By Denise Lynn
May 24, 2021
In the wake of the January 6 coup attempt on Congress, CNN reported on a University of Illinois Cline Center study that claimed the attempt joined the 1949 Smith Act convictions as one of only two attempted coups against the US government. The Cline Center claimed that CNN misspoke in its reporting and that the Smith Act defendants were prosecuted for their speech, not their actions. Nevertheless, CNN did not retract its story. The article reflects the long-history of red-baiting that has been deployed regularly to undermine progressive goals and social justice organizing. Anticommunism has taken an enormous toll in US history, and those who were persecuted faced legal harassment, imprisonment, and in the case of Henry Winston, serious health problems that led to his permanent blindness. Stories and experiences like Winston’s humanize the danger of red-baiting and highlight the threat anticommunism poses.
Henry Winston was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1911. By 1930, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where his father worked in a steel mill and his mother worked as a domestic. Henry had to leave school early to help his struggling family, but by the age of 19 he had taken an interest in radical politics and began working for the Unemployed Council. He later moved to New York City, where he continued to work with the Unemployed Council and was sent to a training program in Marxism. Winston eventually joined the Young Communist League (YCL) and by 1936 he was serving as the YCL’s national organization secretary and on the Central Committee of the Communist Party (CPUSA). Winston became an important leader in the CPUSA, as well as a writer contributing to its papers and producing pamphlets. He served in the military during World War II and was honorably discharged after the war. He then took up his place in the Party leadership again, and as a member of the CPUSA Central Committee, he became a target of federal intelligence agencies.
In 1948, Winston and the other eleven members of the Party’s Central Committee were arrested and charged under the Smith Act, which made it illegal to advocate for or belong to an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government. Anticommunism in the United States was at its height and the CPUSA became a favorite target of law enforcement agencies and legislators that tried to make the Party and any adherence to Marxism illegal. The problem was proving that Winston and his colleagues (and the Party as a whole) advocated and planned for violent revolution. The Smith Act trial began in January 1949 and lasted until October of that year. The authorities employed several tactics at the trial that would become a foolproof means to secure convictions: introducing select Marxist literature into evidence, using the spoken and written word of the defendants to prove adherence to Marxism, and their favorite tactic: professional witnesses. Professional witnesses were usually former communists who were willing to testify that the Party advocated revolution, even if they could not tie the individual person to it; it was guilt by association. Witnesses often made an income from their testimony—some would be outed as liars later in their careers, and others like Harvey Matusow, would admit to lying on the stand and accuse others of doing the same. Another tactic was to try and get defendants to surrender the names of others associated with the Party; at one point during the trial a fellow defendant, Ben Davis, refused to give names and was charged with contempt of court. Winston and Eugene Dennis tried to defend Davis but found themselves also charged and imprisoned.
Ellen Schrecker has argued that the conviction of Henry Winston and the other Smith Act defendants provided the state the opportunity to effectively criminalize communist advocacy. In 1951, the convictions were upheld in Dennis v. United States; for Schrecker this meant that communists “had few rights that any official body had to respect.” Claudia Jones, under the threat of deportation as a communist, wrote several articles defending her colleagues, particularly Winston and Ben Davis, the only two Black Smith Act defendants in the initial trial. She wrote a series of articles arguing that while the federal government worked to silence Black activists, lynching and racist violence went unpunished across the country. In one article she called Winston a “hostage of white supremacists” and noted that what the federal government feared most was the interracial unity within the CPUSA.1
The defendants were each sentenced to five years in prison and fined. At the time, the CPUSA wanted to keep some of its leadership out of jail, so Winston jumped bail and went underground. This was a move that Schrecker has argued, did not endear them to the American public and ensured belief in the defendants’ and the Party’s guilt. While underground, the Party published Winston’s pamphlet, “What it Means to be a Communist,” which effectively offered advice on how to rebuild the Party after years of harassment and counseled adherence to Marxist principles. If the federal government was trying to dissuade communists, it was not working.
Winston eventually surrendered to authorities to serve his prison term and was taken to the federal penitentiary in Terra Haute, Indiana. Ben Davis had served his prison term there and had experienced the poor treatment meted out to Black inmates, including limited access to mail and visitors along with poor health care. Winston would learn this when in 1958 he began developing headaches. Authorities ignored his complaints as his symptoms worsened. His friends grew worried as prison officials continued to ignore his illness. William Patterson helped to organize a campaign to urge early release. Winston was eligible for parole in 1958, but he was denied. Finally in 1960, after public pressure, Winston was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was operated on to have it removed. However, by this point he had lost his eyesight, which he would never regain. Winston was not released from jail until 1961.
Winston’s friend Claudia Jones faced similar mistreatment while imprisoned. Her own health had declined throughout the course of her trial and later imprisonment. Already in poor health from a teenage bout with tuberculosis, Jones was hospitalized twice during her imprisonment and upon her release. Despite this, the federal government deported her to England where she lived for nine years until her premature death at 49 years old. Jones’s elderly father Charles Cumberbatch died months after her deportation; he had spent years organizing in his daughter’s defense. His health declined during her trial and imprisonment, and further after she was forced out of the country. The harassed communists were not the only ones that suffered.
The treatment of the Smith Act defendants and CNN’s citing of them as subversives is all the more troubling given that the Supreme Court later overturned the convictions in the Yates v. United States decision in 1957. The court argued that there was a difference between advocacy and action and used the “clear and present danger” test that was set out in the anti-radical 1919 Schenck v. United States decision. Winston’s lawyers tried to use the Yates decision to argue for his release, but the courts were not interested largely because of his years in the underground. While the Party’s convictions were overturned, their time in prison and the consequences of it remained. More important, it is the convictions that are remembered and not the later Yates decision that vacated them—the CNN article makes no mention of it.
Winston remained a communist even after the harassment, imprisonment, and the blinding. In 1966, he was elected CPUSA chairman. He was the party leader during the Free Angela Davis campaign, and he was an outspoken critic against the South African apartheid regime. Winston would author two books on Black Freedom and Marxism. He died in Moscow in 1986; he served as Party chairman until his death. The United States is always primed for a red scare given how readily anticommunism is deployed against activists and even politicians who find themselves even slightly left of the extreme American right wing. Even today Congress members have downplayed the January 6 insurrection and have been demanding investigation into the Black Lives Matter protests instead. This obfuscation is fed by constant accusations of socialism hurled at social justice advocates and programs. In the face of severe anticommunist harassment, Winston was not cowed and counseled in his 1951 pamphlet that the way to confront anticommunism was to seek solidarity.
- Claudia Jones, “Henry Winston: Prisoner of Wall Street’s Cold War,” Daily Worker, 27 June 1949.
Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.
This article originally appeared in the African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives blog. The photo is of “Henry Winston in Berlin, 1963″ (Walter Heilig, Wikimedia Commons).