The communist: Questioning embodies patriotism

One spring day, my friend Connie and I rode our bikes down the hill on Oakland Street to Eighth, pedaling hard for a long block, looking for the house that had been described as where a "communist" lived. I didn't really know what a communist was, but I knew that "communist" meant "traitor."

At the house, a driveway wound up the hill to a small knoll on which sat an ordinary brick Cape Cod with small dormer windows peeking from the roof. A communist in our neighborhood and only a block from Arlington Hall, an Army post!

We stopped beside the driveway and stared up the hill waiting for the communist to appear. The house was quiet and empty at this time of day. But we were spooked. Who was this dangerous outsider who lived only a block away, a presence we couldn't see? She was like a "witch," an "enemy," certainly not one of us.

Growing up in the '50s, I feared foreign attacks and often dreamed of bombs exploding at the Washington Monument. Listening for the planes overhead, I learned how to dive beneath my desk in air raid drills.

Do children today dream of the World Trade Center?

Back in the 1950s, I never saw the communist, or anyone resembling a witch. I forgot about her.

Recently, as I fingered the "Black Heritage" postage stamp issued in honor of Paul Robeson, I remembered the house on the hill. Paul Robeson, singer, actor, political activist, used his celebrity to promote civil rights in this country and human rights abroad.

In the late 1940s, Robeson, campaigning for the Progressive Party, drove to the heart of the black community in Atlanta. Halting the car in the middle of the street, he stepped out and began to sing: first a Negro spiritual and then "Old Man River," his signature song. As the sound of this deep rich baritone soared upward, crowds poured into the street, leaned out tenement windows, and crawled out onto fire escapes to hear the unmistakable voice of perhaps the most famous American of his day.

Yet only a few years after this triumphant appearance, the U.S. government denied Robeson the right to travel out of the country and Congress cited him for contempt for refusing to answer the questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The issuance of the postage stamp is long overdue for a man who was reviled and dishonored by his government and largely forgotten for half a century.

But today, in this time of unrest over potential terrorist attacks, some Americans appear hostile to any fellow citizens whose opinions differ from theirs.

I remember another witch-hunt-­ this time in the 1970s. My friends, Al and Margaret McSurely, active in the civil rights movement, moved to eastern Kentucky to help organize poor people to fight for better working conditions. One night, a car drove by their rural house in Pike County, pausing long enough to throw a homemade bomb that damaged the structure but fortunately not the McSurelys or their infant son.

The bombers were never found. Shortly afterwards the local authorities raided their home, confiscated books and personal papers, and charged the McSurelys with conspiring to overthrow the government of Pike County. Investigators from a U.S. senate committee seeking to find "radicals" responsible for the riots occurring after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination swept into eastern Kentucky to read the booty collected in the raid– an action the courts later declared illegal.

Eventually, the Senate subpoenaed the McSurelys to produce their papers and talk about the "conspiracy" among civil rights and anti-poverty workers that caused the riots. (The McSurelys were deemed a part of this conspiracy even though they lived several hundred miles away from the closest urban area.)

The McSurelys­ unlike Robeson– were actually cited, prosecuted, and convicted of contempt of Congress. On appeal, though, the convictions were overturned. Al­ then over 50– used a portion of a substantial settlement award to attend law school, and he currently practices civil rights law in North Carolina.

Ironically, at the same time that the U.S. government posthumously honors Robeson, it also questions the motives, integrity, and truthfulness of citizens like Richard Clark who criticize administration terrorism policies. Even some citizens, invoking loyalty to the U.S., question the loyalty of soldiers who reported the abuse in the Iraqi prison scandal. It seems a short distance from the fear of communism in the '50s and urban riots in the '70s­ the fear of the other– to the present focus on terrorism.

Yet freedom of speech is ostensibly what separates us from despotic nations that curb liberty and outlaw opinions different from government or from majority views. In the land of the free, we remain entitled to speak our own minds. Contrary to the hyperbolic title of the so-called Patriot Act, the real patriots are those who are willing to speak their opinions even when their views are not popular.

I'm now older than Robeson was when he appeared before Congress, and I have lost contact with the McSurelys. In the aftermath of 9/11, I­ like other Americans– am scared of terrorists. And just as I didn't know where the communists were in the 1950s, I don't know where the terrorists are today. Potential terrorists need to be identified and caught; but it's a small step from surveillance aimed at terrorists to harassment of people the government suspects for other reasons.

Governmental actions do have a ripple effect not only on those directly affected, but also on all of us– our attitudes and approaches. My own childish encounter with the "communist" Cape Cod house in Arlington reflected the anti-communist witch hunt atmosphere of the '50s. Who knows what were the political views, much less actions, of the person inside the house?

Now that I'm a grandmother, I ponder the effects of the current political atmosphere on my grandchildren. I want them to ask questions, not to parrot the political sound bite of the day. I want them to be independent and speak their minds. I want them to be part of a country that nurtures new and true patriots-­ people unafraid to break the mold and speak their truth. For me, that's what American patriotism is all about.