Helen Winter, a life-long member of the Communist Party, died Dec. 13. She is survived by a daughter, Michelle Artt, granddaughters Elizabeth Meggison and Ruth Foster, and several great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. A memorial celebration of her life is planned for Jan. 21.
Maryanne Mahaffey, president of the Detroit City Council, is preparing a council resolution commemorating Winter’s life. “I’m going to talk about her life-long commitment to organizing people and her steadfast and unswerving commitment to the world socialist movement,” Mahaffey said. “She worked tirelessly for international solidarity and was an active figure in the world peace movement.”
Mahaffey said she was “particularly impressed” with the stubbornness of Winter’s resistance to fascism, be it Hitler in the 1940s, McCarthy in the 1950s, or “the current anti-terrorism laws that will be used against everyone if they are not stopped. Helen knew about fascism from first-hand experience.”
Mahaffey continued, “Both she and her husband, Carl, were arrested and jailed for ‘conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence’ during the post-World War II anti-communist hysteria.”
Sam Webb, national chairman of the Communist Party, said Winter’s life was a “textbook for the young people of our movement. She had been there in good times and bad and never lost her enthusiasm for the good fight. Hers was a life of commitment, of quite courage and of faith in a future free of racism and war – a world with economic security and freedom for all peoples. Hers was a life we all might wish to emulate.”
Dave Moore, a founding member of UAW Local 600 at the sprawling River Rouge Plant of the Ford Motor Company, said he had known the Winter family “since way back in the 1940s.” He remembers Winter as one who “never backed down” in her defense of the struggles of the African American people. “She was one of the few white people to join with the African American community to protest the brutality of the Detroit PD and could often be heard speaking at demonstrations and community meetings. It was things like that that got her arrested under the Smith Act.”
Moore laughed as he told the story of the “red blanket incident” that took place during Winter’s Smith Act trial: The judge ordered her to appear despite the fact that she was suffering from an attack of phlebitis. She was brought into the courtroom on a stretcher, covered by a red blanket.
“That blanket threw the judge into a tizzy,” Moore remembers. “He ordered it removed and recessed court. I guess he thought the blanket represented some kind of a subversive political statement!”
Winter was born in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of Hortense Allison and Alfred Wagenknecht, both of whom were leaders of the Socialist Party. The family moved to Cleveland in 1913, where Winter was introduced to the world of left wing politics: a socialist Sunday school, helping mail copies of the Ohio Socialist, and visits to her father in the Canton workhouse where he was imprisoned for his opposition to the first World War.
Winter joined the Young Communist League in 1923 and the Communist Party soon after. Three years later she found herself in Passaic, N.J., working beside her father during a textile workers’ strike. “This was my first involvement in any kind of labor activity,” she said. “Passaic was the first time I actually felt the strength of labor.” After moving to New York in the late 20s, she worked in the office of the Trade Union Unity League, helping to organize office workers.
Winter also worked in the business office of the Daily Worker and later became Communist Party organizer among New York City’s textile workers. In the 1930s, she and her husband worked in Europe, where they helped organize the international struggle against fascism. Upon their return, both continued that effort as they worked diligently on behalf of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, made up of Americans who fought in Spain with the anti-Franco forces.
The late 1930s saw the Winters on the move, first to Cleveland, then to Minneapolis and, by the early ’40s, to Los Angeles, where their daughter was born in 1942. Three years later the family moved to Michigan where they were to live for the next 20 years. In 1965 the Winters returned to New York, Carl to work with the Party newspaper and Helen as the Party’s international affairs director.
Since Carl’s death in 1981, Helen has fulfilled several leadership posts in the Communist Party’s Michigan District, where she is remembered for her attention to organizational detail and her commitment to the People’s Weekly World.
“She helped keep things moving and played a leading role in the Party until the very end,” Carl Reinstein, who worked closely with Winter, said.