By May of 1954, McCarthyism had reached a fevered pitch throughout the United States. Federal agents came for Alfred Marder at his New Haven home, and rounded up others in the Elm City. It was sensational news; one newspaper headline screamed: “7 Leaders of Commie Party Seized in East….” The last survivor of the infamous federal persecutions of Communist Party leaders in New Haven during the McCarthy era, Marder, now aged 94, will share a vivid first-person account of FBI surveillance, phone taps, fear, and the loss of employment due to his arrest, during “The Right to Speak One’s Mind: A Conversation With Al Marder,” at the New Haven Museum on Thursday, April 14, 2016, at 5:30 p.m.
The free event will be moderated by historian Mary Donohue, who interviewed Marder for her article, “A Life of Conviction” in the Spring 2016 edition of “Connecticut Explored,” the magazine of Connecticut history. Judge Andrew Roraback will also join the discussion, sharing his insights on Marder’s legal defense by his cousin, the celebrated Catherine Roraback.
An unapologetic Communist Party member to this day, Marder’s political involvement began during the hard-scrabble days of the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, when many New Haven families were hungry and there was widespread concern over the rise of fascism. Marder notes that discussions of labor rights, unionization, racial equality, and the economy were common at the time, and points out that one year the Hillhouse High School Debate Team topic was, “Is the U.S. Post Office Socialist?” Life was hard, and Marder learned quickly. He recalls climbing out his bedroom window to hand out pro-union pamphlets before the 7 a.m. shifts at the Sargent and New Haven Clock companies, then heading to high school. He became a member of the Communist Party in 1938, and served as the chairman of the Connecticut Young Communist League.
In 1954, New Haven was one of several “second-tier” cites where a total of 215 people were arrested for violation of the Smith Act, which allowed for federal prosecutions of Communist Party leaders accused of “conspiring to overthrow the government.” Desperate for legal representation at a time when defending a “red” was a career killer, Marder sent out 100 mimeographed letters to lawyers across the state, pleading his case. A young, “green” attorney, from a patrician Connecticut family that had practiced law since 1883, Catherine Roraback was sympathetic to Marder’s plight and took his case, setting the mold for the rest of her illustrious career.
Following an arduous two-year process, Marder was acquitted and the cases of the other seven from New Haven were thrown out, due to the evidence being “insufficient to prove that the Communist Party presently advocated forcible overthrow of the Government,” and a ruling that the membership clause of the Smith Act under which Marder and the others were accused was “unconstitutional on its face as a violation of the First Amendment.”
Marder has advocated for justice, equality and world peace for more than six decades. He remains a community activist, and serves as president of the Amistad Committee, Inc., chairman of the Connecticut Freedom Trail, and president of the U.S. Peace Council. He is a World War II veteran and University of Connecticut graduate.
Catherine Roraback went on to become a celebrated civil-rights attorney known for taking on other high-profile cases, from Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized the use of birth control in Connecticut and created the precedent of the right to privacy, to defending Black Panther member Ericka Huggins, who was accused of murder.
Judge Andrew Roraback was born in Torrington, Connecticut and he attended public schools in Torrington and Litchfield. He earned a BA, cum laude, from Yale University and JD from the University of Virginia Law School. He was a member of the General Assembly for 18 years, serving as both a state representative and as a state senator. Roraback was nominated as a Superior Court Judge in 2013. Prior to his court appointment, he worked as a partner at the family law firm of Roraback and Roraback, which was founded by his great-grandfather.
Marder’s interview in “Connecticut Explored” is one of several works tapping into the excitement of the 2016 elections, and focusing on the state’s political history and citizens’ civic engagement. “Though Al Marder is well known for his leadership of The Amistad Committee and the Connecticut Freedom Trail, this is a national story that few people know about,” says Donohue. “His experiences shine a light on how the fear of radicalism was used to rationalize the Smith Act’s suppression of freedom of expression, and any perceived forms of dissention, and his story is still valuable today.”
For more information, contact:
Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky, Executive Director, New Haven Museum
203-562-4183, ext. 20, email@example.com
Source: Julie Winkel