Cause at Heart: A Former Communist Remembers by Junius Irving Scales and Richard Nickson. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.427 pages. $24.95.)
By Patricia Sullivan
Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, pp. 29-31
In 1946 the Interracial Committee for North Carolina (CNC) of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare considered support for a bill pending in the state legislature for the construction of a new hospital. To the obvious annoyance of many of the white members present, Junius Scales inquired how black patients were to be accommodated, and how many black physicians and nurses would be employed. Dr. Frank Graham, president of the University of North Carolina and a founding member of the CNC, responded that the hospital would be segregated and that no black nurses or physicians would be employed. While recognizing that this was a “shameful” situation, Dr. Graham suggested that it was unavoidable if the hospital were to be built at all. Sales recalled that before he could reply, Dr. David Jones, president of Bennett College, took the lectern: “‘I and my people would follow Dr. Graham to the ends of the earth,’ he said. ‘We respect and love him. But my God!’ His voice became an agonized roar…’My God! How long must my people wait until the first faltering word is spoken by white men of good will saying that segregation is criminal–that it is destroying my people.’ His impressive figure trembling with emotion, he appeared to want to say something else, but instead he resumed to his seat amid a stunned silence and sat with his hand over his face.”
Junius Scales came of age during the era of the depression and New Deal, in a South where segregation was still firmly intact. As the hospital incident demonstrated, the majority of white liberals “still clung to separate but equal delusions; were eager to avoid confrontation on the ‘race issue’; shied away from a chance to fight segregation even on favorable grounds; and were all too often ready to seek a ‘solution’ by promising a future fight which usually did not take place.” Scales was sensitive to the pervasive bigotry against blacks prevalent even in the enlightened community of Chapel Hill. “By established custom,” he recalled, “20 percent of the population was consigned to poverty, indignation and isolation because of skin color.” They were a concern only as a reservoir for domestic servants. This gulf between the daily reality of racism and discrimination, and the white liberal response helped stimulate Scales’s interest and subsequent membership in the Communist Party, the only political organization that actively challenged the segregation system and made racial equality a central component of its agenda.
Junius Scales appeared an unlikely Communist. He was born to one of the most prominent families in North Carolina. John Rolfe and Pocahontas were among his maternal ancestors. Scales’s paternal ancestors arrived in Jamestown, Va., in 1623, and after migrating to North Carolina took an active role in politics, serving in the state legislature, U.S. Congress, North Carolina Supreme Court, and the office of governor. Alfred Moore Scales, Junius’s father, was elected to the state senate at the age of twenty five, twice re-elected over long intervals, and declined an appointment as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. In addition to a successful law practice, his real estate investments were worth several million dollars by the time Junius was born in 1920. The family suffered severe financial losses at the end of the 1920s, but Alfred Scales took the monetary loss in stride. He had always impressed upon his children the futility of dedicating one’s life to the accumulation of material wealth, and demonstrated the importance of public service through his political activities on behalf of liberal racial policies, women’s suffrage, and religious tolerance.
While Scales shared his father’s abiding concern for the greater good, the traditional outlets for such a pursuit appeared less than satisfactory. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries entering the 1938 freshman class at Chapel Hill, Scales had little interest in social status and refused to pledge for a fraternity. His primary interests were music, literature and ideas. Scales became increasingly sensitive to the widening gap between himself and traditional Southern values, finding that most of the intellectual yeast for undergraduates was provided by “outsiders” from the North and West. (It was at Chapel Hill that he met Richard Nickson, a native of New Mexico, who became a life-long friend and assisted in the writing of this memoir.)
Abernathy’s bookstore, a noted gathering place for intellectuals and radicals which Scales had frequented since high school days, continued to provide a stimulating center for intellectual and political discourse. The critical point in his political development, however, came with his participation in a student-labor conference in Durham, sponsored by the state CIO and a number of black and white academic figures from throughout the state. For the first time in his life, Scales met blacks on an equal basis, and shared a meal with several black students, one of whom was the daughter of Dr. David Jones. Shortly thereafter he joined the American Student Union, and was soon invited to join the Communist Party. After careful consideration, he decided to join the Party on a “trial” basis in the spring of 1939.
Scales quickly became disillusioned with the sectarianism and lack of purpose of the Chapel Hill chapter of the Communist Party. He was preparing to resign when he met Bart Logan, native Georgian and district organizer for North and South Carolina. Scales assisted Logan with a textile strike in High Point, an event that reaffimmed his commitment to the Communist Party as the means for advancing economic and racial justice. He was overwhelmed by the poverty and exploitation that dominated life in the
textile mill. At the same time, Scales was stirred by the deep commitment of Logan and several veterans from the famous Gastonia strike to help the powerless move beyond fear and apathy by organizing. Scales concluded that more than a strike was taking place; it was a social revolution. For the next eighteen years, Junius Scales would strive to carry this effort forward as a leading member of the Communist Party in North Carolina.
Junius Scales provides an important and often moving account of the Communist Party’s role in labor organizing and civil rights activities in the South during the 1940s. While Scales applies a critical eye to the events of the past, his memoir succeeds in capturing the hope and enthusiastic dedication that motivated him and many of his compatriots some forty years ago. As a key organizer of the Communist Party in the High Point area and Chapel Hill, and later district organizer for the state, Scales sought political answers to local problems, and often succeeded in adapting national Party directives to individual cases. He spent his first year as a Party member working in a textile mill, engaging workers directly, and responding as an organizer to the harsh reality of their lives. After serving in the army during the war. Scales moved back to Chapel Hill. Scales began graduate study in History, and took a leading role in several liberal groups that thrived in the early postwar period, including the American Veterans Committee and the Committee for North Carolina. He avoided sectarianism, and appreciated the efforts of white liberals who perhaps were not moving as quickly as he. As a Communist Scales saw himself as a gadfly-his role was not to subvert liberal groups, but to push them as far as their program and membership would allow. Scales believed that if socialism were to be realized in the United States, it must come through the force of ideas and the ballot box, not by violence and rhetorical coercion.
