Frances Gabow’s life-just 10 years shy of a century–is a history book of political struggle in the 20th century. “And I don’t regret a thing,” she told a crowd celebrating her 90th birthday recently.
Clear-eyed and eloquent as one half her age, the life-long member of the Communist Party USA regaled the crowd with stories that most people can only read about in history books:
- the jailing of union organizers Bill Jennings and Tom Mooney;
- the Scottsboro Boys and the Willie McGee cases;
- campaign to protect the foreign born;
- McCarthy hearings;
- Sacco-Vanzetti case.
“Sacco-Vanzetti? “You were only 6 or 7. What could you do then?” she was asked.
“Well, not much,” she replied laughingly. “But my parents took me to meetings and vigils against their execution. Baby sitting wasn’t in vogue then, and I started to soak up what would turn out to be a way of life for me.”
Family tree has deep roots
Her father, Jacob Kramer, a charter member of the CPUSA, was accused by some friends of the family “of brain-washing his children”, she recounted. “‘Not so,'” he told them. “‘The schools and the streets have my children 75 per cent of the time. And if I don’t expose them to another point of view, they won’t have a choice.'”
Mr. Kramer had his political consciousness raised in Russia against the czar.
Frances also gave her two children a “choice” and they in turn did likewise with their children. Some chose the Party, like her daughter, Rachel and granddaughter, Jenn. “The others are progressive liberals in disposition,” she said.
“Politics aside,” she continued, “I had a very good education and good exposure to the arts.” She attended the world-famous Martha Graham School of Dance, “and we had season tickets to the theatre.”
In the 20s and 30s, The International Workers Organization (IWO) had schools all over offering new immigrants, and all people, a curriculum of language, culture, citizenship and politics. “Yes, I learned about Karl Marx,” she continued, “as well as Yiddish. I also performed in plays.” And the best-selling children’s books, the Bobbsey Twins, were a staple in the Kramer household. “We had full lives,” she said.
As a teener, and now a member of the Young Communist League, Frances had the pleasure of seeing three productions of “Hamlet’ in the 30s, starring John Gielgud (” best”), John Barrymore (“ok”), and Leslie Howard (“eh”).
But the 30s also saw the Depression and the struggle to form unions, which led to Frances’ first arrest.
“We were living in New York at the time and picketing Orbachs’ department store, asking shoppers not to shop there as the workers were struggling to form a union,” she continued. When company executives obtained a court injunction against the picket line, “We had to think of something else,” she said.
And think of something else they did.
“We went into the store looking like regular customers. And as we shopped around we placed ‘Don’t buy at Orbachs’ leaflets on the clothes hanging on the racks,” she said, while chuckling to the memory of it all, They were able to do this for a couple of days “before we were caught.”
Early civil rights fighter
The 40s saw her married, in Philadelphia, and a section organizer for the party over a large part of Philadelphia. One of the big national struggles of the day was the Willie McGee case, an African American falsely accused of rape in Mississippi.
“Communists have always been in the forefront of the struggle for minorities,” said Frances, “and the McGee case was a focal point around the struggle for black freedom in the U.S.”
“To publicize the case we took a horse and wagon thru the streets of Philadelphia with a chair rigged up like an electric chair. It got a lot of attention.”
The end of World War II saw a struggle for freedom around the world, with colonies demanding freedom from England, France, Holland and Portugal. The struggle in the U.S. for minorities, women, immigrants and unions resumed, setting off a reaction from the right, one of which was the Smith Act, whereby the leadership of the Party was arrested. One such leader was Ben Davis, the first black elected to city council in New York, who also happened to be a communist.
Surviving anti-Communist hysteria
For Frances, now an organizational secretary, the anti-communist hysteria led to “my family being kept under constant surveillance.
“Once friendly neighbors turned vicious,” she said. One evening a large crowd gathered
in front of the Gabow house as Frances, her husband and two children were coming home. ‘We decided to go to the home of the local defense committee,” she continued. But a large, hostile crowd had gathered there, too.
“My husband said, ‘Enough. We are going home.'” As they left, the large crowd separated to allow them through. “It was a bit scary,” said Frances. They arrived home to find their house filled with garbage.
Rights of immigrants
Notwithstanding these difficult moments, Frances maintained her beliefs in the “cause of justice. Without struggle there is no progress,” she said. “And progress was made in the areas of civil rights for the foreign born and civil liberties for all” in two campaigns in which she was heavily involved.
“During the McCarthy era there was a right-wing push to deport many foreign born persons from the U.S.,” she continued. “We responded with a National Council for the Protection of the Foreign Born, which the won the support and admiration of many people across the country.” But not all.
Party members were cited by the McCarthy and called to testify.
“It was not a pleasant experience,” Frances recalled. But there were moments of levity. “They asked me if I knew the names of this one and that one.” One of the names was that of my father. “I had to keep from laughing. I think I smiled.”
One case in particular stood out.
“They wanted to deport Stella Petratski, a Polish born mother of 9. Can you imagine? We fought that case and won,” she said. “In fact, we never had single deportation from Philadelphia, in no small part due to the excellent legal work of the late Harry Levithan.”
Although Levithan was not a communist he believed in fair play,” added Frances.
Then the government, using the McCarran Act, went after the Party by declaring that each member had to “register as a foreign agent.” They refused and the case under the legal leadership of John Apt, also not a Party member, went all the way to the Supreme Court.
At the victory party afterwards, Frances was presented with an orchard for her untiring efforts in that struggle. She still has it stored away.
Big, bold 60s
The ’60s found Frances in Chicago where, for her 13 years there, she became a thorn in the side of the infamous Richard J. Daley, the controversial mayor whose police arrested and split heads of many anti-war protestors during the 1968 presidential Democratic Convention. Frances was press director and organizer for the Party on the south side of Chicago.
Just how much of a thorn she was became apparent when it was recently revealed that “Daley had her listed as one of the first to be picked up if detention camps were to be set up.”
Although all of life’s difficulties in being a radical have not altered her political beliefs-“I have never denied my Party membership”-age and arthritis have altered her gait. “It’s been hard for me to walk for many years now,” she continued,” forcing me to slow down a bit.”
Slow down? She has still found time to participate in:
- demonstrations against our meddling in the civil wars in Central America;
- getting a health care for all proposal on a city-wide ballot;
- picketing Sen. Specter’s house for his support of the Iraq war.
While her daughter, Rookie, stays busy as the Party’s organizational secretary for eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, Frances does the cooking. “I love it,” she says. ‘You should try my applecake.”
After a lifetime of political struggle against great odds, what are her hopes for the future?
She paused and looked at one of her plants on the window sill in the midst of its winter siesta.
“The American people are angry at the banks, oil companies, mortgage lenders, corporate greed, the high cost of health care, and are looking for a change. Difficult times bring about a rising political consciousness. Look at the ’30s. Yes, it will be a long struggle. And I think it will be in the direction of socialism.”
Photos: Courtesy of Frances Gabow