Robert D. Parmet, Review of Clarence Taylor’s “Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union” (Columbia University Press, 2011)
[Robert D. Parmet is professor of history at York College of the City University of New York and author of The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement.]
America’s teachers have long struggled to gain respect and satisfactory working conditions. Toward that goal, in 1916 the New York City Teachers Union was formed. Modest in its objectives, the organization essentially sought decent salaries and recognition for teachers as professionals. However, during the 1920s its Communist critics promoted a more militant agenda. In 1935 the leftists gained control of the union and pointed it in a direction influenced by the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party.
In his study, Clarence Taylor, professor of history and black and Hispanic studies at Baruch College, explores the nature and extent of the Communist influence. Relying on thorough research and presenting much detail, he finds that the Teachers Union (TU) indeed adopted policies of the Communist Party, but without abandoning the interests of the teachers they led. Though the TU was handicapped by its blind support for the Soviets and the American Communists, it advanced the cause of social unionism, and looked beyond teachers’ working conditions to eradicate such evils as racism and poverty and create a more just society. As the TU “blurred the line between its work on behalf of teachers and promoted Communist policies,” it drew sharp criticism, which in 1941 led to the revocation of the American Federation of Teachers charter it had held since 1916. Remaining committed to social unionism, it joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations, from which it would be ousted in 1950.
Ignoring criticism, the TU self-destructively followed the Communist Party line. As Taylor notes, the union even supported the Soviets when they signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany and moved away from the concept of a “popular front” against fascism. However, when the United States went to war with Germany, which by then had invaded Russia, the TU supported the fight against Nazism. Through the 1930s and into the post-war years it also attacked anti-Semitism and defended the rights of African Americans.
The coming of the Cold War spelled disaster for the TU. With the world divided into two hostile camps, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, a strong fear arose here of internal subversion aimed at overthrowing the government. Though the TU had been investigated several times since 1919 for un-American activities, in 1948, with 5,600 members, it presented an irresistible target for people seeking to combat global Communism. “In the resulting purges,” Taylor writes, “close to four hundred TU members were fired, forced to resign, or compelled to retire.” Following the lead of Superintendent of Schools William Jansen, who sought to uproot Communist teachers from the New York City public schools, congressional hearings assaulted the union, determined to demonstrate that it was a Communist front. Minnie Gutridge was unable to bear this climate. A veteran elementary school teacher who was suffering from cancer, she was interrogated by an Assistant Superintendent of Schools during a school day about her attendance at Communist Party meetings in 1940 and 1941. That evening she took her own life. In May 1956 the Board of Education named 273 teachers who it claimed “had been ‘suspended, dismissed, resigned or retired’ as a result of its investigation into subversion.”
Though Taylor is indignant when he describes the affront to civil liberties, he carefully weighs the issues he discusses. For example, there is the question of anti-Semitism. Considering the fact that most of the removed teachers on the 1956 list were Jewish, a hasty conclusion might attribute that situation to anti-Semitism. While not denying that some of the figures leading the purge held such sentiments, Taylor nevertheless examines the question thoroughly, finally deciding that it was a weapon used by both sides.
Within this generally distressing account of leftists under siege there are some surprises. One is a fascinating account of the TU’s campaign to promote black history. Despite the union’s decline under the anti-Communist assault in the 1950s, it persisted in championing racial equality, contending that, along with democracy, it was basic to education. This view motivated campaigns to eliminate racist textbooks from the public schools and increase the teaching of black history and the number of black teachers in the schools. Another surprise is a chapter on the role of women in the TU. By discussing Bella Dodd, Rose Russell and other female activists Taylor adds a women’s history dimension to his study.
Taylor ends his book with the creation of the United Federation of Teachers in 1960. An outgrowth of the rival New York Teachers Guild, the UFT was a militant organization without the TU’s Communist baggage. In November 1960 New York City’s teachers went on strike for the first time, led by the UFT, which a year later became their collective bargaining agent. In 1964 the Teachers Union disbanded. Associated with the Communist Party, it could not survive the Cold War. In Clarence Taylor it has a worthy chronicler.
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