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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Gelders' actions and his assault

Though poor southerners had a reputation for being lazy, Durr explains that she believed their apathy stemmed from the diseases that afflicted the poor. When Joe Gelders encountered such extreme need for the first time, it spurred him to activism and socialism. She discusses the violent response to him, the brutal attack he survived, and the outcome of the La Follette Hearings later in the interview.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. 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

See, I cannot describe to you young people about the rickets and pellegra and the worms and the hookworm, because you say you've never seen it. Well, I saw it and he saw it: people who were just on the last go-round. When you see a child that's shaking all over with rickets because they don't get any protein, it's a pretty horrible sight. See, I saw all that-I told you before-when I worked in the Junior League in Birmingham. We were taking the Red Cross around, and I saw people with these great white blotches of pellegra. First time I saw it, I thought they had-oh, that terrible disease, in the Bible-leprosy. I thought they had leprosy; it scared me to death. I really did. See I never . . .You see the black people would have these great white blotches on them, too, from pellegra.. And the white people would have these blotches. It came from pellegra. And they all looked yellow and drawn. And the ones with hookworm . . . You know Aubrey Williams came from the country, and he had a lot of relatives poor as Job's turkey. They were poor as they could be. And I'd say, what'd they do. And he'd say, well, they'd just sit and spit all day. [And that's from hookworm?] From hookworm. They were so diseased and lazy. Everybody said the Southerners were so lazy; they didn't like to get out and work. Well, they had hookworm and they had all these parasitic diseases and nutritional diseases. You never saw them. And you never saw the children in the mill villages that worked in the cotton mills. You see it took me-I was twenty-odd years old before I waked up to it and it was right around me. And of course you never saw it. But after I did see it, it got me stirred up. So Joe Gelders saw all this and he got terribly upset. It was just the irrationality of killing pigs when people were hungry and plowing up cotton when they didn't have anything to wear. And you know they were wheat in the midwest. It was the destruction of things trying to raise the price. So he didn't know a thing about economics. He had never read a book on economics in his life. So he went to the library and began to read economics. And he started out with Adam Smith, I think. Anyway, he went right on through. He read all the books he could find on economics. He read the Beards, you know, Charles and Mary Beard. He went right on through the economics shelf. So finally he got to the socialists, the Webbs. Did you ever try to read the Webbs book, from England? They were Fabians. Well he read the Webb book. I read them in Wellesley, and they were hard reading. But they stirred me up a little bit there, but not much. But anyway, he finally got up to Engels and Marx. And he said, this is it! He said this is the answer to all this poverty and all of this killing the pigs and burning up the corn and cotton. So he began to have people come up to the house. And he'd go around and tell everybody that he'd found the answer to the depression, and it was capitalism. And you had to have Marxism. [Was he still in Tuscaloosa at the time?] Sure, he was still teaching at the University. He was just converted by reading these books. He never met a Marxist in his life, or a socialist either. [He was not even in the Party at this time?] He never knew there was a party. He never heard of it. You know, he was just completely blank. He read it, and he decided that this was the answer to poverty-socialism, or Marx and Engels anyway. It was all theoretical, you see, because he had no contact. The idea of people killing pigs and burning up cotton and corn when people were starving; well, it's rather simple to comprehend that something's wrong anyway. So Joe began having these meetings at his house. And the next year they told him they didn't want him to come back. Well, he was very much surprised. Now I may not have all this straight, but this is my understanding of it. So he went up to visit his sister, Emma Gelders, who married one of the Sterns from Anniston, and he was a very rich man-Roy Stern-I mean he had a big salary. He was a lawyer. They lived on Long Island someplace, and they had a big house. They had two girls, Barbara and Ann. So they were very conservative kind of intellectual-kept up with everything but not radical in the least. So Joe began to take courses and he looked up the Communist Party and he got in with the radicals in New York at that time-made contacts with them. So they told him-and of course I don't know who he dealt with; all of this is just hearsay-I mean knowledge from my own personal standpoint. But I know he did get in contact with the radicals in New York. Now he always said he never actually joined the Communist Party, in that he was a card-carrying member-maybe they thought it was better for him not to. Anyway they told him the best thing he could do was come South and try to help these people being thrown in jail. You see, these were the labor organizers. John L. Lew is at that time was head of the CIO-and he was using these young people, like these young civil rights workers, and some of them were Communist. And he would send them down as sort of shock troops. Of course he never let a Communist in the Miners'. . . or a woman either, you knew that. But he sent them down as shock troops, and they'd go to these little towns and try to organize and they'd get killed and beat up. And then in Birmingham where they tried to organize the steel workers they were thrown in the jail and held incommunicato. You see, Bull Connor had been head of the Steel Police; the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Rail Company had a private police force, the Steel Police. So he went from being head of the Steel Police of the TCI to being the head of the Police Department of Birmingham, Alabama. And they were fighting them like they were fighting fire. [break] [He's now up in New York with his brother-in-law, Roy Stern.] And his sister Emma. So he stayed there that summer. I didn't know him and I don't know how long he stayed in New York. He stayed in New York several months. Anyway, he came down here . . . I think it was part of the Labor Defense League in the National Labor Defense League, but they didn't call it that; they called it the Southern Civil Defense League, or something like that. It was to defend the people who were being put in jail. [And Gelders worked for that?] Yeah, he was head of it. He had an office, in Birmingham.