Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 20, 1948: Eleven Communist Leaders Indicted In New York

After a nine-month trial, eleven leaders of the Communist Party USA were indicted under the Smith Act in New York’s Foley Square Courthouse (renamed the Thurgood Marshall Federal Courthouse in 2003.)  The Smith Act, which made it a crime to encourage the overthrown of the US government or associate with a group that does so, was proposed by Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia, a leader of Congress’s anti-labor bloc.  It was alleged that the eleven men violated the Act by conspiring “to organize as the Communist Party and willfully to advocate and teach the principles of Marxism-Leninism," which could lead to "overthrowing and destroying the government of the United States by force and violence" in the future.  On the day of the New York indictments, four hundred police stood guard in Foley Square, and all of the defendants received prison sentences.  After the Supreme Court upheld the convictions in 1951, the Smith Act was invoked to indict Communist leaders around the country. Theses indictments served to undermine the Communist Party’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Americans, as well as undermining support for the emerging Progressive Party, which was falsely associated with the Communist Party in many people’s minds.  It was not until 1957 that the Supreme Court reaffirmed the ascendancy of free speech and freedom of political association that the trials stopped, though the Smith Act remains in the books.

Laurel Billings, EVHP Staff

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