The flyer promised “Peace, Love, Unity, Respect.” It was an advertisement for the South River Music Festival, a two-day concert in March of 2023 featuring an eclectic lineup at a singular venue—the wooded site south of Atlanta where police hope to build a controversial new training facility. But on the event’s second day, across the mile-wide forest, an estimated three hundred protesters, many with their heads wrapped in balaclavas, wearing camouflage and carrying makeshift shields, staged a raid on a construction area. “We are unstoppable!” they shouted. “Another world is possible!” The protesters shot fireworks and lobbed rocks and Molotov cocktails at law enforcement officers, who quickly fell back. Then they began destroying construction equipment: as a burning wheel loader sent a plume of dark smoke skyward, an office trailer, a pair of UTVs, some floodlights, and a row of portable toilets were ruthlessly demolished.
It was, in the words of one admitted participant, an “act of mass collective sabotage.” Had the authorities simply arrested and charged the responsible parties under applicable statutes, no one would have batted an eye. Instead, the events of March 5, 2023 became the centerpiece of a vast, scattershot racketeering case designed to smear the entire anti-Cop City movement. The hundred-plus-page indictment charging sixty-one activists under Georgia’s RICO statute—filed by state attorney general Chris Carr, a Republican planning a 2026 run for governor—begins by providing helpful descriptions of mutual aid, collectivism, and other cornerstones of leftist community organizing. Ignore some odd phrasing (“Violence is part of the anarchism in some anarchist beliefs”), and these thumbnail definitions aren’t all bad. Few would take issue, for instance, with the assertion that the concept of social solidarity “relies heavily on the idea of human altruism.” The problem is the implication that such actions are somehow malevolent. The indictment finds evidence of criminal intent in the use of encrypted messaging apps and memorization of contact information for the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. It puts a nefarious gloss on daring to speak with journalists, noting that members of the group held “media-attended press conferences to control the story and promote their own narrative.” Five defendants stand accused of domestic terrorism—a crime that once applied to attempted mass murder but was expanded in 2017 to include property destruction. Others merely published blog posts, exchanged money later used to purchase camping gear and other innocuous items, took and published photos of police, or “attempted to occupy” the forest. One defendant, said to have “joined an organized mob,” was acting as a legal observer. Each of the 225 individual infractions is described as an “overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Although the Cop City plan didn’t become public until 2021, the alleged conspiracy is said to have begun on May 25, 2020, with the murder of George Floyd—a ham-fisted attempt to recast the entire Black Lives Matter movement as part of a criminal scheme.
Observers have characterized the indictment as an unprecedented display of prosecutorial excess. But for scholars and activists familiar with the malign legal history of Fulton County, Georgia, where the charges were brought, the strategy had a familiar ring. As legal critic Eugene Angelo Braxton Herndon put it way back in 1937, “One flattering thing may be said about courts, particularly about Southern courts: they are never at a loss to find a law with which to bait [their] working-class victims.” Best known as Angelo Herndon, the man knew whereof he spoke. Having grown up in poverty, he’d watched his father die from miner’s pneumonia. Eventually, seeking to relieve his mother’s burdens, he left home and began working miles underground as a coal loader while still an adolescent. Radicalized by the mistreatment he experienced at the hands of his bosses—inhumane conditions, plundered wages—the slender, bespectacled young man became a devoted Communist organizer in his teens. His 1933 prosecution for the capital crime of insurrection made national headlines (“Georgia Imprisons Negro Red Under a ‘Carpetbagger’ Law,” the New York Times noted on its front page) and reached the U.S. Supreme Court before being all but erased from public memory thanks to the assiduous efforts of the FBI, the Communist Party, and our own historical amnesia.
