LOS ANGELES — Junius Scales, the only American Communist Party member to serve prison time after being convicted of violating a 1940 law that made it illegal to belong to any organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, has died. He was 82.
Mr. Scales, whose sentence was commuted by President Kennedy in 1962, died of heart failure and the effects of a stroke Monday in a New York hospital.
Mr. Scales, who joined the Communist Party in 1939 while a student at the University of North Carolina, later became a prominent party spokesman and target of the FBI for his activities organizing workers in the South for the Communist Party USA.
Arrested by the FBI in 1954, he was convicted under the membership clause of the Smith Act after two trials in federal court and a lengthy appeals process that twice reached the Supreme Court.
Mr. Scales, who publicly left the Communist Party in 1957, was sentenced to six years in 1961.
The Supreme Court later declared the law unconstitutional.
The Scales case became a cause celeb, his imprisonment spurring a flurry of letters to Kennedy demanding clemency. Among prominent Americans who came to Scales' defense were civil-rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt; writers Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and Saul Bellow; and labor leaders Walter Reuther and George Meany. An editorial in The New York Times, calling Scales a "misguided idealist," stated: "There is something un-American in having even one political prisoner in the United States."
On Christmas Eve 1962, over the objections of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, Kennedy commuted Mr. Scales' sentence to 15 months served.
Junius Irving Scales was born in Greensboro, N.C., on March 26, 1920, the son of a socially and politically prominent family. His father was a lawyer and developer whose side of the family included a governor of the state.
The bookish Mr. Scales grew up in a 36-room mansion, and the only blacks he knew were the family's servants. His arrival at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill as an undergraduate was a life-altering experience.
He was astonished, he wrote in his 1987 memoir, "Cause at Heart: A Former Communist Remembers," to discover "immeasurable suffering, exploitation, and poverty had existed among thousands of people, right under my nose all my life, and I'd been totally unaware of it."
At the university, he joined the Karl Marx Study Club and became its head.
He became a Communist, Mr. Scales said in an interview with Contemporary Authors, because "the Communist Party opposed fascism, organized workers, projected a Socialist future, and, alone, stood for the full, economic, political, and social equality of blacks."
Mr. Scales' absorption into social and political questions of the day led him to quit college and become a union organizer. He also began rising in the ranks of the party's North Carolina state committee, but his political activity was curtailed when he joined the Army after Pearl Harbor.
Mr. Scales returned to Chapel Hill after the war and resumed his Communist Party activities. He also was elected vice president of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, becoming the first white officer of the mostly middle-class, Communist-led group.
When the Communist Party came under attack from the Justice Department for violation of the Smith Act, Mr. Scales was forced by the party to go underground. He was arrested three years later in 1954 in Memphis. In 1957, before his second trial, Mr. Scales left the Communist Party.
In his interview with Contemporary Authors, he said he was "still proud of its pioneering struggle for civil rights, its opposition to war and McCarthyism, and its support of the workers. However, I was profoundly disgusted with its subservience to the Soviet Union, its sectarianism, its grandiosity, its ambivalence on democratic issues.
"The revelations of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev about his predecessor Josef Stalin and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution completed my disillusionment."
When he was released from prison in 1962, Mr. Scales was 42. He had a wife and daughter to support and no longer was interested in activism.
Mr. Scales landed a job as an overnight proofreader in The New York Times composing room. His wife, Gladys, who had led the writing campaign to free him from prison, became a teacher. She died in 1981.
Mr. Scales is survived by his daughter, Barbara, of Montreal; and one grandchild.