By Ed Stannard
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — As he stands in the crowd at a rally at City Hall, protesting killing and injustice, a dignified gentleman leaning lightly on his cane, Al Marder hardly looks like someone who wants to overthrow the government.
It also might be hard to guess that, on Jan. 18, the lifelong fighter for peace and social equality will turn 98.
The Amistad Memorial in front of City Hall is Marder’s most tangible legacy. It pays tribute to the African captives who, led by Joseph Cinque, revolted on the schooner Amistad in 1839 and were imprisoned in New Haven. But he has worked for peace and racial reconciliation in his native city and worldwide for decades.
Marder doesn’t really want to topple our democracy, although, if he had his wish, he would do away with the profit-making arms industry and what he terms the governmental “killing” machine.
“When we’re talking about a socialist society, we’re removing the very incentive for this kind of policy, we’re removing the profit. It’s that simple,” he said. “Since we idolize private ownership, we advocate it.”
He points out “how profitable it is for those in the military-industrial complex, and then it has its own energy.” The more weapons are produced, the more likely the country is to use them, he said.
Marder was indeed tried in 1954 under the Alien Registration Act, the 1940 law better known as the Smith Act, under which those suspected of advocating violent overthrow of the government — or of being a member of a group that does so — were arrested and tried.
It was the era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who sought to root out what he saw as the evil of communism throughout the government, whether he had evidence or not, and was finally censured by the Senate in the same year Marder was tried and acquitted.
“The only charge, the only discussion during the trial was the books we read,” Marder said last week at his home in Westville. “It didn’t matter what books. All the charges were based upon witnesses that talked about books. … It was a complete violation of our Constitution.”
Marder lived on Davenport Avenue and Shelton Terrace, but spent a lot of time at a grocery store run by his parents, Jewish Ukrainian immigrants, on Oak Street, which was populated by poor and working-class people. The neighborhood west of downtown was torn down in the 1950s as a result of redevelopment.
After the 1929 stock market crash, Marder would watch the unemployed men. “As a kid I would see the streets flooded with these folks, and my father, using the expression of the day, would call them hobos,” Marder said. “My family had lost their home and 17 million people were unemployed (nationally), and I was a kid, and I looked at this and I also saw sheriffs throwing furniture onto the street and evicting people.
“The communists were taking the furniture and bringing it back and so that was the first realization I had when I was a kid that there was a group of people concerned about working-class people.”
As a teenager, Marder passed out union leaflets at Sargent and Co. before the 7 a.m. shift, sneaking out with his parents’ car (though they later told him they knew what he was up to).
At Hillhouse High School, Marder said, “I because associated with other children of left-wing parents” and took up the loyalist cause against the fascist Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. “We organized a peace group in Hillhouse, and I became deeply involved.”
Anti-Semitism was growing in Germany as well as this country, fomented by Father Charles Coughlin’s radio show from Detroit, in which the Catholic priest broadcast fascist and anti-Semitic views.
Marder’s bonds with his African-American neighbors also began at an early age, living for a time in the mixed neighborhood of Newhallville, and it was the communists who modeled equal treatment of every person.
“That too impressed me a great deal,” Marder said. “For the first time I began to realize the commonality of the anti-Semitism of the day and the anti-black (attitudes), and here was a group where nationality and language didn’t matter.”
Marder tried to enlist in the Army but was turned down because of his eyesight. But when World War II broke out, he was drafted and sent to Camp Croft in South Carolina. “My outfit was sent over, but I was retained,” he said. “They would not let me go overseas, even though I volunteered” because of his left-wing politics. He was moved to Georgia, where the first sergeant “said he couldn’t believe it that the U.S. Army would treat a person like that.”
Then he fought with the 17th Infantry Regiment. “One day we were in Germany in the Black Forest and I was going … for a walk and suddenly I saw someone coming towards me in a uniform I didn’t recognize,” he said. The soldier raised his arms and spoke in a language Marder didn’t know. He turned out to be a member of the Hungarian general staff, who surrendered to Marder, earning him a Bronze Star.
The United States and the Soviet Union were part of the Allied forces, fighting from the east and west to defeat Adolf Hitler, but after the war the Red Scare that began with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 returned as hatred of anything communist, viewing the Soviet Union as an aggressor.
From Marder’s point of view, though, it was the United States that started the nuclear arms race as the only country to drop atomic bombs, wiping out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it was America that provoked the Soviets by invading Russia in 1918 to try to overthrow the Bolsheviks.
For the left, “because we became joined in a common struggle against Nazism … people began to look at socialism with new eyes,” Marder said. But as China went communist in 1948 and the Soviets aided other countries — including Cuba, where Fidel Castro led a communist overthrow in 1959 — distrust of the left increased.
“It’s very difficult to explain to people who were not involved in that time and still believe in American democracy to realize what the period was, where neighbor wouldn’t say hello to you because there was intimidation,” Marder said.
After the war, needing a job, Marder, in his 30s, went to Boardman Trade School, one of the three city high schools with Hillhouse and Commercial, to learn to be a printer.
“When the trial took place, the only work I could get was to go into New York … under a different name … and when I was there I tried to unionize the shop I was with and I was fired,” he said. He worked in Stamford, was shop steward, but left because “the atmosphere was so hostile it was impossible.”
From there Marder went to the Westport News before his trial began. “Interestingly enough, these were Republican-owned but very determined that they would abide by my employment,” he said.
Marder is still going strong as he approaches 98: “A few aches and pains, but you know that comes with the age,” he said. And he hasn’t relaxed any of his views. While Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, Marder thinks he’s “very naïve” and said, “I don’t accept his view of what socialism is about.”
