April Knutson grew up amid Iowa cornfields, determined to leave the Midwest. She went to East Coast colleges, studied in France, and spent a gap year in San Francisco, where she met a Vietnam veteran with roots in Minnesota. Their marriage did not last, but it resulted in a son and a move to Minneapolis.
For 50 years, Knutson has been a Minnesota activist, working for an economy based on human needs. In the 1980s, she was a leader of the Communist Party of Minnesota. Today she works with the Minnesota Peace Project. I asked her to reflect on campaigns she has worked on.
How did your values take shape?
I largely grew up in Iowa. My mother was very involved in Democratic Party politics in Grinnell. I have early memories of door knocking with her, for local, state and national candidates. She was also a member of the League of Women voters.
In 7th grade, my father had a Fulbright scholarship to do research in Scotland. I spent a whole year going to a great school in Edinburgh. It exposed me to a rigorous education, with courses in geography and history beyond the U.S. lens. While in Scotland, I listened to the BBC. The British broadcasters decried and ridiculed the U.S. That was a seminal experience for me — to see the U.S. from a critical perspective. I never heard anything like that in Iowa.
[In college] I had planned to major in political science. By junior year, I had all the credits to complete the major, but had not taken the required introductory course. I registered for the course, bought the textbook written by the instructor, and cracked the book. Its thesis was that all nations should seek to accomplish U.S.-style democracy. I knew I could not complete the course without creating a huge ruckus. I majored in French.
How did you get involved in Communism?
I loved Minneapolis right away. I was amazed at the progressive politics, how informed people were and the affordable cultural opportunities. Mostly, it was the political scene that attracted me. The first moratorium against the Vietnam War was that fall. As a teaching assistant, I told my students I was not going to be in class.
Someone handed us the Daily Worker along the parade route. The paper reported that the two goals of the Party were to free Angela Davis and end the war. I was completely in accord with both of those goals.
The Communist Party in Minneapolis was literally underground. They had a bookstore in the basement of an apartment building on Franklin and Chicago Avenues. We were instructed not to reveal our membership and not to reveal the names of our comrades. We found out about our first club meeting when someone knocked on our door and handed us a slip of paper with a date, time, and address written on it in pencil. This procedure was both exciting and spooky. I felt part of a secret society.
Along with several other comrades, I pushed for greater openness and a public presence for the party.
After the Vietnam War things did slow down. Some people faded away from the Party. I was still pretty active. I enjoyed the political discussions. We continued the struggle for socialism in the United States, in solidarity with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, convinced by party leaders that these countries had in fact achieved socialism, and a better life for people than capitalism could offer. We were also assured that existing socialism was much better for the environment, and the future of the planet, than capitalism.
Why were you drawn to the values of Communism?
Communism promised an equitable society with workers enjoying the fruits of their labors. Everyone would have housing, health care, education. There would be no discrimination against women, or religious minorities, or people of different ethnic backgrounds. In the United States, the Communist Party provided strong leadership in the civil rights struggles of African Americans, both in the South and the North. Communists opposed European and U.S. imperialist wars where workers died and corporations profited. I agreed with all these values and analyses. Also, I joined the Communist Party right after Angela Davis was arrested, and I was intrigued by her life, beliefs, and actions.
Tell us about electoral work in the Communist Party and Farmer Labor Association.
In the early ‘70s, when my son Kieran was a baby, I worked on the boycott of grapes, lettuces, and Gallo wine for the United Farm Workers. We had a number of what were called secondary boycotts, asking people not to shop where non- union grapes and lettuce were sold. We would stand outside the grocery store, hand out leaflets, and chant. Kieran’s first full sentence was, “Don’t Buy Lettuce, Don’t Buy Grapes.”
Collecting signatures to get Communist Party presidential candidates on the ballot was relatively easy in Minnesota because of the history of third-party movements. The Farmer Labor Party had elected two governors, a Congressional representative, and many members of local governing bodies. We conducted a Marxist School in northern Minnesota at our cooperative park on the Mesabi Range, not far from Hibbing. It was an amazing tract of land, with beautiful evergreen trees. Right in the middle was a lake that had never had a motor on it. Absolutely pristine.
There was a pavilion with a dance floor. There were square dances every Saturday. We often had district meetings there. In addition to our schools on Marxist Leninism, we had children’s camps where the offspring of comrades could get together and talk about what their parents were up to. That was a good thing.
Everyone who came to the Range school to teach us — they were usually from New York — knew something about Minnesota. Gus Hall, chairman of the Communist Party USA, was from northern Minnesota.
I remember a visit from James Jackson, founder of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. He was one of the best leaders I knew. I remember a talk I had with him about the Spanish Civil War, the Lincoln Battalion, and the role of artists and intellectuals in the struggle for peace and democracy.
Why did you leave the Party?
At a national meeting in 1991, I circulated a resolution calling for open discussion of what had gone wrong in East Germany and the Soviet Union. Denied admission to the national convention, many members left the party, including myself. I remained in the peace movement and electoral politics. My children were also active in struggles against U.S. wars in Central America and police brutality. My husband and I often went to the city jail to bail them out.
What are you doing with the Minnesota Peace Project?
We lobby our representatives to cut the military budget, end U.S. wars, and abolish nuclear weapons. We want to repeal the National Defense Authorization Act that [enabled the U.S.] to go to war with Afghanistan and Iraq without Congressional approval. Trump’s recent militarism against Iran makes this even more important. We support immigrant and refugee rights. Immigration is an outcome of U.S. military intervention. The U.S. military is a major contributor to the climate crisis. It is time to build a broad movement to transfer the military budget to human needs and save the planet.
Anne Winkler-Morey writes for the Minneapolis Interview Project. You can read her full-length essay with April Knutson at turtleroad.org