Jack Shulman: Underground in the 1950s South

The following is part of a series of interviews with Jack Shulman, an early US anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist. This is part 2. To read part 1, click here.

INTERVIEWER: So, you must have been in the South around ’54, ’55.
JS: 54, 55.

INTERVIEWER: What name were you using?
JS: Clark. X Clark.

INTERVIEWER: And what was Ruth’s name?
JS: Y (Clark). So that was our new identity and we crafted ourselves, you know. And fashioned a history. I don’t know what we said or how we said it. We had to develop a whole past history under that name and where we were living and working and this and that. Which convinced some people but some people not. We would rent a room in somebody’s home, they had a room to spare, and I guess our stories were a little fishy, but they figured we were just running away, unmarried and living together and so they figured us out. And I got jobs there. She got a job pretty soon. She was a very competent secretary. She had a job as a secretary, clerk, bookkeeper and everything in some big — no, it was small – – auto service place. And I had trouble finding a job. And finally, the guy in the auto service place told me I should go out and try to sell air conditioners for cars. This was something very new in those days. And a little expensive. And I was not much of a salesman. I didn’t know anything about cars or about air conditioners. And I didn’t succeed in selling a single thing for weeks and weeks. Finally, I quit that but then I got a job — I don’t know how it happened, but I got a job in a little machine shop. I faked up some references. I didn’t know anything about a machine shop, but I got a job as a helper there or something. Night shift. It was dirty and it was hot, low wages, but we managed. We didn’t get any financial help at all from anybody.

INTERVIEWER: Were there any civil rights activities going on there when you were in Birmingham then?
JS: In Birmingham? No. We weren’t aware of any. We weren’t aware of any. Everybody was hiding, lying low, deep into the stone shelters, you know. McCarthyism was riding high. But there were some liberals and Progressives that may have been — they kept their mouths shut. They couldn’t do anything.

INTERVIEWER: And then, from Birmingham, where did you go?
JS: Went to New Orleans.

INTERVIEWER: Why New Orleans?
JS: I don’t know. I don’t remember, but there were a couple of contacts. There was a lawyer or two, you know, who were progressive and were still trying to function as progressive lawyers, but very carefully. Didn’t have any direct contact with the party or party people. Then there was one couple — Jonson, G. Jonson — it was a famous case back then, as a result of our work. He was a native born American, born in Mississippi. . . There was nothing much going on to speak of. The authorities had their eye on them because they were known to be radicals for a long time. Let’s see. I got a job selling wire fences. That took me around to the bayous and all over, measuring out for fences, into the four corners of the city and even the middle class. I made a little in the way of wages. Not really wages. And of course, the owner was of French background, and a very well off guy — he used to cheat all of his salesmen, regularly, and there wasn’t much we could do about it. But, he gave us work. I remember once I was out on a job, measuring up a fence around a church, somewhere. Way up in a swamp, halfway behind the church it was swampy and I had to go and measure and wade in the swamps and big mosquito bowl. Then we decided to do a little bit of activity. We had some contact with one guy that the New York office sent down to check up on us and see what we were doing. They put out a big brochure, 12-page brochure, on the Negro Question.

INTERVIEWER: The party did?
JS: The party

JS: In New York. They wanted us to distribute that around the south. How to do it? I don’t know. They sent us several thousand, several thousand copies. We got hold of some mailing list, somewhere, somehow. I don’t know where. We got some mailing lists and we worked hard, you know, after work, in the evenings and at night, addressing envelopes and stuffing envelopes and putting stamps on them, and so forth. And we finally had a pretty good size — at least 1500 names on the envelopes with this stuff, with this brochure the Negro Question and things like that. We didn’t know how to distribute it, so we set out one night. We went out, two cars, we went to different places and dropped bundles in different mail boxes all around. We went around to several towns around. Went even as far as Baton Rouge and dropped — it was all night long we were working on it — and we dropped little bundles here and there. It got spread around and we got into the newspapers. Big headlines you know – Invasion of the Communists . . . The whole county, the whole state was in an uproar. Headlines all over the place. They were looking for these Reds who had come in and one story was that a woman had seen a blue Buick with Chicago license plate, come through the town and they think that that’s where it came from, that’s who brought it in there to the South. They never would have imagined that anyone living there would do a thing like that. It was really upsetting. They had the wheels of the State security and legislature turning. They made a real fuss. And then the police and FBI began to make it hot and they started questioning these lawyers, progressive lawyers, who were just sitting around. They weren’t bothering us at all. They didn’t have anything to do with it. They were hounding the Jonson family. Jonson was sick; he had TB, and two kids. So they arrested him.

