Martinsville, Va., seems an unlikely place for an outpost of American radicalism. It is a working-class town of 18,149, set in a rural area 30 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains. The factories there and in Danville to the east make furniture, textiles and nylon; the farms grow tobacco. It is a small town, known to the outside world primarily for the Martinsville Speedway, a center for stock car racing.
Dorothy (Dori) and Allen Blitz moved here 4 1/2 years ago to get jobs and organize workers, fulfilling their communist ideals. Allen got a job at the Stanley Furniture Co. Dori--a new mother, holder of a degree in philosophy and member of a group called the Worker's Viewpoint (which later became the Communist Workers Party)--found work at the Budd Tractor Co., taking home about $160 a week for adjusting screws on the underpinnings of trailer trucks.
By November 1980, Dori Blitz had become something more than a union activist and outspoken communist. She had fired a gun, without hitting anyone, ("six times," she says the police told her) at an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro, N.C. She had been suspended from her union post as shop steward, and fired from her job for making derogatory statements about the company.
Then the congressman who represents Martinsville, W.C. Daniel (D-Va.), introduced an amendment in Congress aimed at excluding Dori Blitz from a job training program by prohibiting the use of CETA funds for " . . . the participation of individuals who publicly advocate the violent overthrow of the Federal government or who have, within the past five years, publicly advocated the overthrow of the government."
So Dori Blitz, wife, mother, aspiring brick mason and candidate in today's elections for the Martinsville City Council, has become a cause celebre. Thanks to Daniel and his "Blitz Amendment," (as her lawyers dubbed it) she is destined to be at least a footnote in this history of the First Amendment, the subject of a lawsuit filed on her behalf against the Labor Department by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that she was bumped from brick masonry training solely because of her political beliefs.
The violence in Greensboro--which left five Communist Workers Party members dead and nine injured after the marchers were ambushed by a group of Nazis and Klansmen--put an end to Blitz's organizing. Her husband was fired from his nonunion job two days after the incident; he had taken time off to go. But they've decided to stick it out in Martinsville, which they now call their "home town," pursuing the penurious life of radicals in a town that is resistant to change, let alone revolution.
Each time I open the paper . . . and see a letter from the Communist Workers Party I get sick to my stomach . . . If they can't gather the money for one-way tickets to Havana or Moscow, I am sure there are many people willing to contribute . . . " --from a letter by Brenda Love published in the Martinsville Bulletin.
Born to Organize
Two aged cars, a VW Beetle and a Toyota, sit in the Blitz driveway in front of an antique pick-up truck with a For Sale sign on it. A sign on the kitchen door warns visitors to "Watch Out for Bear"--the German shepherd in the back yard.
The furnishings are Early Castaway, the kind of dreary decor that says the inhabitants don't have any money and wouldn't spend it on furniture if they did. The kitchen table functions as campaign headquarters, coffeehouse and general command center. There's an old television set in the living room, where 4 1/2-year-old Kendra likes to watch "Sesame Street" and "Wonder Woman." Meg, almost 6 months, gurgles on the floor.
Dori Blitz, 36, is tall and strong-looking, with short dark hair and broad shoulders. Her greatest asset is her laugh, which comes easily and often, and hints that somewhere behind all the talk about the ruling class and fascism and revolution is a cosmic giggle; that somehow the incongruity of establishing a communist beachhead in Martinsville, Va., is acknowledged with a secret wink. But you wait, and the wink never comes; just the laugh.
"One reason I joined the CWP is that they have a sense of humor," she says.
The CWP also believes the U.S. government should--and will--be overthrown, by violence if necessary. Blitz says the revolution won't come for awhile, although current economic conditions could hasten it. For now, the job is organizing--unions, interest groups--any kind of structure in which people unite to protest what she views as ruling-class oppression.
"I love organizing," she says. "I think it's what I was born to do." When she came to Washington to meet with the A.C.L.U. lawyer who's handling her case, he could see the glint in her eye and begged her, "Please, don't organize my office."
Writers researching the CWP after the Nov. 3 incident in Greensboro described the group as an insular lunatic fringe of the left, mostly well-educated children of the middle-class radicalized by the antiwar and civil rights movements into a small band of dedicated zealots. "The Communist Workers Party members and sympathizers I met in North Carolina are as ruthless and selfless as a religious sect," wrote Blanche McCrary Boyd in a lengthy article in the Village Voice.
But somewhere along the line, Dori Blitz learned that "very few people are moved by something intellectual," so she generally stays away from the party jargon and deals in issues like school closings, mandatory water hook-ups and the dangers of nearby uranium exploration. From the first, she never made any secret that she was a Communist, sold copies of the Worker's Viewpoint newspaper and identified herself as a member of the CWP whenever she wrote a letter to newspapers. This has sometimes been discomfiting to those who find themselves on the same side of an issue with a living, breathing communist.
"Just being near an avowed Communist makes me radioactive," declared a man who followed her to the microphone at a public hearing on the uranium issue.
But they are not always jargon-free. The Blitzes on a proposed mandatory water-hook-up:
"This attack on the citizens of Henry County is only one step in imposing fascism in the United States . . . One day, when workers rule this country that should be ours, water and sewage will be free." --from a letter published in the Martinsville Bulletin.