I came across Herndon’s autobiography, Let Me Live, in 2020, a bewildering period characterized by echoes of the “Red thirties” during which Herndon’s story had begun. Energized by revulsion at the Trump administration’s policies, battered by societal ruptures like the Great Recession and the coronavirus, the American left appeared to be in the midst of a precarious ascendancy. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had arrived in Congress as a would-be avatar of Occupy Wall Street; Bernie Sanders had come within striking distance of the Democratic presidential nomination; Blacks and whites marched through the streets of American cities, demanding an end to unchecked police violence. After decades of decline, the labor movement seemed to be stirring to life. Inevitably, a reactionary backlash ensued, along with the usual fissures on the left.
Faced with populist rage-bait on one side and Democratic fecklessness on the other, I made researching Herndon’s story a pandemic pastime. I wanted to understand how we’d forgotten this indomitable rabble-rouser, a child of poverty who’d emerged from the coal mines of Kentucky and Alabama to challenge the white supremacist thugocracy of the deep South. A kid, really, who’d planted himself at the intersection of the Black liberation struggle and the labor movement, insisting at every turn that if these two powerful currents were to truly join forces, they could transform the national character.
A Tragic Lot
In the pre-dawn hours of June 30, 1932, Angelo Herndon, just nineteen but already an experienced organizer, led a handful of comrades on a clandestine undertaking, distributing thousands of leaflets among Atlanta’s poor. Decrying the dire consequences of the economic crisis then gripping the nation—later to be known as the Great Depression—the leaflets denounced the willful ignorance of local officials to the community’s pain. Not long before, these officials had stripped financial assistance from thousands of struggling families in order to fill a budget shortfall. When County Commissioner Walter Hendrix declared that he certainly hadn’t laid eyes on any starving families, Herndon took the remark as a challenge. “Let’s all of us, white and Negroes together, with our womenfolk and children, go to his office in the county courthouse on Thursday . . . at 10 o’clock and show this faker that there is plenty of suffering in the city of Atlanta and demand that he give us immediate relief!” his leaflet urged.
At the appointed hour, as many as one thousand citizens arrived at the scene. “What a tragic lot of men and women these were!” Herndon wrote in his autobiography. “Listless, emaciated, with dragging feet and hollow eyes from which the light had been extinguished.” The city, abashed, found six thousand dollars in its budget to distribute to the needy. The demonstration had been peaceful, the protesters’ demands reasonable, but the uncanny sight of whites and Blacks standing shoulder to shoulder had rattled Atlanta’s establishment. Police staked out the P.O. box listed on the leaflet for more than a week; when Herndon turned up to collect the mail, they arrested him. The police logbook read simply “communist.”
Herndon sat in Fulton County Jail for eleven days without charge. Prosecutor John H. Hudson had a problem: his prisoner’s actions were explicitly protected by the First Amendment. Jim Crow and a systematic program of lynching and intimidation prevented most Blacks from daring to exercise those liberties as boldly as Herndon had, but he appeared to be within his legal rights. Of course, Hudson’s goal—like Attorney General Carr’s—went beyond prosecuting one man. “The real aim,” as Herndon’s attorney Benjamin Davis Jr put it, “was to intimidate the people in the growing unemployed movement, to beat down their struggle against starvation and, above all, to stop what might one day drive the Southern plantation owners and lynch officials from power—the union of Negro and white.”
Again, the parallels with the Cop City prosecution are stark. By framing an array of innocuous acts as elements of a criminal conspiracy, the RICO indictment similarly sets out to crush a flourishing multiracial peoples’ crusade. Hudson, lacking a statute like those on the books in California, Ohio, and other states outlawing “criminal syndicalism” (largely adopted to thwart the organizing efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World), turned to an 1861 law against “attempted insurrection,” enacted in the wake of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. After the Civil War, the law was broadened to encompass “any attempt, by persuasion or otherwise, to induce others to join in any combined resistance to the lawful authority of the State.” The penalty was death.
