Joseph Raymond McCarthy (November 14, 1908 – May 2, 1957) was an American politician who served as a Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. He was most notable for making claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the federal government and elsewhere. With Republicans taking control of the Senate in 1953, McCarthy became Chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Subcommittee on Investigations. In this capacity, he held hearings (later known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings because of McCarthy’s investigation of the Army Signal Corps), during which he called 395 witnesses to testify against themselves and others.
African-Americans who vocalized objections to the treatment of blacks in America were considered suspect by McCarthy (and by the FBI). Two of the witnesses called to appear before McCarthy were black: the political activist Eslanda Robeson, wife of Paul Robeson, and the poet Langston Hughes. (At the time of the hearings, there were few blacks in influential positions.)
On March 24, 1953, Langston Hughes testified before the Subcommittee. He was permitted to read a statement to defend himself from charges of Soviet sympathies. He began by stating “I was born a Negro.” He went on to delineate just what that meant in American society at that time. He could not attend the nearby school, the movie theater wouldn’t admit him, white boys stoned him, and his father left the country because this country would not admit him to the bar. At his high school, primarily attended by very poor immigrants, follow students began to tell him about Eugene Debs, a well-known socialist in the early 1900’s. Hughes stated:
“I became interested in whatever I could read that Debs had written or spoken about. I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican party for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely really emotional and born out of my own need to find some kind of way of thinking about this whole problem of myself, segregated, poor, colored, and how I can adjust to this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I can not even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or in the South go the library and get a book out.”
He went on in this vein for a little longer, but by then, the Senators realized they were better off without tackling Hughes. The Subcommittee dismissed him.
Throughout the early 1950s, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist infiltration of the U. S. government. In August, 1954, a Senate committee was formed to investigate censuring McCarthy. In December, the Senate voted 67-22 to condemn McCarthy, calling his behavior as a committee chairman “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” and “vulgar and insulting.” Though he remained in the Senate, McCarthy thereafter was largely ignored by the Congress, the White House, and most of the media.
The term “McCarthyism,” coined in 1950 in reference to McCarthy’s practices, was soon applied to similar anti-communist pursuits. Today the term is used more generally to refer to public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.
The McCarthy Committee might have saved themselves some embarrassment by reading the poetry of Langston Hughes before calling upon him to testify.
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
Langston Hughes, Democracy, 1949