Until his arrest in July 1932, Angelo Herndon was a teenager passionately concerned about the racial inequalities and class conflict on the streets of Georgia. His communist leanings compelled him to fight for economic rights for workers but what caught the attention of federal authorities was his attempt to organize peaceful protests to demand relief payments for unemployed workers in Atlanta.
He was arrested and sentenced to 20 years on a Georgia chain gang on charges of inciting a rebellion. His five-year legal tussle for his freedom at the courts ended up exposing the flaws and gross injustice in Georgia’s legal system, according to Georgia Encyclopedia.
His action was deemed a federal threat because the city of Atlanta in the 1920s was in economic turmoil. On June 30, 1932, approximately one thousand workers who had been laid off stormed the Fulton County Courthouse to demand the reinstitution of their relief payments which had been temporarily suspended.
This compelled federal authorities to make an emergency appropriation of $6000 to tackle the payments to avert possible labor unrest. Herndon’s attempt to stoke the flames was seen as a move to trigger social instability. Federal authorities had initially set spies to monitor local radicals who were reported to be setting the stage for a series of demonstrations. The police arrested Herndon after two-week surveillance of his movement. He was picked up when he went to the post office for his mail.
Herndon was 19 years old when he relocated from Ohio in search of a job in the mines of Kentucky. When conditions were not favorable, he moved to Alabama where he was exposed to communist teachings in the 1930s. He was swayed by the campaigns of communists for labor reforms and the integration of society. He was apprehended several times by the police for his work with the Communist Party, forcing him to travel to Atlanta in 1931.
When he arrived in Atlanta, he started organizing the workers for several months. When this came to the attention of the authorities, they arrested him on charges of attempting to fuel an insurgency. He was represented by two young Atlanta Black attorneys, Benjamin J. Davis Jr. and John H. Geer. They challenged the constitutional basis of the charges as well as the legality of an all-white jury.
Herndon was sentenced on January 18, 1933, only three days after the commencement of his trial. The jury asked that he should be sentenced to 20 years imprisonment instead of being slapped with a death sentence. In May 1934, his legal team appealed the judgment at the Georgia Supreme Court but the decision was upheld. All in all, after an appeals process that lasted four years, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Herndon’s conviction. He was freed from prison on April 26, 1937, in a narrow victory which finally struck out Georgia’s insurrection statute.
While in prison, Herndon wrote his autobiography “Let Me Live”, which historians believe raised awareness of his plight.