George Aloysius Meyers, a member for six decades of the Communist Party of the United States who spent 38 months during the 1950s in a federal reformatory for advocating the violent overthrow of the government under the anti-communist Smith Act, died in his sleep Monday at Sinai Hospital. He was 86.
Mr. Meyers, a longtime Northeast Baltimore resident who was still a member of the national board of the party, spent a lifetime working for civil rights and job equality.
He was chairman of the party in Maryland and the District of Columbia at the time of his celebrated 1951 trial as a "second-string communist official." Despite the relentless questioning of prosecutors, he refused to divulge the names of party members.
With the Communist Party in disarray in 1956 after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Mr. Meyers was chairman of the party's National Labor Commission in addition to his local post.
He explained to those who left the party in the late 1950s that Stalin wasn't the reason he had joined it in 1939. "I joined the Communist Party because of the class struggle in the United States," he told The Sun in a 1996 interview. "That's why I never had any problems about all these foreign ups and downs."
While participating in party activities, Mr. Meyers supported himself and his family by installing siding and windows.
Mr. Meyers grew up in Lonaconing, in Allegany County, the son, grandson and nephew of German-Irish coal miners, all of whom died of black lung disease. Raised Roman Catholic in a home where political discussions were everyday events, he graduated from LaSalle High School run by the Christian Brothers in Cumberland.
"Of course, the memory of 'No Irish Need Apply' signs on mining sheds and the Molly McGuires were still fresh when we were growing up," said his brother, F. DeSales Meyers of Reisterstown. "And of course, there had been a history of labor troubles in Western Maryland."
Working for 22 1/2 cents an hour, seven days a week, at the Celanese Corp. of America plant in Cumberland, Mr. Meyers saw firsthand what he perceived as the "exploitative and self-destructive tendencies" of capitalism, he told The Evening Sun in 1981.
In the mid-1930s, he organized 10,000 workers at the plant into Local 1874 of the Textile Workers Union, Congress of Industrial Organization, where he opposed racial discrimination in employment. He was elected president of the union for Maryland and the District of Columbia in 1941, and helped organize 37,000 workers at the old Glenn L. Martin Co. aircraft plant in Middle River and worked to integrate 7,000 African-Americans into the labor force.
During World War II, he waived his deferment as a labor leader and enlisted in the Army Air Forces.
"He was very intense about his feelings and went South in the early 1960s to work for civil rights," his brother said. "He was always proud of helping to end job discrimination against blacks. It was something he felt very strongly about. His enthusiasm could be sometimes grating because he wanted to get others as involved as he was and that's the kind of man he was."
Sister Mary Etta Culhane, pastoral life director at St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in Cumberland, said: "He was a man of principles who stood up for his convictions and certainly marched to a different drummer. He was a good Christian who was against injustice wherever he found it and always remained true to his commitment."
"He was always concerned about the man who worked as a laborer," said David Gillespie, director of Frostburg State University's Lewis J. Ort Library, where Mr. Meyers deposited in 1991 his extensive collection of books, pamphlets, memorabilia relating to Marxism, Leninism, communism, U.S. civil rights, women's rights, and socialism.
Dr. Gillespie described the collection as a "significant one."
Mr. Meyers was married during World War II to the former Alice Katherine Toorks, who died in 1989.
Services will be private.
He also is survived by a son, George D. Meyers of El Paso, Texas; a daughter, Barbara Anita Meyers of Baltimore; two other brothers, Joseph Meyers of Towson and Michael C. Meyers of Westminster; two sisters, Mary Meyers and Catherine Meyers, both of Lonaconing; and several nieces and nephews.