The evidence against Herndon was slim, consisting of his role in the Communist Party, along with written materials found in his home (local membership lists, minutes of various meetings, and a selection of Marxist literature). International Labor Defense, a Communist-dominated group that was already busy defending the Scottsboro Boys, leapt to Herndon’s aid. Rather than refute the charges purely on their lack of merit, the ILD sought to turn the case into a national referendum on racial inequality. Even the group’s choice of defense counsel—two young Black attorneys, Benjamin Davis Jr. and John Geer, who’d never tried a case—seemed designed to challenge the established hierarchies of the Jim Crow South. “I made it clear that I was no genius at the law,” Davis later wrote, “[and] that I had virtually no experience.”
Jim Crow and a systematic program of lynching and intimidation prevented most Blacks from daring to exercise those liberties as boldly as Herndon had, but he appeared to be within his legal rights.
Davis would learn quickly, contending not only with the legal questions presented by the case but the ostentatiously racist atmosphere in which the proceedings were conducted (to say nothing of multiple attempts at intimidation, courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan). For instance, although the defense ably demonstrated that Blacks were systematically excluded from the jury pool, Judge Lee B. Wyatt simply ruled otherwise. Prosecution witnesses referred to Herndon as “this darkey” and repeatedly employed the n-word. While questioning one defense witness about the Communist platform of racial equality, Hudson slyly introduced the South’s most lurid preoccupation, demanding, “You understand that to mean the right of a colored boy to marry your daughter?” Davis objected but was promptly overruled. Although the prosecution presented no evidence that the organizer had ever advocated violence, Hudson found in Herndon’s trove of reading material one booklet sure to inflame the jury. Entitled “The Communist Position on the Negro Question,” it called for the creation of a Black homeland in the so-called Black Belt, where African Americans constituted a majority—territory that included, most notably, two-thirds of Georgia. Carr pulled the same trick, seeking to yoke every defendant to the most bellicose of anarchist writings and anonymous blog posts. Arguably, Hudson had the better case. Angelo Herndon was a paid organizer for the Communist Party, after all, and as such, he was obliged to toe the official line. One can hardly say the same of the largely anarchist-oriented forest defenders, a diffuse, nonhierarchical group with no official membership, much less a culture of party discipline.
Convinced that they were fighting a losing battle, Herndon’s defense team threw caution to the wind: Davis delivered a closing argument so defiant that several jurors turned their backs to him. In addition to remarking that Hudson “knows as much about Communism as a pig knows about a full-dress suit,” Davis offered up a full-throated defense of self-determination for the Black Belt—never mind that Herndon hadn’t even advocated the idea. (A Comintern invention, the scheme had never won Black support.) Herndon wrote approvingly that Davis “spoke with the dignity of a man belonging to a despised race and who has the courage to assert his manhood in the face of his people’s oppressors.” Invited to address the jury himself, Herndon delivered a twenty-minute stem-winder that sought “to awaken the class consciousness of the jurors,” as legal scholar Kendall Thomas put it. Utterly convinced of the virtues of Communism, Herndon seems to have believed that, given the proper information, anyone could be made to see the light. Walter LeCraw, Hudson’s assistant prosecutor, demonstrated otherwise in a ruthless closing argument better attuned to the jury’s sensibilities. “Are we going to permit these godless red Communists, masked behind the face of this black negra boy to tell us how to run our states, our courts, our lives?” he asked, according to Davis. “Was there ever a more sinister challenge to law and order, to Christianity, to the benevolent rule of the white man?”
The jury took two hours to deliver its guilty verdict, sparing Herndon the electric chair, and sentencing him instead to eighteen to twenty years on the chain gang. This was hardly mercy, however, as anyone who’d read Robert Elliott Burns’s recently published bestselling prison memoir, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, well knew. Just before sentencing, Herndon was asked if there was anything further he wanted to say. There was: “You may succeed in killing one, two, or even a score of working-class organizers,” he declared, according to the account in Let Me Live. “But you cannot kill the working class.” Even in shackles, the implacable organizer was still organizing.
