Al Marder in 2021 attended a ceremony celebrating the return of the Amistad replica to New Haven Harbor. At 99 years old, he had played a big part in bringing the Amistad story to the public’s attention.
He had still served as president of the Amistad Committee at the age of 94. He chaired of Connecticut’s Freedom Trail. And he was one of the last surviving Communists persecuted during the Red Scare of the Cold War Era.
Marder grew up in New Haven during the Great Depression, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. They ran a small grocery store in a poor neighborhood of African-Americans, Germans, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Italians, Lithuanians and Irish railroad workers.
“As a boy it became very evident to me how people were living and scraping along,“ he recalled in a 2016 interview with The New England Historical Society. “The store was near the railroad yards, and I saw men getting off the cars, looking for work or something to eat. If it snowed, everyone went down to City Hall to get a job shoveling snow…There was the sheriff sitting in the store collecting receipts because my parents couldn’t pay the bills.”
During the desperate years of the Great Depression, many Americans questioned capitalism and turned toward communism as a solution to the country’s despair. Within a decade, America’s communist allies became enemies. Led by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy innocent people were accused of espionage, imprisoned, thrown out of work.
Al Marder was a victim of the anti-communist hysteria. So was another Connecticut resident, Arthur Miller, who compared it to the Salem witch trials in his play The Crucible.
Marder was indicted in 1954 for plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. His lawyer, Catherine Roraback, later became famous for arguing the Griswold v. Connecticut trial, which legalized birth control in Connecticut and paved the way for recognition of the right to privacy.
Al Marder, Activist
At James Hillhouse High School, Al Marder got interested in the political ferment that was all around him. Some of his fellow students were Socialists like their parents. Young women wore leather jackets and berets to show their support for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War.
Marder organized a peace council at Hillhouse to discuss politics, and before school he sneaked out of the house to distribute handbills for the New Haven labor movement. The garment workers didn’t really need him, he said, but he leafleted the workers at Sargent’s and New Haven Clock before the 7 a.m. shift.
By 1954 he had graduated from the University of Connecticut, served in Europe during World War II, married, had several small children and become a journeyman printer. He also faced prison, charged with advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.
Marder had never abandoned his activism. As a young man he had campaigned successfully for the state to make college accessible to working-class students by offering night school, now Southern Connecticut State University. He organized a scholarship campaign for African-American students at UConn and the first integrated amateur drama club in Connecticut called the Unity Players. He went to meetings of the Wobblies, and told the Shoeleather History Project he met Elizabeth Gurley Flynn several times.
Al Marder also belonged to the Communist Party.
The Communist Party of Connecticut didn’t survive the Red Scare. Al Marder got his union card and went to work for Donnelly Bros. in Bristol. He heard that all Connecticut Communists were to be arrested, so he took off for New York and assumed the name Ken Green. That job didn’t last, but he got another one in Stamford. One day he was walking to lunch and heard a woman shouting, “Spies, there are spies here!” She had belonged to the Young Communist League with them as a student. The police picked them up but had no grounds for arrest and released them.
The 1940 Smith Act, however, had made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. Al Marder was finally arrested and charged under the Smith Act, along with six other New Haven Communists. Police swept them up with 125 other Communists in 11 U.S. cities, including Boston.
Marder’s task was to find a lawyer. He sent 100 mimeographed letters to lawyers throughout the state and one agreed to take his case. Catherine Roraback was fresh out of Yale Law School. Her uncle, J. Henry Roraback, had controlled the Republican Party in Connecticut.
She was bright, committed and took full advantage of her name, recalled Marder. “Volunteering to be a lawyer for a Communist when the entire country was embroiled in anticommunism — it took courage.”
The trial lasted seven months and made headline news. Marder was acquitted and the cases of the others were thrown out due to insufficient evidence. “They were just ordinary people looking for a better society,” he said. The judge and jury knew they were expected to convict them – but didn’t.
Before the trial began, Marder had gotten a job as a printer in New York City under his assumed name. The night he was acquitted, he got a phone call at home from his old boss who said, “Al, if you need a job come back.”
“He called me in, said ‘I knew who you were from the morning you walked into the place’,” Marder recalled. The FBI had said to fire him. His boss said he couldn’t because he had a union contract, and the only way he could fire him was if he was incompetent during the 90-day probation or if he did something in the shop.
Marder wound up working in the horticulture industry, representing growers – and spending the rest of his life working for peace and justice.
In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court severely restricted the Smith Act, ruling it violated the U.S. Constitution.
Mary Donohue profiled Marder in her article, “A Life of Conviction” in the Spring 2016 edition of “Connecticut Explored,” the magazine of Connecticut history. To find out how to subscribe, click here.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Freedom Schooner Amistad By Rhvanwinkle, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36402773