A Communist in Terre Haute: Earl Browder and Free Speech

Five men are sitting in a jail cell in Terre Haute, Indiana. The leader of the group—a middle-aged, mustached, and unassuming figure—had been arrested on charges of “vagrancy and ‘for investigation’,” according to the local police chief. But it wasn’t a drunk or an unlucky drifter sitting in the cell. It was the leader of an American political party and its nominee for President of the United States. He had tried to give a speech in Terre Haute when arrested by the local authorities. His case became a statewide and even national discussion on the importance and limits of free speech. Now, who could’ve caused all of this ruckus? It was Earl Browder, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States.

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Credits:

Written and produced by Justin Clark. 

Music: “And Then She Left” by Kinoton, “Echo Sclavi” by the Mini Vandals, “Namaste” by Audionautix, “Myositis” by the United States Marine Band, “Finding the Balance” by Kevin MacLeod, and “Dana” by Vibe Tracks

Full Text of Video

September 30, 1936. The United States is still living in the depths of the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt is running for a second term. And five men are sitting in a jail cell in Terre Haute, Indiana. The leader of the group—a middle-aged, mustached, and unassuming figure—had been arrested on charges of “vagrancy and ‘for investigation’,” according to the local police chief. But it wasn’t a drunk or an unlucky drifter sitting in the cell. It was the leader of an American political party and its nominee for President of the United States. He had tried to give a speech in Terre Haute when arrested by the local authorities. His case became a statewide and even national discussion on the importance and limits of free speech. Now, who could’ve caused all of this ruckus? It was Earl Browder, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States.

Kansan Earl Browder, described by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as having the “drab and harassed appearance of a small-town bookkeeper,” became the General Secretary of the American Communist Party in 1930. An offshoot of the Communist International, or Comintern, the party was founded in 1919 and held to the revolutionary ideals of Marxism-Leninism. However, in 1935, the party went through an evolution of sorts, making itself more palatable to American political culture. It tied its revolutionary struggle to the struggles of the American Revolution and the Civil War, using the slogan “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” While some of this was due to the organic leadership of Browder, much of this shift came down from on high in Moscow. The Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1935 stressed that the emerging threat of fascism necessitated working-class unity. This was achieved, they thought, by less antagonism towards Roosevelt and the New Deal, trade unions of all stripes, and agricultural interests. So while the American Communist Party would criticize these variables of American political life, it would do so in a more pragmatic, less antagonistic manner and achieve the Comintern’s two desires: a Roosevelt reelection and a stronger foothold within organized labor.

The test of this shift came with the 1936 presidential election. Browder ran as the American Communist Party’s presidential nominee and his running mate was James W. Ford, an African American trade unionist and WWI veteran. In some senses, Browder and Ford had the biographies of any routine American progressive during the 1930s. Both men grew up working class in rural backwaters (Kansas for Browder and Alabama for Ford), both became trade unionists, and both believed in New Deal-style social programs such as a jobs guarantee and Social Security. The party platform of 1936 was also progressive, calling for the aforementioned programs as well as a commitment against fascism, a larger tax burden on the wealthy, debt relief for farmers, and equal rights for African Americans.

What made Browder and Ford uniquely different, and dangerous in the eyes of some Americans, was their label as well as their connections to the Soviet Union. At the time, the American public wasn’t as aware of the authoritarianism and brutality of the Stalinist regime, but some were nevertheless squeamish about a political party that tied itself so closely to the USSR. As Schlesinger would later write, “for all the illusions of its supporters, the American Communist Party was a pliant instrument of Soviet Policy.” The 1936 party platform reaffirms this view, declaring that “only when socialism will be established, as today in the Soviet Union, will there be no crisis, no poverty, no unemployment—but abundance and security for all, with the gates of progress open to humanity.”

Yet, no lofty rhetoric could disguise the challenges the American Communist Party faced in the court of public opinion while attempting to campaign in September 1936. Browder and his colleagues were traveling in Indiana, stumping for their party’s candidates. Stopping in Gary on September 29, Browder gave a speech at the Miramar ballroom. The event went off without a hitch, as Browder was protected by a police escort. He was scheduled to speak in Terre Haute the next day.

