Good Night, Annie Lee Moss, and Good Luck

The middle-aged black woman, in glasses and a checked winter coat, contrasts sharply not only to the darkness of the room but also to the room’s purpose and significance. It is a Senate hearing room, and she has been called to testify about something that arrives in her mail. With Senators, lawyers, and news cameras watching, she will claim that she has no idea why the stuff keeps coming.

Her name is Annie Lee Moss, and she is a low-level clerk in the Pentagon, one who works in close proximity to sensitive information. The item in her mail is the Communist newspaper Daily Worker, and this is March 1954, the height of American anti-Communist paranoia. The concern is that Moss might be using her proximity to Army communications codes to supply information to the Communists, with the Daily Worker subscription proof, for some, that she could well be of such a mind.

The setting is a Senate subcommittee hearing to get at the bottom of any Communist infiltration of the American armed forces. The subcommittee is led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (Rep. – Wisconsin), an increasingly polarizing figure in American politics. He has been on an anti-Communist rampage for several years now — as has the rest of the country, truth be told, during America’s Cold War entanglement with the Soviet Union. But McCarthy has become the face of the Red scare, ever more so after a broadcast of the CBS television news program See It Now one week earlier.

Annie Lee Moss at the Senate hearings.

That particular episode focused squarely on McCarthy, his words and his actions. The host, esteemed reporter Edward R. Murrow, offered only an opening set-up and a closing commentary, devoting the rest of the half-hour to footage of McCarthy in action. The senator was depicted as anything but telegenic, even by the nascent medium’s standards, and the footage was edited to reveal him as an out-of-control menace. See It Now had covered McCarthy before, but not like this, and not to this effect. The program brought the terror McCarthy wrought squarely into America’s living rooms, and the response was overwhelmingly against McCarthy. Now, a week after that fateful broadcast, the See It Now cameras were among those poised for a confrontation between the powerful McCarthy and the powerless black woman in the checked winter coat.

The confrontation is short-lived. McCarthy did not bother to sit through Moss’ hesitant opening testimony, in which she expressed no knowledge of why these Communist newspapers kept coming to her address. He abruptly left the proceedings, and See It Now made special note of the empty chair in the room. Democrats on the subcommittee gleefully stepped into the void to relieve Moss of her discomfort and embarrass McCarthy. They took her at her word when she asked, “Who’s Karl Marx?” They showed pity when she could barely pronounce some of the larger words in a document she was asked to read. Noting that she’d been suspended from her duties during the investigation, they promised to get her a job when the dust cleared.

The Moss episode became another component to McCarthy’s downhill public relations spiral, not as memorable as either the earlier See It Now broadcast or his rebuttal one month later. Indeed, only McCarthy scholars make much truck of the incident, and even they assign it relatively little weight in the overall scheme of things. It would have remained in the deep footnotes of American political lore had it not been brought back to life in George Clooney’s stylish homage to Murrow and his anti-McCarthy crusade, the biopic Good Night, and Good Luck.

The film is an unabashed pedestal for Murrow the courageous journalist. Clooney deftly combines performances by a solid cast, led by David Strathairn as a chain-smoking Murrow, with actual See It Now footage of McCarthy in action, including the Moss hearing. The blogosphere has already had its fun holding the movie up to proper historical scrutiny; I’ll add only that 1950s grown-up, miles-away-from-rock-n’-roll culture never before received such lavish art direction.

As for the guts of the film, I’ve known the basic storyline since high school history class: news media stands up to public bully, democracy is saved. Since then, I’ve been able to add at least a little bit of flesh and nuance to that summation, enough to know that Murrow helped establish television as a serious news medium with those shows. But while Clooney would have us leave the theater drawing parallels between the ’50’s Red scare and today’s political climate, I could only ask one question: Who was Annie Lee Moss?