Communist for the Council
Dori Blitz is not given much chance of winning today's election, although "you never know what people will do when they're alone in the voting booth," she says cheerfully. There are four other people running for the two seats open, including the current vice-mayor, the civic activist wife of a businessman, a black retired school principal and a one-time commissioner of revenue.
"She has certainly created a level of interest in this campaign that might not ordinarily be present," said Bob Crouch, chairman of the Fifth District Democratic party. "I don't think most people take her candidacy very seriously, though."
In her view, she has set the agenda for the campaign by forcing the other candidates to speak on her issues. "They all sound the same except me," she laughs. "It's really fun."
The Path to Socialism
It was her maternal grandmother, a staunch Quaker, who started her on her path to radical activism by talking about the evils of racism, as she recalls it. Her other grandmother was a member of the D.A.R.; this one refused to join.
Raised in Ohio and Indiana, where her father was an Army officer and then a salesman, she went to a Quaker prep school in Pennsylvania and a Quaker College. She set off with her degree in philosophy for New York City, where she worked teaching physical education in two progressive private schools. Allen, a graduate of C.C.N.Y. who was working for a public senior citizens program, met her there. He is the son of a carpet layer from the Bronx, heir to a family tradition of militant unionism.
Disenchanted by the futility of their work, they followed friends to Greensboro, where the radical community was large enough to have supported several communist factions. It was there, she says, working part-time as a physical education teacher in a public school and reading her way through communist literature, that she became a committed socialist. A strong feminist as well, she lived with Allen for seven years before she agreed to get married.
After eight months at the Budd Tractor Co., she was elected a shop steward, a leader of a maverick faction fighting the leadership "for more democracy in the union." With her in office, grievances increased from 18 in 1978 to 72 in 1979. Some of her co-workers started to forget, or not care, that she was a communist.
The drudgery of her work paled as she felt her organizing starting to catch fire. "For the first time in my life, the world made sense," she says.
But Greensboro changed all that. Although videotapes of the incident showed Klan members and Nazis shooting at the communists, the six who were charged with the deaths were acquitted. But the Blitzes had participated in the march, only 50 miles from Martinsville, and their involvement increased suspicions about them. Felony riot charges filed against them were dropped, but a grand jury is meeting this week in Winston-Salem to reexamine the evidence.
The faction opposed to Dori's union activities swelled as news of the Greensboro violence spread; her work load was doubled and later she was transferred to an outside job where she did not come into contact with other workers. Then she was fired.
In their time as radical organizers, Allen has been fired three times and Dori twice. But this time neither has been able to find a new job and both are convinced they are blacklisted, as much for their union activities as for their communist beliefs. They turned to CETA to learn trades that would allow them to be independent. Allen completed a carpentry and electrical course and now gets odd jobs in construction. Dori wanted to learn brick masonry because she figured she could make money "building patios and barbecues. There always seems to be a market for that."
She completed nearly a year of the program before she found she was pregnant and since she was having trouble with the pregnancy she was granted a leave.
"She was the best student," said Allen proudly. "When the class was building a refreshment stand in the ballpark, the instructor chose her to lay the floor."
Meanwhile, Rep. Daniel announced to the press that he wished the Blitzes to be "removed" from their CETA jobs, and the next day introduced his amendment. Although it was scratched along with over 140 other attachments to the appropriations bill in the final hours of debate, it passed without a ripple in the next session. When Blitz returned to her CETA job last January, she was asked this question:
"Do you now, or have you within the past five years, publicly advocated the violent overthrow of the federal government?"
She refused to answer and was denied readmittance to the program.
"Government agencies at all levels are using the shopworn phrase, 'We cannot discriminate against a person because of political belief,' " Daniel wrote in his newsletter just before introducing his amendment. "A review of history will reveal that communism is a conspiracy to rob individuals of their liberty and freedoms rather than a political philosophy."
While her supporters are fighting the "Blitz Amendment" as a harbinger of renewed efforts to suppress political dissent and stifle freedom of speech, the Blitzes live on about $400 a month. She makes a little money baby sitting, wears secondhand clothes, grows what food she can and makes sure visiting reporters provide a little pizza and beer. Her parents send them money to help with the $116 a month mortgage.
She won't say whether they receive any other form of public assistance for fear Daniel will expand his amendment to include other government programs. Daniel, meanwhile, refuses to talk about his amendment, citing the ongoing court case.
The judge hearing the first stage of Blitz's case, Barrington Parker, has been assigned the trial of John Hinckley, the man accused of trying to assassinate President Reagan, so she does not expect any action soon.
Despite their penury, the Blitzes did go to see the movie "Reds" when it played in Martinsville. They liked it. "Okay, so it showed there were a lot of problems among different factions of communists, right?" said Allen Blitz. "But it also showed that the idea of a socialist state is 75 years old. And basically I thought it was an affirmation of American radicalism."
Martinsville's reaction to the Blitzes has generally been one of benign indifference. They've only had one hostile phone call, and no physical harassment. "There's a healthy Jeffersonian tradition here," said Crouch. "People are suspicious of her motives, but basically we let her say her piece."