Troubles with his Terre Haute visit started on September 26 when the venue, Indiana State Teachers College Auditorium, cancelled their permit with the Communist Party. As published in the Greencastle Daily Banner, Indiana State President Ralph N. Tirey stated that the permit was revoked due to a college function needing the venue and “that college functions are always given preference.” Charles Stadfelt, the Indiana chairman of the Communist Party, said that the party “planned to continue preparations to hold the Browder meeting in the auditorium.” He also threatened legal action against Indiana State “if Mr. Browder [was] refused the right of the hall.”

On September 30, Browder and his associates arrived in Terre Haute, determined to hold their event. The local authorities, including the mayor, the police chief, and the head of the Terre Haute Merchants Association, felt strongly otherwise. According to the Indianapolis Times, as soon as Browder, party chair Seymour Waldman, and novelist Waldo Frank “stepped off a Chicago & Eastern Illinois train at the depot,” they were arrested and taken to the local jail. Two other men, Indianapolis State Secretary of the Communist Party Charles Stadfeld and associate Andrew Ryan, were arrested three hours later.

Mayor Samuel O. Beecher made his view of the situation pretty clear in a quote from the Times:

We are not going to allow communism to become established in Terre Haute. Both of our presidential candidates—Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Landon—recognize communism as a menace to this nation. Therefore communistic speakers are not welcome in Terre Haute.

Police Chief James C. Yates stood by his decision to arrest the men, saying, “I told Browder I wanted him out of Terre Haute and he defied my orders.” L. H. Quinn, head of the Merchants association, echoed Beecher and Yates by declaring, “The association will not tolerate the presence of agitators. We will do all in our power to prevent Browder from speaking here.” Browder’s stop in Terre Haute had come with a full-blown backlash from the town’s leadership as well as from some of its citizens. When David Bentall, Browder’s attorney, attempted to read the party leader’s speech over local radio, Quinn, Yates, American Legionnaires, and members of the Law and Order League “stormed outside the locked studio door demanding the keys and asking for volunteers to eject him.”

Browder also responded in the Times by stressing his detention was a “complete suspension of civil rights.” The Communist presidential candidate said, “The police arrested a party when it arrived in town, just because the chief of police didn’t like that party.” He further added, “This would be mad enough in any ordinary time, but it is much worse coming during a political campaign, arresting a candidate for President.”

The response to Browder’s arrest from some of Indiana’s political establishment denounced this move by the local police while stressing their commitment to anti-communism. Lieutenant Governor M. Clifford Townsend said, “I believe in the right of free speech and if Browder was not arrested for any other reason, it’s wrong.” Senator Sherman Minton described the situation as “silly” and further added that “this is exactly what the Communists want them to do. It gives them headlines that they could not get by merely advocating their Russian-dictated cause.” Despite his misgivings with Communism, Minton also believed in the importance of free speech. “Free speech is one of the greatest boons which the Constitution provides,” Minton said, “They merely make Communists by denying them the right to talk.” John Kingsbury, local attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, sent a telegram to the local authorities there, declaring “if the Communists ask any assistance in this matter, the Union undoubtedly will offer its services.”

Editorials in newspapers also criticized the move to arrest Browder. In an Indianapolis Times column later in October, local resident Joseph Persily argued that all Browder intended to do was “urge the toiling people to form a Farmer-Labor Party and to register their sentiments for such a party by voting the Communist ticket in the coming election.” He went on: “Mr. Browder has been making these speeches in most of the important cities in the country and as yet I haven’t seen any revolution break out following one of them. . . .” Persily believed that the only reason the Terre Haute police chief arrested Browder was to denigrate the labor movement. William Pickens, in an article from the Indianapolis Recorder, agreed with Minton and others on the violation of Browder’s free speech. “Only foolish and short-sighted people will tolerate or approve of unlawful attacks on those with whose politics, religion, or other beliefs they do not happen to agree,” he wrote.

Browder and his team were released the next day and the case was dismissed. Upon his release, Browder said, “the action of the reactionary forces has publicized my visit. Americans always have had to fight for the right of free speech and this proves they still do.” Emphasizing how the situation had become a national discussion, the Washington, D.C.-based Evening Star also published an article about Browder’s release and the Indianapolis Recorder noted that “his arrest has focused national attention upon the incident.”

