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Workers' Defense League Records

Identifier: LR000408
Important subjects: Academic Freedom Army Jim Crowism Attorney General's List J. R. Butler Civil Liberties Civil Rights David Clendenin Committee to Defend Civil Rights in Tampa Committee to Defend Franco's Labor Victims Committee of Inquiry into Forced Labor (UN) Conscientious Objection Conscription Tee Davis Case Deportations Discrimination Farm Workers Farm Unions FEPC Ferrero-Sallitto Defense Committee Carl Gilmore Case Groveland (Fla.) Cases Francis Heisler Albert Herling Immigration Clarence Jackson Case Joint Apprenticeship Program Ku Klux Klan Leaflet Distribution Fights Alton Levy Case Longshoremen's Jobs Defense Committee Loyalty and Security Frank McCallister Morris Milgram H. L. Mitchell Migrant Workers National Agricultural Workers Union National Farm Labor Union Peonage in America Police Brutality Poll Tax Race Hate as a Weapon Against Unionism Vera Rony Security (government) Sharecroppers Southern Tenant Farmers Union Strikes Terre Haute Defense Committee Norman Thomas Union Democracy Odell Waller Case Rowland Watts

The extensive correspondence in this collection includes many well-known and unknown people not included in the following list, or in the abbreviated correspondence index which is at the end of the guide. A cardfile has been made of nearly all correspondents, as well as sub- jects of the collection, which will be made available to researchers on request.

The correspondence index at the end of the guide directs researchers to the folders where letters may be found, excepting letters in the closed case files. This index includes correspondents of five or more letters.

The following is a listing of correspondents represented by at least ten letters; starred names are more frequent, and double-starred names are very frequent correspondents.

Arnold Aronson Bishop Henry G. Babcock Roger Baldwin ** Katrina McCormick Barnes John Beffel Fay Bennett * Warren K. Billings John Boer * Marilyn Brook John Russell Butler ** James B. Carey Paul Christopher J.E. Clayton David Clendenin ** George S. Counts * Frank R. Crosswaith James T. Farrell John Finerty ** Harry Fleischman ** Mary Fox Mary E. Gallagher * Aron Gilmartin ** Frank P. Graham William Green Donald Harrington ** Michael Harrington * Francis Heisler ** Albert K. Herling ** Rachelle Horowitz ** Laurence Hosie Howard Kester * Harry Laidler * Layle Lane * Frieda Langer Lazarus Alfred Baker Lewis ** Frank McCallister ** Bishop Francis J. McConnell Benjamin McLaurin * Albon Man Thurgood Marshall Morris Milgram ** James W. Miller Nathaniel Minkoff * H. L. Mitchell ** Von D. Mizell Felix Morrow * Pauli Murray ** A. J. Muste * Rev. James Myers * Robin Myers Richard Niebuhr Joe Pierpont * Moss A. Plunkett Carl Rachlin * A. Philip Randolph ** Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Carl Raushenbush * Winifred Raushenbush Victor Reuther Walter Reuther Laurence Rogin Samuel Romer * Vera Rony ** Alfred Russell Bayard Rustin ** Bert Seidman ** Clarence Senior * Brendan Sexton * Boris Shishkin Evelyn Smith Lillian E. Smith Herbert Solow John Somers * Gene Sutherland Norman Thomas ** Rowland Watts Walter White * Roy Wilkins * Pearl Willen Harriet Young *
Series Description: Series I-Administrative Files, Boxes 1-40 I. Subseries A. Boards and Committees, Boxes 1-11 These boxes contain the minutes, agenda, reports, corres- pondence and other papers of the National Executive and Administrative Committees and Boards, and other committees of the organization. Over the years since 1936 the responsibilities of the various groups shifted from time to time, and names of the groups changed.

I. Subseries B. Financial Records, Boxes 12-14 Financial reports, audits, etc., are from 1936 to 1971.

I. Subseries C. Fund Appeals, Boxes 15-19 The apparata of various appeals to membership, the public, and foundations, for financial support for the organizations work, including correspondence, lists, responses, reports and fund-raising entertainment efforts.

I. Subseries D. Correspondence Files, Boxes 20-40 General Correspondence, 1936-1971, is filed in several ways: a general file by year; alphabetically by person and occasionally group; regional correspondence, 1939-1946, from the years when the WDL had regional branches and districts; and branch correspondence, filed by state, which includes city branches, (found filed by appropriate state.) In addition to the box listings, the correspondence index should be checked. This index will be found at the back of the guide.

Series II-General File, Boxes 41 to 120 This file touches many subjects in varying years between 1935 and 1972, containing correspondence, memos, sometimes leaflets, clippings and other incidental material. Because of the size and extent of this file, the subjects are not each repeated in the index, so researchers looking for particular material should check both guide and index.

