The Dress Rehearsal for McCarthyism

The City College of New York was the site of the largest political purge of faculty in the history of the United States.
By Carol Smith

Efforts by state legislators to curtail collective bargaining or destroy public-sector unions, abolish tenure, and decrease funding for education are spreading throughout the country. The scapegoating and vilification of unions and teachers, however, are not new. The current attacks have historical parallels, when cries of “Communist subversion” were used in New York City to silence dissenting voices in academia and to weaken faculty and teacher unionism.

The history of this dissent can be tracked through powerful and moving photographs, political cartoons, flyers, and illustrations (some of which are reproduced here) from the 1930s and the early 1940s, when students and faculty members at the City College of New York were struggling against a college administration, the New York City Board of Higher Education, and outside political forces that sought to eliminate dissenting voices.

College Teachers Union

CCNY, the oldest and most famous of New York City’s public colleges, was established in 1847 as the first free public institution of higher education in the country. It became a center of student activism during the Great Depression. The majority of students came from working-class, largely Jewish immigrant neighborhoods, where trade unionism and socialism were not unfamiliar.

In 1932, City College students spearheaded a successful battle against the imposition of tuition upon what was formerly free, city-funded higher education. They fought against military training on campus, opposed war and Fascism abroad, and organized massive demonstrations to protest the political dismissals of students and faculty members. They helped establish in 1935 the American Student Union, a national organization of liberal and leftist students that supported trade unions, the right to equal educational opportunity, and freedom of expression for faculty and students.

It wasn’t just the students who were engaged in activism. Two-thirds of the faculty at the city’s public colleges—City College, Hunter, and Brooklyn—were tutors, instructors, or lecturers who taught up to fifteen hours a week at substandard salaries. They had no tenure and could be dismissed at any time. Many were graduates of City College themselves and, like their students, came from poor Jewish immigrant backgrounds. During the 1930s, unions expanded enormously. Many faculty members joined the College Teachers Union, established in 1935 as an affiliate of the Left-led New York Teachers Union.

Some faculty members also joined the Communist Party, which they viewed as the most effective political vehicle to combat Fascism, unemployment, and social and racial injustice. The Communist Party unit for faculty and staff at City College began in 1935. It published a monthly newsletter, Teacher and Worker. Articles in the newsletter discussed local campus issues and problems facing the faculty as well as national and international questions. The authors did not reveal their identities as Communists for fear that doing so might cost them their jobs.

When Morris Schappes, a popular lecturer in the English Department at City College and an outspoken union activist, was dismissed on April 30, 1936, more than a thousand students staged a sit-in on campus. As a result of such student protests and support from the College Teachers Union and numerous other labor unions, the New York City Board of Higher Education reinstated Schappes and twelve other dismissed union activists. (Five years later, however, Morris Schappes was permanently dismissed as a result of the Rapp- Coudert Committee hearings, discussed below.)

In addition to victories in specific cases, the College Teachers Union at the city’s public colleges also won major structural victories for faculty in 1938: eligibility for tenure after three years for all full-time faculty members, regardless of rank; the right to elect department chairs; faculty responsibility for departmental curricula; faculty control over appointment and dismissal; and creation of a representative faculty governing council on each campus that provided a voice in campus governance and administration. The city colleges of New York were the first in a large public system to win such professional reforms.

But 1938 witnessed a conservative backlash against the political gains of the New Deal and against labor unions. The newly established House Un-American Activities Committee attempted to investigate Communist subversion at the public colleges but lacked the support of Orway Tead, the powerful chair of the New York City Board of Higher Education. Nonetheless, as conservative political forces grew more influential, they intensified their attacks on public colleges for harboring “subversive” faculty members. They also demanded decreased spending on higher education.

One high-profile case is illustrative. When Bertrand Russell, the world-renowned philosopher, was offered a professorship in 1940 by the Board of Higher Education to teach at City College, conservative religious leaders campaigned against Russell’s appointment on the grounds that he was a “godless advocate of free love.” The Kay family of Brooklyn filed a lawsuit alleging that Russell’s presence on campus could corrupt the morals of their young daughter, who might attend City College in the future. When the Kays prevailed in court, then-mayor Fiorello Henry LaGuardia decided to withdraw funding for Russell’s position.

