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Revisiting the Red Scare

A recent lawsuit and an upcoming documentary examine Communist allegations made against hundreds of teachers in the 1950s.The lawsuit was filed against the City of New York by Lisa Harbatkin whose parents were school teachers. Harbatkin wants 150,000 documents related to 1,500 teachers who were investigated for Communist ties reopened, according to The New York Times.

The 1952 Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which investigated Communist influence in schools, accused two-thirds of New York City teachers of being “card-carrying Communists.” Similar interrogations took place in Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

One accused teacher, Irving Adler, age 96, former math department chair of Manhattan’s Straubenmuller Textile High School and executive member of the Teachers Union, was subpoenaed by the subcommittee but refused to answer questions. Invoking the Fifth Amendment cost Adler his job, although he later admitted being a member of the Communist Party. "I was teaching a class when the principal sent up a letter he had just received from the superintendent announcing my suspension, as of the close of day," he recalled.

Clarence Taylor, a professor of history at Baruch College who has written about the tensions that arose in the Teachers Union over party affiliation, notes the distinction between ideology and teaching ability. “None of those teachers were ever found negligent in the classroom,” said Taylor. “They [the United States government] went after them for affiliation with the Communist Party.”

Photographs of some of the accused teachers and a copy of Margaret Harbatkin’s interrogation papers can be found in The New York Times’ photo slide show.

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