Series III-Special Projects, Campaigns and Committees, Boxes 121 to 146 Over the years the WDL took up a number of causes and projects. Some of them are put together in this series:

III. Subseries A. Commission of Inquiry Into Forced Labor Boxes 121 to 128 Correspondence, reports, minutes, evidence, maps, manuscripts and other materials on the study of several aspects of forced labor, including slavery, peonage, compulsory work in prisons, concentration camps, conscientious objector camps, mental hospitals, and the like, but mostly on slavery and peonage.

III. Subseries B. Norman Thomas and the Leaflet Campaign in Hague's New Jersey, 1937-40, Boxes 129-131 Statements, depositions, addresses, correspondence and other material on Thomas' and others' arrests for handing out leaflets in New Jersey, then under the rule of Frank Hague.

III. Subseries C. The Terre Haute Defense Committee, 1935-1936, Box 132 Papers of this committee, as well as the Labor and Socialist Defense committee and the Chicago Labor Committee for Terre Haute Relief, concerning aid to arrested and imprisoned organizers, workers, speakers and strikers, include correspondence, legal documents, leaflets, affidavits, etc.

III. Subseries D. Campaign for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, Mostly 1945-1946, Boxes 133 to 135 Correspondence, studies, reports, leaflets, conference proceedings, and the like.

III. Subseries E. Longshoremen's Jobs Defense Committee, WDL, 1964-1971, Boxes 136-138 Correspondence and legal papers on several different court actions on longshoremen union democracy cases, including a suit against WDL brought by Harry Bridges.

III. Subseries F. White Paper for Labor, 1958-1962, Boxes 139-141 The White Paper for Labor, 1958-1962, was a study by the WDL on the NLRB, and also on the rise of race hate as a weapon to fight unionism. Materials include proposals, research notes, correspondence, evidential materials and exhibits, drafts and reports.

III. Subseries G. Committee for the Defense of Civil Rights in Tampa (Florida), 1935-1939, Boxes 142 to 145 Correspondence, press releases, reports, legal documents, clippings, minutes, and appeals regarding the investiga- tions into police, Ku Klux Klan and court actions taken in Tampa regarding the murder in 1935 of Joseph Shoemaker, and the terroizing of labor organizers.

III. Subseries H. Committee to Defend Franco's Labor Victims, 1950-1953, and Ferrero-Sallitto Defense Conference, 1935-1938, Box 146. Material comprises papers of these two committees concerned with labor people in Fascist Spain.

Series IV-Workers Defense League Joint Apprenticeship Program, 1962-1971, 3oxes 147 to 153. An effort to secure entrance into building trades unions for minorities, especially blacks, who have, historically, found it difficult to pass training requirements. Papers include correspondence, reports, legal cases, publicity material, and the like.

Series V-Farm Workers, Migrant Workers, Sharecroppers and their Unionization, Boxes 154 to 172

AVAILABLE ON MICROFILM ONLY. Each reel corresponds to each box in sequential order.

This series combines early efforts of the WDL to support and defend farm workers in various cases, with particularly large amounts of material on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, to which the WDL gave legal and financial support. Material in all cases includes correspondence, legal papers, contracts, proposed legislation, affidavits, notes and publicity material:

V. Subseries A. Farm Workers, 1936-1954, Box 154

V. Subseries B. Farm Workers and Migrant Workers, 1940-1961, Boxes 155 to 158

V. Subseries C. Farm Workers' and Farmers' Strikes, 1947-1955, Box 159

V. Subseries D. Southern Tenant Farmers Union, 1942-1946, Boxes 160 to 165

V. Subseries E. National Farm Labor Union and National Agricultural Workers Union, 1946-1960, Box 166

V. Subseries F. National Sharecroppers Week and Fund, 1936-1969, Boxes 167-169

V. Subseries G. Peonage in America, Boxes 170-172

Series VI-Immigration and Deportation, Boxes 173-182 Cases in which WDL made legal defense. This series is closed at present.

Series VII-Special Cases, Boxes 183-192 The Odell Waller Case, 1940-1942, Boxes 183 to 188, defense of a black sharecropper; the Tee Davis Case, 1943-1949, effort to have a black sharecropper pardoned; the Clarence Jackson Case, 1949-1956, an extradition case; the Carl Gilmore Case, 1940-1946, a drive for clemency for an unfairly sentenced Teamster member in Binghamton, N.Y.; and the Groveland Cases, 1950-1952, which involved racial injustice in the Florida courts, are all represented by such material as legal documents, correspondence, fund appeals, publicity, and reports.

Series VIII-Academic Freedom Cases, 1936-1965, Boxes 193-195 These personal court cases are now closed.

Series IX-Civil Rights and Racial Discrimination Cases, 1936-1965, Boxes 196-199 These cases are now closed.

Series X-Strike Cases, Boxes 200-201 These strike cases, listed alphabetically, include varying material, some of it only partial, but overall including correspondence, notes, legal papers, clipping and the like. To use these papers requires signing a note of restriction of use.

Series XI-Union Democracy Cases, Boxes 202-204 Closed.

