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David Cook

In 1950, Dr. Louis Miller, a heart surgeon from New York City who immigrated from Lithuania as a boy and became a lifelong vegetarian after working on the floor of a meatpacking factory, was sentenced to prison.

His crime?

"Helping orphans and women," said David Miller, his nephew.

It was the 1930s. In New York, Dr. Louis Miller belonged to the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC), a charity that helped refugees escape the Spanish Civil War and the bloody dictator Francisco Franco.

They shuttled funds from here to there, allowing women, children and families to flee to Mexico, South America, other parts of Europe. The younger Miller, a lifelong educator now retired in Ringgold, Ga., believes his uncle — they called him "Doc" — even adopted a fleeing brother and sister who eventually left New York for Mexico.

As the 1930s tumbled into the WWII '40s, JAFRC continued to raise funds.

Then came the rise of communism.

And the Red Scare.

Fear begat fear, which begat Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

"They were one of the first attacked by McCarthy," Miller said.

The U.S. government questioned whether the JAFRC was a Communist front and demanded to see a list of all its donors.

JAFRC committee members refused.

Put on trial, they were found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to federal prison.

"They were the first ones who wound up going to jail," Miller said.

According to Miller's research, on the day his uncle and others went to prison, JARFC published a full-page ad in The New York Times, listing every single donor.

"We will show the American people our donor list, but not the McCarthy committee," Miller said of the ad's message.

Released months later, Doc Miller was blacklisted; hospitals refused his service. He never worked as a heart surgeon again.

Stories swirl about Doc Miller. His nephew has heard that Doc and his brother, who enlisted for WWII at the age of 57, somehow drove ambulances to aid Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution. And also sent medical supplies for Bay of Pigs prisoners. And received JARFC donations from none other than Eleanor Roosevelt.

After prison, Doc opened his own small general practice in New York. There, he became a saint of the streets.

"The ultimate doctor," Howard Fast wrote in "Being Red." "He was a person of healing, and he would go anywhere at any time if he was needed."

David Miller knew some JARFC members, like Fast, were communists, but he never asked his uncle. For a while, he paid for the upkeep of his uncle's cemetery plot in New York.

Now his care for his uncle has taken a new direction.

A presidential pardon.

"Dear President Obama," his letter begins. "My father's brother, Dr. Louis Miller, was one of the approximately 130 Americans who went to prison during the McCarthy era for exercising their constitutional rights. I am writing you to request that you posthumously pardon all of these courageous Americans. Their lives, as well as many thousands of others, were ruined during the McCarthy era."

On Oct. 11, he mailed his letter to the White House.

No response.

Yet.

In the meantime, he's shaking every tree he can for support. (The family of Ethel Rosenberg, an American convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and executed in 1953, is also seeking a presidential pardon.) He's written Kirk Douglas, who was one of the first blacklisted actors.

"Mr. Douglas was very interested in your letter," his assistant wrote back. "Unfortunately, he is almost 100 years old and will not be able to assist in this endeavor."

Miller's tried Diane Sawyer.

John Karl, of ABC News.

Former President Jimmy Carter.

The daughter of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Morris Dees. Rachel Maddow. Rep. John Lewis.

If only he had contacts for the first lady, he thinks to himself. Or Vice President Joe Biden.

"It's to right a historical wrong. These people, and thousands of others, suffered," he said.

In this new age of refugees and fear, Dr. Louis "Doc" Miller's story once more matters. As does his nephew's, who reminds us that the dead are still with us.

Their courage.

Their conscience.

And our obligation to them.

"If not you, who?" Miller wrote to Obama. "If not now, when?"

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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