Family, friends and comrades of Si and Sophie Gerson will toast the couple’s 70th wedding anniversary during a gala celebration May 19 at Winston Unity Center in Manhattan.
In an age when more than half of all marriages fail, the Gersons, now in their 90s, still honor the pledge they made to each other in 1932 to ‘have and to hold, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.’
Si confided to this reporter that the young couple lived for two years ‘in sin’ with his mother before they married. ‘So actually we’ve been together 72 years,’ he said.
Si, a member of the Communist Party USA’s National Committee, and Lem Harris, also in his mid-90s, received a standing ovation as the most senior delegates at the Party’s 27th Convention in Milwaukee last summer.
Si said that his courtship of Sophie began during his student days at City College of New York (CCNY) in the late 1920s. They first met at meetings of the Young Communist League (YCL), fired by the socialist revolution in Russia and were enthusiastic participants in the class struggle at home.
Si was president of the Social Problems Club at CCNY and was recruiting students to join picket lines during the great 1926-27 Passaic, N.J., textile strike. Sophie, then 16, who had emigrated with her family from the Ukraine as a child, threw herself into the strike solidarity work.
The CCNY president suspended Si for this activity. The YCL organized a big protest rally. ‘The result was that I was expelled and I never went back to college.’ Si got a job in a garment plant and remained active in the YCL.
Three years later, in 1929, when workers at the Loray Textile Mill in Gastonia, N.C., went on strike, Sophie hitchhiked south to join the struggle. Evicted en masse from company housing, the strikers set up an encampment in a field outside town. Armed vigilantes attacked one night, killing a Communist strike leader, Ella May Wiggins. Also killed was the Gastonia police chief.
Police arrested 15 workers and organizers, including Sophie, charging them with murder. Said Si, ‘The minute I heard Sophie was arrested, I said, ‘Goodbye, mom!’ I quit my job and hitchhiked down to North Carolina.’
The strike was broken but the frame-up ultimately failed, thanks in large part to the international solidarity movement spearheaded by the CPUSA and Daily Worker exposés by Sender Garland. Si Gerson wrote similar exposés for the Young Worker.
As a relief worker helping feed New York’s unemployed during the Great Depression, Sophie helped mobilize a demonstration of more than 100,000 unemployed in Union Square, March 6, 1930. Mounted police attacked and brutally beat the jobless workers peacefully demanding jobs or relief.
Si became the City Hall correspondent of the Daily Worker. He got to know Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and future New York Reps. Adam Clayton Powell and Vito Marcantonio. Manhattan Borough President Stanley Isaacs, a liberal Republican, appointed Si to his staff in 1938.
For the first time, the young couple enjoyed a livable income and health benefits. A year later, their first child, William was born. Si served on Isaacs’ staff for three-and-a-half years but stepped down as Isaacs faced a vendetta for having a Communist on his staff.
Si served with the U.S. Army in the Pacific in World War II. After the war, he worked closely with Peter V. Cacchione, an avowed Communist who had stunned the political establishment by winning election to the New York City Council in 1941. Si recalled that victory in his book PETE-The Story of Peter V. Cacchione (International Publishers, 1976).
This breakthrough was followed in 1943 by the election of Benjamin J. Davis as a Communist councilman from Harlem. Both victories were possible because New York City at that time had a democratic system of proportional representation in which council seats were apportioned according to a party’s share of the vote rather than the current ‘winner take all’ system.
The YCL was collecting thousands of petition signatures at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds arguing that if Black GI’s were good enough to fight fascism overseas, weren’t they good enough to play major league baseball? The Daily Worker highlighted this crusade in its columns, and Cacchione and Davis co-sponsored resolutions demanding an end to the racist color bar in major league sports. Paul Robeson, the All-American athlete and singer, and William L. Patterson, ‘Mr. Civil Rights,’ met with Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to press the struggle, which blossomed into a grassroots campaign crowned in victory when Jackie Robinson was hired as the Dodger’s first baseman.
A 1990s film, ‘America’s Team,’ by Mark Reese, son of the great Dodger shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, who befriended Jackie Robinson, included an interview with Si on the role of Communists in integrating the Dodgers.
Cacchione died in office in 1947. Pursuant to New York election laws, Si was named to complete his term, but the Tammany bosses refused to seat him.
Si and Sophie moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood where they have lived ever since. He was a borough-wide councilmanic candidate in 1948, garnering 150,000 votes – 18,000 on the CPUSA line and 132,000 on the American Labor Party line – one of the largest votes for an avowed Communist in U.S. history, reflecting Gerson’s warm personal touch and people-before-profits politics. Many, Si said, ‘voted for me on civil liberties grounds, that it was the right thing to do.’
Gerson was one of dozens of CPUSA leaders indicted in 1949 and 1950, under the infamous Smith Act, on false charges of ‘advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence.’ Many of the Gersons’ closest friends were convicted and imprisoned, including CPUSA leaders Gus Hall, Henry Winston, Gil Green, Carl Winter, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Benjamin J. Davis.
Bill Gerson, who was only 12 at the time, said his childhood was ‘very happy,’ despite FBI intimidation. ‘There was not a great deal of fear. I attribute it to my parents, who protected us. They rejected the idea that fascism was coming. There is a strong Constitutional tradition in this country and they were confident the repression could be fought and defeated.’
His mother especially was a pillar of strength. She had defeated the textile bosses’ attempt to frame her for murder in North Carolina. ‘By comparison, the Smith Act trial seemed almost mild,’ Gerson said with a chuckle. Sure enough, Si Gerson was acquitted and ultimately the Smith Act penalties were nullified.
Si was executive editor of the Daily Worker and later the Daily World throughout the 1970s. He was also CPUSA political action director and campaign manager for the Party’s presidential tickets.
‘The political situation right now is chaotic and confused because of the Sept. 11 terrrorist attack,’ Gerson told this reporter. ‘Even so, a movement is beginning to emerge.’
He hailed the Working Families Party and called for reforms such as instant runoff voting (IRV) in which people vote for their first and second choice candidates. If Florida had had IRV in the 2000 election, Bush would not be president today, he said. ‘Gore would have picked up most of Nader’s 90,000 votes in the instant runoff and his majority would have been clear,’ Si said. A growing number of countries have adopted IRV to avoid a Florida-style deadlock.
‘Right now the task is to prevent the Republicans from regaining control of the Senate and pick up the five seats needed to end Republican control of the House in next fall’s election,’ Gerson said. ‘The Republican right will not be defeated unless we have a strong majority left-center coalition that includes guys like (Rep. Richard) Gephardt.’
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