Series XII-Workers Defense Cases (Defense of Workers) , Boxes 205-215 Closed, except Box 205, Special Defense Campaigns, which includes diverse materials on the Fargo, N. Dakota General Drivers Case, 1935 the Christ Popoff Case, 1941, and the Okey O'Dell Defense, 1935.

Series XIII-General Cases, Boxes 216 to 222. Closed.

Series XIV-Loyalty and Security Cases, and Conscientious Objection, Boxes 225-234 Closed, except Boxes 225-229, which are non-personal in nature.

XIV. Subseries A. Conscientious Objection, Boxes 223-225 Box 225 concerns the Conscientious Objectors' Strike at Big Flats, N.Y., in 1946.

XIV. Subseries B. Loyalty and Security, Boxes 226-234 Boxes 226 to 229 are general materials on loyalty and security, civil rights, the Attorney General's subversive list, and the Independent Socialist League. To see these materials, a note of restricted use must be signed. Boxes 230-234 are closed.

Series XV-Military and Conscription Cases, Boxes 235 to 245. Closed except Box 235 and 237. Box 235 is general material on loyalty and security in the military forces. Box 237 is material on the Alton Levy case, a World War II case in which a soldier was court-martialed for objecting to Jim Crow practices in the Army.

Series XVI-Publicity, Boxes 246 to 271 Material includes manuscripts, articles, news releases, bulletins, newsletters, clipping files, and scrapbooks.

Series XVII-Miscellaneous, Boxes 272-275 Membership cards, sample bank statements, miscellaneous items and the outsized materials box are included here. Box 274 is comprised of various articles and items, many duplicates of material found elsewhere in the collection, but all of them giving some kind of historical information on the Workers Defense League itself.


  • 1935 - 1971


Language of Materials

Material entirely in English.


Collection is open for research with the exception of the following boxes: 173-182, 238-245, and pamphlet boxes 1-11.
Series V: Farm Workers, Migrant Workers, Sharecroppers and their Unionization, Boxes 154 to 172 available only on microfilm.


The following boxes require a signed Restricted Use Statement before they can be seen: 1-19, 20-145,146-172, 183-229, 230-237, 246-275.
Refer to the Walter P. Reuther Library Rules for Use of Archival Materials. Restrictions: Researchers may encounter records of a sensitive nature – personnel files, case records and those involving investigations, legal and other private matters. Privacy laws and restrictions imposed by the Library prohibit the use of names and other personal information which might identify an individual, except with written permission from the Director and/or the donor.


136.25 Linear Feet ((274 MB, 1 OS), 19 reels)


This collection of correspondence, press releases, newspaper clippings, speeches, trial briefs and transcripts, and published pamphlets and leaflets, thoroughly documents the Worker's Defense League's efforts to obtain justice for labor organizers, government critics, victims of racial and economic discrimination, and conscientious objectors, through established, legal processes.


Founded on August 29, 1936, the WDL was rooted in a nucleus of prior groups, including various chapters of the Labor and Socialist Defense Committee. The suppression of the 1935 strike in Terre Haute, Indiana, the murder of Joseph Shoemaker, an organizer in Tampa, Florida, the cotton choppers' strike in Arkansas, the arrests in New Jersey of people handing out leaflets, and other such incidents, showed the need for an organization to champion the causes of workers in the interest of social and economic justice, and to give such assistance to workers without political cause or party label attached. The Workers Defense League became such an organization.

Through the years the WDL expanded its activities; it was the legal arm and financial backer of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union; gave assistance on immigration and deportation cases, loyalty-security cases, passports, refugees, conscientious objectors, civil rights, union democracy, minority apprenticeship training, military and conscription cases, and many more.


Arranged in 17 series – Series 1 (Boxes 1-40, Series 2 (Boxes 41-120), Series 3 (Boxes 121-146), Series 4 (Boxes (147-153), Series 5 (Boxes 154-172), Series 6 (Boxes 173-182), Series 7 (Boxes 183-192), Series 8 (Boxes 193-195), Series 9 (Boxes 196-199), Series 10 (Boxes 200-201), Series 11 (Boxes 202-204), Series 12 (Boxes 205-215), Series 13 (Boxes 216-222), Series 14 (Boxes 225-234), Series 15 (Boxes 235-237), Series 16 (Boxes 246-271), and Series 17 (Boxes 272-275). Folders are predominately arranged alphabetically, see individual series and subseries for specific arrangement.

Series 1 is divided into 3 subseries. Series 3 is divided into 8 subseries. Series 5 is divided into 7 subseries. Series 14 is divided into 2 subseries.


The Workers Defense League placed its historic papers in the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs in August, 1970, and further additions have been received since then.

Processing History

Processed and finding aid written by Walter P. Reuther Library.
Guide to the Workers' Defense League Records
Processed by Walter P. Reuther Library.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Walter P. Reuther Library Repository

5401 Cass Avenue
Detroit MI 48202 USA