From Masses and Mainstream, July 1953.
The Story of Ben Careathers
By Phillip Bonosky
When Ben Careathers boarded a bus to take him to Ambridge, a town near Aliquippa, one morning in ’36, he was not traveling blind nor really alone: the way led like a living chain from comrade to comrade. For in the Negro section of Ambridge, called Plan 11, there was a man waiting for him: it was at his door that Ben knocked and entered that evening.
They waited inside until darkness arrived. The area was saturated with spies and deputies, company stool- pigeons: eyes and ears bought and paid for. Darkness was the other, third comrade they were waiting for: and when it arrived, they went with it the long way round into Aliquippa – a city under siege. Again, hand led him to hand, workingman’s hand: a door opened, and a comrade pressed him in.
The day before he had met in the SWOC [Steel Workers Organizing Committee] office in Pittsburgh with Philip Murray and Clint Golden, in charge of organizing steel in Pittsburgh. Murray had looked keenly at him and asked him one direct question: “Will your politics interfere with organizing the workers?”
Those hands that had reached out through the darkness to take him were his politics. The blunt, smog-stained hills surrounding Pittsburgh and looking down on the booming mills whose fire consumed the sky – this too was in his politics. The men rushing from those dark mills, as though from prison, coughing up bitter smoke – these were his politics most of all!
What he had learned in struggle had brought him to Communism; and if his life meant anything at all, it meant, it had to mean one thing above all this moment, as he sat in the kitchen of a Negro comrade’s house, pondering his next step: those steel-workers sleeping now in beds of fear and distrust were waiting for him. They could not know that he was there, in this kitchen, listening to the tin clock; still they were waiting.
Dawn was gray. Smog hovered over the town like a dark lid. He could taste it, that bituminous sweet taste, with bitter steel mixed; he could feel that jagged, stained air go down into his lungs. He coughed to clear his throat, feeling his lungs good and solid. He made his way to a corner saloon, which swept him in with its malty breath of beer. Negro workers were lined up along the damp bar: few were drinking.
Money was scarce in this year of the depression. He took up the traditional stance at the bar, one foot raised on the brass rail, the spittoon within easy range, and ordered a bottle of Iron City beer. He poured himself a foaming glass, drank, examining the men over the yellow rim. They were steel workers, and their talk was steel talk – his talk. Those faces were the faces of his memories, of his everyday struggle, his own face, in fact, reflected like an endless mirror down the bar.
The man he picked out to open up a conversation with was a youngish worker whose face had given him what he wanted. “Have a drink?” he said, nodding to the bottle. The other turned to look at him; their eyes met steadily for a moment, and he made a half-salute and poured himself a glass. Ben watched it go down, and then asked casually: “How are things here?”
“Tough.” Ben chewed on this. “Suppose a guy wanted to get a job here?” he said. “How’d he go about getting one?” “Get a job?” The other shook his head. “They ain’t hiring. But if they were hiring, you couldn’t get nothing but open hearth or blast furnace …. ” Ben understood what he meant by you, so he nodded slowly. “But, look here, come over and talk to my friends,” the other said, “They’ll give you the real low-down.” And he took Ben down to the other end of the bar. Then, before he could do anything about it, the one thing happened that he had been in a sweat about: somebody recognized him!
“Why, Ben Careathers!” the voice boomed out in the deputy-crawling town. “What are you doing down here? I’ll be damned!” “You sure you know me?” Ben asked. “Know you! Why, weren’t you fighting for those Scottsboro boys? I heard you speak for them!” For once he wished he hadn’t been so public! He took a look at every face in the crowd. His friend was re-introducing him to the others. “This man’s a real fighter, man!” He shook hands all around, and when the silence developed and he felt their eyes on him, he took a breath and said: “Well, friends, I’ll give the story to you straight. I’m here from the Steel Workers Organizing Committee of the CIO. I’m trying to set up a union in this town.”
His friend broke into laughter. “Man,” he cried, “why didn’t you say so at first?” Ben smiled. But his friend continued studying him, puzzling something out, his face in a frown. Finally he said: “I just want to ask you one thing.” Ben invited him to ask. “Tell me straight now: is the Communist Party conducting this drive?” “No,” Ben said slowly, “not exactly. It’s interested in organizing steelworkers in the CIO though.”
“But the Communist Party says it’s okay?”