The conviction turned Herndon into a cause célèbre. As with the Scottsboro Boys, the Communist Party seized the opportunity to champion the Black liberation struggle. Whether the party’s devotion to racial equality was sincere or merely part of a grand strategy to undermine its great capitalist rival remains a subject of debate among historians. (Those eager to highlight the CPUSA’s cynical use of racial politics cite a story about the ILD’s executive secretary Anna Damon, who on meeting Herndon supposedly remarked, “It’s a pity he isn’t blacker.”) As the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Herndon spent eighteen months in the Fulton Tower Prison before the authorities—perhaps shamed by the party’s aggressive media campaign—decided to grant him bail. The figure, however, was laughable: Herndon was given just twenty-three days to raise $15,000, or $330,000 in today’s money.
Then, as now, the authorities habitually claimed that militant organizers were being bankrolled by shadowy foreign interests. In Herndon’s case, they warned darkly of “Moscow gold.” In fact, the ILD was strapped for cash. An urgent fundraising appeal went out, and donations began trickling in from around the country, much of it collected by church groups, union locals, and workers councils. With just a day to spare, an ILD lawyer rushed to Atlanta with the needed funds. “Gee, air smells good,” Herndon remarked as he stepped through the jailhouse doors. When he finally arrived at New York’s Penn Station on August 7, 1934, a throng of six thousand supporters was there to greet him.
Herndon sat in Fulton County Jail for eleven days without charge.
After a few days’ rest, Herndon got back to work. He traveled the country on a national speaking tour—often appearing with mothers of the Scottsboro defendants, and accompanied by a life-size replica of a torture cage used on the chain gang—to raise money for the ILD. While party newspapers and Herndon himself depicted the barnstorming tour as a triumph, Herndon’s letters to ILD leadership tell a different story. Events were poorly organized; transporting the cage from town to town proved difficult; and contributions were sparse. As one supporter, G.B. Foster of Dallas, Texas, put it, “Times are too hard here for folks to be parting with their money.” A simultaneous petition drive was more successful.
On May 20, 1935, the Supreme Court declined by a vote of 6-3 to hear Herndon’s appeal, basing its judgment on a narrow technicality. The deferral obliged Herndon to return to the Fulton Tower Prison, a terrifying proposition. “If that Nigra is what they say he is and is stirring up general hell, preachin’ equality, he will stay in jail until his black hide rots,” Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge fulminated, adding, according to journalist Joseph North, that if there were indeed other Communists in the area, “[he] would give every Caucasian a shotgun and tell him to use it as conscience dictates.”
Meanwhile, the legal maneuvering continued, and the ground began shifting in Herndon’s favor. The defense had been taken over by a seasoned (white) fixture of the bar, Whitney North Seymour, who filed a new appeal and promptly won Herndon’s rerelease. In a major policy shift, the Communist Party abandoned its longstanding hostility toward other left-leaning groups, seeking instead to build a “popular front” against fascism. One result of this pivot was a considerable broadening of public support for Herndon’s acquittal. Finally, the Supreme Court was under pressure. Following a number of decisions striking down key elements of the New Deal, President Roosevelt proposed to add justices to the court—one for every jurist who declined to retire at age seventy. The plan became public just three days before the court finally heard Herndon’s appeal.
On April 26, 1937, in a decision known as Herndon v. Lowry, the court ruled 5-4 that the Georgia insurrection statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment. As Charles Martin explains in his 1976 history, The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice, the majority identified a legal absurdity in the fact that while “the Georgia legislature had not prohibited membership in the Communist party”—indeed, William Z. Foster was then running for president on the Communist ticket—it nonetheless made “recruitment of members a capital offense.” Herndon’s five-year ordeal was finally over. And perhaps, more importantly, at a time when, as Martin put it, “jittery state legislators and frightened local authorities frequently used repression when faced with unpopular attitudes or radical politics,” political leaders were placed on notice that certain heavy-handed legal tactics would no longer pass muster.
