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The Case of Sgt. Alton Levy

(October 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 42, 18 October 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The disclosure of even some of the facts about Alton Levy, former army sergeant who was “broken” by court-martial, demoted and sentenced to four months at hard labor, reveals that this case involves a good deal more than ordinary punishment for a simple infraction of army discipline. It is a case which involves a former trade union organizer who voiced his objections to the Jim Crow treatment accorded to Negroes in the army generally and in his camp in particular.

On August 16, Alton Levy was arrested and sent to the guardhouse. He was later tried by court-martial on three counts, two of which charged him with circulating slanderous remarks about the commanding officer and his wife, and the third with making “false statements ... wilfully and maliciously” about the mistreatment of Negro soldiers at the Army Air Base in Lincoln, Neb., where Levy was a sergeant.

For some time it was very difficult for any of his friends outside the Army to find out what the actual charges were and every attempt to investigate the facts around the case was met with a reply that since Levy was tried under a “special” court-martial, the case could not be appealed to Washington.

The Workers Defense League has taken an interest in the case and through its attorney, Leon M. Depres of Chicago, has been able to gather sufficient facts to point not only to anti-labor and anti-Negro bias in the Army and in this particular court-martial, but an admission by the court-martial that the evidence against Levy was inadequate.

Before he was drafted into the Army in May 1942, Levy was an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. After his preliminary training, he was sent to the Air Corps Administration School and from there he went to the Lincoln, Neb., camp as a sergeant. In writing to his friends, he made mention of the fact that he was displeased with the way the Negroes in his camp were treated. For example, to July he wrote:

“Most of the whites in charge of them (the Negroes) are Southerners. Naturally, as a result, they are treated like dogs. They are kept in camp while others are allowed out. They are hounded and harrassed and yelled at and cursed and insulted and generally treated abominably.”

Inside the camp, he frequently discussed this problem with his fellow officers. Early in August, he was interrogated by army intelligence officers about his objections to the way in which the Negro soldiers were mistreated. Soon after that came the arrest and court-martial.

A very important fact about this court-martial is that only forty-eight hours before the verdict of guilty was pronounced the presiding officer at the trial, speaking for the court, expressed the belief that Levy was innocent. Depres, WDL attorney, wrote in his report on the case:

“On Saturday, August 14, the court reconvened and the president, Major Washington, said that the court believed Levy to be not guilty of the specifications as charged and asked whether he might be found guilty of a different offense. After receiving a negative answer, the court retired again. Everyone present congratulated Levy and he believed himself acquitted. On Monday the court again reconvened over defense counsel’s objection, recalled Miss Armstrong, a civilian, and then found Levy guilty of all specifications. Levy says that Miss Armstrong’s oral testimony on Monday added nothing to her written statement which had previously been Admitted into the record.”

Depres further revealed that two of the three counts against Levy were based on what was common gossip about the commanding officer, that everyone in camp was talking about it, and that, at worst, Levy was also discussing these rumors with friends. The third charge is the really serious one – namely, that he protested the treatment accorded the Negroes in the camp.

From the facts thus far it is fairly clear that Levy was chosen to be court-martialed because of his background as labor organizer and because he was championing Negro rights in the Army. The other charges against him are highly irrelevant.

At the trial itself Levy stated:

“I did say the Negroes were mistreated. I did say only forty were allowed passes each night. I did say that my training group, not the base, had about two hundred Negro soldiers. But here’s the strange thing: Although these are allegedly false statements, at no time did the prosecution attempt to prove or establish that they were false statements.”

In other words, though convicted of making “false statements,” the court did not investigate whether or not these statements were false. Instead, Levy was actually convicted because he dared talk about what; has been such a publicly recognized fact – that Negroes are Jim Crowed and mistreated in the Army.

The Workers Defense League, together with several unions and Negro organizations, is trying to get the case reopened, although the War Department has already sustained Levy’s conviction. It is to the direct interest of the labor movement to support this effort by the WDL.

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