“Oh, yes,” Ben replied. “Then I’ll join!” he cried, slapping down his flat hand on the bar.
“Otherwise, I wouldn’t have confidence in it. If the Party says so, I know it’s going to be all right. The Amalgamated is Jim Crow: but now I swear the CIO isn’t going to have any ‘for whites only.”’
Scottsboro had led to Aliquippa: struggle was a phoenix constantly renewing itself, endlessly reborn. Like good news he was taken from house to house, and he talked togroups of four and five, behind closed windows, drawn blinds, locked doors: whites came, too; and slowly Aliquippa, surrounded by terror, itself became surrounded by workers ….
Two weeks after the first discussion in the SWOC office, Ben walked into Clint Golden’s office and poured out a pile of application cards on his desk.
Golden looked startled. “Where’d you get these?” he cried. “You and Murray sent me to Aliquippa, didn’t you? That’s where I got them.” “And the initiation fees?”
Ben made another green pile. “Wait a minute,” Golden cried. “I got to get Phil to see this!”
In a moment he was back with Murray, pointing to’ the piles on his desk. “Ben,” he directed, “just tell Phil how you did it!”
He tried to tell Phil Murray “how he did it,” but Murray never fully understood. The fact that he was a Communist was key. Murray tacitly conceded this by appointing men like Gus Hall, Ben Careathers and other Communists on his organizing staff. Murray had asked Ben whether being a Communist would interfere with his organizing the workers. Ben could have told him that being a Communist interfered with nothing whatsoever except capitalism, starvation, disunity, the open shop in the steel industry.
It had started far earlier than two weeks ago, or even months ago when John L. Lewis was thrown out of the A. F. of L. and launched the CIO, and the Party had mobilized its membership as an army of “volunteer organizers,” of which Ben had been one, bringing hundreds of workers into the CIO.
It had started in a log cabin outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, when a Negro youth of fourteen had run away from starvation on a sharecropper’s patch and struck out on his own. It had started perhaps when Ed Johnson was lynched for “rape,” and his body twirled from a rope tied to the Tennessee River bridge, while thou- sands stood on the bank and gaped.
Part of the beginning lay in his struggle to obtain for himself the elementary tools of learning: literacy. At eighteen he couldn’t read or write. Somehow the sovereign state of Tennessee had overlooked the Careathers’ share-cropping patch, and left it unsullied by learning. It was not provided in the scheme of things for Negro children to become scientists, writers, musicians, artists.
He followed Bill Holt, a fifteen-year-old Negro high school student, who worked in the same shop with him, around the shop copying down the numbers he marked on furniture. Numbers weren’t so hard, and he could get away with it: but one day he received a letter from his sweetheart, Lela, and he stood there helplessly staring down at the mysterious words.
Finally he picked out a word at random and asked Bill Holt to tell him what it was, pretending it was too “big” for him. The whole letter was too “big” for him, actually, and he turned it over at last to Holt who read it to him, and then tactfully suggested that Ben take lessons from him so that he could learn to read “better.” So he studied his ABC’s!
But once he had learned to read, he began to read the print off the paper. He read now with a hunger that only the starved know. He read on his way to work; on the streetcar coming back home; he read as he ate, and read as he ran. He resented the time wasted in sleep, and propped himself up to the light at night, with the book swaying in his hand, until he collapsed out of sheer exhaustion.
He read Carter Woodson, and W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Brawley, Kelly Miller. He joined Toussaint L’Ouverture in his struggle for Haitian freedom against Napoleon, as P. G. Steward described it in his book ….
All the time he was seeking for the answer to the question which life posed in such gigantic terms, with which every Negro in one way or another grappled all his life long. For a Negro there could be no peace, no sunny acceptance of things- as-they-are no matter how stubbornly one shut one’s eyes. This was no overnight revelation. He had been working as an upholsterer for Mister Balfour (Mister Balfour: but Mister Balfour’s boy called his father, Spencer) 66 hours a week for $7.50.
Balfour’s assistant, Jim, said to him one day: “Ben, take these chairs to the corner of Fourteenth and Elm.” “Put the number down,” Ben said. “Just take them over to Fourteenth and Elm,” the man repeated. Ben picked the heavy chairs up and lugged them to Fourteenth and Elm, thinking there must be only one building there: but there were three, and a vacant lot. He brought the chairs back. “Jim,” he said, “I can’t find the place. Where is it exactly?”
