Pat Fry: A Tribute in Memoriam
Pat Fry was a long-time activist, journalist, and leader in the working class, peace, solidarity, anti-imperialist, and left-wing movements in the United States. As a trade unionist, she had been a rank-and-file member and local official of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and worked for many years as a staffer of the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), a New York City-based health care union. She was a founding member, co-chair from 2009-2016, and National Coordinating Committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). At the announcement of her death, tributes from the United States and abroad came as testaments to the appreciation her work in the struggle for democracy and socialism at home and in the international anti-imperialist and solidarity movements generated.
Fry died at age 76 on June 28 in Traverse City, Michigan, after a long struggle with cancer.
My own friendship with Fry goes back to the early 1970s in Detroit, where we were active in the local Marxist study group movement of the period. She was my successor as Detroit reporter for the Daily World, the newspaper of the Communist Party, USA, and we maintained a close lifelong friendship. Pat possessed a wealth of good humor and graciousness, as well as an incisive mind that was always open to new ideas and experiences. She was an ardent and always interesting conversationalist. Her resistance to dogmatic thinking and routinized philosophizing was not just an endearing quality; it also spurred her ability to work and make friends with a broad range of people of widely differing backgrounds and perspectives.
Patricia Louise Fry (born June 14, 1947) was the first of five children born in Detroit Michigan, to Catholic, working-class parents John Henry Fry, a salesman who died in 1960 at the age of 36, and Anna Mae (Jones) Fry, a stay-at-home mom and a clerical worker who, at age 98, survives her oldest child. Pat “came to the left from a moral Catholic background,” remembers Jim Jacobs, an old friend. She attended Benedictine High School in Detroit, during the period of Vatican II, and the influence of Catholic social teaching of the time stayed with her. During her senior year, in 1965, the civil rights movement came home. A white woman from her neighborhood, Viola Liuzzo, had gone to Alabama to be part of the struggle and was shot to death in her car in Alabama by members of the Ku Klux Klan while returning from driving a group of activists to the Montgomery airport. “I was in awe of Liuzzo’s heroism,” Fry would later write. “Her racist murder shook me.” For the rest of her life, Pat would place herself as a participant in the struggle against racism, exploitation, and oppression and for democracy and freedom.
“The civil rights struggle became my struggle,” she wrote. While a student at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), she joined the battle for open admissions and helped form a campus-wide human rights committee that called on Michigan’s Human Rights Commission to investigate systemic racism on campus. She also fought Jim Crow in the North, picketing establishments that refused to serve Black customers, and collected data on landlords who broke the law by refusing to rent to Black people. She graduated EMU, “barely,” in 1970, with a bachelor’s degree in education, while the country was in the midst of the biggest campaign of mass demonstrations, as well as one of the biggest strike waves, in its history. She moved back to Detroit and soon got a job at Wayne County Community College as a clerical worker, a post she would hold for the next fifteen years, becoming active in her UAW local, including serving as an elected union officer. It was as a UAW rank-and-file member that she attended the first convention of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, held in Chicago in March 1974.
Fry plunged into the anti-Vietnam War movement and related activities, including supporting the 1971 Winter Soldier investigation. That was a public inquiry organized the movement during which recent Vietnam veterans spoke out publicly for the first time about atrocities they’d committed during the U.S. war against that country. The following year found her in Cuba as part of the Venceremos Brigade, a group of mostly young people from the United States who went to Cuba to protest the trade blockade and work on the sugar cane harvest, as an act of solidarity with Cuba’s effort to construct a socialist society.
She began her study of Marxism in the early 1970s as part of a bourgeoning movement of activists in Detroit from the campuses and the auto plants that assembled in groups to study and debate the ideas and ideals of socialism. There were a dozen or more such study groups in the city, and while the new Marxist study group movement was a national phenomenon, the class character of the Detroit participants helped distinguish the movement in that city. Pat joined one such group, the Detroit Organizing Committee. Most of the members of these groups did more than just study. Fry was active in the fight against STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), the peculiarly named police unit that soon gained a reputation in Detroit’s neighborhoods as a terror squad whose victims were mostly Black, unarmed, law-abiding, citizens. During the spring and summer of 1973, the campaign against STRESS engulfed the city, as the unit’s body count rose to over 19 in the three years before it was disbanded. The campaign against STRESS was a major contributor to the 1973 election of Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor, who had himself been a leader of the left-wing of the working-class movement during the Cold War’s early days. When Young disbanded STRESS, it brought jubilation to the city.
The election of the left-leaning Young administration inaugurated one of those moments in social life when everything seemed possible. It was a period of lively debate on the entire range of social issues in the restaurants, bars, workplaces, classrooms, and living rooms of the city. Pat and I met at around this time, and while I can’t remember the circumstances of our meeting, we were already friends by the mid-1970s. Fry was in the thick of all of it, and activists that knew her then remember not only her activism, but also fondly recall the parties that she and her then-husband, Dave Riddle, a long-haul truck driver, rank-and-file Teamster, college teacher, and historian, would host in their Highland Park home. At those parties one could meet a cross section of the city’s left wing, debating and frolicking together. The ennobling qualities of Pat’s character were on full display at such gatherings.
