It is impossible to read this book without a sense of sadness. It is the story of a man who paid a high price for his convictions though wrongly accused, the wife who stood by him to the detriment of her own potential and her motherhood, and his daughter, who grew up aware that her father was different but not understanding totally that his difference was something to be proud of.
Junius Scales was the only American ever to be imprisoned simply for being a member of the Communist Party. But when he was caught and brought to "justice" he had already withdrawn, if not formally resigned from, that Party, disillusioned as many were by the revelations about Stalin's excesses. His wife, Gladys, was forced to live in the shadow of his political activities, always a fugitive, often by command of the Party or because of ceaseless pursuit by the FBI unable to see her husband for long periods of time. His only child, Barbara, grew up able to see her father and interact as a full family only rarely and was enjoined to say nothing about her father's imprisonment so as to avoid the disapproval of her schoolmates and neighbors.
Documentary filmmaker Mickey Friedman has brought to life the saga of the "red" family and their hounded existence by means of interviews he recorded in the 1970s, interviews that show the three participants in a small-scale human way that makes their story all the more poignant.
Junius Scales was heir to the best that the South had to offer, raised on a huge family estate in North Carolina that had earlier been a slave-holding plantation. Some of the older family servants had been slaves, and through their eyes Junius got a glimpse of the true meaning of inequity and racism. By the time he started college, he was committed to the cause of equal treatment for all people and gravitated to the union movement then burgeoning in central North Carolina. He lived among the poorest workers and toiled alongside them in textile mills, idealistically sharing their suffering while organizing for the labor union. He took special interest in advancing the cause of African American workers.
He met his future wife in this hothouse atmosphere of social change. She was a Jewish intellectual from New York, and the two were an attractive couple of firebrands. Junius soon made a name for himself in the union movement and in the American Communist Party, which he joined in a fever of zeal for changing conditions for the working class. His daughter grew up hearing the rhetoric of revolution all around her, living a strangely limited life as the child of a man who was gone more than he was home, a father who was imprisoned after a lengthy show trial.
Refusing to snitch on others in the testy atmosphere of the McCarthy hearings, Scales was never convicted of anything more dangerous than being a member of the Party. His harsh sentence was commuted by Robert Kennedy after much hard work behind the scenes on the part of Gladys and others. He was able to obtain a low-level job as a printer after his release and support his family modestly, hiding from attention for many years in order to protect them and others.
A play about Scales, The Limits of Dissent by Lou Lipsitz, his own autobiography,
Cause at Heart, and a simple plaque in front of a wood-frame mill house in Carrboro, North Carolina, where the young family spent the early years of their shared joys and travails – these are the tangible legacies of Junius Scales, his wife and his daughter. Friedman's book is now part of the testament to the life of man who simply wanted to better the lives of his fellows regardless of their race or social status. As many have commented, what happened to Junius Scales should never have happened in America. But it did.