The Rapp-Coudert Hearings

Immediately following the Russell furor, and during a period of heightened anti-Communism following the Hitler-Stalin Nonaggression Pact of 1939, state legislators in Albany created a joint legislative committee, the Rapp-Coudert Committee, in 1940. Part of the committee’s mandate was to examine the extent of “subversive activities” in public schools and colleges in New York City. The committee subpoenaed the membership lists of the New York Teachers Union and the College Teachers Union. The unions, which had successfully fought to maintain funding for public education, rightly viewed this action as a direct attack on the them and an attempt to reduce spending on education.

The Rapp-Coudert Committee held closed-door hearings from September 1940 through December 1941. It subpoenaed more than five hundred college faculty and staff members and schoolteachers— mainly union members—and more than fifty members of the American Student Union. The committee interrogated them about their political beliefs and their organizational affiliations, especially Communist Party membership. Denied the right to legal counsel, those questioned were pressured to reveal the names of colleagues involved in leftist activities. If individuals acknowledged membership in the Communist Party, they had to cooperate with the committee by naming other Communists.

CCNY became the Rapp-Coudert Committee’s primary target. More than fifty City College faculty and staff members, who had been named as Communists by three “friendly” witnesses in the closed-door hearings, were subpoenaed to appear at public hearings. With the exception of Morris Schappes, all who appeared at the public hearings denied their party membership because they were unwilling to inform on others.

Pressured into taking action by the Rapp-Coudert Committee, the New York City Board of Higher Education immediately suspended those who appeared at the public hearings and who had refused to name others. All those named by at least two so-called witnesses were dismissed, pressured to resign, or formally tried by the board’s disciplinary committee—and then dismissed. They were charged with violating a recently enacted board resolution requiring cooperation with a legislative investigating committee, an act deemed as “conduct unbecoming” of college employees. No evidence was presented at the trials that faculty members had used their classrooms to indoctrinate students or that they were bad teachers.

Morris Schappes, the most visible Communist on the City College faculty, admitted to Communist Party membership at his public hearing on March 6, 1941. Schappes said there had been only four other Communists at City College: three of them had been killed in the Spanish Civil War and one had left the state. The committee concluded that he was lying because of the private testimony of the witnesses. They instructed Manhattan district attorney Thomas Dewey to prosecute Schappes for perjury. Found guilty and sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison, Schappes remained incarcerated for more than a year.

Max Yergan, the first black faculty member appointed at any of New York City’s public colleges, was another Rapp-Coudert victim. He was initially appointed following a campaign by student groups and the faculty union. Yergan taught Negro History and Culture at City College beginning in fall 1936, the first time this course had ever been offered at any of the city colleges. After a friendly witness reported his class to be “liberal and progressive,” City College denied him reappointment.

In response to these attacks, the College Teachers Union created the Committee for the Defense of Public Education, which organized letter-writing and petition campaigns, held mass public meetings, issued daily bulletins, and published an illustrated book, Winter Soldiers: The Story of a Conspiracy against the Schools, to raise money for their legal defense of the Rapp-Coudert victims. All these efforts were in vain.

The Rapp-Coudert investigation and the subsequent Board of Higher Education trials led to the dismissal, nonreappointment, or resignation of more than fifty faculty and staff members at CCNY. This was the largest political purge of faculty on one campus in the history of the United States. City College lost many outstanding teachers, most of whom never worked in academia again. The purge ended when the United States entered World War II as an ally of the Soviet Union in the fight against Fascism.

But the techniques pioneered by the Rapp-Coudert Committee’s closed-door hearings, followed by public hearings for those individuals named by the committee’s “friendly witnesses,” served as a model for the anti-Communist investigations of the 1950s. During the McCarthy era, union activists who had survived Rapp-Coudert were again targeted by congressional investigating committees. Dozens of college faculty members and hundreds of public school teachers lost their jobs or resigned under pressure.

The ideology of anti-Communism ultimately resulted in a silencing of a progressive political culture and a weakening of the labor movement during the Cold War years and beyond. Today, a neoliberal ideology and aggressive conservatism advocating massive cuts in public education and social spending once again threaten the health of public higher education. Public-sector workers, the last defense against this onslaught, are also under attack. We need to remember the New York Teachers Union and the College Teachers Union and their legacy of defending public education and the rights of organized labor. The struggle continues in our time.

Carol Smith is a retired faculty member from the City College of New York and curator of the traveling exhibit The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931–42. This article is based on the exhibit, which can be viewed online at Her e-mail address is [email protected].