More than 6 decades ago, the McCarthy witch hunt — highlighted in the current film “Trumbo” — affected all Americans. Area residents like Fred Hellerman — who sang with Pete Seeger in the Weavers — saw their careers torpedoed, in a frightening, country-wide rush to judgment.
It took the courage of men like Kirk Douglas and Howard Fast — both with Westport and Weston connections — to break the blacklist. Douglas surreptitiously hired screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt Fast’s novel “Spartacus,” a major step toward helping restore many writers’ good names.
A couple of years before McCarthy, Westport faced its own charges of communism. But officials here reacted in a very different way.
According to Westporter-Herald newspaper accounts unearthed by alert “06880” reader Fred Cantor, in early April 1947 Fred Hollister wrote a long story in Inklings, the Staples High School newspaper. It described a new organization: American Youth for Democracy.
Hollister — a senior — was awaiting word on admission to Yale. He was vice president of his class, editor of the new literary magazine Soundings, and a member of the Norwalk chapter of AYD. That group — an “interracial teen-age club” — offered “a program for economic security and opportunity, education, housing, health, farm youth, recreation, juvenile delinquency, veterans, civil liberties, and peace,” the Westporter-Herald reported.
The AYD wanted to build “more and more inter-racial clubs in our country, clubs where young Negro and white people, by working, playing and fighting for the same things together, learn through actual experience that there are no ‘superior’ and no ‘inferior’ races.”
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called it “part of the Communist party.”
A front-page story in the local paper said that “school officials, P-T.A. officers, School Study Council members and parents of high school students are all considering ways and means to check the infiltration of what the U.S. Chamber ofo Commerce has called subversive ideas fostered by the AYD.”
Superintendent of Schools Gerhardt Rast conducted an investigation into the “publication of the AYD propoganda.” He “emphatically” cleared Inklings’ faculty advisor, social studies teacher Eli Berton, of “any blame.” Rast said that Berton had no idea what the AYD was. However, the superintendent said that he would ask the Board of Education to take action to “prevent its growth in the school.”
“The article’s listing of the organization’s aims could be that of any liberal organization, except for an emphasis on federal aid for various projects,” the Westporter-Herald noted.
An editorial took a patronizing tone. High school is a time “when youngsters look up on the world and worry about its imperfections. They are dissatisfied with the picture of war, famine, hatred and intolerance. Naturally they dream of making the world over, fashioning it to be without sin or greed.”
That’s not the way the world works, the paper continued. But perhaps Hollister should be thanked, because by “its careless publicity (the AYD) has ruined its chances for successful proselytizing in the high school here.”
The editorial concluded: “Fellow traveler, whither now?”
In the days that followed, the American Legion asked the Board of Ed to place more importance on the teaching of American history in Westport schools.
The board discussed the matter, but refused to remove either Hollister or Berton from Inklings.
The superintendent took a similar stand. In fact, he said, “We do teach the Bill of Rights to our students….How can we reconcile action denying David Hollister the right to publish any further articles with what they students know about Article I?…I don’t believe such action would be wise or consistent.”
And so the communist menace in Westport was dealt with: intelligently, graciously, and with no inflammatory rhetoric.