“It got so bad–Walter Winchell, on his national radio show, would mention my husband’s name followed by saboteur, espionage agent, communist, then give out our address, and as much as imply ‘go for him.'”
PEACE ACTIVIST AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZER. Averting nuclear war and establishing world peace have been the major focuses of her life. An organizer of Women for Peace and Women’s Strike for Peace from their inception in 1960 to the present, she was involved in the early “Ban the Bomb” movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and now the antinuclear movement. However, her peace activities began much earlier; she helped organize the first congress of the World Peace Council in 1949. She was also active in the first attempts to integrate all-white neighborhoods in the 1950s and worked for the World Congress of Women in France and the Progressive Party in 1948. In 1952 she married Charles Velson, a long-time labor organizer, union official, and Communist organizer.
So I married Charlie Velson, and that was the beginning of an adventure. Before I married him, his father had said to me, “Do you know what you are getting into?” I said, “Of course I do,” not really understanding what Joe Schabelson (Charlie’s father) was saying, because Charlie was hauled before every damn committee from Washington to New York. It was the McCarthy Era and from then on the FBI was to haunt us.
They went to our neighbors. The FBI implied that if they associated with us they would lose their jobs–they all worked at city or state jobs. They were scared. The FBI asked our next-door neighbor if they could put a tap on her wall. She was a good Episcopalian. She refused. She didn’t tell us that until years later.
The FBI came to the house. I was home; they had already visited my employer, costing me my job. I remembered my husband’s instructions, “Don’t let them in.” But I let them in anyway, and they got real nasty. “Where is your husband?” they asked, implying he was fooling around with other women, et cetera, et cetera, saying nasty things. Finally I started using the language my husband had instructed me to use. “You bastards, you just get the fuck out of here.” The two of them just looked at me. They picked themselves up. “You’ll be sorry for this,” they said, and swaggered out.
It was a hard period. For many years my husband had been a union official, and now he wanted to be a worker. When he walked into the personnel department of the shipyards they had his name in inch-high letters on the desk to make sure no one would mistakenly hire him. Family friends would land him a job. He would work at the place a week, and the FBI would come, and he would get canned. Then he would work at another place, and again the FBI would come by and he would be fired. They would be waiting for him in the morning when he would leave the house with his lunch pail. Then he would give them a wild chase through the city by car, returning home and then starting out again, trying to elude them. This went on every single day, for I don’t know how long. That year he must have had nearly 12 jobs.
You talk about economic hardships. A friend of mine would have two dollars in her purse, and I would think, miraculous, how can she do it? On Saturdays I would go to New York. I would gather milk bottles to get the carfare. The bottles were worth two cents each. And talk about isolation and social ostracism, if I went to call someone on the telephone, they would say, “Where are you calling from?” To this day there are just two people I can think of who stuck with us throughout this whole thing–who were not afraid to visit us. I have the greatest fondness for them. Most people were just scared to death. I had absolutely no contact with my family.
Finally Bridges rescued us. Through his travels Charlie knew Harry Bridges and Lou Goldblatt. Goldblatt once referred to Charlie as “the best damn trade unionist in the country.” So they hired him to work for the ILWU on the East Coast working with the ILA (International Longshoremen’s Association). They had certain things in mind, like uniform contract language and common expiration dates between the East and West coasts. That way if there was a strike, employers couldn’t shift their cargo to the other coast. He also lobbied for protective legislation for maritime workers all over the country.
Those were exciting years. Many of the ILA leaders were real Damon Runyon characters. They came from backgrounds with criminal records, but now they were so-called straight. My husband taught them how to conduct a meeting, how to write a contract, how to negotiate, how to run a union. He taught them everything he knew from years of trade union work. And with his socialist perspective, the workers benefited greatly in terms of wage increases and better working conditions. And that was what was important, not whether the ILA was controlled by mobsters.
They called my husband a stand-up guy. They learned they could trust him. He had no office; he worked out of his “hat” and the nearest telephone booth. He would go out at 6 A.M. and come home at 10 or 11 at night. And then from 11 to 12 I would be up typing his reports and all kinds of things that had to be done the next day. It was a very high-pressure thing, and we were constantly eluding the FBI. Charlie was working on forming an alliance of all workers moving cargo, not just maritime workers, but also truckers and railroad workers. It was to be a general confederation of all transportation workers. Hoffa and the Teamsters were also involved, and I think that is one of the reasons Kennedy eventually went after Hoffa. It would have been extremely powerful. They could have paralyzed the country instantly. The government did not want to see this type of alliance so they kept hounding my husband. They would bang on our door at 2 in the morning yelling, “open up”–the FBI, a deputy sheriff, and a couple of marshals-just to issue a subpoena. They knew they could have delivered it any other time, but they did it at 2 A.M. deliberately.
