A Red Family By Mickey Friedman University of Illinois Press, 2009, 216 pp

The 2002 death of former Communist Party activist and longtime civil rights/labor activist Junius Scales concluded one of America’s most distinctive lives. Convicted of a felony in the 1950s solely for his party membership, Scales appealed his case to the Supreme Court, where the ruling was upheld. He began serving a six-year prison term in 1961, but had his sentence commuted by President John F. Kennedy amid appeals by prominent citizens. His case was turned into a play, The Limits of Dissent, in 1976.

More than a sensational case, the life of Junius Scales was one where a passion for a better country frequently put a young man from a privileged Deep South background regularly in harm’s way. In A Red Family (University of Illinois Press, 2009), Scales’ life is examined through his own eyes as well as through the words of his wife Gladys and daughter Barbara. The result is an intimate book offering a look at a family richly defined by social justice struggles, especially the civil rights movement.

A Red Family follows the trajectory of Junius’ Communist years, including grassroots work he did in the South at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was rampaging in many areas, and local as well as federal officials were impotent at best and actively collaborating at worst. Harassment, arrests and campaign rigors — Scales lived underground for various stretches of time, despite occasional disagreements with Party leadership over the strategy — might have steeled his resolve, but all the hardships the family faced took their toll. Nevertheless Junius and Gladys Scales together refused to be broken in their commitment.

In these times, when words like ‘socialist’ are hurled like daggers, A Red Family is a powerful reminder of the sacrifices made to make racial and labor justice a reality.

Ernesto Aguilar is program director of KPFT radio station in Houston, Texas.