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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 >>

Arrested with fellow Communists in Philadelphia

As West describes his disillusionment with the Highlander School—he may have been disappointed that the composition of its student body did not meet his expectations—he recalls a brush with the law when he and some fellow Communists were arrested in Philadelphia. When they finally appeared before a judge, the judge was surprised to find that West was an ordained minister, with Communist literature as his gospel and black activists his disciples.

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:
Let me ask you about your feeling about Highlander. You'd been there a year when you left to move to Atlanta. You had wanted for a long time to start a folk school like Highlander. What convinced you to leave so quickly? Did you think that Highlander was not doing the kind of work that you—
DON WEST:
I was disillusioned with what I would be able to do under the circumstances. It's a little difficult to say without seeming to be, I don't know, vindictive or something. I guess Horton and I just had a different way of looking at things. For example, the first year. I went up to Palmer. Palmer was a coal mining village that had a lot of unemployed. And I organized classes in Palmer for poor coal miner people. And in Tracy City. And… I don't remember the name of that little town. A lot of coal mine people. And these were poor, raggedy people. And sometimes they'd come into Highlander, into the center. And Miles would see one of them. "Oh, that's one of Don's friends." You know. They were just poor, ragged, uneducated people. Well, these were the people that I was concerned about, that I've always been concerned about. His friends were, you know, a little higher status, I guess.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Well, what kind of people did Highlander want to bring into its workshops?
DON WEST:
Well, maybe we had a different concept. I wanted people who were the working people, the poor people. Later, of course, Highlander got the CIO, lots of CIO people there. And the FTA and the different CIO unions held schools there and later, of course, Martin Luther King.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of people did Miles want to bring in?
DON WEST:
I really don't know. I don't know just what it was. But it revolved around one being more to the left that the other more to the right. It revolved around that kind of thing. I remember I recruited a student, Walter Martin, his name was, from Alabama. And man, he was a way out to the left. I mean he became way out to the left. Of course he was not very popular with Miles. He went back to Birmingham and was quite active down there for a long time. I lost touch with him. There was a black man, Hosea Hudson, wrote a book called Black Workers in the Deep South. He came down to speak for me. He's coming down again this spring. To speak to my Antioch class. And we'll have a big community meeting, as we did last time. I had a hundred some people come out. When he came down I introduced him and he was saying "You know,"—to my class and the people who had come—" I knew Don forty years ago." It was about forty years ago to the day when he came. And he says "When I first knew Don I couldn't read and write. And I have to say that Don West taught me how to read and write." I did. I taught Hosea to read and write. He was illiterate. And now he's written this book Black Workers. He told another story to the class that I had forgotten about entirely. Hosea, Wert Taylor and two other black kids, and myself, were coming from New York City going to Atlanta. We were driving an automobile which belonged to a young man who was in New York City. We were going to drive his car to Birmingham. I was driving. About one o'clock in the morning we were passing through Philadelphia. We were arrested. We had a lot of literature, political stuff, in our bags. They searched our bags and all night long they took us from one station to another, photographing us, putting numbers on us and so on. And they kept us the balance of the night in a little cased in pen. They didn't turn us loose the next day. They kept us there…. I guess they must have kept us a couple of weeks. I thought we never were going to get out. And finally…. There was a fur workers union strike on and there was a union man in there that was going out. He'd been in, you know, for something, and they were letting him out. I talked with him and said "can you go and see" I told him who he might see. A defense worker that worked on defense. "And tell him that we're in here and we'd like to have some help." So finally a lawyer did find out about us and came in and we had a hearing before a judge. So Hosea was saying they got us all out there. There were six of us. And he said Don was the ringleader. They had searched his bag…. See, when they asked me what I did, what I was, I said I was a minister. I'm an ordained minister. And the judge said "You're a minister." I said yes. He had all the stuff he'd taken out of my bag. And I had a lot of Marxist literature and so on. He looked at all the other boys, Hosea said, and says "You're a minister and these are your gospel and these are your goddamn disciples." I'd forgotten that, but Hosea told that story down in my class. They were about half black and half white, you know, in the group.