The Socialist Workers Party Trial - 1941
The word “socialism” crops up frequently in political speech these days, usually used to describe opponents who are about as socialist as Warren Buffet. But the Socialist Party was actually once a real political force in the United States, particularly so in Minneapolis. Socialist candidates routinely ran for and were elected to city offices, including mayor (Thomas Van Lear, 1917-19).
One flavor of socialism was the Socialist Workers Party, formed in 1937 by Trotskyists who left the mainstream Socialist Party. The SWP further splintered in 1940 and was mainly centered in Minneapolis under the leadership of James P. Cannon. The SWP was a small organization with only a couple thousand members, but did have control over Teamsters Local 544.
In response to fears of labor disruption in the defense industry, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (the so-called “Smith Act”) which, among other things, criminalized advocating the overthrow of the government. Under the Smith Act, FBI agents raided the SWP’s headquarters at 919 Marquette on June 27, 1941. A grand jury later indicted 29 individuals, all members of the SWP and/or Teamsters 544.
The trial began in October and ran for several weeks. After long deliberation, the jury found 18 defendants guilty. After several appeals, the 18 began serving 12 and 16 month sentences in Sandstone prison in 1943. Despite this, the “threat” of the SWP was largely dismissed as a “nestful of mice.” The Attorney General who prosecuted the case later expressed regret of having done so, and the Smith Act was ultimately found to be unconstitutional. The SWP continued to operate and exists to this day, but what influence it had in Minneapolis largely vanished after the trial.
The Minneapolis Collection at the Hennepin County Library’s Special Collections Dept. hold dozens of contemporary clippings, publications and original photographs of the trial and the defendants.