Red-Baiting: A Threat to Liberty

By Conor Kelly (TheLorian)

For several decades now, Republican operatives have been labeling Democratic politicians as socialists or simply socialistic in their policies. In particular, former President Barack Obama was targeted by conservatives as being a socialist, with one writer, Aaron Klein, writing an entire book dedicated to that premise. Rush Limbaugh, the famed conservative radio host, lambasted then-candidate Mitt Romney for his unwillingness to call Obama a socialist on his website. Such a response, of course, doesn’t accurately represent the ideological perspective that Obama held and dismayed many legitimate socialists–Marxist or otherwise. Even now, Biden is being accused of supporting socialists. But more than that, they were part of a dark history within the American right-wing sphere that continues to this day. It is part of an endless cycle of red-baiting.

Red-baiting is, as Webster’s defines it, “the act of attacking or persecuting as a Communist or as communistic.” While generally accurate, such a definition is limited insofar as it ignores the potential abuse of calling someone a socialist and its malicious past. For one, red-baiting isn’t merely accusing someone of being a socialist, but it is also part of a means by which right-wing activists have sought to undermine criticism of the American body politic, past and present.

One of the most violent examples of this was in 1919 when Black activists were murdered in a massive wave of political violence carried out by white racists. Many of these Black activists were veterans of the First World War, and they were demanding equal rights from the government that they served with their blood and tears. Instead of giving the rights which all Americans are entitled to, these heroes were murdered in the streets of Chicago, Charleston, Knoxville, Omaha and in Washington D.C. itself. By no means were these the only cities from where riots and massacres occurred, but they are some of the most notable. In Chicago alone, 39 people were killed and the police in the city refused to arrest the man who was alleged to have killed Eugene Williams. Stoning in the city were well-documented with journalists such as Jun Fujita, getting up-close pictures of the violence.

Accusations that Black activists were part of a Communist plot were widespread and were used to justify extensive political violence against Black Americans, hence the name ‘Red Summer’. Southern Newspapers were particularly egregious in their biased coverage. Communism was white America’s way to justify the violence and served to perpetuate white supremacy both in the North and in America abroad. As the rise of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union resulted in a new regime, white Americans saw the rising demographic shifts coming from the Great Migration, as an extension of socialist plots. The New York Times went so far as to blame the riots on “Soviet Influence.” Representative James F. Byrnes of South Carolina claimed that newspapers such as “Crisis Magazine” and “The Messenger,” were part of a newly established Comitern effort to spread anti-American ideas. Conveniently for white supremacists like Byrnes, these outlets were printing articles by Black Americans. J. Edgar Hoover, one of the founders of the FBI, promoted these conspiracy theories that never materialized. These conspiracy theories were so dangerous that they resulted in the infamous Palmer Raids, a set of politically-motivated raids that resulted in the arrest and deportation of anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 Americans. These abuses were so extensive that it resulted in a serious debate about the dangers of the FBI. Years later, Hoover would try to undermine Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with this same line of attack, along with the infamous George Wallace. This baiting would not end in 1919, it continued.

In 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a witch-hunting body dedicated to hunting communists and other supposedly subversive groups, came to power. They targeted civil rights organizations such as SNYC, a movement of young Black activists, largely devastating the group with their relentless persecution. Racist politicians like James Eastland used fear of Communism in order to target the NAACP, seeping his putrid accusations into the mainstream body politic. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, aka SNCC, was also targeted by red-baiters and HUAC. All of this was meant to disturb liberals into opposing civil rights activism, and in doing so, served to perpetuate the status quo, if not in intent then in consequence. Eventually, HUAC would fall in 1975. But the damage was done. Countless organizations had to dance to the tune of red-baiting. Lives were ruined, the Constitution was ignored and the American people were worse off for it.

Fast forward to today, red-baiting is still a part of our society. Slanders and broad generalizations about the ‘radical left,’ and socialists are spreading like a cancer and it serves only to silence criticism. Whatever your political opinion, it is critical that you learn from the past, and not repeat the sins of our predecessors. Fear of the Left allowed the FBI to treat a hero, MLK, like a monster. It allowed white Americans to justify their racialized mass-murder of Black veterans whose only sin was demanding their rights. If you truly want to live in a free country, beware the red-baiter. He is a slimy monster, and if given the opportunity, he will turn you against the liberties that you once held dear

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Conor J. Kelly was the Opinion Editor for the Lorian and a prolific staff writer. He graduated from Loras College in April of 2021 and is now pursuing his master's in political science at the University of Illinois, Springfield. You can find his new work on The Progressive American newsletter.

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