Part of that owes to my curiosity about McCarthyism (that high school history class offered only a paragraph in a textbook, I did the rest of the digging on my own), and part of it to my curiosity about black folk. Specifically, it harks back to a habit I’m sure a lot of black filmgoers share. Whenever there’s a black face in a role we don’t expect to see, or a black face we hadn’t seen before, we hang around and squint through the credits hoping to catch the performer’s name. Nowadays we’d Google that name or look it up on the Internet Movie Database, but before such wonders came along, we could only file the name away in our memory banks and make note if the actor turned up again.

But Moss appears here in documentary footage — she is a real person, with a backstory and a life far beyond her 15 minutes of infamy on Capitol Hill. Where did she come from? Why did they pick on her? And how did this episode affect the rest of her life? Above all else, was this middle-aged woman in the checked winter coat, apparently ignorant of Karl Marx, really a Communist sympathizer?

Good Night would have you believe the whole idea is preposterous. Moss is played for effect in the movie, much as McCarthy’s opponents did back then. We’re meant to come away thinking, “there’s no way that this poor, ignorant, low-level woman could possibly be involved in anything as nefarious as a Communist plot. Heck, she probably can’t even spell ‘Communist’, or ‘nefarious’. Can’t you tell by looking at her?”

In fact, Moss did receive the Daily Worker at her home. Now, subscribing to a newspaper is not the same as acting on the contents of that paper, but at the height of McCarthyism, no such distinction was made. Such was the frenzy of the era that Cincinnati’s baseball team, known for close to a century as the Reds, briefly appended its name to “Redlegs” to avoid any possible confusion over its loyalty to America. And it’s not like blacks were immune from the fervor because of their race: Paul Robeson’s career as a performer was virtually destroyed because he refused to kowtow to attacks on his left-leaning politics, and many other prominent blacks had to watch their step. So if Moss was on a Communist mailing list, surely there was something to it, right?

Then and now, McCarthy apologists would have you believe that. Ann Coulter virtually cackles with glee in Treason (Crown Forum, 2003), her stab at rehabilitating the image of controversial conservatives over the years, in announcing that one of Moss’ statements in her testimony, that there were three persons with a variation on her name in the phone book and that somebody must have gotten her mixed up with the “real” Communist, was flat-out wrong. Coulter cites documentation from 1950’s FBI informant Mary Markward that it was this specific Annie Lee Moss who was on the Daily Worker mailing list. One can almost hear Coulter shrieking “A-ha!” upon uncovering the information.

She cites David Oshinsky’s A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (Free Press, 1983) for the corroboration. But Coulter’s own shoddy journalism is given the lie in a footnote Oishinky includes at the end of his recounting of the Moss episode. Oshinsky notes, “[subcommittee lawyer] Roy Cohn would later claim that his information was correct, that Annie Lee Moss, the Communist, and Annie Lee Moss, the Pentagon clerk, were one and the same person. In fact, he had proved no such thing. His information showed that Annie Lee Moss of 72 R Street had appeared on a Communist membership list. The list may have been accurate, although the ones compiled by FBI informers like Mrs. Markward were often wildly inflated.”

Arthur Herman notes that McCarthy had a legitimate reason to go after Moss. In Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator (Free Press, 1999), he offers that the best spin possible for Moss was that a relative or associate of Moss had given her address to the Communist Party, thus accounting for the newspapers showing up there. Even at that level of association, Herman wrote, there existed the possibility that Moss could have been asked for copies of information, “or even just the contents of each night’s wastebasket.” But McCarthy and Cohn bungled the case, he continued, and the resultant coverage on See it Now and elsewhere “misled Americans about the real Annie Lee Moss from that day to this.”

But how can Herman say that when a few sentences previously, he stated, “We will probably never know the full story”? How can you mislead someone when you don’t know the truth in the first place? McCarthy may have been right to bring Moss in for questioning, but the fact that he handled it badly doesn’t answer the salient, legitimate question: how did her name end up on a Communist mailing list? Amazingly (or perhaps not), no one ever seems to have bothered to ask Moss herself beyond that fateful day.

