Life of the Party

Death in the mines. Hunger marches. An FBI spy on every block. Minnesota's daughters of the revolution can tell you about it all. But first, have some coffee cake.

When her memory cooperates, Foley can still rattle off the intricacies of the first big case taken on by Communist attorneys--the 1931 appeal on behalf of nine African-American youths in Alabama who, despite flimsy evidence, had been convicted of raping two white women. Through the Scottsboro case and other early efforts, she says, the party gained a reputation for "smart lawyers."

But Communism was also gaining attention outside the courtroom, especially in Minnesota. On the Iron Range, there was the CIO mine contract. In Austin 2700 employees at the George A. Hormel plant staged the country's first recorded sit-down strike and won the first guaranteed annual wage in the meatpacking industry, a coup that landed them on the front page of nearly every paper in the U.S. In the fields of western and central Minnesota, Communists--teaming up with a new group called the Farmer's Holiday Association--turned foreclosure auctions into "penny sales." Crowds of farmers carrying guns and lengths of rope would muscle out would-be buyers, bid a penny or two for the property, and return it to the owner. And in Minneapolis, the Teamsters made headlines with a 1934 strike that virtually paralyzed the city and is considered one of the most militant strikes in U.S. history.

But the victories in the fields and factories didn't come without a personal cost. Alma Foley's husband had devoted most of his life to the party, starting when he was a shipyard worker in Philadelphia. (At one point, during a bid for mayor of Minneapolis, he called for a debate on the statement "Mayor Leach is an enemy of the working class.") But he had always been more comfortable inside a machine shop than he was on the podium; by the time he ran for the Duluth mayor's seat in 1932, Alma says, "I felt he was breaking down personally."

Mike Steirnagle

She explained the situation to party higher-ups and it was agreed that the couple should move back to Minneapolis. Tom would remain active in the labor movement, but Alma would step into what her son calls the role of "the family rabble-rouser."

Alma Foley took to the part with a vengeance. She earned national recognition as a leader of the Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born, which fought deportations of immigrants made jobless by the Depression. "The thing would be to get these people off the relief line," she recalls, "so the government would toss them back to the country that they came from. If they could get away with it." Foley's group also supported farmers arrested at penny sales, women accused of immorality, and others the party advocated for--Jews, African-Americans, the poor.

And she helped raise another generation of "red-diaper babies," kids who grew up playing in someone's yard while the adults held party meetings. Foley's son Tom remembers the gatherings as festive affairs: After legal documents were reviewed and strategies discussed, someone would inevitably rise to read poetry or play the piano. The Minneapolis party even had the Paloma Singers, a dozen or so voices led by Justine O'Connor, a classically trained pianist and composer. (Her opera Little Red Hiding Hood, performed for Communists in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, featured Toini Mackie as the Wolf of Wall Street.) Visiting national artists with radical sympathies--Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger--would sit in at meetings or perform at house parties.

Foley was too young to attend one legendary event in the 1940s, but he has heard the story enough times to have it memorized. Blues singer Leadbelly was at a house party in north Minneapolis along with an English aristocrat known as the Red Dean of Canterbury because of his politics and his long red hair. "These two stars converged at this house," Foley explains, "and Leadbelly started stomping and playing and everybody started to dance. The story is that they danced so hard that they danced the house off of the foundation six or seven inches. The next day, they rented house jacks and put this listing house back onto its foundation."

But even more important than the dancing and singing were the spirited discussions, usually held in the kitchen and running late into the night. Leaning up against the stove or crowded around a table, party members would hash out the issues of the day over drinks. And even as the decibel level rose, Foley says, party discipline held fast.

It was former Minnesota senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, he notes, who once mocked Communists as people who had Marx in one pocket, Robert's Rules of Order in the other. "But that was a strength. They were great parliamentarians, even in an informal kitchen discussion. They would stop someone who had had a chance to speak and give a turn to a more shy person."

 

The Communists' kitchen debates had always been fueled by the kind of idealism that vents itself in symbolic action: Communists practiced "meatless Thursdays" to protest conditions in the meatpacking industry, boycotted war toys to foster world peace. But they had bigger dreams, too--and in the 1930s those dreams slowly, steadily began making their way into the law of the land.

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