City College Reissues Tribute to Lincoln Volunteer Who Died in Spain

November 19, 2022
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Mendelson’s portrait in the pamphlet

Wilfred Mendelson (1915-1938), better known as “Mendy,” was one of thirteen CCNY students, faculty and staff volunteers, out of a total of 60, who died fighting in support of Spain’s democracy during the Spanish civil war. A moving 1942 tribute to Mendy from his friends, Let My People Know, is now available online in a new critical edition prepared by CCNY faculty and students. The 96-page pamphlet was originally edited by Joseph Leeds.

A son of Ukrainian immigrants who settled in the lower east side of NYC, Mendy was a charismatic leader who had joined the labor movement that emerged from the discrimination of Jewish workers in Eastern Europe. Before joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, he wrote about the threat of fascism in college publications and lectured in New York City in favor of freedom of speech in the USA.

Our annotated edition of the pamphlet—one of whose few existing copies belongs to the Cohen Library of the City College of New York (CCNY)—features the political activism of Jewish students but also highlights the strong bonds of solidarity between Jewish and African American communities in the 1930s. The writing of CCNY students in the 1930s demonstrates the shared social agendas of the Jewish and the African American communities at the local level (specifically in Harlem, where the CCNY campus is located) as well as nationally and internationally.

Through a variety of testimonies, we learn that over 1,000 students rallied to protest the dismissal of Oakley Johnson, a Black English professor who supported student activists and was publicly known for his communist sympathies. Noteworthy, too, are references to the book The Negro Question in the United States (1936) by James S. Allen, which articulates the communist position on the problem of race relations. Allen argues that in the South of the United States, modes of functioning derived from slave society are still present, which capitalist development has failed to erase. He suggests the need to transform the South into a popular democracy as a key step towards Black liberation.

The pamphlet closes with one of Mendy’s own essays, “World Politics and Ethiopia,” which positions him as a mature political thinker fully aware of the danger of fascism for African independence. Mendy decries the expansion of fascist imperialism in the African continent, framing Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia as the continuation of the “white-man’s burden” and echoing Langston Hughes’s observations from civil-war Spain. “Fascism,” Hughes wrote, “preaches the creed of Nordic supremacy and a world for whites alone.”

Let My People Know, a unique document about the CCNY volunteers who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War, is an invaluable teaching tool to reflect on the role of college students in the shaping of democracy.

Isabel Estrada is an Associate Professor at CCNY. The critical edition of Let My People Know: The Story of Wilfred Mendelson (“Mendy”), Student Leader, Organizer, Journalist, Anti-Fascist Soldier Who Fell in Spain July 28, 1938, was annotated by Prof. Estrada, Stefano Morello, and the students in the Spring 2022 course “Activism and the College Experience” at The City College of New York (CCNY). It can be accessed online at https://cuny.manifoldapp.org/projects/let-my-people-know.

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