Purging the shelves of communism

Busting the Progressive Book Store, and the beginning of the Oklahoma Book Trials, 1941

Mike Selby

On the morning of May 30, 1941, attorney George Croom was pulled over by an Oklahoma State Trooper. Having just come from the home of an African American client, the trooper wanted to know what Croom was doing “talking to that negro.”

After identifying himself as the man’s lawyer, Croom was arrested, and driven to the county jail in Oklahoma City. Besides not being told why he was under arrest, Croom was also denied visitors or phone calls. After 27 hours he was briefly interviewed by state officials, and released.

None of this, Croom knew, had anything at all to do with the client he had visited. That was just subterfuge. All of it stemmed from the fact that Croom was the defence attorney in the Oklahoma Book Trials — a crucial yet mostly unknown episode in American history.

The Book Trials story begins almost a year before Croom’s arrest, in the early afternoon of July 24, 1940. In the southern part of Oklahoma City, a man named John Webb entered the Progressive Book Store — a small independent bookshop catering mostly to blue-collar workers. Webb saw a handful of people scanning the shelves, a husband and wife reading a newspaper, a high school student using a typewriter, and a carpenter attempting to fix a broken countertop. Webb purchased two newspapers and three books, for the grand sum of fifty-five cents.

Webb didn’t read any of his purchases but turned them over to the Intelligence Division of the Oklahoma City Police Department. There a task force was having search warrants drawn up for a massive raid being planned. The Progressive Book Store was suspected of being run by an underground sect of communists — one planning the violent overthrow of the United States. The purchases by Webb (undercover detective Webb) confirmed the task force’s suspicions. He had bought two copies of ‘The Daily Worker,’ as well as ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ ‘State & Revolution,’ and Stalin’s ‘Foundations of Leninism.’

Three weeks later the police raided the book store, various private homes, and the headquarters of Oklahoma’s Communist Party. Dozens of people were arrested and the book store’s inventory was seized.

After reviewing the evidence, the state attorney ended up only charging four people. Bob and Ina Wood, the young couple who owned the bookstore, were the first to be charged. Next was Eli Jaffe and Alan Shaw. Although they had no direct connection to the bookstore, these two were not only friends of the Woods but card-carrying members of the Communist Party.

The charges? Someone somewhere had dusted off an old state law known as ‘criminal syndicalism’ — an antiquated statute making it illegal “to do acts of physical violence to effect industrial and political change.” Much like their lawyer would be a year later, these four defendants were held incommunicado, and given ridiculous high bails.

While the defendants were being denied their basic civil rights, the police let a reporter photograph the evidence. With no proper evidence room at the time, all the books seized during the raids were stacked together in an empty jail cell. The photo conveyed the image that it was the book themselves that were locked up and awaiting trial. Which, in a way, is exactly what happened.

But that comes later.  First comes one of the most complex and bizarre trials of the 20th century.

Next week!

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library