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Some years back the North Coast Journal published an excellent article the history of active communists in Humboldt County. But in skimming through the recently released book The Agitator by Peter Duffy, my mother learned of an aspect of the story they missed. As a teenager I watched Seeing Red, which I consider to be the best documentary about the American Communist Party I’ve seen, and one of the most dynamic of those interviewed was the larger than life Bill Bailey – big tall longshoreman who joined the CP at an early age while working as a Longshoreman.  He was part of the storming of the Nazi ship Bremen when it visited the NYC harbor in 1935 cutting the swastika banner from the post and tossing it into the Hudson River.  He went to Spain to fight with what would eventually be referred to as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.  Later during the McCarthy era he stood up to his public interrogators.  He suffered what a number of communists suffered in the 1950s – harassed by the FBI while simultaneously losing faith in the Party for which he had fought. The book only dedicates two paragraphs to the 2 or 3 years he spent in Eureka in the mid-1950s.

Bailey’s circumstances were such that he felt he had to flee San Francisco.  He ran into an old friend who held a senior position with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which under the leadership of the dauntless Harry Bridges, had been steadfast in its defiance of McCarthyism.  The friend suggested that Bailey travel up to the sleepy lumber port of Eureka, where he might find work loading and unloading ships with the ILWU Local 14.  Armed with an introduction letter, Bailey slipped out of the Bay Area, dropping a few hints to friends that he was thinking of traveling to New York to visit a sick relative.  During his exile in Northern California, Bailey found a new life as a longshoreman.  He eventually assumed a leadership role in the local and spearheaded a campaign to institute needed reforms.  He urged the adoption of a nondiscrimination policy that led to the local’s first African American member.  Such was the nature of the radicalism of this enemy of the American republic. 

After years of frustrations with half-witted directives, inexplicable policy shifts, and arbitrary internal punishments, Bailey finally quit the Communist Party.  “I would not fold while the Party was under attack,” he wrote.  But by 1956, with the Red Scare subsiding, he felt he wouldn’t be lending aid and comfort to the witch-hunters.  He was appalled by the Soviet Union’s violent suppression of the Hungarian Uprising, seeing himself not in the armored units of the superpower, but in the students marching in the streets.  He understood now that Joseph Stalin was a murderous thug who had killed millions of his own people.  “He was nothing but a paranoid sick S.O.B. in many cases,” Bailey said.  “And these people who were purged came from the background of fighting for the great ideals of socialism.  They went through all the aches and pains and the terror to create this society only to be taken out later as dogs and shot?”  A few days after he informed the Party leadership of his decision, he heard a knock at the door.  His girlfriend answered to find two special agents of the FBI, who had come to offer congratulations and proposed a meeting.  Bailey slammed the door in their faces.

Reforming the local 14 probably wasn’t the best way to keep a low profile, but obviously the FBI had infiltrated the Party and they knew where he was even if his family hadn’t.  According to the book he returned to San Francisco shortly after the visit to his Humboldt County home.

I wonder if there is any way to track the history locally.  In the acknowledgements, The Agitator references several sources for these paragraphs, including Bailey’s autobiography The Kid from Hoboken.

He died in the mid-1990s.  Throughout the 80s and 90s I would see him at Lincoln Brigade reunions and all the Bay Area political rallies – he was really tall and impossible to miss.  He was a DSA member, wrote, acted, and conducted tours of the SF waterfront to discuss the radical history of the City.

You can watch him and others in Seeing Red in 10 minute parts on Youtube.  I strongly recommend it.  Should be mandatory American high school watching.

The photo at the top is from an interview for The Good Fight, a documentary about the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.