JS: Arrested him, handcuffed him to his bed in the hospital. He was sick. Put him in the hospital because he had TB, but chained him to his bed. And that made big headlines. We were trying to get him out of there. A dragnet was closing in all over. They were rounding up everybody who used to be a communist. The FBI and the police — they knew more than we did. We didn’t know — We were supposed to go and find these people and we didn’t even know who they were or where they were, but the FBI did. And they went around hounding everybody. So, a few little contacts that we did pick up — were, in any event scared immediately. Oh, there was a trial. A big trial and some of the progressive lawyers got involved in it.

INTERVIEWER: Big trial of whom?
JS: G.Jonson.

INTERVIEWER: And what happened in that trial?
JS: I don’t know?? We were gone already.

INTERVIEWER: Were you told to leave?
JS: We decided to leave and we told them we were going to leave and they didn’t object. We knew that if we stayed there another couple of weeks, they would have caught up with us and we’d be in jail. So. one day we packed up our things in our old jalopy. We had an old Hudson car and it was very reliable, good sturdy car. Bought it for a couple hundred dollars. And it took us all the way through the South, a couple years. We left one night and we just lit out, disappeared from the place we were — we were renting a little room in a house of an old widow in the Carrollton area. She was sort of a friendly person, tolerant. She figured that we were — something fishy about us, but never bothered us. I remember she had a little backyard, and in the backyard, she had a fig tree. And once in a while she gave us some fresh figs right off the tree. I had never seen a fresh fig; I didn’t know what it looked like. Anyway, we lit out there and went up to Shreveport, I guess, and cut over and went through Texas. All through Texas, all the way to Arizona and to California. And then we changed our identities back again to what they were. We ended up in San Francisco.

MEH : So howlong, all together, were you in the South?
JS: Two years.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that your presence there had any impact, at all?
JS: It sure did.

JS: In New Orleans, it did. In Birmingham it didn’t have much impact.

INTERVIEWER: What was the impact, you think, in NewOrleans? And was that positive?
JS: Well, yeah. I think it was positive. It upset a lot of people, but a lot of other people were stimulated by this. Other progressives – there were progressives around, but they were kind of hiding. They had to keep their head down. I’m sure it didn’t hurt them the least bit, but it certainly shook up the establishment.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear anything else about Grady Jenkins and what happened to him?
JS: Well, after the trial — there was some kind of a trial and I don’t know how they got him off. It lasted a long time. There was defense committees and things set up to raise money — I think the better part of a year. And, finally, he got — they let him off somehow or other. I don’t know the details and they packed up and went to California. They were living in California somewhere and I lost track of them. They never kept in touch. I don’t know if the party helped them at all or they had to shift for themselves. I don’t believe they had to shift for themselves. Some of the local Progressives — there were a couple lawyers. I don’t know their names. I never met them and never had any contact with them, who were known as liberal, radical lawyers and they suffered a little bit too, as a result. I think they were instrumental in defending him and getting him at least out of that — out of the chains in the hospital.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have any contact with African-Americans when you were in New Orleans?
JS: Not direct. Not party contact. Just business contact. Drove around —

INTERVIEWER: No political contacts?
JS: Nopolitical contacts

INTERVIEWER:Were youaware of any organizing going on there? Any civil rights organizing?
JS: I wasn’t .

Categories: U.S. News

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