Peery died September 6 at age 92. Credit: (Courtesy of Brett Jelinek)

“I owe my life to the comrades in this room—and to Nelson.”

About 100 union members and organizers, rumpled leftist academics, nattily dressed welfare-rights activists, and “revolutionaries” from throughout the country spent Saturday afternoon in the Workers United union hall, memorializing Chicago activist Nelson Peery, who died September 6 at 92. 

A dozen or so people nodded in response to the speaker, union staffer Richard Monje. His voice built to a climax, like an evangelical pastor issuing a communist altar call. 

“You must come forward and do what is necessary,” Monje said, “And fight together, with organization and discipline.”

Monje spoke a few feet from a small spread of memorabilia from Peery’s life, including a side-by-side World War II veteran’s baseball hat and a Soviet Army officer’s cap adorned with a hammer and sickle.

Items from Peery’s life—including a veteran's cap and Soviet paraphernalia—on display at his memorial.
Items from Peery’s life—including a veteran’s cap and Soviet paraphernalia—on display at his memorial.Credit: (Brett Jelinek)

Outsiders attending this gathering of “comrades” may have felt transported back to another era. But those assembled emphasized how Peery had transformed their lives past and present, giving them a new sense of meaning through struggle and Marxist study.

“This crafty man got us to change,” said Maureen Taylor, head of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “We are the way we are because of this man.”   

Born in 1923, Peery grew up in in Wabasha, Minnesota (population: 1,800), a middle child of the town’s only black family. When Peery’s family moved to Minneapolis and he entered high school, the Communist Party USA’s influence in America was near its peak, with estimated membership as high as 200,000 nationwide. He was introduced to the party shortly before enlisting to serve in World War II, aiming to fight fascism abroad and racism when he arrived back home—before the civil rights era, the Communist Party was one of the few organized groups making efforts at antiracist activism. He quickly joined the party upon his return. 

Peery dropped out of the University of Minnesota to become a bricklayer and dedicated revolutionary, joining and forming several communist groups before helping to found the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, the People’s Tribune, and several other newspapers dedicated to leftist reporting and theorizing.

Peery on the soap box.
Peery on the soap box.Credit: (Courtesy Brett Jelinek)

Attendees at the memorial service remembered seeing Peery wherever the action was. A nephew, Joe Peery, once came to visit Nelson in Los Angeles, where he and his late wife, Sue-Ying, lived and organized at the time of the 1965 Watts riots. As Joe walked towards Nelson’s house, he saw an increasingly agitated group of what he described as poor black people listening to an impassioned soapbox speaker; as Joe drew closer, he saw that Nelson was the speaker. 

Peery published two memoirs, Black Fire and Black Radical, which detail his lifetime of organizing: as a child, he and his friends repeatedly threw rocks through the window of a White Castle that barred entry for blacks; in the early 1950s he organized the Communist Party-affiliated National Negro Labor Congress; in the 1970s he lent a hand in revolutionary Ethiopia; he launched a celebrated writing career late in life. (Black Fire led to a Chicago Reader cover story in 1996; reviewer Harold Henderson called it a “beautiful, heartbreaking book.”) 

Peery lived through McCarthyism and the red scare, going underground in Detroit for a time in 1949, along with many other communists who believed fascism was imminent and the party would be destroyed by the FBI. 

“I was alone, a non-person,” Peery wrote in Black Fire. “No name, identification, job, home, relatives, or friends. All the things that make a person a member of society I had relinquished to defend my Party.” 

One of Peery’s younger brothers, Ross, remembered saying good-bye to Nelson before he went underground, impressed by his brother’s complete commitment to the party. 

“That changed my whole perspective on Nelson,” he said.

“Over the years, the message never really changed,” Joe added, back at the memorial. The message: the United States needed revolutionary change, and making that happen required study and the building of revolutionary organizations.

Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign has helped destigmatize the word “socialism” to some degree. No similarly successful effort has been made to rehab communism in mainstream political discourse. But Peery proudly held the communist moniker and often defended the Soviet Union and China. Lew Rosenbaum, a longtime comrade, emphasized that Peery, like most Americans who were members of the Communist Party USA and other communist groups, was mostly concerned with organizing in the U.S. 

Peery during his World War II service years.
Peery during his World War II service years.Credit: (Courtesy Brett Jelinek)

“We’re not fighting a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the Soviet Union,” Rosenbaum said he remembered thinking when he first became active in the 1960s. “We’re fighting a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the United States.”

To that end, aside from being called “grouchy” once during the memorial, there is no evidence that Peery’s defense of, say, Stalin rubbed off on his personality; in 1996 Henderson described Peery as a “vigorous teddy bear of a man” and almost every speaker Saturday spoke of the warmth Peery exuded.

Although his political vision may sound arcane in the 21st century, many people, especially many young people, seem newly interested in Marx following the 2008 financial crash. “It’s not your grandfather’s communism,” Rosenbaum joked. 

One of those young people is Adam Gottlieb, 26, who played two songs on acoustic guitar in memory of Peery, including one called “Revolution Blues” (“I got the red solution, revolution bluuuues,” he sang with a harmonica backup). Gottlieb, an intense conversationalist whose long brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, was born around the time the Berlin Wall fell. He said he doesn’t think much about Stalin; instead, he said that after reading Black Radical, he began to see his own life as “building on the work of those who came before me”—Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois—and Peery.

“I want to honor and uphold his struggle and his life’s contribution to history through how I live my own life,” Gottlieb said. “To feel that physically, in your body, is a profound thing.”

Attendees sing at Peery's memorial service.
Attendees sing at Peery’s memorial service.Credit: (Brett Jelinek)

Does he need to adopt a word like “communist,” tainted by so many moral catastrophes over the 20th century, to carry out that struggle?

“There’s nothing else I’ve found that communicates those ideas,” he said. He pointed to the myriad crises affecting the United States and the world—impending ecological disaster, the potential for automated robotic production to make huge swaths of the American workforce superfluous (a favorite topic of Peery’s since the 1960s)—and says it’s simple: The world needs communism.

“We’re all family,” he said. “That’s not just some hippie shit.That [insight] is how we’re going to save the planet. I think ‘communism’ is the best word that we’ve got to express that.” 

Richard Wright, who left the Communist Party in 1944 after more than a decade as a member, wrote in Black Boy that excluding the church, “There was no agency in the world so capable of making men feel the earth and the people upon it as the Communist Party.”  

Wright’s reflection came to mind as Sojourner Zenobia described her brief stint as a “revolutionary.” 

“I feel more human than I’ve ever felt before,” she said. 

In Black Fire, Peery described how he and his unit sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as they returned home from World War II. Before the memorial’s end, Zenobia led the room in the song.