Archie Brown


Image of Archie Brown. Image is for aesthetic purposes only.


Archie Brown


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Moving Image


Manny Harriman




Archie Brown was born on March 5, 1911 in Sioux City, Iowa to Nathan and Sarah Brown, Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States in the early years of the 20th century. In America, the family name of Breen was changed to Brown, and Nathan, a peddler by trade in Russia, struggled to support his wife and eight children as a teamster in Sioux City, delivering bread and meat to Jewish households throughout the region. In search of greater economic opportunity, Nathan relocated to Oakland, California, and soon after, 13-year-old Archie hopped a freight train to join his father and older brother in gainful employment. There he hawked newspapers and was initiated into labor activism while participating in a newsboys' strike in 1928. Members of the Trade Union Education League (TUEL), the labor-organizing wing of the Communist Party, helped the newsboys advance their cause, and fostered Brown's political education. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL) the following year and soon was taking part in efforts to organize agricultural workers, many of them migrant Mexicans and Dust-Bowl refugees. Brown's talents as a persuasive and indefatigable organizer came to the fore early on. A frequent orator at rallies and meetings, Brown was arrested at a YCL event in San Pedro in 1934 and charged with disturbing the peace; he received a three-month sentence. Following his release, he joined the International Longshoremen's Association, a forerunner to the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), and became a moving force in organizing waterfront workers in the San Francisco Bay area. It was during this time that Brown met Esther ("Hon") Matlin at a YCL dance. By 1936 the couple were married. Theirs was an enduring union that produced four children and lasted over 50 years.

With the overthrow of the popularly elected government in Spain by fascist forces in 1936, the Communist Party began recruiting volunteers to join the International Brigades' defense of the beleaguered nation. Brown's younger brother Frank ("Bimbo") was among the initial recruits from ILWU, Local 10 to enter the fray early in 1937. Archie, by now an important Party leader and well-known labor radical in the San Francisco area, was denied a passport by the local passport agency (his claims of wanting to pursue studies in France were met with incredulity). Undeterred, he traveled to New York City and in May 1938, after three months of unsuccessful efforts to obtain a passport, stowed away on a ship bound for France, to make his way to Spain. He arrived in time to serve with the Lincoln Brigade as company commissar in the Ebro Offensive and in the final bloody retreats of the war. Following the withdrawal of the International Brigades from Spain, Brown sailed from France to New York (this time as a third-class passenger) on the S.S. Ausonia in December 1938.

Back in San Francisco, Brown returned to the waterfront and the Communist Party. In 1940, Brown ran for the Congress in the 4th District on the CP ticket. Although never elected, he was for many years a perennial candidate for a variety of offices on the Party line. During World War II, Brown enlisted in the U.S. Army, trained at Fort Hood, Texas and, in February 1945, shipped out to Europe where he participated in the Battle of the Bulge with the 76th Infantry Division. He remained overseas until early 1946, serving with the occupation forces in Europe. Upon his return he was named state trade-union director for the Communist Party. Cold War politics made the labor movement and the militant left targets of mounting hostility and judicial assault. Brown was directed by the CP to go into hiding, and for four years he led a shadow existence shuttling between safe houses and permitted only rare visits with his family. He emerged again in 1955, resumed work as a longshoreman and, although he resigned from his full-time position as a Communist Party organizer, remained a staunch adherent to the movement.

During the final years of the 1950s, Brown continued his union activities and served as an Executive Board member of the ILWU, Local 10. In 1960 Brown was subpoenaed and appeared as a hostile witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee at hearings held in San Francisco's City Hall. As Brown delivered a defiant statement, protesters against the proceedings poured into the hearing room. Pandemonium erupted and the Committee had Brown forcibly ejected. Three days of demonstrations ensued, led to scores of arrests, and earned Brown national notoriety for his role in the protests. By the following year, Brown was again drawing fire. This time he was arrested and charged with violation of a provision of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act which barred Communists from serving as union officers. In 1963 he was convicted. Following a Federal Court of Appeals decision in Brown's favor, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the legislation in 1965.




Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archive




ALBA V 48-023
Box 1


The Manny Harriman Papers (ALBA 048) contain project files related to these oral histories, including completed personal history questionnaires for many of the veterans interviewed.

Bibliographic Citation

Published citations should take the following form:

Identification of item, date; Manny Harriman Video Oral History Collection; ALBA VIDEO 048; box number; folder number;
Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

Item sets