Jim called over another man. “Covey,” he said, “tell Ben here where I want these chairs delivered.”
“Fourteenth and Elm,” Covey replied. “On the corner?” Ben asked. “On Fourteenth or on Elm?”
Ben,” Jim said, “this man told you, and I told you. You can hear, can’t you? I say it’s on Fourteenth and Elm, and what 1 say I mean!” That was it: all the advice about being cautious in a white man’s world flew out of his head; he grabbed a chair. “I say to hell with you! And what I say I mean!” They turned green now with panic, and yelled for the boss, who came running. When he heard the story, he turned on Jim and the other and said: “Look, now, don’t bother Ben—he’s a good worker, but he’s cracked. Let him alone!”
This “benevolence” cost him $7 or $8 a week compared to what the white workers got; Mr. Balfour knew a gold mine when he saw one. But this “tolerance” was priced too high, and Ben Careathers went on strike – a strike of one – and returned to work when he was promised another dollar a week.
When, by degrees, he finally achieved the dizzy height of $9 a week, he had reached the limit: no more sky. All this was behind the story of “how he did it”; but there was more.
He, came North just before World War I, looking for higher wages. He was in Pittsburgh during the war years, working as a janitor, as a “helper” in the Pittsburgh Railways Company, trying to save enough money to set up an upholsterer’s shop of his own. The war to “save the world for democracy” failed to stir his pulses. But it did open up jobs, including jobs for Negroes. It also raised the whole question of the meaning of war itself.
One day, as Ben hurried home from work, he was accosted by a Negro man selling pamphlets. He took one of the pamphlets thrust into his hands, cast a casual glance at it, and said “This is socialistic, isn’t it?” “Yes,” the Negro man replied, “it’s socialistic. Do you know about socialism?”
“No,” Ben answered, “and I don’t want to know.” The other man looked at him for a moment. “You know,” he said, “any- body who knows all about it, and doesn’t want it-well, I can understand that. But if you don’t know, and don’t want to know-then you’re a fool!” Ben walked on, but the man’s voice had stung him! He turned abruptly
back and said: “Give me one of those! “determined to read it and show up who the real fool was! It was so easy to cry, “Down with this! Down with that! “-he had done that himself, cursing the evils of the world, and not one Jericho had fallen!
But how, in what sensible realistic way could the common people hope to win their freedom? He had never found the answer, and didn’t expect to find it now. But he opened the pages and read: and continued to read, and read on through to the end, whispering finally, almost in spite of himself: “Jesus Christmas! This sounds like what I want!”
The address of the Socialist Party was published on the back, and he found his way there quickly, and spent the evening listening to the speeches, talking, discussing, reading more literature, including Bellamy’s Looking Backward.
Then one day he joined. They were all brothers – Negro and white; there was no discrimination here, the only place in which he had ever found this to be so! He was happy, jubilant, so happy and jubilant that he invited all his friends to the dance the Socialist Party was holding in Moose Temple. His dreams were really coming alive now: the smothering lid of oppression was lifting a bit!
The proceedings had hardly begun when two of the SP leaders took him aside (how many times had he been so taken aside?) and, with deep embarrassment, they explained to him: “Ben, we’re having trouble. We in the Socialist Party believe in full equality, of course; but the hall owner has been objecting to Negroes here and threatens to close the hall.” They didn’t have to say any more. He went out of there, burning with anger; he felt that a hope, a profound dream, lay dead. “It went to my heart,” he said, recalling that early incident. He was through. From now on, he would devote himself to his shop (which he had succeeded in establishing) and to that alone. Except that he could continue to find in books what life did not have. That door need never close!
Three years slipped by: and one day, Bill Scarville, the same comrade who had sold him his first socialist pamphlet, turned up at his door with a copy of a newspaper and tales of a new workingman’s party. The paper was called Voice of Labor, and was put out by the Communist Party (the first time Ben had heard the name); and it transpired that Bill, too, had left the Socialist Party and helped found the Communist Party. So what about the Communist Party? Grand words – but deeds? True, it was born in struggle against the policies of the Socialist Party, which was all to the good; but words, like birds, flew away when you tried to catch them.