Following his acquittal, the man the FBI considered “one of the ace pamphleteers on the Negro question” assumed a somewhat quieter role in the party. He promoted his autobiography, which was published by Random House shortly before the Supreme Court decision. Reviewing Let Me Live for the Atlantic Monthly, Dorothy Parker called it “a record of fierce importance,” but couldn’t resist a characteristically backhanded compliment: “The innocence of [Herndon’s] hard-labored phrases, like a good boy writing home, attains a most competent result of tearing out the heart.”
By framing an array of innocuous acts as elements of a criminal conspiracy, the RICO indictment similarly sets out to crush a flourishing multiracial peoples’ crusade.
Herndon was subsequently elected national vice president of the Young Communist League and was named to the party’s Central Committee; he made an unsuccessful run for New York State Assembly on the Communist ticket, and in 1938 married Joyce Chellis, a stenographer whom he never convinced to join the party. In 1942, Herndon and Ralph Ellison launched a short-lived journal, Negro Quarterly: A Review of Negro Life and Culture. Although Herndon never achieved the literary prominence of other Black writers of the era (chalk it up to those “hard-labored phrases”), according to literary scholar Frederick T. Griffiths, his influence on Ellison and Richard Wright, who both “met Herndon in New York at the zenith of his fame and watched it vanish,” was unmistakable. Ellison seems to have found in Herndon’s renown and later disappearance from the political scene a prototype for his “invisible man.” Per Griffiths, “Herndon was the activist whose eclipse left room” for these writers to apply elements of his dramatic life story to their own creative ends.
Like many Black intellectuals who’d been attracted to Communism in the 1930s, Herndon eventually became disenchanted due to a series of shifts in Comintern policy. Although Communists initially opposed American involvement in World War II, Germany’s violation of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact in 1941 forced an immediate reversal. Before long, the party was aggressively pushing Roosevelt to open a so-called “second front.” Though Herndon spoke in support of the idea, he was dismayed by the party’s sudden and conspicuous disinterest in racial equality. According to his newly released FBI file, which I obtained through an open records request, Herndon came to believe “that the Communists here are neglecting the cause of the American Negro in line with their current policy of subordinating everything to . . . relieving the Soviet Army.” As Herndon saw it, party support for American involvement in the war should have included a demand to desegregate the armed forces. His older brother Milton had died fighting in the Spanish Civil War in an integrated battalion, and Angelo naturally felt that if the country expected Blacks to risk their lives on the battlefields of Europe, they should be allowed to serve on an equal basis with whites.
The issue soon became even more personal. In August of 1943, an article appeared in the New York World-Telegram accusing Herndon, “a dyed-in-the-wool Communist and vigorous second-front advocate,” of seeking a draft deferment “so he can do his fighting by remote control.” The article added that the city’s director of the Selective Service himself had personally intervened to insist that Herndon’s draft status be changed. Herndon fired back in the Daily Worker, affirming his willingness to defend the country but suggesting he could better serve the nation as editor of the Negro Quarterly. “The draft board will make the final decision in this matter and not the newspapers,” he insisted. In a subsequent interview, he again defended the value of his work as an editor, “especially after what happened in Harlem a week ago.” The reference was to a deadly two-day riot—an event that inspired the climax of Invisible Man—sparked by the shooting by police of a Black military veteran.