Among the qualities of Pat’s that enriched our friendship was her resistance to stifled ways of thinking. Her joyful sensibility allowed her to avoid taking self-appointed authority too seriously. This meant, among other things, however much she steeped herself in the arcane and sometimes puzzling minutia of Marxist and socialist theory, Fry was never dour or dogmatic about her beliefs. Her great humor and openness drew her to prefer a politics that worked in the interests of working people to the pure theory of the dollar pamphlet or the 300-page treatise. Some of this she learned in her childhood. “My parents were not of the left,” she wrote. “They were Democrats and proud of it. Republicans were for the rich folks, they always told me. This was my first grounding in class politics.” To be truly liberating, theory had to first be useful to the people it sought to emancipate. One of the less inviting characteristics of the youthful Marxist study group movement of the 1970s was that too much theoretical speculation could make some people inhospitable. Fry’s openness was a breath of fresh air in such an atmosphere.
The 1970s also saw the rise of the New Communist Movement (NCM), during which a host of Communist-style parties and groups, many of Maoist orientation, came on the scene. Most groups of this tendency folded within a decade or so, while some lasted longer. The Marxist study group movement in Detroit was influenced by the NCM, and while some study group members joined national NCM parties, most stayed aloof. These younger radicals also sought out older Detroit left-wing activists, who were a significant presence in the city. Saul Wellman, a Spanish Civil War veteran who had been a Communist leader and Smith Act defendant in Michigan in the 1950s, befriended Fry and other young radicals. His political independence and counsel were highly valued in Detroit study group circles. Fry always spoke in warm and appreciative terms of the friendship that she and Wellman shared.
Pat found herself part of a circle of young radicals around Harry Haywood, a legendary former leading Communist Party USA (CPUSA) member whose book, Negro Liberation (1948), was the classic expression of the Party’s early approach to Black Liberation, an approach that by the late 1940s had been a cornerstone of the CPUSA’s program for 20 years. In the early 1970s, Haywood, whose ties to the CP ended as a result of the late 1950s crisis in the Party, was living in Detroit and was one of several older independent radicals that the younger radicals sought out. He was writing his autobiography, Black Bolshevik (1978) by then, and Pat became part of a group that worked on its production. She conducted interviews with Haywood, transcribed them, and typed the manuscript. The book has since become a classic of left wing and African American political literature. Black Bolshevik is a sourcebook for the history of the Communist Party, USA, and even as it served the Marxist study group movement in Detroit as a source of critique from the left of the CPUSA’s post-1950s policies, the study group movement itself was triggering frustration for Fry, as its sectarian tendencies led to growing factional fractiousness. As a result, by 1981 two of the major Marxist study group alliances, the Detroit Marxist-Leninist Organization (DMLO) and the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC), had both dissolved. Pat described herself as being “emotionally wrecked” by the experiences in these groups. But despite the fractiousness and the emotional turmoil these activities produced, Pat never lost her resistance to dogmatism and her sense of the necessity for a broad, inclusive left movement, rather than one made up of sects. Hence, whatever political differences people may have had with each other in the study group movement (and, later, within the CPUSA or the broad left), it seemed that all saw in Pat a friend and confidant.
By 1983, Fry had joined the CPUSA, influenced by older radicals like Chris Alston, a Black community leader who had been part of the UAW organizing committee in the drive to unionize the massive Ford Rouge Plant in the early 1940s, a member of the Young Communist League in the 1930s, and of the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, before leaving the Party sometime in the early 1960s, while remaining friendly to the Party and its policies; and Al Fishman, a Communist who was a major Detroit peace activist, and an early computer programmer, who had served for a time as deputy chief of the Detroit Police Department during the Young administration. Pat also credited me with being instrumental in her joining the CPUSA. I’d invited her to a 1983 meeting in Detroit where CPUSA activist and former Smith Act political prisoner Carl Winter gave a talk on the significance of the Young administration, then under attack from right wing forces in the city and region. After hearing Winter’s presentation, Fry wrote, “I filled out a membership card joining the Communist Party that day.”
Within two years she joined the staff of the Daily World as Detroit correspondent. One of her earliest stories was based on interviews with worker-participants in the great Flint GM Sit Down strike of 1936-1937, in celebration of the UAW’s 50th anniversary. Over the next several years, she chronicled a city and class in crisis, as the capitalist offensive against the post-WW II social contract, often called the Treaty of Detroit, after a famous 1950 UAW-GM collective bargaining agreement, came, in Southeast Michigan, under particularly vicious assault. Plant closures, federal abandonment of aid to the cities, the onset of economic crisis and depression, and the increasing difficulty of union and urban officials, no matter whether their background was as radicals or as liberals, to mount an effective response no matter how earnestly they tried, were all part of Fry’s beat. These were also the waning days of the Cold War, although nobody thought of it in those terms then, and the ratcheting up of the peace movement, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, solidarity with the Palestinian people struggling for basic rights (and which had a particular resonance in Southeast Michigan, with its large Arab population), and the effort to keep the United States from intervening against revolutionary and democratic movements in Central America, were also part of Fry’s reporting.