They talked and debated and argued: Ben was tougher now, harder to convince. When the Worker came out as a weekly, he subscribed to it: no harm in that; but he kept his mind unreconciled. His brother, who had also come North, had joined the new Party, and also spent hours arguing with Ben. Ben put up every argument he could think of, except the deepest one of all: the wound that the SP had dealt him had never healed. Socialism equaled – or did it? – brotherhood: but it was they, those who had called him “comrade” who had also asked him to “understand” chauvinism.
But one day, in 1928, he was persuaded to go down to the Lyceum to listen to a “real porch-climber” speak. The man’s name-William Z. Foster-was quite familiar to Pittsburghers: he had led the famous 1919 steel strike. Ben listened, and the language of the man was instinct with struggle, with echoes of mines and mills, of railroads and factories: this man knew work and men who worked! When he was asked, then, to sign a card that brought him into the Communist Party, he did not refuse …. But for the next two years he did little, attended few meetings. His family was growing; he was busy at the work he knew so well. The revolutionary tides of the world tugged him only weakly. The country was riding a boom, and nothing seemed more common than money.
In 1929 the smiling face of “prosperity” split wide open, and the sickness that had been growing like a cancer showed itself to the world …. On March 6, 1930, Ben Careathers took a bundle of leaflets under his arm and went downtown to hand them out to the unemployed workers. This leaflet had been issued by the Communist Party, and called for nationwide demonstrations against hunger and unemployment. Thousands carne out on the streets in Pittsburgh that day, and the police came with them. Ben was arrested, taken to jail, and fined $10.
There was no turning back now, no arguments, no waiting-and-seeing. Political struggle was to be his bread from now on. The depression forced him to sell his shop, plunged him into the middle of the unemployed movement. He was soon leading the demonstration of hungry at the Penn Station Courthouse to force recognition of the Unemployed Councils. He was in Chicago at the first convention of the Unemployed Councils to set up a national organization.
People were starving on a state “food-basket” grant of 90 cents a week; and they fought bitterly to raise this to $1.50 a week! In cash, not in baskets – and they won. The way he threw himself into the struggle, passionately but with- out losing his common sense, his easygoing ways, his courage or resourcefulness, convinced the Party that he was equipped for a responsible post: and he became full-time secretary of the Allegheny Unemployed Councils.
Then came the Scottsboro case, and he fought to free the Alabama-framed. He went down into the hills of West Virginia to set up soup kitchens for the striking miners during the ’31 strike. He marched to Washington, heading a Pennsylvania contingent on the National Hunger March in 1932. That same year he first met Steve Nelson who was leading, as he was leading, a state hunger march group to Harrisburg.
He fought evictions – lugging the furniture back into the house from the street where the Sheriff had dumped it. He fought for jobs for Negroes. He helped eliminate the coal-and-iron police in Pennsylvania. He went to the Soviet Union for three months and saw with his own eyes that land where the workers ruled: and this sealed forever his conviction, profound as it then was, that he had indeed found the right road, the inevitable road for his people and for all American workers.
He was down down in the books of the Mellons and Rockefellers and Morgans a hundred times. Their police knew his face, his name, his voice. When, in 1940, he ran for lieutenant-governor of the state on the Communist ticket, they pounced on this brazen act and intimidated dozens of workers who had signed petitions to put Careathers on the ballot – and then indicted him, along with 30-odd other Communist leaders of Western Pennsylvania, for “fraud” in gathering petitions. They sent him and the others, among whom was Lloyd Brown, to the jail which Brown was to describe in his novel, Iron City.
The war interrupted all this. Ben found a new situation when he came out. The mills were booming day and night producing steel for the armies. He threw himself into the struggle to convince the Negro workers that this anti – Axis war was their war, too; and to do this he led the fight for upgrading and hiring Negroes, breaking through Jim-Crow barriers at the huge Dravo Shipyards
that built invasion barges for D- Day.
And when the war ended, he continued to fight for these objectives, even though this was no longer “popular” … in fact, seditious. Now, the iron fist of U.S. imperialism showed itself openly. To Ben, it was no surprise: that fist had never, even under the best circumstances, been quite absent.
When, in 1940, he ran for lieutenant-governor of the state on the Communist ticket, they pounced on this brazen act and intimidated dozens of workers who had signed petitions to put Careathers on the ticket.
