Victory Day May 9, 1945: Red Army soldiers hoist Victory banner over Reichstag

Victory Day May 9, 1945: Red Army soldiers hoist Victory banner over Reichstag
Death to Fascism

November 25, 2016

From the Archives 25 February 2012 : Henry Winston, American Communist -- A Man of and for the People --

From the Archives 25 February 2012 : Henry Winston -- A Man of and for the People -- 

Biographical Notes 
Prepared by the Henry Winston Centenary Tribute Committee Executive
Jarvis Tyner, Danny Rubin, Mary Arnold, Tina Nannarone


Henry Winston:
Man of the People & for the People



Biographical Notes

The remarkable and heroic life of Henry Winston began in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1911, in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of its repressive character. His father, Joseph, worked in a small unorganized saw mill at very low wages. His mother, Lucille, did domestic work as she could, while bringing up six children, the second of whom was
Henry. Henry Winston's grandparents had all been slaves.
Young Henry went to a Jim Crow elementary school. Just after World War I, the family moved up the Mississippi River to Kansas City, Mo., in search of better living conditions.Winston completed his formal education in a Jim Crow Junior High School. Henry Winston then had to go to work, which consisted of temporary pick-up jobs to help the family
survive. In these early years Henry was a good student and an avid reader of good literature and of anything he could find dealing with social conditions. He was also a good athlete.
The Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression hit Kansas City and the Winston family hard. No one in the family was able to keep a steady job. As all over the country, in Kansas City an unemployed council was being built on the initiative of the Communist Party and the Young Communist League(YCL). Henry Winston joined the Council and participated in
its demonstrations and other activities, including a nation-wide demonstration in cities all over the country on March 6, 1930. This was a demonstration participated in by 1 million people, including 100,000 in New York. It was led by the Communist Leader, Carl Winter, who later was to become a co-worker of Winston's in the national leadership of the Communist Party.

In March of 1931 the arrest of the 9 Scottsboro, Ala. Youth took place on framed up charges of rape of two white women. Henry soon became involved in the defense committee in Kansas City which was part of a national defense campaign led by Communists Joseph Brodsky, their attorney, and William L. Patterson, the head of the International Labor Defense (ILD) At this time two most important events took place which were to shape the rest of Henry Winston's life. In the Unemployed Council, he met members of the YCL with whom he became friends, received materials that he read avidly, went to meetings, became a member and not long after a leader of the Kansas City YCL. At the same time he met Fern Pierce, the love of his life. She grew up on a poor tenant farm in Oklahoma. She also moved to Kansas City to find a better life, became involved in the activities of the Unemployed Council, the Scottsboro Defense and then the YCL.

Henry Winston possessed notable abilities to analyze, theorize and organize and to work with people. This was recognized and as a result he was invited to New York to attend a national school of the YCL. At that time such schools lasted for two or three months. Fern Winston was similarly recognized for her evident capacity and was invited at the same time to the YCL national school. The result of the school was not only a grasp of Marxism but conviction of the need for the YCL and the Communist Party and a lifetime commitment to the movement. But it also permitted the blossoming of the relationship between Henry and Fern that led to their marriage in 1933 and the birth of a son in 1934 It was not long after this that the family traveled to the Soviet Union for the first time. What they saw there confirmed their commitment to socialism as the necessary alternative to capitalism and they were especially impressed with the treatment of the formerly nationally oppressed peoples. Winston maintained a firm confidence for the rest of his life that the Soviet Union would overcome all difficulties and mistakes and would continue to make major contributions to the progressive forces of the world.

