His book sees Reds' trial in retrospect

November 26, 1997

by Ron Avery

Daily News Staff Writer

Back in 1953, Sherman Labovitz was a World War II vet living in a modest Strawberry Mansion rowhouse with his wife and two kids, holding down a low-paying job with a small newspaper.

But there was nothing typical about his job as Philadelphia circulation manager for the Communist Daily Worker or his political ideas.

So when he was awakened by pounding on his front door on a muggy summer night in 1953, Labovitz told his wife, "This is it." The FBI had arrived to haul him off in handcuffs.

Labovitz was the youngest defendant among the "Philadelphia Nine," nine leaders of the local Communist Party arrested and convicted during a five-month federal trial.

Now 73, and living in retirement in Marlton, N.J., Labovitz has just published his memories of that trial in a book entitled "Being Red in Philadelphia."

It turns out that being Red in Philadelphia was a plus. The level of fear and hatred was a few notches lower here than in other cities.

More importantly, the Philadelphia Bar Association showed unprecedented courage by ensuring the defendants got a first-rate defense.

Leading the defense team were two of city's best legal minds: Tom McBride, who became state attorney general and a state Supreme Court justice, and Joseph S. Lord, who later became a federal judge.

Several of the city's leading law firms provided young talent. Familiar names on the legal team included City Councilman David Cohen, ace criminal attorney John Rogers Carroll and jurist Edmund B. Spaeth Jr.

"In the other cities, the lawyers were Communist or left-winger," said Labovitz in a recent interview. Here the lawyers defending the despised Reds were all strait-laced, establishment-types.

Labovitz was prosecuted under the Smith Act, which made it a crime to "advocate, teach or organize any society or group" that seeks to overthrow the government of the United States by force.

None of the Philly defendants was accused of violence.

But the government didn't have to prove the defendants actually preached violence. Prosecutors argued that simply being a party member meant the defendants were dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government.

Thus the trial revolved around party doctrine and the evidence was mostly a stack of Communist literature. "Books were being put on trial," said Labovitz.

Despite the high-powered defense, all the defendants were convicted.

They were released while appeals were heard. A new liberal Supreme Court was forming under Earl Warren and soon ripped apart the Smith Act. Eventually, the Philadelphia convictions were tossed out.

"I can't honestly say it [ being a Communist ] hurt me or my career in any way," Labovitz said.

He left the party in 1957, fed up with internal bickering and shocked by the murderous revelations about the Stalin years and the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Labovitz earned a doctorate and headed the social work department at Stockton State College, near Atlantic City.

He says he never hid his past and remains dedicated to the idea of a socialist economy. He still sees capitalism as an evil.

"Those of us in the party never took orders from Russia," he says. "We never saw any gold from Moscow . . . We saw the Soviet Union as the model of socialism. It was under attack, and that's why we rallied to its support."

He doesn't see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a triumph for capitalism, but a failure of the Soviet leadership.

See this document for an announcement about Sherman Labovitz's program at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, January 1999.

1997 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.


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