No one, that is, except Ethel Payne. Payne (1911-1991) was a groundbreaking journalist in the ’50s and ’60s. In 1951 she became the one-person Washington bureau of the Chicago Defender, one of the leading black newspapers of the era. In that capacity, she reported on many of the earliest developments in the civil rights movement, holding politicians’ feet to the fire from her D.C. post. In a lengthy interview she gave to the Washington Press Club Foundation in 1987, she recounted her impressions of the Moss affair:

Now, Annie Lee Moss was a file clerk, and she worked in the Pentagon basement. It was her duty to carry — what do you call it? — the tapes and things back, when they were used, to carry and put them in their proper place. She handled just routine messages. She never really came in contact with any sensitive material. In the first place, she was a woman of limited education, she was a very humble person. The three things in her life were her son, her grandson, and her church, besides her job. And other than that, she knew little about the world outside. She was a widow. In those days, when the Communist Party was really campaigning in black areas to recruit blacks to join the Communist Party, they were very active. I know in Chicago, when people were evicted, communists would come and move their furniture and everything else back into these houses, and they would bring baskets of food. They launched a serious campaign in the black community. Well, Mrs. Moss’ husband was one of those who had been contacted by the communists. He was just a simple working man, but they were sending him free subscriptions to the Daily Worker, the organ of the Communist Party. And I don’t know what he did with them, but when he died, they kept coming, these papers, and they piled up on her back porch, some with the wrappings still on them. She never paid any attention to it; the Bible was her thing. And so she didn’t pay any attention to it, but somehow, somebody, some informant, told them that she was getting the Daily Worker. So triumphantly, McCarthy produces this “star witness,” as evidence of communism, and he claimed that she was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party — all of this was fabricated by Roy Cohn.

Moss had retained an attorney to defend her, Payne told her interviewer, but he was never allowed to speak before the Senators on her behalf. So it came down to the day of the hearing:

And she turned, in bewilderment, to her lawyer. The mike was open, and she said “Who is Karl Marx? Who is Karl Marx?” Well, the fact that she put it in the present tense — she didn’t say, “Who was Karl Marx.” She said, “Who is Karl Marx?” Well, you know, to the press, this was dynamite, you know. This was a real story. Here’s this poor woman who was being pilloried as a Communist front agent and all this, and she asks, “Who is Karl Marx?” meaning she didn’t know what was going on, she didn’t know who Karl Marx was or anything, and that she put in the present tense meant that she was totally innocent. So in a mad dash, they were rushing out of the newsroom to put this on the wire, telephone it in and everything, and the hearing room just exploded in laughter. Of course, all this was terribly embarrassing to McCarthy, and he became quite angry . . .

…But the point I would like to make is that I think that was the beginning of the downfall of McCarthy, because he was never really convincing — the hearings would continue, but he was never really convincing after that.

Is it possible that Moss pulled a fast one on Payne, and was indeed a Communist sympathizer or more? Sure it is. But I highly doubt it. Of all the players we’ve mentioned thus far, Payne was and is the only one that Moss herself, or through her attorney, was even remotely likely to have spoken to. We know what came of her appearance on the Hill, and no McCarthyism researcher seems to have interviewed her. For now, that’s as close to Moss’ own words that we are likely to ever get.

Take careful note of the nuance Payne provides in her account. She knew the community — her beat, her ‘hood — and she knew the dynamics of life and activism in those perilous, pre-Rosa Parks days. The detail she offers in those few short sentences gives her reporting that much more credibility. Payne had no ideological ax to grind for or against McCarthy; later on in the interview she notes that the Red scare was hardly the most pressing concern black folk faced back then. Her only interest is the truth.

For the record, the Army reinstated Moss in 1955, moving her to a less sensitive position. Later details would reveal that Moss’ name had been on Communist party rolls as far back as the ’40s, but nothing would come of that information. And what became of Moss herself? Most likely, she resumed her life as an uncelebrated federal worker, church-going woman, and private citizen. How much longer she worked, whether she ever discussed the incident in depth with anyone, how much longer those papers kept coming to 72 R Street, we’ll likely never know. I don’t even know if she’s dead or alive. But wherever she is, I’d be curious to know how she feels to be part of not only history, but also a Hollywood movie, to boot.