Herndon, Angelo, Case

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During a five-year period in the mid-1930s, the Angelo Herndon case focused national attention on racial inequality within the southern legal system and on the politicized nature of southern justice. The affair began in June 1932, when Angelo Herndon, a nineteen-year-old black Communist, helped organize a large interracial demonstration of unemployed workers in Atlanta, Georgia. Fearful that the worsening Depression provided a fertile environment for radical political groups, local authorities arrested Herndon the following month. Utilizing an old law originally enacted to prohibit slave revolts, they charged him with "attempting to incite insurrection" against the state of Georgia, a capital offense.

While in jail Herndon turned for assistance to the International Labor Defense (ILD), a radical legal defense organization. Established by Communists and other leftists in 1925 in order to defend "class war prisoners," the ILD contended that in a capitalistic society most legal prosecutions were politically based. Thus the organization insisted that a proper defense must involve not only skillful courtroom maneuvers but also "mass pressure" outside the courthouse. To defend Herndon the ILD violated deep South racial etiquette by retaining two local African-American attorneys, Benjamin J. Davis and John Geer. At Herndon's controversial trial in January 1933, Davis and Geer challenged the constitutionality of the insurrection law, arguing that it unreasonably restricted free speech. Judge Lee B. Wyatt promptly rejected their motions. Following three days of testimony marked by prosecutors' emotional attacks on Communism and interracial activity, an all-white jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced the young organizer to eighteen to twenty years in prison.

The ILD promptly initiated a national campaign on Herndon's behalf, eventually developing the case into a cause celebre. After the state supreme court rejected Herdon's appeal, the ILD retained several specialists in constitutional law and took the case to the United States Supreme Court. But in May 1935 the court dismissed the appeal, concluding that the constitutional issues had not been properly raised at the original trial. While the ILD prepared to initiate a new round of legal action back in Georgia, the group sought additional allies for the Herndon campaign. As part of "united front" efforts by Communists to organize a broad political coalition against fascism in Europe, the ILD now sought assistance from non-Communist organizations that it had previously disdained. The organization eventually formed the Joint Committee to Aid the Herndon Defense, which included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. In December 1935 in Atlanta, Judge Hugh M. Dorsey unexpectedly struck down the insurrection law, but the state supreme court promptly reversed his ruling, setting the stage for another trip to the U.S. Supreme Court. In April 1937 the high court ruled by a vote of five to four in Herndon v. Lowry that the insurrection law, as construed and applied, was unconstitutional. Justice Owen J. Roberts wrote that the Georgia statute "amounts merely to a dragnet which may enmesh anyone who agitates for a change of government." The ruling not only freed Herndon but virtually eliminated further prosecutions under the controversial law.

The Herndon case has often been compared to the epic Scottsboro case in Alabama, since both highlighted racial injustice in southern courtrooms. But unlike Scottsboro, the Herndon Case was also an important civil liberties case, one that demonstrated that southern prosecutors and judges were quite willing to violate first amendment rights in order to silence radical political movements. Finally, by vigorously defending Herndon and openly challenging white supremacy in Dixie, the ILD and American Communists earned new respect from African Americans.



Davis, Benjamin J. Communist Councilman from Harlem: Autobiographical Notes Written in a Federal Penitentiary. 1969.

Herndon, Angelo. Let Me Live (1937). Reprint, 1969.

Herndon v. Lowry. 301 U.S. 242. 1937.

Martin, Charles H. The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice. 1976.

Martin, Charles H. "The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice." In American Political Trials, edited by Michal R. Belknap, rev. edition. 1994.

Thomas, Kendall. "'Rouge Et Noir' Reread: A Popular Constitutional History of the Angelo Herndon Case." In Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings ThatFormed the Movement, edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, et al. 1995.

Charles H. Martin

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