Cafe owner's 1930s case led to historic high court battle

The case of "an accordion-playing cafe owner in Hot Springs" in the 1930s whose pending deportation for suspected Communist ties would ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court "resonated importantly in a critical period in American history" and still has connections to immigration issues today, a history professor says.

"The past always informs the present," Michael B. Dougan, professor of history at Arkansas State University, said Thursday during a presentation at the Arkansas Bar Association's annual meeting at the Hot Springs Convention Center.

"How is it so often that events of some historical magnitude turn on people of relatively little importance?" he said, referring to Joseph George Strecker, a coal miner from Austria who immigrated to the United States in 1912 and settled in Hot Springs in 1919, opening the Family Circle Cafe at 225 Broadway Ave., later moving to 308 Malvern Ave.

Dougan said Strecker would later be described as "a small bourgeoisie, a merchant with little capital, some canniness, a fair amount of human kindness, some bad habits and apparently no quarrel with the government of the United States."

He noted Strecker was a womanizer despite still having a wife and son whom he supported financially even though they opted to stay in Europe, settling in Poland. When the United States entered World War I, Strecker registered for the draft, telling officials he "had family on the other side," but was never called up.

During the 1932 election, Strecker attended "a political meeting held in a Negro church on Grand Avenue," Dougan said, noting Strecker was quoted as saying, "'I didn't think it would be a communist meeting because it was held in a church and communists don't believe in church.'"

At the meeting were William Z. Foster, the communist candidate for president, and his vice-presidential running mate, James W. Ford, "the first African-American nominated for high office," Dougan said.

When later asked by immigration officials what Ford and Foster discussed, Strecker reportedly said, "They advocated the organization of the communist party so everyone could have bread and butter. They were against the bosses who get all the gravy and we don't get any."

Dougan said Strecker gave the party 60 cents and was given a membership card and some literature, but "he never renewed this and never thought of the significance." A year later, Strecker "decided to become a citizen," and began the citizenship process but because he had once belonged to the Communist party his application was refused and a warrant for his arrest was issued on Nov. 25, 1933. He was arrested in 1934.

Strecker hired Hot Springs attorney Felix L. Smith to represent him with the first hearings held in his office. During the proceedings that followed, some Hot Springs police officers claimed Strecker "assaulted them with a kitchen knife," Dougan said, but this allegation was discredited by several witnesses.

A deportation order was issued on Aug. 14, 1934. Dougan noted Strecker hired an attorney to appeal the order, but the attorney "drank up his expense money" and never filed it.

At that point, Strecker's case was taken by Hot Springs attorney Calvin Alpheus Stanfield, whom Dougan described as "the Clarence Darrow of Arkansas." He said a Time magazine article said of Stanfield that "his lucrative practice in Arkansas' easy divorce courts enabled him to take radical cases for fun."

Stanfield petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, which eventually went to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, in 1939, where the presiding judge was Joseph Chappell Hutcheson Jr. Dougan noted Hutcheson was "more than a judge, he was a legal theorist, writing books, giving speeches" and a part of the "legal realism" movement.

Stanfield argued the raid on Strecker's home constituted a denial of due process and illegal search and seizure, the evidence of his "intent with the Communist party" in 1934 should be excluded since he abandoned his membership two years earlier and the presence of Hot Springs police at the hearings constituted a denial of a fair and impartial hearing "because the petitioner was frightened and intimidated," Dougan said.

He also argued the deportation warrant which would send Strecker back to Poland was void because Strecker was a citizen of Austria and never resided in Poland. "There was no law authorizing his deportation to Poland," Dougan said.

Hutcheson "found nothing unfair about the hearings as deportation hearings go," Dougan said, but "felt they failed to prove (Strecker) was in any way a part of some Communist conspiracy. The literature he did possess said nothing about violence."

Dougan said Red Scare laws were rampant at the end of World War I, noting, "Much of that was an attack on anarchists. The laws were somewhat sweeping and somewhat vague." He said Hutcheson "observed the cause of liberalism is more retarded than advanced by forays for deportations on evidence like this."

Hutcheson further found it was "a kind of Pecksniffian righteousness, savoring strongly of hypocrisy and party bigotry" to claim that Strecker was a danger to the country, Dougan said, and dismissed the deportation order.

The government appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and Stanfield was soon joined by Whitney North Seymour, a leading civil rights lawyer and former assistant solicitor general, and Carol Weiss King, a leading immigration lawyer.

Dougan said Strecker had become "a mere cipher in a much larger issue," or "a test case radical," as Time magazine called him. "Lurking in the foreground was conservative opposition to (President Franklin Roosevelt's) New Deal. Conservatives felt (Roosevelt) had betrayed his class and sought to overthrow the New Deal," he said.

Strecker's case attracted the attention of U.S. Rep. Martin Dies Jr., of Texas, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but Dougan stressed Strecker "was utterly unimportant" and the true target was International Longshoremen's Association head Harry Bridges against whom deportation proceedings were also pending.

Dougan said Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, "a known liberal," was not going to move on Bridges' case until the Strecker case was resolved, which would eventually prompt a movement to have her impeached.

The government's attorney, Robert Jackson, argued that "aliens in America were not entitled to rights," Dougan said, quoting him as saying, "'We don't have to confer on guests all the privileges of the household.'"

On April 17, 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Strecker's favor with only two conservative judges dissenting, finding the laws lacked "a clear and definite expression." Despite Strecker's victory, "the atmosphere remained toxic," Dougan said, and the Republicans issued a long statement "castigating FDR."

He said conservatives wrote "new stricter laws" in June 1940 and January 1941 and Strecker again faced charges, but it was determined he could not be deported to Poland because it had been overrun by the Nazis at that point.

Dougan said Strecker registered for the draft when World War II broke out and again was not called up. "He pretty much disappeared from public view and from Hot Springs after 1946," he said.

He said "a family cafe owner became the center of a controversy that exposes the degree to which the opposition to FDR and the fear of another world war reached a level of irrationality," noting his only crime was trying to become a U.S. citizen.

"There is a remarkable connection between the events of the 1930s and the events of this century," he said. "It is so often the case that history repeats itself. The programs are the same, but the characters take on new uniforms and new names. New issues may be invented, but irrationality and the driving force of these movements in American life have flourished over and over again."

He said the most critical decision in the case came not from the U.S. Supreme Court, but from Hutcheson. "He believed in the idea of progress. He believed you had to connect with the real world and looked to make these laws more humane."

Local on 06/18/2017

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