One night in 1958, University of Minnesota sociology professor Arnold Rose introduced a lecture on the university campus by Gunnar Myrdal.
Rose and Myrdal had worked together on Myrdal’s 1944 book An American Dilemma, a groundbreaking and encyclopedic tome on the life of black Americans. A decade later, Chief Justice Earl Warren cited Dilemma as a major influence on the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation.
After Myrdal’s talk, a “well-dressed” middle-aged woman stood to ask a question: Why had Myrdal worked on Dilemma with Ralph Bunche, “a well-known Communist”? Her query slandered Bunche, a civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat.
The woman began reading aloud from something in her hand. Rose asked the woman to take her seat. She kept reading. “Please sit down!” Rose shouted, and at last she did.
Rose put this bizarre run-in with the woman out of his mind. The woman didn’t.
Four years later, Rose, then a DFL candidate for a Minneapolis seat in the state House of Representatives, learned an opponent was calling him a Communist. Rose won the seat, and later learned the source of the smear. A series of pamphlets authored by Gerda Koch, proprietor of a conservative Christian bookstore, had called Rose a “collaborator” and “security risk.”
The two had met only once: Koch had ranted about Ralph Bunche, and Rose, in turn, had insisted she sit down.
The Minneapolis Star newspaper wrote about Rose, Koch, and a budding controversy involving other falsely accused professors. Conservatives in the Legislature called for an “investigation.” Among many letters Rose received, one man said Rose had an “awful sneaky look on his face,” which made sense, now that he knew Rose was “playing hand in hand with the Commies.”
Rose sued Koch for libel. The trial played out as a pitch-black farce, a three-week journey into the frightened and frightening mind of the right-wing nut.
As was exposed in court, Koch and her associates saw Arnold Rose as a cog in a grand conspiracy, one that reached into the upper echelons of power. In his opening statement, attorney Jerome Daly said Rose and the “people he is acting in concert with are the actual assassins of John Kennedy.”
As their theory went, Communist sympathizers had infiltrated and controlled nearly every presidential administration since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. The Soviet influence had taken root in nearly every branch of government, they asserted, not to mention the Minnesota Legislature and the University of Minnesota.
Koch and her attorney were obsessed with income taxes, “socialized medicine,” “fair housing,” “metro government,” and the Federal Reserve Bank. The Revolutionary War, her lawyer asserted, was caused by “London bankers” who had King George III “under their thumb.” Objections abounded.
On the stand, Rose’s attorney brought out his client’s background: recipient of the Bronze Star Medal in World War II; Fulbright professor in Europe; trained sociologist; author of 150 papers and a half-dozen books; a member of the DFL Party, though he’d voted “a couple of times for Republicans.”
The cross-examination offered insight into the defense’s dark motivations. “And what religion do you belong to?” Daly asked. “I’m a Jew,” Rose answered. Nine of the next 10 questions were about Rose’s religion. Judaism was a frequent theme for Daly, who referenced Shakespeare’s Shylock character, a money-lending Jewish caricature, throughout the trial.
In his book about the trial, Libel and Academic Freedom, Rose wrote that he came to realize Koch’s defense was actually “a kind of prosecution”—of Rose, but also of every American institution to the left of the John Birch Society. To Congressman Don Fraser, a character witness for Rose, Daly asked: “What do you know about the invisible government of the United States?”
Lt. Gov. Sandy Keith took the stand and called Rose a “man of reason and persuasion.” In response, Daly read out the federal law against “subversive activities” in its entirety, and asked Keith what groups he belonged to. “[Keith] pulled them out of his wallet,” Rose wrote, “one after the other.”
The absurdity hit new depths during Daly’s closing statement, which included references to Socrates, Jesus, and J. Edgar Hoover. At one point, Daly quoted Rose as saying, “I am a socialist.” Rose’s lawyer cut him off: “Counsel, it says, ‘I am a sociologist.’”
It took the jury a few hours to find that Koch’s pamphlets had, indeed, libeled Rose, whom they awarded a $20,000 judgment. In a letter to the Minnesota Daily student newspaper, Koch wrote she had not “lost face in the eyes of God,” and said she was praying for Arnold Rose. Koch appealed, and ultimately the state Supreme Court overturned the verdict on a technicality about jury instructions.
Writing about the ordeal was, tragically, Rose’s last great work as a sociologist. He’d fought cancer for much of the 1960s, and after reading the galley copies of the book, he died on January 2, 1968.
During the trial, Rose sensed “an air of tragedy” about his accuser, Gerda Koch, this scared woman with her great stack of books and pamphlets the judge would not allow introduced into evidence. Though he suspected her attacks against Rose—an intellectual, an integrationist, a Jew who once told her to shut up—were personal, the academic had come to view his opponent as “quite important.”
Daniel Slater, a conservative legislator, testified that Koch had “served a real purpose in alerting the American public” to unseen dangers around them. (The lone holdout on the jury said only that he was “concerned about Communism in this country.”)
Like all effective fascists before and since, Gerda Koch and her supporters cloaked racism and illiberalism in matters of national security, economics, Godliness, and patriotism, floating the argument on great rivers of fear and pride. Too often, they get their way.
If facts and cool rationality are to win the day, we’ll need more soldiers in the fight like Arnold Rose.
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