested in July of 1953 under the provisions of the Smith Act, a law ostensibly written to stop the spread of communism stateside. At the time he was the local circulation manager for the Daily Worker and a member of the Communist Party, which he left in 1957.
The 1954 trial of Labovitz and eight others, collectively called the Philadelphia Nine, was at the time the longest federal trial in the history of Pennsylvania's Eastern District. It resulted in lenient sentences for the defendants.
As Labovitz explained it from the packed front room, the trial set a precedent in the way men and women were tried for communist activity or association. The Philadelphia Nine, "made it impossible to use the Smith Act as it had been used before." Prosecutors had been traveling from city to city around the country using the same set of witnesses against alleged communists' behavior. After Philadelphia the prosecutors had "a trial of perjured witnesses," Labovitz said.
Speaking to the full house, Labovitz explained why he wrote "Being Red" last year. "I found I was the sole defendant still alive in the Philadelphia area. There was something really glorious that happened at the time of the trial. Some people today are saying, 'Ohhh, it wasn't that terrible.'" Those in the room old enough to have lived though the period nodded in approval as Labovitz described loyalty oaths teachers and federal employees had to take.
Labovitz summed up the spirit of the period with a joke aimed at the paranoia of his foes. "'I'm an anti-communist,' a young man claims. 'I don't care what kind of communist you are,' yells a Senator. 'Go back to Russia!'"
Originally published on January 28, 1999