Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
Irving Adler died September 22, 2012 at 99.
Math teacher, mathematician, children’s and adult book author, fighter for civil liberties, Adler was among the first teachers called in for questioning by Saul Moskoff, in January 1952. He was suspended later that year, and forced out in 1954. Adler was the lead plaintiff in the first case to challenge the Feinberg Law. The teachers won in New York’s Supreme Court, but lost in the higher state courts, and in the United States Supreme Court. Following the Court reversal of that decision in 1967, Adler was among the teachers who sued for reinstatement and restoration of salary and/or pension rights. They won.
Adler’s scientific journal papers on Fibonacci numbers helped revive interest in studying the arrangement of plant spirals in Fibonacci sequences. Some of my own clearest memories of the time are of my parents and their friends, and many others in the Teachers Union, expressing their admiration for Adler and the books he was writing and publishing, even as the investigations revved up and more teachers were dismissed.
The video clips page at www.dreamersandfighters.com has two clips of Adler (as well as clips of other teachers), and you can read him in his own words at http://www.dreamersandfighters.com/adler/inter_adler.aspx.
Kolya the engineer used the old carrot trick to befriend a cranky cow so Tootka the Little Russian Train could get its young passengers to a picnic. After getting the kids there and home again, Tootka made it to a July 21, 1953 House Committee on Un-American Activities hearing, in a list of exhibits as one of the “Recent Publications for Young People.” Published by the Amerloan Society for Russian Relief, Inc. in 1945, it was described as “An amusing tale about an engine on one of the children’s railroads of the Soviet Union.”
I still have my childhood copy of the book. I also have Wee Fishie Wun, which was another favorite. My copy still has most of the tiny plastic beads that give texture to some of the pictures of the fish swimming “deep in the depths of the blue China sea.” Two is a Team, Be My Friend, and other early childhood books also reflected my parents’ political views. Which, like those of so many of the other teachers caught up in the Board of Education investigations, were more like frustrated New Deal Democrats (and democrats) than those of the dangerous subversives the red hunters saw.
For that matter, as I outgrew Tootka, I grew into all sorts of books my parents likely never thought their kids would get into. And none of those books upset them. Given Tootka et.al., I remember thinking as I sped through Albert Payson Terhune’s Lad, A Dog books whether my parents knew how racist they were. And, as I later learned, yes, they did know, and they trusted me to make my own judgments.
Tootka the Little Russian Train, by the way, has made it to the Internet, with copies quoted as high as $89. So have several of my other childhood books. Things change. My own political views have shifted over the years. But my Tootka’s not for sale.
George Lent, director of the Board of Education’s Bureau of Public Information wrote to Saul Moskoff on October 5, 1955.
Judith Crist (HERALD TRIBUNE) called to ask for an A.M. release on Feinberg Law data when it is ready for this year. She alleges we’ve been giving WORLD-TELEGRAM-SUN the breaks in the past.” *
Even without pixels, newspapers in 1950s New York operated in an overheated competitive environment that likely matched today’s 24/7 media. Television’s arrival added to their unintended non-profit pictures. The teacher investigations provided high-interest grist for their mills. Or fodder for their hungry editors. Or just plain meat for making the headlines scream louder.
The New York Times as well as the tabloids reported, often daily, on the Board of Education’s efforts to get “red” teachers out of the city’s classrooms. “Commies” and “pinkos” made regular appearances in news articles. Giant red (what else?) headlines in Hearst’s New York Journal-American added breathless urgency to the ongoing coverage. In addition to the four papers already noted, the other mainstream dailies during most of the ‘50s were the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
Editorially, the major papers ranged from the Times, which tried to maintain a civil liberties stance, to the Journal-American, some of whose reporters doubled as informants. A number of local community/neighborhood-based papers were largely against the teachers being investigated, and The Tablet, the publication of the Brooklyn diocese of the Roman Catholic church, played a major role in revving up the anti-communist hysteria.
The Feinberg Law reports Crist and other reporters wanted summed up the number of teachers called in each year for sessions with Saul Moskoff, along with the numbers dismissed. . Under the law they were submitted to the state education commissioner. The numbers were going down in 1955 (74 teachers were called in) after high points in 1953 (151) and 1954 (106), but the media’s appetite wasn’t letting up.
As the pixels and overburdened electrons do today, the papers covered the broader school and educational issues. Released time from the public schools for religious education and a much-argued over proposed “values” curriculum were major issues in the context of the red scare. Curriculum decisions, and poverty and its related problems as they affected the schools came in for some attention as well. But somehow, and again as covered today, the angry headlines targeted the teachers.
* Accessed at the Municipal Archives
NPR ran a report this morning on “Strange Fruit” and how Abel Meeropol came to write it after seeing a newspaper picture of a lynching.
For more information, the Children of the Blacklist tab at www.dreamersandfighters.com has an essay by Robert Meeropol.