Herndon ultimately submitted to a physical and was rejected by the Army. But he apparently remained preoccupied by the source of his draft troubles. According to an FBI informant, “HERNDON believed that because of his disagreement with the [Communist Party] on policy, CP through its efforts had caused his draft status to be changed, which made HERNDON bitter towards CP.” The showdown soon came to a head: the party withdrew its financial support from the Negro Quarterly. When the party’s New York state committee issued a statement disassociating itself from any involvement with the journal or “the actions of Angelo Herndon in this or any other connection,” it no doubt added to the sting of betrayal that one of the signatories was Herndon’s former attorney Benjamin Davis Jr. Despite the dry, bureaucratic language of the FBI reports, it’s not hard to imagine the anguish Herndon experienced during this period—rebuffed by one local party committee after another, surveilled by FBI informants, sneered at by red-baiting reporters. Then again, he’d experienced worse. Somehow his spirits remained high. He soon turned up in northern California, looking to start an independent newspaper, the People’s Advocate, dedicated to making “San Francisco the model city of liberty, justice and equality for all without regard to race, creed or color.”
Before long, Herndon, the former Marxist hero, was officially expelled from the Communist Party. A March 1944 internal party memo put the matter bluntly: “His position damages the cause of national unity and the war effort, and is detrimental to the interests of the Negro people themselves.” As Herndon’s West Coast donors learned of his expulsion, funding for the People’s Advocate dried up, and he was forced to suspend publication just a few issues in. In a 1970 oral history, labor leader Ernest Calloway recalled running into Herndon at a party in Chicago around this time. “The problem that he had, every town he would go into he would be hounded by the party,” Calloway said. “It was very difficult for him to find work. So he indicated to me that he was getting on incognito and that he was trying to keep the party from knowing where he was . . . he couldn’t make a living.”
This encounter helps explain a puzzling anomaly in Herndon’s biography. In 1954, Jet magazine ran a short news item headlined “Swindle Suspect Identified as Ex-Red Angelo Herndon.” Apparently, one “Gene Braxton,” then dabbling in real estate and running a novelty shop on State Street in Chicago, had accepted deposits from five prospective buyers of an apartment building. One victim, an unemployed auto worker and father of four, had scraped together his $5,000 down payment from insurance after losing an eye in a workplace accident. “Several of his victims stated that they were taken in by his apparent intellect, particularly his ability to quote freely from Aristotle,” the article noted.
The incongruousness of this incident is glaring. Herndon was not only one of the working class’s most unwavering champions but a former fixture of the Harlem intelligentsia whose debut had been praised by one of the nation’s sharpest critics. When I first stumbled on this news report, I thought it might be a case of mistaken identity, though the accompanying mug shot of the former organizer—his face slightly filled out but debonair as ever—indicated otherwise. Meanwhile, nothing in the file suggested a Bureau frame-up. By the mid-1950s, even the FBI understood that Herndon posed no threat to national security. If Herndon did perpetrate this artless hustle against members of the proletariat he’d once fought so hard to defend, it is perhaps indicative of the desperation to which he’d been driven, the Bureau and the party having found some common ground in their determination to neutralize a man both considered a threat.
Herndon was far from the only “Black red,” as they were often called, to wind up feeling betrayed by the party’s vacillations on the subject of African American liberation. But unlike most of his literary contemporaries, Herndon never publicly repudiated Communism. According to journalist Frank Marshall Davis, even in a period of desperation, Herndon “had turned down an opportunity to ‘tell all’ to the Hearst press for substantial financial gain.” Despite his excommunication, he steadfastly refused to inform on his former comrades. Subpoenaed to testify in a deportation case brought against Communist organizer Claudia Jones, he refused to cooperate. “I have never in the past and cannot now allow myself to be used as a robot, a cog in the machine that will grind people to death,” he explained. “As a symptom of man’s struggle for freedom sixteen years ago in Georgia, the highest point in my life, I cannot and will not permit this moment to become the lowest and most tragic point of my life.”
For years, Herndon essentially remained underground. But two decades after his expulsion, he rejoined the party. It was a remarkable, if dubious, display of commitment; leaving aside the personal betrayals, the Communist Party was hardly the force in 1967 that it had been in the early 1930s. Even the emerging New Left kept its distance from the shrinking cadre of graying dead-enders. But for Herndon, whose exposure to Marxist ideas as a teenager had amounted to a kind of spiritual epiphany, Communism remained a philosophical program that transcended the shifting of political winds: “Rational and scientific in its base, ethical in its motives,” he wrote, “it was the only philosophy of living worthy of a thinking civilized man.”
