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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Elements of the Communist Party's efforts to free Angelo Herndon

West touches on a number of different subjects as he recalls his involvement in the case of Angelo Herndon, a black Communist organizer arrested in Atlanta in 1932. He met Jewish storekeepers who, themselves members of a marginalized community, were subtly pushing for civil rights for African Americans; and he was impressed by the discipline of community activists as they worked to free Herndon.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
But it's important. History gets written by the people who tell the stories. That's the whole purpose of the type interviews we are doing, to try to get a lot of different perspectives on things. It's not a matter so much of criticizing other people.
DON WEST:
Yeah, I know. Well, I was just saying… what I have never done. The first year at Highlander…. See, Miles had come from Union and I'd come from Vanderbilt. I was local and my perspective was local. And he had contacts with Reinhold Neibuhr, you know, big shots in the East. I had none. So a number of his friends came down from New York and so on. I've always been more locally oriented, and more mountain oriented than people coming from the outside. And during that period there was a very noted case that came up in Atlanta. I read about it in the papers. This young man, Angelo Hearndon, who was arrested and sentenced to twenty years on the Georgia chain gang. First I went down to Chattanooga, made some contacts in Chattanooga. I don't know how in the world I made them. But they were people who were on the left. They were the ones that insisted that I ought to go to Atlanta. I don't even remember their names. You know, I've known so many people like that that I don't remember their names. Anyway, they were Jewish people. Some of them were small store keepers. A lot of young…. A lot of small Jewish storekeepers in southern towns. But they were left, you see.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you run into that quite a bit? Jewish storekeepers who were….
DON WEST:
Oh sure. We wouldn't have been able to hold the Hearndon thing together in Atlanta if it hadn't been for the small Jewish storekeepers. They were in the black community lots of the time. My goodness, that's one of the ways we lived. We had practically no money, but we'd get a little piece of meat or some groceries or something like that to eat.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Well, that's real important. Because there has been a lot of studies of southern Jews during the Civil Rights movement and a lot of criticism. I mean, that they did not speak out during the civil rights movement.
DON WEST:
I know. Of course, this is like anything else. It's like the mountain people. There were lots of abolitionists in the mountains and there were some bastards that were not abolitionists. And it is true with every bunch. But I personally know, in the 'thirties, of many small Jewish merchants, in Atlanta, Georgia, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, who were definitely fighting for civil rights. They had to be careful because the situation was a tight situation. But we have held secret meetings in backs of Jewish stores many times in Atlanta, for example, and in Chattanooga. You know, we could go into a store. It was sort of obvious that people go in and out of stores. And go back in the back room and have a meeting. And it wouldn't be too liable, you know, to be broken up by cops. So, as I started to say, I got down to Atlanta. Hitchhiked down there and went down on Auburn Avenue where there was a little office. It was a defense committee office. I went in and introduced myself and told them what I was interested in. All of a sudden we were having a meeting here in the Royal Theater I think it was then down on Auburn Avenue, black theater. We were having a meeting tonight, for Herndon in this theater and we would like you to come to it. For you to be chairman of it, to emcee. I sort of ignorantly said yes, would be willing to. And they wanted me to talk. I didn't have any better sense than to talk, either, I guess. So I chaired the meeting and said something. From then on I was a red. I was labelled right off as a red. So, Miles was, I'd say, SP oriented. Reinhold Neibuhr and this sort of thing. And I was more and more going to the Angelo Hearndon type thing. We had a crossing of the ways on that.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So right in the beginning. That was like in the first year when you all were there at Highlander.
DON WEST:
Yep. I stayed only one year at Highlander. I was there one year.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why did you move to the left?
DON WEST:
Well, they were doing things, see. I was familiar with the Scottsboro boys. They were doing things. They were defending those nine boys. I went down there and got acquainted. I met lots of people. I met some people who were killed there. I remember Boris Israel. He was beaten up later in Harlan county. Beaten into a jelly. He never recovered. He was a complete wreck the rest of his life. He was a reporter on the Daily Worker. The people I met, I learned that they were people who were dedicated. They were committed. And they stuck their necks out and they took chances and they worked. It's unbelievable the kind of discipline they had. The modern so-called movement. I get depressed sometimes at the irresponsible kind of things. It's a maybe so thing. But then… you're going to have a meeting over in Weinberg's store, back of Weinberg's store at seven o'clock. If you were assigned to that meeting you damn well better be there at that meeting, at seven o'clock. You couldn't come dragging in thirty minutes late. Or you couldn't say "Well, next week. I couldn't make it." That just didn't happen. If you were in the group, you were there. Wasn't any doubt about it. Had terrific discipline. Committed. Really committed.