In some ways, the life of centenarian Al Marder reads like a serial thriller with plenty of comedy and tragedy, defeats and victories.
As a teenager, he would sneak out of his parents’ house in a working-class New Haven, Connecticut neighborhood early in the morning to meet his good friend Sid Taylor, push the family car down the road before starting it so as not to wake his parents. They would hand out flyers and day laborers to workers arriving and leaving the gates of the Sargent and Co. factory, after which they would backtrack and Al would sneak back into the house. Years later, her mother revealed that her parents were in fact aware of her whereabouts.
What is remarkable about Al Marder is not so much that he just celebrated his 100th birthday in January, but that he constantly raises the urgency to oppose war and injustice, an urgency which has not diminished in the almost 50 years that I have known him. What is remarkable is that it combines its in-depth historical analysis of current events with demands for action to address them. What is remarkable is that he does not hesitate to press his comrades from top to bottom to act for peace and racial justice, to achieve unity with the great popular movements.
Al Marder entered the fight for justice and peace at the age of fourteen, at the height of the Great Depression. He saw families being evicted, including his own, and Communists removing their furniture. He was not alone. The nation was crying out for peace. Workers were fighting for their rights and putting unionization first.
Peace, he said, was a central demand of the Communist Party in the 1930s.
He became an organizer and then at the age of 16 headed the League of Young Communists. Al began to link the anti-Semitism his family, Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, experienced with widespread anti-black racism. He discovered that the Communists modeled equal treatment for all.
At the New Haven Peoples Center, Al found his middle ground. This community center had been purchased by socialist-oriented immigrant Jewish merchants for their own families and the community at large. There Al helped form the first integrated theater group, the Unity Players, which, among other things, performed Plant in the sun in a tournament at Yale Drama School, which they won, and in union halls in Connecticut.
Through the Peoples Center, Al also led the young communist baseball team, the Redwings, New Haven’s first integrated team, organized campaigns to integrate the city’s bus drivers’ union and, with other young communists, hosted a college night for workers across New Haven. Teachers College. Eventually, Al would become the president of the nonprofit that runs the Peoples Center.
Al tells a chilling story that as an American soldier in World War II, he was alone on a reconnaissance mission in Austria when he heard the rumble of tanks and trucks he thought were German. He dived into a ditch along the road to hide, afraid of being captured. The convoy stopped in front of him, engines running, but the soldiers who got out of the vehicles and spotted him did not speak German. To his surprise, they spoke Russian. Al may have been the first GI to experience being warmly welcomed by his Soviet counterparts coming from the east to liberate Austria.
On other occasions, in the European theater, Al demanded that black soldiers be allowed to sit with their white counterparts in movie theaters.
As German towns were liberated by Allied troops, Al was tasked with seeking out non-Nazis to rule those towns. He did and to his surprise found anti-Nazis living among the population, often Communists who had survived the war.
After World War II ended, Al returned to labor organizing in Connecticut and studied at the University of Connecticut, organizing his comrades along the way. He hoped that the creation of the UN would bring peace and an end to colonialism.
But after the war, the United States turned its big guns on its former ally the Soviet Union and, with McCarthyism, attacked progressive movements at home.
In 1954, one of eight accused in Connecticut’s Smith Act witch hunt for harboring communist thoughts, Al had to leave his family and go into hiding. Eventually caught, he was tried and acquitted, but not without serious consequences for many lives.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Al became a leader in the peace movement as Chairman of the United States Peace Council and Vice Chairman of the World Peace Council, positions he still actively holds.
A principal organizer of the anti-apartheid struggle in Connecticut, Marder helped found and lead the New Haven City Peace Commission in 1988 and continues today as an active member. Among other things, the Commission organized annual peace marches among the city’s high school students, planted trees each year, and placed plaques in public parks and on the grounds of schools and libraries on the occasion of international peace building, and has created a UN-recognized peace garden.
The Peace Commission presented resolutions to the New Haven City Council, the Board of Alders, calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons and the transfer of war spending money to human needs. On three occasions, the resolutions became ballot initiatives that won overwhelming approval from city voters.
As a result of these activities, New Haven was invited to join the UN-sponsored International Association of Messenger Cities of Peace, of which Al Marder served as president for 12 years, the only non-mayor to hold that position. .
Prompted in 1987 by African-American school board chairman, minister, and friend Reverend Edwin Edmonds, Al founded the Connecticut Amistad Committee, Inc. in the spirit of the original Amistad Committee of 1839, the first integrated abolitionist organization.
Under Al’s tutelage, the Contemporary Committee raised the story of the Mende people captured by Spain who rioted on the ship taking them into slavery and ended up in New Haven. Their fight for freedom, a victory marked by a Supreme Court decision, was a boost for the abolitionist movement. Thanks to Al’s concerted efforts, a statue of Singbe Pieh, leader of the revolt, stands proudly in front of New Haven City Hall.
The 1997 Steven Spielberg movie Amistad dramatizes these events, while a replica of the ship Amistad sailed around the world.
Last October, the Connecticut Amistad Committee hosted a gala dinner celebrating Al Marder’s legacy with friends and accolades from around the world.
With his incredible memory, wry sense of humor and easy laughter, Al is an excellent storyteller, attentive to detail and learning basic lessons.
The CPUSA celebrates 100 years of Al Marder, all he has achieved and what is yet to come.
A number of biographical stories with more information about Al Marder appear here:
“Interview with Al Marder”, Marxism-Leninism today.
“Al Marder of New Haven, nearly 98, still fights for peace and justice” New Haven Registry.
“Happy 100th Birthday, Al Marder”, Greater New Haven Arts Council.
“Al Marder: A Life of Conviction,” Connecticut Explored.
“Lutar contra o imperialism por dentro do imperio”, Revista principles.
Images: Anti-war demonstration, photo courtesy of the author; Al in high school; with friends at the New Haven Peace Commission Windmill Facility, photo courtesy of the author; Al in front of Amistad statue, City of New Haven Peace Commission (Facebook).