Ruth Emerson, civil rights leader

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Judges and lawyers, professors and educators, family and friends all spoke fondly of Ruth Calvin Emerson at the celebration of her life held at the New Haven Peoples Center on June 26. Ruth’s enthusiastic and principled ways came through in many stories and remembrances from her youth to her last days at Hamden Health Care and Hospice where she passed away on April 25, 2010.

Together with husband Thomas Emerson, a Yale Law School professor and Constitutional scholar, Ruth devoted her life to the defense of civil liberties and support of the movement for civil rights and workers’ rights.  She served on the board of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation (now Defending Dissent) and many civil rights organizations.

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on March 8, 1921 Ruth was one of five Girl Scouts to represent the United States in an international meeting in Switzerland in 1938. She graduated from Oberlin College, and served in the Women’s Army Corps, Signal Corps from 1944-1946, stationed in Fort Myer, Virginia and Fort Dix, New Jersey. She then attended Yale Law School, one of only six women in her class of 160 to graduate in 1950.

Ruth began work as an attorney at the National Labor Relations Board in 1950. During the McCarthy period purges of progressives, she resisted pressure to resign pending completion of a Loyalty Board investigation. The Loyalty Board exonerated her in 1953 and Ruth resigned shortly thereafter.

Ruth returned to Connecticut where she practiced law briefly and then became a teacher. She was an early practitioner of Words in Color, an innovative method of teaching reading developed by Dr. Caleb Gattegno. She taught in New York City, at the High School in the Community in New Haven and as a tutor. Ruth believed in subordinating teaching to learning and the active involvement and awareness of the student. She was a strong advocate for children and for working families.

Al Marder, president of the Peoples Center, recalled Ruth’s famous whistle on many picket lines and emphasized the significance of Ruth’s memorial being held at the center. Acknowledging those present from the Law School, he said, “Yale would surely have opened its doors, but it is most appropriate that Ruth, who was committed to the working class, should be celebrated here in a working class center.”

Ruth was married to Thomas Emerson for 31 years until his death in 1991.  He was a preeminent First Amendment scholar who combined scholarship with Supreme Court litigation in defense of civil rights, and participated in the defense of Communists during the 1950’s. Marder spoke of Tom Emerson’s involvement in the first court ruling declaring the Smith Act unconstitutional. “With his involvement, we in Connecticut were the first in the country to be exonerated,” he said to applause, recalling the arrests of hundreds of working class and civil rights activists for their leadership in the Communist Party in the 1950s. 

Speaking in appreciation of Ruth, a professor emeritus said that he made sure that Tom Emerson’s portrait was hung in the most important classroom at the Yale Law School to give a message to the students.

Ruth was well known for her brief and powerful letters to the editor of the New Haven Register and was an ardent supporter of the People’s World. In 2006 she co-founded, with Sherman Malone and others, the Connecticut non-profit, Haiti Marycare to support two pre-schools and a rural health care clinic in Haiti.

Photo: Ruth Emerson, front left, enjoyed participating in events at the New Haven Peoples Center, like this one on May Day, 2004. (Art Perlo/PW)


Joelle Fishman
Joelle Fishman

Joelle Fishman chairs the Connecticut Communist Party USA. She is a Commissioner on the City of New Haven Peace Commission, serves on the executive board of the Alliance of Retired Americans in Connecticut and is an active member of many economic rights and social justice organizations. As chair of the CPUSA Political Action Commission, she has played an active role in the broad labor and people's alliance and continues to mobilize for health care, worker rights and peace.