The end of the Cold War, with its crisis of Communist-led socialism, also brought crisis to the CPUSA, which manifested in the resignation of about one-third of its membership at the Party’s 25th national convention in Cleveland at the end of 1991. The Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, an organization formed in the wake of that convention by hundreds of former CPUSA members and by left wingers from other sectors and traditions, including several 1960s “New Left” veterans, as well as activists and leaders in newer movements, emerged at this time. Charlene Mitchell, the Communist Party leader who ran for president of the United States under the Party’s banner in 1968, the first African American woman nominated by any party for the presidency, led the organization until a stroke in 2007 sidelined her. Fry was also a founding member of CCDS. She and Mitchell were close friends and comrades, sharing with others the work of CCDS, on which Fry would devote her political energies.
Pat moved to New York from Detroit to work full-time for CCDS, putting her considerable administrative experience to work with Mitchell in the organization’s national office. She also served on the organization’s leadership body as well as seven years as CCDS co-chair. Fry continued to work for CCDS until joining the staff of the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, as Director of Special Projects, retiring in 2012 after 13 years of service. Fry would continue working with CCDS, writing for its publications, traveling and speaking on the organization’s behalf, advancing the cause of democracy and socialism. Such travels included, most recently, a 2019 trip to Venezuela, just as Donald Trump was applying pressure on the people of that country to force them to abandon the government they’d chosen. And she, along with countless others, would continue to fight for democracy and socialism. Not that she had any illusions about the difficulties of the struggle, or about its protracted nature.
As the presidential election was ramping up in 2016, Susan Webb, an old common friend from late 1970s-early 1980s Detroit and a former editor at the People’s World website, the successor publication to the Daily World, asked several writers, including Pat and myself, to share our reflections on the meaning of socialism in current times. This symposium took place during the Democratic primary season, during which Bernie Sanders placed the question of socialism and socialist politics at the center of public life in the U.S. for the first time in a century.
“There is no blueprint for socialism,” Pat wrote for that People’s World symposium. “Socialism cannot emerge from sentiment, ideology, or wish fulfillment. Socialism emerges because the working class, as it struggles around the crisis of everyday living, comes to recognize that it is a necessity.”
In addition to her mother, Anna Mae Fry, Pat is survived by her sister, Peggy Fry, two brothers, John Fry and Tom Fry, nieces Molly Thomas and Alicia Bennett, and nephews Michael Thomas and Andrew Fry. Her brother Kenneth Alan Fry died in 1974. Memorial contributions in Pat’s honor may be directed to https://bit.ly/PatFryHCJMemorialFund to help fight for universal health care, or to the National Council of Black Lawyers, at www.ncbl.org to help advance the fight against racism (white supremacy) and the inequities it produces.
 Quotations from Pat Fry, unless otherwise noted, are from a memoir-essay in manuscript, “My Story of the Communist Party USA in Detroit,” which will appear in Reds: Lives of U.S. Communists, 1950-2000, which is forthcoming from punctum books.
 Fry wrote a report on the convention for a Detroit alternative newspaper. See “Women Form Labor Coalition.” The Fifth Estate, April 13-26, 1974, pg. 17.
 For an example of Riddle’s work as a historian, see Babson, Steve, Dave Riddle, and David Elsila. The Color of Law: Ernie Goodman, Detroit, and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. Dave and Pat eventually divorced. He died in 2012.
 See Haywood, Harry. Black Bolshevik. Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978. The circumstances under which he parted with the CPUSA are narrated on pgs. 605-627.
 On Carl Winter (1906-1991), Saul Wellman (1913-2003) and the Communist Party of Michigan during the 1950s, see Pintzuk, Edward C. Reds, Racial Justice, and Civil Liberties (Minneapolis: MEP Publications, 1997), and Pettengill. Communists and Community: Activism in Detroit's Labor Movement, 1941-1956 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).
On Chris Alston (1913-1995), see the introduction to the Chris and Marty Alston Collection, Wayne State University, Walter Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs: https://reuther.wayne.edu/files/UP001779.pdf. On Al Fishman (1927-2011), see Lessenberry, Jack. “Farewell to a hero: Al Fishman never gave up the fight.” Detroit Metro Times, June 25, 2011: https://www.metrotimes.com/news/farewell-to-a-hero-2147675.
 For an account of these developments, see Rosenberg, Daniel. “From Crisis to Split: The Communist Party USA,
1989–1991.” American Communist History (2019). https://doi.org/10.1080/14743892.2019.1599627
 CCDS-CPUSA relations were such by this time that Fry addressed the Party’s 30th national convention in Chicago in 2014 with “warm greetings” on behalf of the organization of which she was co-chair at the time. See Fry, “Convention Greeting: Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism.” Communist Party USA. https://www.cpusa.org/article/convention-greeting-committees-of-corresp…
 Fry, Pat. “What is socialism? Let’s get specific.” People’s World. “People’s World Series on Socialism.” 24 February 2016. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/what-is-socialism-let-s-get-specif…