Connecticut’s oldest living communist sits on a modern sofa casually dressed in a brown sweater and brown slacks, his legs crossed. At 94, Alfred Marder is the picture of bourgeois respectability.
He lives on a quiet, tree-lined suburban street in a handsome Georgian-style house in New Haven with tasteful modern paintings on the walls. On the spinet piano above the keyboard are framed photographs of Marder’s children and grandchildren.
It’s hard to believe the soft-spoken scholarly nonagenarian was once accused of trying to overthrow our government.
Of that dark period, Marder says: “It’s hard to convey the atmosphere of those years to people today. It was another time.”
Marder — the last living communist to be arrested under McCarthyism — will tell his story at the New Haven Museum April 14, in a discussion titled, “The Right to Speak One’s Mind: A Conversation With Al Marder.” The 5:30 p.m. talk will be moderated by historian Mary Donohue, who interviewed Marder for an article in the spring 2016 edition of “Connecticut Explored.”
Judge Andrew Roraback will also join the discussion, sharing his insights on Marder’s legal defense by his cousin, the civil rights attorney Catherine Roraback.
On Memorial Day weekend in 1954, Marder and seven other Communist Party leaders were arrested by federal agents for violation of the Smith Act — an obscure immigration law used in the McCarthy era to prosecute American communists. Marder would be acquitted; the case against the other New Haven “reds” was later thrown out and the Smith Act ruled unconstitutional.
“You have to understand the Rosenbergs had just been executed, and people were really scared,” Marder explains. “I felt sorry for the jury [that heard my case], I really did. They had no understanding of what this was all about. If you were a communist then, people thought you were a spy. That’s the way it was.”
Newspaper headlines and articles from the time bear him out. “Reds Seek Support For Captured 7; Propaganda Drive Includes Mother’s Plea, Political Blasts” read a June 2, 1954 headline in the Hartford Courant. It began: “A typical Communist campaign to enlist support for seven state Communist party leaders began Tuesday in Connecticut. The seven Reds were arrested Saturday in FBI raids in New York, New Haven and West Hartford.”
By the time of his arrest in 1954, Marder was no stranger to controversy. He joined the Communist Party in 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression. He says he will never forget the bread lines, and the gaunt faces of “hobos” peering out from boxcars at New Haven’s Union Station.
Marder’s father ran a New Haven grocery store, but lost it after a bank foreclosed on the property. “I remember seeing my father cry after losing the store,” Marder says. “It really shook me.”
He read Jack London and Upton Sinclair, developing a taste for adventure. Marder recalls climbing out his bedroom window to hand out pro-union pamphlets before the 7 a.m. shifts at the Sargent and New Haven Clock companies, before heading to school.
At Hillhouse High School, Marder became a member of the debating team. He recalls one of the topics was, “Is the U.S. Post Office Socialist?” At 17, he joined the Communist Party and was elected chairman of the Connecticut Young Communist League.
“The Communist Party protested lynchings in the South and stood for the rights of American workers,” Marder says. “I found the milieu very stimulating.”
Marder enrolled at the University of Connecticut, where he was president of the American Youth for Democracy. The editor of the campus newspaper accused the AYD of communist leanings and, during a debate between Marder and the student newspaper editor, there was a near riot when Marder admitted to being a communist. Marder left the University of Connecticut to join the Army. He wanted to fight Fascism, but his party membership caused him to be kept stateside for two years, he says. Finally, he was sent to France.
Marder doesn’t talk much about his war years, except to say that his knowledge of French and German earned him a coveted position of interrogator. “As an interrogator, I had a certain freedom to travel around,” he says. His service earned him a Bronze Star.
After the war, Marder returned to New Haven, where he apprenticed as a printer. He also decided to complete his degree at UConn. After that, Marder became active as a Community Party labor organizer, rising to a leadership position in Connecticut. He worked as a compositor for Donnelly in Bristol and several newspapers in the Bridgeport and Stamford area. But he says his politics were usually met with hostility in the workplace, causing him to go from job to job.
Marder says his prominence as a communist leader in the early 1950s brought him to the attention of the FBI. He says he was put him under surveillance and his phone was tapped. Fearing he would be arrested, Marder went into hiding in New York, where he worked under an assumed name. “I changed my name to Kenneth Green,” he says. “Under that name, I got a job in a print shop in Coney Island.”
Marder says his attempts to unionize the print shop got him fired. He decided to return to Connecticut, where he got a job in another print shop in Stamford, still under the name, “Kenneth Green.”
He says he was walking along a street in Stamford with a communist associate when he was spotted by a former party member, a woman, who had become an FBI informant. “When she saw us she shouted, ‘spies, spies!'” Marder recalls. The police were called and the two communists were taken down to the station. Marder and his friend were later released.
But his cover had been blown. Shortly after, the FBI showed up at his house in New Haven to arrest him. This was May 29, 1954, when Marder and seven other Communist Party leaders were indicted under the Smith Act.
Marder says the challenge now was to get a lawyer to defend a member of the Communist Party for no money.
He sent out 100 mimeographed letters to lawyers across the state, but no one wanted to touch it. Finally Marder convinced Catherine Roraback to take the case. (Roraback would later defend Black Panthers in New Haven in 1971.)
Marder was acquitted on March 29, 1956. Of the remaining New Haven communists, six were found guilty while the jury failed to reach an agreement on the seventh member. The guilty verdict of the six was eventually thrown out, when the membership clause of the Smith Act, under which Marder and the others were accused, was ruled “unconstitutional on its face as a violation of the First Amendment.”
In the 60 years since, Marder has remained active in the community and with peace initiatives in New Haven, Connecticut and around the world. He has been chairman of the Connecticut Freedom Trail Planning Committee and the city’s Peace Commission.