Henry and Fern Winston moved to New York and both became active in the YCL leadership there, with activity centering on unemployment and the Scottsboro case. They participated in the Hunger Marches to Washington, DC at the end of 1932.  Henry Winston soon moved up into the national leadership of the YCL through several posts including National Organizational Secretary (1936) and then National Secretary, when Gil Green left that post to assume major duties in the Communist Party. In this period the YCL was growing rapidly and had become an important force in the country. It helped build and lead the American Youth Congress(AYC), that had all the democratic-minded youth organizations among its three million members. The YCL and the AYC fought for jobs, for a national youth act and Administration. The latter was won by Executive Order of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The WPA and the CCC provided important job and recreation and cultural programs for youth. The YCL led the way in resisting the attempts of fascism to win a foothold in our country, especially among the youth. It led the solidarity effort with the Spanish Republic against the attempt of German and Italian fascism in support of Franco to take over Spain. Of the 3000 volunteers who went to fight as part of the Lincoln Brigade more than half were YCL and/or Communist Party members. Half of the volunteers did not return. Winston was particularly active in the solidarity with Spain effort not only during the years of the Civil War but for the rest of his life.
Not only was the YCL very active in building the unemployed Councils, it played a major role in supplying organizers to John L Lewis, Philip Murray and the other Congress of Industrial Organization(CIO) leaders in building the mass production industrial unions. Henry Winston played a leading role in this effort. Another area of Winston's concern as a national leader of the YCL was the building of the Southern Negro Youth Congress(SNYC)
from 1937-1946. At its height it involved 100,000 Southern youth, primarily African Americans. Among its leaders were YCLers Ed and Augusta Strong, Esther Cooper and James E. Jackson, Louis and Dorothy Burnham and Grace Bassett. Whenever they needed help they reached Henry Winston and help was forthcoming. This also began a lifetime
close friendship between the Winstons and the Jacksons.

Among the leaders of the YCL, co-workers of Winston who fought in Spain, were BobThompson, who was a Captain in Spain, Carl Ross, Steve Nelson, Joe Brandt. While in the National Leadership of the YCL, Henry Winston worked closely with Gil Green, Betty Gannett, Claudia Jones, Bob Thompson, and Carl Ross. Henry Winston as well as all these other YCL leaders gradually moved on from YCL leadership to Communist Party leadership. In 1939, Henry Winston attended a national school of the Communist Party and began to move on into national party leadership. Soon the US entered the war against fascism after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Henry Winston was always a believer in leadership by example and he never asked anyone else to do anything he was not prepared to do. With the agreement of the Party leadership collective, he and other national leaders such as Bob Thompson volunteered to fight fascism, while others were drafted a few days after the start of the war. It is estimated that at least 15,000 members of the YCL and/or the Communist Party fought in World War II.

The military did not have a uniform policy with respect to the YCL and Communist Party members in the military. Some were sent to the most dangerous fronts, Guadalcanal and the South Pacific, Omaha Beach and the opening up of the second front in France. Many others were kept out of the fighting and away from the soldiers so they would not "infect"
them with radical ideas. Henry Winston was in this second category and spent the war in Britain. His friend and comrade, James Jackson, spent the war in Burma and others spent it at the end of the Aleutian Islands. Those who were permitted to fight the fascists acquitted themselves very well. Capt. Herman Boettcher won the Distinguished Service Cross
posthumously, fighting in the Philippines. Sgt. Bob Thompson also won the Distinguished Service Cross, while fighting in the South Pacific. Lou Diskin, a co-worker from the YCL, won two Bronze medals for bravery under fire and fought his way from Omaha Beach to the meeting with the Soviet Army at the Elbe River and received a battlefield commission.
When Winston returned from the army to the Party leadership, he found a difficult situation of internal differences and fighting. He had followed these events while still in the army. 