To the extent that Angelo Herndon is remembered at all, it is most often for his determination to use the legal system to dismantle an insidious tool of state-sponsored repression. But in times of political upheaval, such tools are never too hard to come by. In 1949, Benjamin Davis Jr, by then a New York City councilman, was charged along with eleven other Communist leaders under a 1940 statute known as the Smith Act, which made it unlawful for any person to circulate literature advocating the government’s overthrow or “to be or become a member of, or affiliate with,” any group advocating such a position. “History repeats itself,” Davis observed in his memoir, composed in a Federal Penitentiary in Terra Haute, Indiana, noting that the Smith Act was, along with the Georgia Insurrection Law, an attempt to circumvent a handful of rights that had been, however inconveniently, enshrined in the First Amendment. Nonetheless, in 1951, the Supreme Court sided with the prosecution. “There is hope,” Justice Hugo Black noted in his dissent, “that, in calmer times, when present pressures, passions and fears subside, this or some later Court will restore the First Amendment liberties to the high preferred place where they belong in a free society.” A few years later, following the turnover of four Supreme Court seats, another decision rendered the Smith Act largely unenforceable.
Unfortunately, what Justice Black termed “calmer times” are fleeting. If law enforcement authorities have learned anything in the nine decades since Herndon’s arrest, a devotion to civil liberties isn’t it. Rather, they have mastered new techniques of repression—couched, as ever, in the arid language of criminal law. John H. Hudson could only dream of a statutory blunt instrument with the power of Georgia’s RICO statute.
Rather than refute the charges purely on their lack of merit, the International Labor Defense sought to turn the case into a national referendum on racial inequality.
When the federal RICO bill was being drafted in the late 1960s as a tool to take down organized crime groups—linking mafia dons, for instance, to the offenses of their underlings—lawmakers understood the potential for its abuse, insisting on careful wording designed to prevent an overzealous prosecutor from using the law to quell political dissent. The overly broad language that defined racketeering as “any act involving danger of violence to life, limb or property” was replaced with a narrow list of specific infractions: murder, prostitution, gambling, extortion, and other mob mainstays. “Because of the changes I made,” G. Robert Blakey, the lawyer who’d drafted the original law, testified at a 2000 House Judiciary Committee hearing, lawmakers were confident “RICO posed no danger to demonstrations.” Otherwise, he added, it “would never have seen the light of day.” Unfortunately, Georgia’s RICO law goes significantly further than the federal version, as President Donald Trump recently discovered when he was indicted under the same statute.
If history is any guide, the dire constitutional implications of the Cop City indictment may one day lead to an acquittal. But in the meantime, lives will be upended, legal expenses will grow. And perhaps more important to Attorney General Carr, the governor Brian Kemp, and their counterparts around the country who are already reaching for every tool they can find to thwart pro-Palestine and climate activism, its fierce, chilling effect may well keep some of us on the political sidelines, furious though we are about the myriad failures of our government.
This is where Angelo Herndon’s life holds lessons for us today. In 1942, the Treasury Department published They Were Giants in the Land, a collection of twenty-eight biographical essays of historical figures “as seen by Twenty-eight Contemporary Americans.” There, alongside Alexander Woollcott on Julia Ward Howe and Carl Sandburg on Abraham Lincoln, one finds Angelo Herndon recalling the life of Frederick Douglass. In words that apply equally well to his own story more than eighty years later, he deems it tragic that the great abolitionist “becomes meaningful to most Americans at a time when the new slavery, which is fascism, strives to engulf the democratic world.”
On the other hand, he adds, “it is fortunate . . . that his vision applies with such startling clarity to the major problems of our time.”