Communists like my uncle were sent to prison because they fought for democracy
LeRoy Wood, left, being led away by federal agents after his Smith Act conviction for conspiring to teach or advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. | Courtesy of Roberta Wood

My late uncle, LeRoy H. Wood, spent years in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., for what he did in Washington, D.C.

Roy was convicted of “conspiring to teach the advocacy of the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence.” No, Uncle Roy was not a billionaire who incited a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol armed with Molotov cocktails. He did not shut down a session of Congress as it completed the final stages of an electoral process. He did not plot the assassination of political leaders.

Rather, Uncle Roy was a leader of the Communist Party in Washington in the early 1950s. He worked out of the organization’s bookstore there; the “evidence” against him was the pamphlets and books contained therein which talked about the necessity of a future beyond capitalism.

A 1930s unemployment rally at a local Communist Party headquarters in Washington, D.C. | Library of Congress

The real “crime,” though, was his work in the militant struggles for unions, racial equality, and working class empowerment that were at the heart of the Communist Party’s work.

As a teenager in Idaho, Roy Wood led movements of farmers against foreclosures at the height of the Great Depression. He organized unemployed workers to win relief payments. They rallied at the State Capitol building in Boise for a federal program to support workers in their retirement. They supported the strikes of hard rock miners.

When legislation establishing Social Security was won, Roy got a job with that administration and moved to the Baltimore/D.C. area, at the same time continuing his work with the Communist Party, including working with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore.

Uncle Roy himself was a mild-mannered, charming working class intellectual. A piano player whose boogie woogie could get you out of your seat and onto the floor, he and my Aunt Lariene often jammed late into the night with a circle of musicians which included fellow communist Woody Guthrie.

Roy Wood

Uncle Roy was an astute student of history. He would have said that you would have to look deeper to see the real forces behind the 2021 insurrection. The real culprits, he would say, were not the conspiracy theory adherents or the misguided Hell’s Angels types. He would have pointed the finger directly at the 153 Ivy League Representatives and Senators who shamelessly voted to overturn the vote of the American people. And even more, he would have pointed to the corporate forces who bankroll the shadowy networks of insurrectionists – Big Oil, Big Finance – and the media sewer they fund.

The billionaire demagogues, from Donald Trump to Kelly Loeffler, spent months trumping up the menace of communism during the 2020 election against Biden and Harris, and most recently against Georgia Senate candidates Warnock and Ossoff. How ironic it was that these same demagogues who fueled the very “conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government by force and violence” that they claimed to be warning against.

Anti-communism provides a ‘safe space’ for fascism to spread

Was Trump’s coup attempt unprecedented? Not to the people of Chile, Venezuela, Cuba, Indonesia, Iran, Congo, Guatemala, Angola, Ukraine, Libya, Vietnam, who became all too familiar with U.S. attempts to “promote democracy” by backing right-wing extremist groups. Not to those of us who lived through the brutal early years of the Cold War, when corporate forces sowed anti-communist panic to break the militancy of organized labor, undermine the civil rights movement, and launch the attack on the New Deal reforms—all in the name of protecting freedom and democracy.

Anti-communism opens the door for corporate agents to enact policies which plunder the working class and the environment. How else to beguile workers and small business folks to rally for corporate deregulation and tax code changes resulting in massive transfers of wealth to billionaires?

The twin themes of anti-communism and racism have been used repeatedly by anti-democratic forces to attack progressive movements and candidates throughout U.S. history. In 2020, just as during the Smith Act trials of the 1950s, anti-communism provided a “safe space” for fascist forces to grow and fester. Anti-communism opens the door for corporate agents to enact policies which plunder the working class and the environment. How else to beguile workers and small business folks to rally for corporate deregulation and tax code changes resulting in massive transfers of wealth to billionaires?

Communist Party USA members rally against police brutality in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s. | People’s World Archive

The U.S. labor movement is still paying the price for the passage of the Taft-Hartley law in 1947 which started us down the road to reversing the victories of the union organizing drives of the 1930s and ’40s. Taft-Hartley, which disarmed labor, was pushed thru Congress by a fabricated fear of a “communist threat.”

If we are serious about preventing fascist coups, we’re going to have to understand and get past the anti-communism, which alongside of racism, fuels them.

Our country’s progressive movement is a big tent. That alliance spans a vast array of forces for social justice, from unions to immigrant rights advocates, fighters for equality and against systemic racism, women’s rights, peace, environmental champions, and—yes—communists and socialists who participate in those movements.

Uncle Roy served his time, but he never had to apologize for what he’d done. A lifelong champion of the working class, not once did he doubt that he was on the right side of history.

This is a slightly longer version of an article that first appeared in Jacobin.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.