On the one hand he appreciated the effort of the Party to pay more attention to the democratic history of the U.S. its anti-colonial history, the history of the labor movement, of the struggle against slavery and against imperialism. its culture and traditions. He opposed Earl Browder's American exceptionalism, that discounted the danger of a postwar anti-Soviet campaign and repression of civil liberties at home and his steps toward dissolution of a Communist Party. He supported the full restoration of the Party at the 13th Emergency Convention, July 1945, at which Eugene Dennis was named General Secretary and Henry Winston was elected National Organizational Secretary. As National Organizational Secretary, Henry Winston was responsible for leading the effort to carry out the mass political policies of the Party and for building the Party. He was considered an expert on the theory and practice of organization of the Communist Party. The Party was known widely for its ability to get things done and to carry out its commitments. The period from the end of the war until the indictment of the 12 National Board members, including Henry Winston, in July 1948, were difficult years. US reaction resumed its efforts to reverse the New Deal, to weaken the labor movement to threaten a big increase in international tensions, including even atomic war with the Soviet Union, to hold back the national liberation movement and other progressive movements in the world, and to undermine democratic liberties in the US, and escalate racist violence. In Fulton, MO in 1947, Winston Churchill, together with President Harry Truman launched the Cold War. It was not long before there were headlines about Communists being spies for the Soviet Union and then the House Un-American Activities Committee attacking progressives and democrats in Hollywood. As we approached the1948 Presidential  Elections, the Progressive Party was launched with the candidacy of former Vice President Henry Wallace and Senator Glen Taylor(D, Idaho) as its candidates. The Communist Party supported this effort for a peace alternative. But on the eve of the Progressive Party founding Convention, the Truman Administration indicted the National Board of the Communist Party under the long dormant, thought control Smith Act legislation. This
threw a pall over the large progressive community in the country at that time and was one of the reasons for an election vote of 1 million for Wallace, instead of the 10 million once expected. The Smith Act indictment stimulated many additional forms of attack on not only the Communist Party but the entire progressive and much of the democratic community in the country. McCarthyism went into full swing.

The Smith Act indictment against Henry Winston, William Z. Foster, Benjamin J. Davis, Eugene Dennis, Bob Thompson, Gus Hall, Gil Green and the others and then against Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Claudia Jones, Betty Gannett, James Jackson and over another hundred across the country, charged that they had conspired to teach and advocate the violent overthrow of the government. In other words they had no evidence that the Communists had done anything to overthrow the government by force and violence, nor that they had taught that the government should be so overthrown in the future. They were charged with conspiring that they were going to teach that the government should be thus overthrown. The only evidence was distorted interpretations of the classics of Marxism. Winston was one of the defendants who spoke in the court exposing the undemocratic nature of the trial and the whole assault on democratic rights.

It took a few years before court appeals including to the Supreme Court had been exhausted and the defendants were sentenced and ordered to surrender for their jail terms - 5 years for most. It had been agreed that four defendants would not surrender but would go underground and lead the Party from there, which meant complete separation from loved ones. The four were Gus Hall, Bob Thompson, Gil Green and Henry Winston. It was not long before Hall and Thompson were found by the authorities and imprisoned with 2 more years tacked on their sentences. In the case of Gil Green, based on collective decision, he walked in after four years and surrendered. The same took place with Henry Wisdom after 5 years. He then went to Terre Haute Penitentiary in Indiana to serve out a seven year sentence. Well into the sentence, Winston began having severe pain in the head, loss of control over balance and difficulty walking until he finally keeled over. At first the guards and the prison authorities did nothing for him. They treated him in a racist manner, as a malingering African American. When the prison authorities finally paid attention, Winston had lost all of his sight due to the growth of a non-malignant brain tumor. They had transferred him to a prison hospital on Staten Island considered a dungeon by the prisoners. John Abt, the general counsel for the Party, led the fight in courts to get him out of prison and out of the prison hospital without completely fulfilling his sentence. The mass fight domestically and internationally finally succeeded. Internationally his continued imprisonment became an embarrassment. Fidel Castro offered to trade all of the prisoners, from the Bay of Pigs aggression, for Henry Winston. Throughout the Soviet Union there were protest actions and constant news of the struggle. Finally, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy granted executive clemency. Upon his release and return from Soviet medical treatment, which could not reverse the blindness, Winston re-entered political life in the US.
At a press conference in July 1961, Winston said: "Despite my handicap, I intend to resume my part in the fight for an America and a world of peace and security, free of poverty, disease and race discrimination...I return from prison with the unshaken conviction that the people of our great land, Negro and white, need a Communist Party fighting for the  unity of the people for peace, democracy, security and socialism. I take my place in it again with deep pride. They robbed me of my sight but not of my vision." When Winston returned to political work with the leadership of the Communist Party, it had been 16 years since the start of the Smith Act trials in July 1948 And when he returned, the Party was still
under attack, this time under the McCarran Act. Most of the McCarran Act was declared unconstitutional in 1967.