They followed my three-year-old kid to nursery school, would you believe it, to get the director of the nursery to refuse the kid admittance. The director told them to get lost. It was a co-operative nursery on the other side of town, where other progressive parents sent their kids, and since it was a private co-operative she was only dependent on the parents for funds and could refuse to buckle down. We were constantly being harassed. It was an experience you don’t forget.
I was involved in community activities at the time. We were busy trying to break racial barriers in housing and public schools, and I must say that some devious methods were used, because they had to be used. A white person would purchase a house and sign it over to a black person, things of that sort. But it was a difficult time. I was all alone, my husband was gone a good deal of the time, and I had these young kids to raise. I just did what I could. A lot of people ran scared, and lots of us just found the fortitude to go on and face up to what was happening.
After working for the ILWU for five years, we moved to California. Charlie’s work with the ILA was completed and Bridges asked him to work on the West Coast. So we ended up in San Pedro. I’ll never forget it. To welcome us were big headlines in the paper, “Bridges’ right hand man, Communist Charles Velson, arrives….” They had signs painted in the johns on the waterfront, “Charles Velson Communist, Charles Velson Communist, Charles Velson Communist.” I am told those signs were still there at the time of my husband’s death, five years ago. They may still be up there, I don’t know. And by the time we left New York, my husband was no longer with the party. The party was underground. He opposed that, and the party leadership opposed his dealings with these so-called racketeers in the ILA. He had his differences. So by the time we came to California, we were really not part of anything.
When we first hit San Pedro, we were staggered by what we saw. I thought I was going out of my mind. People didn’t seem to care about anything outside of their own lives. I saw couples, both were working, not to support one car but two cars and a boat. My husband came home one day and said, “I have never seen anything like it in my life. The guys on the waterfront, either they are reading the racing forms, or they are reading the Wall Street Journal to see how their stocks are doing. All they are interested in is buying sports cars, like MGs.” I mean, this was a totally new world for both of us. We never experienced anything like it, people just involved in the materialistic way of life.
I was very disturbed by what was happening–the production of the bomb and nuclear testing, but I couldn’t find anyone to work with. I was so frustrated I thought I was going mad. Then one day a little squib appeared in the women’s pages of the L.A. Times announcing a demonstration to be held on November 1 in Los Angeles concerning the resumption of nuclear testing. Anyone interested call this woman in Beverly Hills, the wife of Dr. so and so. I debated it. My husband would come home. He was working on the waterfront then as a clerk. “Did you call her?” he would ask. “No.” “Well, call her.” It took me a week to gather the courage, believe it or not, to call. I thought, what do I have in common with this housewife in Beverly Hills whose husband is a doctor? Finally I called her and she said, “We have leaflets announcing the demonstration. How many do you want?” I thought for a minute and said, “A dozen and a half.” She went hysterical. “This is truly a housewives’ movement,” she laughed. “People are calling up and ordering leaflets like they order eggs.”
So I got these leaflets, and got together a few other people I knew from the ILWU. We each got a few more people and we went into Los Angeles that day for the demonstration. It was astounding. Busload after busload arrived. Five thousand women came out that day. I stood there and wept. We all turned in our names, and they sent us the names of women in our area. That was the beginning of Women for Peace and Women Strike for Peace.
Shortly afterwards, we moved to Long Beach. So how do you find people? We put an ad in the local paper, “Anybody interested in working on the question of peace, get in touch with us.” And this is what happened: we started to find each other. I met people who were not in the Communist Party, but who were just the most magnificent people with a marvelous sense of values and ethics. People who really came to the fore and were not afraid to express their opinions.
I just started talking to the people around me. I put signs on my car, “Ban the Bomb.” And I thought, “Oh brother, my car is probably going to get smashed.” But an interesting thing happened–my car was not smashed. Instead my neighbors started coming to me secretly to tell me how worried they were about nuclear war and then later about the war in Vietnam. They would talk about their children and grandchildren who were undergoing psychological stress and even breaking down over the fear of being drafted and having to fight in this war nobody understood. People were scared, and because they knew me and my family–they saw me every day and talked to me every day–they began to trust me.
We had a core group of five, a Quaker, an academic, a school teacher, an artist, and myself. We would go out and leaflet our neighborhood and ask people to come to meetings. Surprisingly, we got very little hostility. Instead the most amazing things happened–for example, one night in the small beach front community I lived in we turned out 125 people for a meeting in the local public school. We became very well organized. We used to canvass those neighborhoods every Sunday. We knew who were Democrats, who were Republicans, and who were independents. Then we just zeroed in on people. We knocked on thousands of doors. People got to know us and we got to know our community very well indeed.
We knew who to ask for money and how much.
People would say to me, “You must have courage to do this.” They would come to me quietly and give me money and say, “Don’t tell anybody I talked to you,” or “Don’t tell my wife or husband I gave you this.” They were scared. But we were able to do the most fantastic things in that town. I don’t think that town has seen the likes of us since. We were the first group that really broke through the consciousness of the American people after World War II.