Communists Like My Uncle Fought to Expand American Democracy. Fascists Fought to Destroy It.

My uncle, LeRoy H. Wood, spent years in a federal prison for “conspiring to teach the advocacy of the overthrow of the US government by force and violence.” He was a Communist peacefully organizing for civil and economic rights. And he was punished to a far greater extent than Donald Trump will ever be.

The “evidence” against those convicted for conspiring against the US government was the pamphlets and books which talked about the necessity of a future beyond capitalism.

My late uncle, LeRoy H. Wood, spent years in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, for what he did in Washington, DC.

Roy was convicted of “conspiring to teach the advocacy of the overthrow of the US government by force and violence.” No, Uncle Roy was not a billionaire who incited a mob to storm the US Capitol with Molotov cocktails. He did not shut down a session of Congress as it completed the final stages of an electoral process. He did not encourage those plotting the assassination of political leaders.

Rather, Uncle Roy was a leader of the Communist Party in Washington in the early ’50s. He worked out of the organization’s bookstore there; the “evidence” against him was the pamphlets and books contained therein which talked about the necessity of a future beyond capitalism.

The real “crime,” though, was his work in the militant struggles for unions, racial equality, and working-class empowerment that were at the heart of the Communist Party’s work.

LeRoy Wood convicted of conspiring to overthrow the US government.

As a teenager in Idaho, Roy Wood led movements of farmers against foreclosures at the height of the Great Depression. He organized unemployed workers to win relief payments. They rallied at the State Capitol building in Boise for a federal program to support workers in their retirement. They supported the strikes of hard rock miners.

When legislation establishing Social Security was won, Roy got a job with that administration and moved to the DC area, at the same time continuing his work with the Communist Party, including working with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore.

Uncle Roy himself was a mild-mannered, charming, working-class intellectual. A piano player whose boogie woogie could get you out of your seat and onto the floor, he and my Aunt Lariene often jammed late into the night with a circle of musicians which included fellow communist Woody Guthrie.

Uncle Roy was an astute student of history. He would have said that you would have to look deeper to see the real forces behind the 2021 insurrection. The real culprits, he would say, were not the conspiracy theory adherents or the misguided Hell’s Angels types. He would have pointed the finger directly at the 153 Ivy League representatives and senators who shamelessly voted to overturn the vote of the American people. And even more, he would have pointed to the corporate forces who bankroll the shadowy networks of insurrectionists — Big Oil, Big Finance — and the media sewer they fund.

The billionaire demagogues, from Donald Trump to Kelly Loeffler, spent months trumping up the menace of communism during the 2020 election against Biden and Harris, and most recently against Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. How ironic it was that these same demagogues fueled the very “conspiracy to overthrow the US government by force and violence” that they claimed to be warning against.

Anti-Communism Helps the Fascists

The twin themes of anti-communism and racism have been used repeatedly by anti-democratic forces to attack progressive movements and candidates throughout American history. In 2020, just as during the Smith Act trials of the 1950s, anti-communism provided a “safe space” for fascist forces to grow and fester. Anti-communism opens the door for corporate agents to enact policies which plunder the working class and the environment. How else to beguile workers and small business folks to rally for corporate deregulation and tax code changes resulting in massive transfers of wealth to billionaires?

The US labor movement is still paying the price for the passage of the Taft-Hartley law in 1947 which started us down the road to reversing the victories of the union organizing drives of the 1930s and ’40s. Taft-Hartley, which disarmed labor, was pushed through Congress by a fabricated fear of a “communist threat.”

If we are serious about preventing fascism, we’re going to have to understand and get past the anti-communism, which alongside racism, fuels it.

Our country’s progressive movement is a big tent. That alliance spans a vast array of forces for social justice, from unions to immigrant rights advocates, fighters for equality and against systemic racism, women’s rights, peace, environmental champions, and — yes — communists and socialists who participate in those movements.

Uncle Roy served his time, but he never had to apologize for what he’d done. A lifelong champion of the working class, not once did he doubt that he was on the right side of history.