Within a matter of days, Browder announced his intention to return to Terre Haute in a couple weeks and attempt to speak again, saying he “would defy the police department” by “relying upon the Constitution.” His lawyers also filed two lawsuits against Mayor Beecher and Police Chief Yates, with demanded damages of $100,000 for Browder’s imprisonment. The mayor was undeterred, firing back that “Communists claim the protection of our Constitution to allow them free speech, while they teach the overthrow of our government and Constitution by force, thereby destroying the very source from which they claim their protection of free speech.”

Browder attempted his visit to Terre Haute one more time, on October 20, 1936. After a rally was cancelled, he tried to give his speech at the local radio station, WBOW. A group of 150 people blocked Browder from entering the station. Giving up, Browder returned to his cab when the mob “yanked open” its doors and threw rotten tomatoes at the candidate and his associates. As the Greencastle Daily Banner reported, “None of the vegetables struck Browder, but his companions were showered.” Sylvia Penner, a communist from Indianapolis, walked into the WBOW offices and tried to give Browder’s remarks over the air when the station manager stopped her. “That crowd outside will tear you to pieces,” the manager told Penner when he cut off her mic. Governor Paul V. McNutt offered Browder a police escort out of the state when Terre Haute denied him those services, but he left the city for good the next day.

The 1936 election was held on November 3, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt winning in the one of the largest landslides in American History. He won every state but Maine and Vermont and carried over 60% of the popular vote. Browder, by strong contrast, received only 79,315 votes, or 0.17% of the popular vote. The person who the leaders of Terre Haute were so concerned with barely showed a statistical value in the total vote. A revolution it was not.

Earl Browder was arrested again in 1939, this time in New York, on “charges of making fraudulent statements to obtain passports,” a revelation discovered during his testimony in front of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but was released in 1942. During World War II, Browder became a strong advocate of the war effort and the allied powers, using the party’s apparatus to forward that agenda. He continued his leadership of the party until 1944, when it was dissolved and became the Communist Political Association. After two years of intense intra-organizational conflict, the party returned and purged Browder in 1946 for advocating a conciliatory stance between the US and the Soviet Union. While remaining a socialist, Browder became an anti-Stalinist and critic of the Soviet Union by the late 1950s. He died in 1973.

Terre Haute Mayor Sam Beecher also faced challenges. Just a year after his clash with Browder, Beecher and his wife, the city controller, faced charges of “malconduct [sic] and misfeasance in office.” The article in the Daily Banner noting their trial date actually referenced the affair: “Beecher, militant ‘red-baiter’ who jailed Earl Browder, Communist candidate for president, is accused of wrongful use of the city funds, with approval of the controller.” The cases were later dismissed by Judge John W. Gerdink and, in an ironic turn of events, Beecher ran for Vigo County Circuit Court judge, the seat Gerdink occupied. He lost that race and stayed on as mayor until 1939, narrowly escaping calls for impeachment.

Earl Browder’s tumultuous days in Terre Haute present us with a perennial question, one difficult to answer: are there ever legitimate boundaries to free speech? In this case, Browder was a member of a political party tied to Stalin’s Soviet Union and seen as subversive to American ideals. Yet, he didn’t call for the overthrow of the government, didn’t advocate violence, and tried to use the proper channels of the law to protect his right to speak. Arguably the worst thing done by Browder and his associates was the attempted commandeering of the radio station to read his speeches, likely not an act of violence or revolution. Conversely, the leadership of the town seriously hampered Browder’s ability to speak and some of its citizens assaulted Browder’s group with tomatoes.

The lesson to be drawn from this episode is complicated and contextual. Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed under the Constitution, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t face opposition or criticism for that speech. At the same time, that criticism shouldn’t come in the form of violence or harassment. Freedom of speech should be protected, for those who wish to speak, those who wish to respond, and those who wish to listen. All of this was profoundly challenged during Earl Browder’s visits to Terre Haute. Those few days should serve as a case study for how we envision free speech and assembly for those with whom we agree, and more importantly, those with whom we disagree.