Pennsylvania is the very heart of industrial America. Here, the vast billionaire interests are anchored. Ben reflected in himself that deep, almost folk wisdom, of the miners and steel workers of this region, who know what they want . . . let the fine words fall where they may! Western Pennsylvania has been ruled with an iron fist always. The workers have learned both how to endure-to keep alive, healthy, cheerful; and how, when the moment comes, to strike. Lightweights cannot survive here. Workers will go about their business, in their own way, living in the ways that the oppressed learn to live, moving slowly, or not at all, exasperating the middle class theorists of social change. They will not butt their heads pointlessly against iron walls, nor will they, overwhelmed by oppression, turn over and die. .
They are wrong . . . those who meet Ben Careathers, misled by his calm expression, his quick laugh, the radiance of his face. He is profoundly typical of Pittsburgh! Those eyes, which have seen everything, are glowing with hope! There is not a shred of illusion in the man-and not a trace of pessimism. He is modest: but no intellectual from any Harvard, Yale or what-have-you could outwit him or negate his knowledge. He is mild and gentle; but like iron.
Misleading, as the prosecutor learned the day Ben took the stand to testify for Steve Nelson during Nelson’s first trial. The prosecutor knew how to “handle” Negroes: he came up to Ben, and wagged his finger at him. “Get back-back!” Ben snapped.
The prosecutor was so startled he jumped back four feet-and stayed there! In jail, he acts as though he is free and the jailers are in jail. In court, he acts as though he were judging . . . and the judge feels it, and struggles to convince the man that he should play the role assigned to him by the state! On trial, he forgets that his life is in jeopardy, and demands the right to appear to testify in favor of FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Committee]!
A man under indictment, nevertheless, he shows up in the midst of his enemies and denounces them and demands that a law be passed protecting the Negro people from discrimination in employment. His voice is free, and men who can slap him into jail any moment have to listen to him, and be persuaded. . . . For Ben’s voice is the voice of the Negro and white workers of Pittsburgh, and try as they might- malign him as they do-when he speaks, the enemies of the workers know that the oppressed speak through him. How to chain that voice too!
On August 17, 1951, they arrested him, along with Steve Nelson, Bill Albertson, Irving Weissman, James Dolsen, on the charge of conspiring to advocate and teach the violent overthrow of the United States government. Obviously, a man fighting for FEPC was conspiring overthrow! They knew he was sick. They knew because the court-appointed doctor knew it, and knew he was very sick, but stated that he could continue the trial, nevertheless. Struggle had not left him untouched: tuberculosis, the disease of the oppressed, had taken hold of him.
With almost open delight that its victim was also physically helpless, the court ordered Ben to leave the hospital and appear before it-even at the price of his life! He walked – a 62-year-old man – slowly to the lectern in “the courthouse so close to Mellon’s great banks, Rockefeller’s huge power, Morgan’s gigantic mills and mines. “My name,” he said in a low, clear voice, “is Benjamin Lowell Careathers.” He began to cough. The court watched him struggle to regain his strength. “I was born in the South. My life has been an open book. … My father was born a slave about 100 years ago. My mother died when I was very young. My father was left with nine small children to care for. I was the third of the nine, and it fell to my lot to look after the smaller ones and to work on the farm.
In the winter months, after harvest, my father would chop wood and dig ditches for the white landlords. He took the older children to work with him and…” The judge listened to the stoolpigeons and perjurers malign this man’s life, cutting it to fit the pattern of “conspiracy.” He was not interested in the halting story which this sick man was struggling to bring out. “This personal history,” he interrupted, “is out of order.” And so he dismissed, with a wave, a whole life’s struggle … this story . . . the way the rulers dismiss the history as well as the lives of the people they oppress!
When I interviewed Ben Careathers in Pittsburgh, he told me in his soft voice: “I’m convinced that capitalism is responsible for the crimes I’ve seen in my life. If I don’t live to see socialism-I want my children to. We tell a story in my family. My father’s father was a slave – but, slave though he was, he never let his master whip his child …. ” He coughed cruelly for a moment, and then said: “My party – the Communist Party – is dearer to me than my life. It means what it says. Nothing will cause me to flinch – no matter what happens. For we’ll win out in the end. We’ll win out in the end.. …”
And the tearing cough took possession of him and I sat still as he struggled with lungs that already were bleeding . “They want to kill you!” I said, turning from those eyes full of courage and a belief so profound that it was his strength I took with me, as though he had so much to give! But to you…fight for this man!
Yes, they want to lynch him “legally,” and only the voice, the aroused voice of humanity can save him.