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In 1941, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI targeted Minneapolis union members

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Socialist Workers Party members, ca. 1941. Back row left to right: Farrell Dobbs, Harry DeBoer, Edward Palmquist, Clarence Hamel, Emil Hansen, Oscar Coover, Jake Cooper; front row left to right: Max Geldman, Felix Marrow, Albert Goldman, James Cannon, Vincent Dunne, Carl Skoglund, Grace Carlson.

In 1941, Minneapolis leftists from the Socialist Workers Party and Teamsters union local 544 were accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government under the Alien Registration Act. Twenty-nine were indicted; eighteen were convicted and sentenced to prison.

On June 28, 1940, the “Alien Registration Act” (or “Smith Act,” after its author, Virginia senator Howard W. Smith) was signed into law. In addition to requiring immigrant registration, the act outlawed “subversive activity”—that is, activity that seeks to undermine or overthrow the government from within.

The first citizens accused of breaking this law were members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and/or Teamsters local 544. Many SWP members had been leaders in the Minneapolis 1934 Truckers’ Strike and still held important union positions.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, worried that the SWP’s anti-war position and its ability to organize transportation workers threatened national security. If transportation workers were to strike, it could disrupt the national war effort. Hoover was given permission by the President to spy on those with leftist or communist politics. On June 27, 1941, FBI agents raided the SWP headquarters at 919 Marquette Avenue in Minneapolis and 138 East Sixth Street in St. Paul.

On July 15, a federal grand jury indicted twenty-nine people for violating the Smith Act. The main defendants were James P. Cannon, Dr. Grace Carlson, Harry DeBoer, Farrell Dobbs, V. R. Dunne, Max Geldman, Albert Goldman, and Carl Skoglund. (Grant Dunne was also among the accused but committed suicide before the trial.) All the defendants had ties to the labor movement, mostly for involvement in the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike and Works Progress Administration (WPA) strikes.

The trial began on October 27, 1941, with twenty-eight defendants (the judge later dismissed charges against five). The prosecution, represented by Victor Anderson, began its case on October 29. They argued that the Trotskyists were using their influence in local 544 to disrupt the nation’s industrial sector as a precursor to revolution. They cited the existence of the “Union Defense Guard”—a unit formed to fight the fascist threat of the Silver Shirts—to argue that the defendants advocated violent resistance. According to Anderson, Marxist ideas were inherently seditious because they predicted and supported revolution.

The defense, led by Goldman, argued that the socialists did not present a “clear and present danger” to the U.S. government. In the Supreme Court case of Whitney vs. California, Justices Brandeis and Holmes had found that citizens forfeited their right to free speech only if they presented a “clear and present danger.”

The defense countered the accusation that they were planning violence by explaining their Marxist view that the fall of capitalism was inevitable and would involve violence. They did not advocate that violence; rather they predicted it. Furthermore, the SWP was a legitimate political party working within the government system. The accusation that their beliefs were illegal, they argued, was a violation of their first amendment rights to free speech.

On December 1, 1941, after fifty-six hours of deliberation, the jury handed down its verdict. It acquitted five defendants and found the remaining eighteen guilty of alleging seditious speech, publications and associations. On December 8, the eighteen were sentenced to prison. The longest term served was sixteen months.

During the appeals process, the eighteen spoke in public and raised funds through the Civil Rights Defense Committee (CRDC). Over two years, the CRDC took in $39,010 for defense and appeals. The defendants gained the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and more than a hundred labor unions and trade councils, representing over two million workers.

Having lost their appeal to the Supreme Court, the guilty parties turned themselves in on December 31, 1943. Most went to Sandstone Federal Prison in Minnesota.

Although some retired from political life after their release, Carlson, Dobbs and Dunne ran for office for the SWP. Through the early 1980s, the defendants sought a Presidential pardon. In 1981, Dobbs filed suit against the FBI for illegal surveillance; in 1986, after his death, the FBI admitted to its illegal acts.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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