Labor activist, editor
Angelo Herndon moved from menial laborer to radical labor activist, which resulted in his becoming a Communist in the 1930s who sought to organize black and white workers in the South during the era of segregation. He was tried, convicted, and imprisoned in Georgia because of his activities, and his case became the focus of international attention. Herndon endured mistreatment while incarcerated and eventually regained his freedom and continued his activism through writing, speaking, organizing, and other pursuits.
Eugene Angelo Braxton Herndon was born on May 6, 1913, in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, to Paul and Hattie Herndon, who had come north from Birmingham, Alabama. His father was a coal miner who died from miner's pneumonia when Eugene was very young, leaving his mother to raise a large family, including seven sons and two daughters. She began doing housework for wealthy white families; the older boys sought work in mines, steel mills, and other industries; and the younger children helped out by doing a variety of odd jobs, all in efforts to support the family.
It was hoped that Angelo would be the one to leave the working class for better opportunities through education, but the family was unable to save money to assist him. In 1926 when he was thirteen Angelo left home with his brother Leo for Lexington, Kentucky to work at a mine owned by the DeBardeleben Coal Corporation. Here Herndon experienced the Jim Crow system firsthand, as well as dangerous working conditions, very low pay, high prices for food and necessities at the company-owned store, and squalid living conditions.
Begins Activism in Birmingham
When the company cut the pay of its workers due to large overhead expenses, Herndon and his brother quit the Kentucky mine and headed south to Birmingham. With relatives in the area as well as mining sites, Herndon was able to survive until he was hired by the Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI) Company. He did surface work at the company's Docena mine, cutting the right of way for wiring and transformation lines.
After an accident which resulted in the death of a fellow worker, Herndon surprised the management by speaking up about a foreman's negligence and other safety issues. The other men supported Herndon's account of the incident, and the widow received some compensation from TCI. Herndon then realized that organizing workers would help to improve their pay, working, and living conditions, and the present system was designed to divide as well as exploit employees for the benefit of owners and management.
When the Great Depression hit the United States in late 1929 after the stock market crash in October of that year, unemployment rose sharply and those fortunate enough to still have jobs endured continued problems with many employers. In June 1930 Herndon attended a meeting of the local Unemployment Council, where he heard Communist Party (CP) members speak about black and whites working together and being treated as equals.
This idea appealed to Herndon. Shortly afterwards he joined both organizations, became a recruiter for the National Miners Union, and was elected a delegate to the National Unemployment Convention being held the same year in Chicago. Once Herndon began to associate with the Communists, however, his relatives asked him to move out and not return, fearing for their safety. Their concerns were justified, as the Ku Klux Klan left a message for Herndon on the same day he went to the convention.
Continues to Organize Workers
In June 1932, Herndon and other members of the Unemployment Council organized black and white workers in Atlanta, Georgia to petition the city, county, and state governments for relief after 23,000 families were dropped from the welfare rolls, action that could have led to widespread hunger and starvation. A large number of persons from both racial groups came to the Fulton County court house on July 7 to demonstrate their concerns to the county commissioners and other authorities, with white workers being allowed in, while blacks were kept outside.
The attempt to use Jim Crow to divide the protestors was unsuccessful, as the commissioners only made excuses and told the white workers that no money was available, leaving them in the same position as the black workers. On the next day $6,000 suddenly appeared to fund unemployment relief for workers regardless of race.
The success of the peaceful demonstration made Herndon a marked man at age nineteen. On the following Monday (July 11, 1932) he was arrested by detectives when he went to get mail from the post office, and he was held in custody for eleven days without any formal charge placed against him. Herndon refused to talk despite attempts to intimidate him, and he smuggled a letter out by another prisoner to the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal arm of the CP, requesting assistance and legal representation.
When a judge threatened to release Herndon, the county's assistant solicitor, John Hudson, charged him under 1804 and 1861 laws used to prosecute slaves for "inciting to insurrection," which included a death sentence, and cited him for possession of Communist literature. As a result, he was indicted by an all-white grand jury and held for nearly six more months in the Fulton County Tower prison. While there he was forced to stay in a cell with a dead body, was given spoiled food to eat, became sick himself, and was denied medical treatment.
Becomes Known Internationally During Trial
On Christmas Eve, 1932, Herndon was finally released from custody, with his trial date set for January 16, 1933. The ILD had to come up with $25,000 for bail, a tremendous increase from the original amount of $3,000. In the meantime, news of Herndon and his case spread from Georgia to national and international levels.
