Communists need not apply
Vadim Ghirda / AP

Communists need not apply.

That’s the message Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Georgia sends to all prospective job-seekers. When Dr. Bill Ellenberg applied for a position teaching English at the school, he discovered that, in addition to being well-versed in literature and composition, he also needed to be a confirmed non-communist.

A portion of the loyalty oath that Dr. William Ellenberg was made to sign as part of his application for a teaching position at Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Ga. in June. | ACLU of Georgia

Yes, until just last week, anyone who wanted to join the campus workforce was required to sign a “loyalty oath” pledging their allegiance to the Constitutions of the United States and the state of Georgia—as well as promising they were not a member of the Communist Party.

Turns out the college itself was not so loyal to the Constitution. In a strongly-worded letter to Lanier’s president, Ray Perren, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia pointed out the obvious: requiring workers to swear that they are not members of the Communist Party—or any group or organization—is illegal. It violates the freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment.

During the “second Red Scare” of the 1950s, when the federal government was persecuting communists, left-wingers, and progressive union leaders, loyalty oaths appeared on job applications everywhere. Mass hysteria was whipped up with accusations of treason and plots of violence; the Communist Party and its members were labeled “agents of a foreign power” who were just waiting to overthrow the government and hand America over to the Soviets.

A demonstration in front of New York’s Federal Courthouse, June 6, 1949, to protest against Judge Harold Medina who sent Communist defendants to jail for contempt of court. The defendants were charged with conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the government. Joining the picket line at Foley Square were the wives of three of the twelve defendants, starting third from left, Lillian Gates (wife of Daily Worker editor John Gates), Fern Winston (wife of party leader Henry Winston), and Elizabeth Hall (wife of party leader Gus Hall). | AP Photo

The oaths were one part of a wider campaign aimed at erasing left influence among the working class by literally keeping communists out of the workforce or silencing those that remained. Thousands of people were blacklisted from employment, fired from their jobs, expelled from their unions, deported, put on trial, jailed, and some were even executed—all in the name of defending democracy and freedom.

It was all a sham, though. The anti-communist campaigns of the Cold War period were never about protecting democracy. The real goal of those in power was to create an atmosphere where anyone who raised a complaint on the job could be fired, where few would question huge boosts in military spending, and where none dared challenge U.S. foreign policy.

Though too few liberals or labor leaders came to the defense of the communists initially, millions of Americans eventually saw the danger that McCarthyism posed to democracy and the Bill of Rights in this country. By 1967, even the Supreme Court was pushed to action, declaring loyalty oaths to be illegal.

It may have taken more than 50 years, but news of that ruling has finally made it to Lanier College, thanks to the ACLU. As its legal director Sean Young reminded President Perren: “Rooting out employees who are members of the Communist Party was unconstitutional during the Cold War, and it remains unconstitutional today.”

It might seem like a no-brainer to condemn such an obvious violation of the Constitution as Lanier’s loyalty oath, but there’s another question that’s worth asking. Why is it that communists are always on the receiving end of such harassment and questions about their commitment to the United States?

Anti-communism has always become most fierce precisely at times when labor and democratic movements are on the upswing. It’s no coincidence that the 1950s Red Scare and Lanier’s loyalty oath both pop up when the left is seeing its fortunes rise. In the period right after World War II, there was a mass strike wave; today, it’s the huge resistance to Trump and progressive gains at the ballot box. There’s a reason anti-communism is known as a reactionary ideology.

For almost a hundred years, members of the Communist Party (along with those of other left, socialist, and labor organizations) have been some of the most devoted leaders and activists in the movements that have transformed this country for the better. Whether it was unemployment insurance and the right to join a union, the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against racism, or the struggle for women’s equality and for peace, you usually don’t have to dig very deep before you find a left-winger at work.

Rather than weakening America from within or sabotaging the country on behalf of some foreign power, these generations of communists and others were typically making immense sacrifices of time, career, and family for the sake of their fellow countrymen and women—standing up for what they believed in.

And that sounds pretty damned American to me.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.