Seeing Red

It was a small thing, really, just a signature on the back of a plain manila application card. At the time she endorsed it, in 1942, she had no way of knowing it would get her fired, arrested, thrown in jail and forced into hiding. But on the day she died in a Denver nursing home, Patricia Bell Blawis believed as she had the moment she declared her allegiance: She was, and would always be, a Communist.

It's cold outside, drizzling. The old man stares out the window of his sixth-floor apartment, collecting facts, gathering memories, watching it all pass before him like a movie.

Listen, he says. You have to understand something. This is a secret world she lived in, a place where people, by choice and by circumstance, learned to keep to themselves.

For years, if you were a Communist in this country and said the wrong thing to the wrong person, you could wind up ruined, or in some graveyard. He saw it happen.

The old man sips from a mug of strong black coffee.
So, he says, you have to understand, this is not an easy story to tell. Certain people and certain events should--and will--remain hidden. But Patricia Bell Blawis should not be among them. She was a remarkable woman. She shouldn't have been treated the way she was.

Pat, he says, smiling now, was a woman with a quick mind and an easy laugh who did not hesitate to speak her mind or stand behind her beliefs, even if they took her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which they did.

At the height of the Red Scare, she refused to incriminate herself and name her colleagues in the Communist Party. She pleaded the Fifth Amendment and won.

Afterward, her case became a defense for anyone--Communist and otherwise--fighting government persecution.

You won't find her name in the history books, though. And you won't find her obituary in the newspapers. To the people who ran this country during the Cold War--people who spent sixteen years trying to put her in federal prison--Pat was a "top Red organizer," a trained subversive who spent her life undermining the principles of this country, only to hide behind them when authorities got too close. To them, Pat was a criminal. Nothing more.

But this isn't their story. This isn't why the old man has come forward on this gray afternoon with his yellowed files and faded photographs. He's not here to challenge historical record or spread Marxist propaganda (not much, anyway). He's here to offer a view--his view--of life during Denver's Communist inquisition. He's here to tell a story about a woman who made a choice 56 years ago and stuck with it to the end.

His name is Jack Blawis. He is here to talk about his wife.
"There are those who would rather believe she never existed," he says. "But I can assure you that she did. And I can tell you something else: A great woman lived among us."

Every table, chair and counter in his living room is covered with newspapers, magazines and books. Outline of Political History in the United States. Friendly Fascism. The New Radicalism. On a stereo speaker stands a small portrait of Lenin. On a wall near his kitchen hangs a poster of Cesar Chavez. Plastered across his balcony window is a bumper sticker, "Arms Are for Hugging." Jack could be a caricature of The Grizzled Communist: rumpled sweater, rumpled hat, long white hair, white goatee. But at 85 years old, he is what he is, and fairly content about it. "Oh, I still have time to distribute a little propaganda once in a while," he says.

When he speaks, he sounds like a radio announcer. When he tells his story, it's as though he's reading the news.

Just after World War II, he says, Denver was all stockyards, packing plants and brick warehouses. No skyscrapers. No aerospace technology. No suburbs. But here, like everywhere else, people walked down the street with a sense of optimism. Anything seemed possible.

To the men and women who gathered in a back room above a shoe shop at 929 17th Street, that meant one thing: maintaining an alliance with the Soviet Union. That was the goal of the Communist Party of the United States, he says. Preserving the peace.

At the time, Communists weren't feared here, Jack says. They were considered a little bit odd. They had strange ideas. But to most people, Jack says, they were simply men and women who supported labor unions, circulated petitions, showed up at political protests and did what they could to enlist members. They weren't seen as the enemy. Yet.

Jack removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. He has a theory: In 1948 Harry Truman was running for president, largely on the policies of the Cold War. He saw the Progressive Party, which wanted peace with the Soviets and an end to the U.S. war machine, as a threat to that platform, and so set out to discredit it. One way to do it was linking the progressives with the Communist Party. Another way was enforcing the Smith Act of 1940, which had made it illegal to teach or advocate the overthrow of the government through violent means.

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