- Born in Wyoming, Ohio on May 6
- Leaves home with brother to work in Lexington, Kentucky coal mine
- Becomes labor activist and Communist after moving to Birmingham, Alabama
- Organizes multiracial protest in Atlanta, Georgia; is arrested and jailed
- Tried and convicted of inciting insurrection; returns to prison
- Released on bail after case becomes international cause for activists
- Publishes autobiography; conviction is overturned by U.S. Supreme Court
- Marries Joyce M. Chellis
- Edits Negro Quarterly publication with writer Ralph Ellison in New York City
- Lives quietly in Chicago after leaving Communist Party and other activism
- Dies in obscurity on December 9
The courage of the young Herndon galvanized progressive and radical intellectuals, leaders, and activists in the black and white communities, and inspired persons from many different backgrounds to speak out, write, and provide financial support. The progressive rhetoric and action of the CP and the ILD in support of Herndon increased their visibility and credibility, yet also increased others' resolve to oppose their activities. The NAACP and other civil rights organizations were concerned about the CP use of blacks to publicize and advance its agenda, as well as the possible loss of their own members, while white and black conservatives, such as Pittsburgh Courier columnist George S. Schuyler, commented that Herndon was a pawn for CP anti-Americanism.
African American literary figures such as Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes came out in support of Herndon, with Hughes later writing a political play in 1936, Angelo Herndon Jones, which dramatized his case. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison reflected the influence of Herndon in some of their best-known writings, and Ellison worked directly with Herndon in founding and editing the short-lived but influential publication, Negro Quarterly, from 1942–43. Hughes and Wright were among the writers who contributed work to the journal, and Herndon published his own essay, "Frederick Douglass: Negro Leadership and War" in its pages.
Noted historians John Henrik Clarke, C. Vann Woodward, and Herbert Aptheker have cited the personal impact of the Herndon case on their lives and careers. Aptheker became a member of the Communist Party in part due to his relationship with Herndon and later collaborated with Herndon and Richard B. Moore in establishing the Negro Publication Society. Jewish American poet Aaron Kramer wrote "To Angelo Herndon," which was published in 1934, and radical activist women such as Lucy Parsons and Claudia Jones were vocal supporters of the "Free Angelo Herndon" movement.
The defense attorneys hired by the ILD to represent Herndon were local lawyers Benjamin J. Davis Jr. and John H. Geer, the first time that blacks were lead attorneys on a major civil rights case in the South. The trial became a platform for addressing injustice on a larger scale, as well as the defense of the specific person involved in the proceedings. Herndon himself eloquently addressed the jury during the trial, indicating that the larger problems of discrimination, unemployment, and worker rights would not be solved with his conviction or death.
Herndon was convicted by the jury hearing his case, but they recommended that mercy be shown and sentenced him to prison for a period from eighteen to twenty years. The international attention and media coverage of his case made Herndon into a cause celebre, even as he began serving his sentence and continued the appeals process.
Herndon remained behind bars in Atlanta until August 1934, when he was released on bail due to the efforts of the ILD. He then went on several national speaking tours and participated in numerous rallies in support of his case, and eventually he settled in New York City.
In 1935 Herndon told his story in an autobiographical booklet, "You Cannot Kill the Working Class," which was published by the ILD. Later that year Herndon was employed by the Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based black newspaper, but this did not prevent him from continuing to organize workers and participating in a strike against the paper when its ownership resisted efforts by the workers to join the Newspaper Guild. Herndon continued his labor activities the following year as a vice president on the national executive board of the Workers Alliance of America, and he was also involved with the National Negro Congress, chaired by African American labor activist A. Philip Randolph.
Herndon published a full-length autobiography, Let Me Live, in 1937 with assistance from a ghostwriter, and in April of that year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction by a 5-4 vote. He decided to remain in New York, where he stayed active for a time with the CP and wrote articles for their publication, the Daily Worker. Herndon married the former Joyce M. Chellis, an Alabama native, in 1938, and began to make additional changes in his lifestyle.
Leaves Communists and Activism for Quiet Life in Chicago
By the mid-1940s Herndon had become disillusioned with the CP; he left both the party and New York for a very private existence in Chicago. He shared details from his radical past with only a few close friends and consistently declined public appearances and interview requests.
Angelo Herndon died on December 9, 1997. His notorious life as a young man stood in sharp contrast to his obscurity in middle and later years, but he made an important contribution to the African American community with his courage and great personal sacrifice. The Chicago-based playwright OyamO staged a production based on Herndon's life, Let Me Live, in 1991 and 1998, demonstrating that Herndon's life and activism continued to have significance.
Broderick, Francis L., and August Meier, eds. Negro Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965.
Marable, Manning, and Leith Mullings, eds. Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000.
――――――. The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
Griffiths, Frederick T. "Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and the Case of Angelo Herndon." African American Review 35 (Winter 2001): 615-36.
Herndon, Angelo. "Frederick Douglass: Negro Leadership in War." Negro Quarterly 1 (Winter/Spring 1943): 303-29.
Martin, Charles H. "Communists and Blacks: The ILD and the Angelo Herndon Case." Journal of Negro History 64 (Spring 1979): 131-41.
D'Amato, Paul. "The Communist Party and Black Liberation in the 1930s." International Socialist Review Summer 1997. http://isreview.org/issues/01/cp_blacks_1930s.shtml (Accessed 12 December 2005).
Microfilm of International Labor Defense organization records from 1925–1946, including materials on Angelo Herndon, are housed in the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martha P. Catherwood Library of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.
Fletcher F. Moon