Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Irv Feiner

My mom knew Irv Feiner. Not well, I think, but she was about the same age, grew up in the same place (the Jewish Bronx of the interwar and war years), and had the same politics (leftish-Communist.) They probably met during the Wallace campaign of 1948. There were a lot of communists in the Bronx at the time, but not so many that those in the club would not have at least a passing acquaintance.

My mom taught social studies in a Queens high school for a quarter century, and she always got a kick out of teaching about the 1951 US Supreme Court case, Feiner v. New York, which gave Feiner his moment of fame. Mom would say, you know, I never knew Dred Scott, Homer Plessey, Fred Korematsu, or anyone who ever spent any time in Topeka, Kansas. But I knew Irv Feiner.
In 1949, Feiner was a student at Syracuse University (the only important upstate school that did not try to keep out Jewish students, BTW), and he helped plan a demonstration to support the Trenton Six, six black defendants railroaded (that is to say, tortured) into confessing to the murder of an elderly shopkeeper. There was to be a rally in Syracuse, with the lawyer for the Trenton Six, O. John Rogge to speak, along with a performance by Pete Seeger (who is still performing, and appeared in one of the pre-inaugural concerts for Obama, along with the usual tiresome redbaiting.) The meeting was cancelled on orders from the mayor, and Feiner addressed an interracial crowd of some 120 with information on new plans for the rally. There was heckling, and Feiner was threatened. The police twice asked him to stop speaking. He refused, and was arrested. (He supposed called President Truman a bum, but he always disputed this.) The case eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court, where in a 6 to 3 opinion Chief Justice Fred Vinson (generally reckoned to be the worst chief justice in the history of the court) ruled against Feiner, establishing the principle of the so-called “heckler’s veto,” the ability of authorities to curtail free expression by invoking the threat of violence against the speaker (while protecting the “free speech rights” of the heckler threatening violence.) This terrible decision was later overturned by the Warren Court (Vinson providentially died just in time to allow Eisenhower to appoint Earl Warren chief justice, and steer the Brown case to its unanimous decision), but the damage to Feiner was considerable. In addition to a fine and 30 days in an Onondaga County pokey, he was expelled from Syracuse University, and his admission to several law schools was revoked. Feiner became one of the many Communists, faced with the reality that he would never be hired by any government agency or any sizable company, who became a capitalist, a small entrepreneur, living his life in Rockland County, working as a printer, a movie-distributor, a merchant of tropical fish.

Irv Feiner died the other day, and a very nice obituary appeared this morning in the Times. I am sure he was glad he lived to see the inauguration of a black president, something that in his own way, he helped to bring about. Historians have paid considerable attention to the civil rights agenda of the post-war communist left in recent years, emphasizing the very years Feiner was active, the late 1940s, as the real beginning of the civil rights movement, in places as far away from Montgomery, Alabama, as Syracuse, New York in midwinter. At times this literature has been uncritical of the Communist Party’s weird and self-destructive trajectory in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and at times the lauding of the Communist left has unfairly ignored the non-Communist left, and their parallel (and often linked) struggles for civil rights during the same years. But their broader point stands. The Communist contribution to the civil rights struggle has been overlooked, put to the side, and ignored. Whatever the faults of the Communist Party, and they were legion, there were many Communists, like Irv Feiner, who at great sacrifice to their own careers, dedicated themselves to the cause of equal justice before the law, and paid a great price for their beliefs. I hate the Communist Party, and what it did to the American left, but I love many individual Communists, starting with my poor mother. Rosa Parks is perhaps a safer and easier person to laud (you can talk about her without having to apologize for Stalin's crimes), but in the select hall of the pantheon of the struggle for civil rights and civil liberties in this country, there should be a pedestal with Irv Feiner’s name on it.

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