Scales’s account of the Party’s positive contributions is accompanied by a harsh critique of the dogmatism and moral limitations of Party policy, which often guided his own behavior. Recounting his part in the expulsion of two Party members, he writes, “was always, the glorious ends justified the slimy means and I had to squelch that persistent inner voice which suggested that perhaps the unsavory means were tainting the qualities of the socialist goals.” However, during the 1940s, Scales repressed any doubts he had concerning the Party and concentrated his attention on local issues and concerns. In the early 1940s the Party organized broad labor support in High Point to petition the Federal Housing Authority to provide low cost housing. This effort ultimately succeeded, despite strong opposition from local “slum lords,” and greatly improved the standard of low-cost housing in the area. Voter registration and education were also an important part of Party efforts, in addition to running workers for local office on third party tickets. The Southern Negro Youth Congress provided an organized based for young militant black students, who took an active role in voter registration efforts in the black community. Scales’s moving account of a 1946 SNYC meeting in Columbia, S.C., attended by several thousand, provides a glimpse of the black awakening already underway throughout the South. At that meeting Scales was elected a vice president of the SNYC, the first and only white to serve as an officer of the organization. There was also the successful organization of the tobacco workers in Winston-Salem, a predominantly black union with a powerful leadership that became an active force in local politics. One final example is Scales’s and
Louis Austin’s timely intervention in the Mack Ingram case, helping to avert the “legal lynching” of a black man convicted of assaulting a white woman with his “glare,” having never gotten within seventy feet of her. Scales and Austin, black editor of the Carolina Times, investigated the story, and fed it to New York Post reporter Ted Poston. The national and international attention that followed led to the appeal of the conviction, and its reversal.
The changing political climate of the late 1940s limited Scales’s ability to maneuver within the parameters of Communist Party policy, as well as in the society at large. In 1947, he publicly declared his membership in the Communist Party in an effort to counteract anti-communist hysteria. His announcement had the opposite effect, and left him isolated from many of his liberal associates. Meanwhile, the national Communist Party was increasingly on the defensive in the face of federal efforts to outlaw the Party, and the CIO’s expulsion of left-wing unions. Scales explains how the Party leadership turned inward, becoming more sectarian and internally divisive, and less an active force for political change. The early 1950s were painful years for Scales and others whose efforts to remain a creative force on the political scene became increasingly futile. For Scales, it came to an abrupt end on November 18, 1954, when he was arrested by FBI officials and charged with violating the Smith Act.
As Scales undertook a long and lonely legal battle, his disillusionment with the Communist Party and its increasing irrelevance to the American political scene culminated with his departure from the Party. Living outside of the Party, he writes, was “an extremely painful adjustment …. The belief was dead and with it had gone the innocence and joy forever. The truth as we saw it was that the American Communist dream had become a cruel, convoluted hoax.” In spite of his “non-Communist” status, the government relentlessly pursued Scales’s case, which it built primarily on the testimony of paid informers. The government sought to prove that by virtue of his membership in the Communist Party, Scales was guilty of conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. Despite the brilliant legal counsel of Telford Taylor, Scales was convicted by a jury in Greensboro. The legal history of the case and its relationship to the interpretation of the Smith Act and the Internal Security Act, is an important study in Cold War domestic politics. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld Scales’s conviction, 5-4, and he entered the federal penitentiary on October 2,1961, to begin serving a six-year sentence.
Scales’s reflection on his prison experience comprises the last part of this memoir and is an integral part of it, for this book is less a history of the Communist Party in North Carolina than the story of one individual’s unending quest on behalf of human decency and justice. Scales’s personal dignity and integrity sustained him in prison. He spent much of his time trying to make the experience more endurable for those around him. For example, he shared his love and appreciation of music with fellow inmates by organizing popular Sunday evening presentations of his favorite operas. Scales’s separation from his devoted wife, Gladys, and young daughter, Barbara, was the most painful aspect of his imprisonment. Prominent liberals organized a movement for an executive pardon. However, J. Edgar Hoover and Nicholas Katzenbach wanted Scales first to prove the fact that he was no longer a loyal Communist by testifying about other Party members. With the full realization that a pardon might not be gained unless he “cooperated,” Scales refused to consider the suggestion. Nevertheless, on Christmas Day 1962, Scales was reunited with his family following an executive commutation of his sentence (thus he remains a convicted felon).
Junius Scales’s participation in the racial and social reform movements of the 1940s may seem little more than a footnote to that history. While he was being tried and serving time, the civil rights movement came to the fore of the national scene with the Brown decision, the emergence of Martin Luther King, the mass protests of the early sixties, and ultimately the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is ironic that while the Justice Department focused its determined energy on the conviction and incarceration of Junius Scales as a threat to the government, white Southerners blatantly ignored federal law by obstructing the integration of schools, with little interference from federal law enforcement agencies. And, despite the gains of the 1950s and 1960s, many of the promises of the civil rights movement remain unrealized in the areas of jobs, housing, education, and economic security. Moreover, organized labor has been unable to effectively represent the economic and political interests of the majority of American workers. Junius Scales’s “God” may have failed. But the struggle for economic and racial justice which challenged his youthful idealism remains a powerful reality, yet to penetrate the mainstream of American political discourse.
Patricia Sullivan teaches history at Emory University.