Sanders may advocate social programs such as universal health care, but he still accepts a capitalist system that supports 660 billionaires, Marder said. “Socialism is the ownership of the means of production by the people,” he said. He foresees “a national government of working people running it. What’s so unusual about that?”
In a truly socialist system, government money would be spent on people’s needs and not on missiles, nuclear submarines and a military spread around the world. “What kind of society is using 69 percent of the present budget, voted by Republicans and Democrats?” he said. “You and I pay taxes and 69 percent of our dollars goes to killing.”
The 69 percent appears high — the spending bill passed by Congress in December totaled $738 billion for defense, including $40 million for a new “space force,” according to Defense News. And the Congressional Budget Office states that about one-sixth, or less than 17 percent, goes to defense.
But according to the U.S. Peace Council and the website popularresistance.org, when nondiscretionary programs such as Social Security and Medicare are excluded, and military-related programs outside of the Defense Department are included, such as nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy, the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security and cybersecurity, the total is about $989 billion of the $1.4 trillion discretionary budget.
Marder is president of the U.S. Peace Council and served for 12 years as president of the International Association of Peace Messenger Cities — New Haven was named a Peace Messenger City in 1985. “There’s no more important task” than to seek peace in the world, Marder said, “especially in light of what’s happening” between Iran and the United States. He also serves on the city Peace Commission.
Henry Lowendorf, president of the Greater New Haven Peace Council, a chapter of the national council, credits Marder with raising up “the whole issue of anti-slavery and anti-racism at a state level. That has made him well-known, extremely well-known, in the African-American community. … He’s a force of nature. He’s really maintained and created these organizations by the force of his personality.”
Lowendorf, who is former associate director of the Office of Cooperative Research at Yale University, is also a Communist Party member. “I grew up thinking that communists had horns and a tail,” he said. “Most people do not have any direct contact with communists.”
He called Marder “a complicated person. … He’s a very strong personality and he spends a lot of time thinking and analyzing what’s going on, where does this lead.” The U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani had a broader message, according to Marder’s way of thinking, Lowendorf said.
To Marder, Trump’s order was “not aimed at the Iranians. It’s aimed at the whole world,” Lowendorf said.
Joelle Fishman, chairwoman of the Communist Party in Connecticut, said Marder is known as Mr. Peace. “It’s an honor to have the opportunity to work with somebody who is so principled on behalf of the needs of people and on behalf of peace and social justice.” Marder is “not just a talker but a thinker and doer and somebody who draws people in to activity and action.”
“The struggle for justice is the struggle for peace,” Marder believes, and so it made sense in 1987 that the Rev. Edwin Edmonds of Dixwell Avenue Church of Christ and the Rev. Peter Ives of First Church of Christ on the Green asked him to take on a project to mark the 150th anniversary of the Amistad affair.
“I knew the story, but not from school,” he said, even though New Haven played a role in the case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and, according to Marder, galvanized the abolitionist cause. Marder led the committee that organized lectures and concerts. “In the course of that we realized that because the Amistad trials had such an effect on American history that we needed a permanent memorial,” he said. The three-sided piece by sculptor Ed Hamilton stands 14 feet high in front of City Hall, near where the Africans were kept captive.
Fishman said Marder “wanted to make sure that the lessons of black and white unity and standing up for your rights and freedom … were understood. It’s not just a statue, it’s not just a symbol but it’s a call to action.”
Marder’s next project was the Connecticut Freedom Trail, marking sites throughout the state that are important in African American history. Finally, with the support of then-Gov. Lowell Weicker, Mystic Seaport, the New Haven Museum and the United Church of Christ, the Amistad Committee undertook its most ambitious project, the replica of the Amistad itself. Its home port is in New Haven Harbor and it is the official Connecticut flagship.
“In the course of organizing the Amistad Committee and its work I realized there were many, many stories to be told about the role of blacks and whites for freedom. … I believe firmly that the struggle of the African-American people is at the heart of the struggle for democracy in our country,” Marder said.
The Rev. Frederick “Jerry” Streets, pastor of the Dixwell Avenue United Church of Christ and Yale’s chaplain when the Amistad Committee was formed, called Marder “a very committed person with a deep social justice vision. … We need more people like that in the world.”
Now, Marder is involved in another fight, against what he sees as a danger to the nation and the world from what he calls “Trumpism.” His next demonstration is scheduled for Jan. 25 at City Hall. He isn’t slowing down.
“There’s too many things for me to do,” he said. “The computer allows me international contact” and the ability to connect to international meetings. “I’m constantly involved. What the internet has done - there’s no age limit.”
Both here and abroad, his focus is on working people and the poor. “My concern, my deep interest, is how people live,” he said. “Why should 300 million people be roaming the Earth looking for jobs? … This has moved me ever since I was a kid looking at the unemployed walking on Oak Street, because I firmly believe that the working people of our country have the ability to run their lives.
“If we took that money that was profit and orient it to social needs and welfare, the people would profit,” he said. “I don’t see what is morally wrong with saying, let’s take the profit out of life and use it for social good.”
Marder said people ask him why he’s remained in New Haven all these years. “I am very fond of New Haven. I think it’s a wonderful city … and what drives me is actually my feeling for the people,” he said.
He pointed out that a recent Register story said “50 percent of the people in Newhallville, come the end of the month, have difficulty buying food, equally in Fair Haven. I grew up in Newhallville. These are my people. They want the same thing I want. They want security. They want a home.”
New Haven gives Marder something that he can’t find anywhere else. “I’ve always felt I wanted desperately to have a community around me who knows me for what I am and not for what I’ve been accused of,” he said. “For good or for bad, this is where I am.”