Henry Winston was elected National Chair of the Party, confirmed by the 18th Convention in 1966 and from then until the end of his life shared leading the Party with Gus Hall, its General Secretary. To perform his duties, he had to have help walking around his offices and traveling. To continue his lifetime habit of wide reading, others had to read to him.
With assistance, he was able to write reports, articles, pamphlets and two major books, as well as keep up a substantial correspondence domestically and internationally. First and foremost in all this assistance was his wife, Fern Winston, who at the same time at first worked in a hospital and then worked for the Party as Chair of its Women's Equality
Commission and a member of the National Committee.

Henry Winston played a major role in the Party's work in relation to all the most significant struggles for peace and international solidarity, for jobs, equality and against racism, for democracy, progress and socialism, and for the building of the Party, the League and its press and media. He returned to activity during the last years of the Civil Rights Revolution
of the 60s and to the first serious efforts of an African American to win the Presidency in the candidacy of Jesse Jackson in 1984, which he welcomed. Among the struggles he was most involved in were the fight to get out of Vietnam and for nuclear disarmament. He also headed the effort within the party for the freedom of Angela Davis who the Reagan
Governorship in California was trying to imprison for life or even execute in a frame-up. Every day, the freedom of Angela Davis was the first thing on his agenda, working with Charlene Mitchell who headed the mass defense movement, with the attorneys for Angela Davis - Margaret Burnham and John Abt. The Party as a whole, as a result of Winston's
role was involved in this victorious struggle, which had become a major international effort and cause.
Henry Winston was also very centrally involved in the solidarity effort in the U.S. with the people of South Africa - The Communist Party of South Africa and African National Congress. This included close work with Oliver Tambo, the head of the ANC after Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, Moses Mobida, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa and with leaders of other liberation movements in Africa. At the same time, Henry Winston maintained ties with many prominent figures in the progressive community and in the African American community in particular. At his 70th birthday celebration in a major New York hotel, Ossie Davis was the Master-of-Ceremonies. Pete Seeger performed. Winston kept in touch with sections of the labor movement through such figures as Cleveland Robinson, the African American Secretary Treasurer of District 65, leaders of 1199.

In 1986, Winston returned to a Soviet Hospital with a recurrence of the brain tumor and they were unable to save his life. During this last period of his life, the Soviet Union was undergoing big reforms under the leadership of Gorbachev. According to CPUSA comrades who were in the hospital with Winston, following Soviet developments, Winston
welcomed the reform efforts and was hopeful they would succeed without causing any upheaval, while pointing a new way forward for socialism.

The many comrades who worked with Henry Winston, all marveled at his ability to give leadership on theoretical and political policy questions, as well as to be such a master of organization and getting things done. His absolute commitment to the interests of the working class - Black ,Brown, white, red, yellow - men, women, old , young, etc. to the interests of the African American and all other nationally oppressed peoples as a whole to women and youth - was undeniable. Winston was in no way a sectarian and worked well with all kinds of democratic forces.

Nothing could shake Henry Winston's conviction and confidence and nothing could deter him from doing his utmost to further these causes and the fight for socialism. He was always undaunted by difficulties and setbacks. Yet he was always warm, friendly and human, with a hearty laugh. He was always interested in the lives, successes and hardships of co-workers and friends. If Winston heard of someone he knew in the leadership, or not, anywhere in the country was sick, they would get a phone call from him. Henry Winston was certainly one of the most respected and beloved of anyone who has served in the leadership of the Party. He was always a unifying force, though he always took a principled position on issues. Everyone who knew him realized they knew a very special person - a mentor to us all.
Henry Winston is survived by his daughter Judith, and her children.

Books by Henry Winston

Strategy for a Black Agenda, IP, 1973
Class, Race and Black Liberation, IP, 1977

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