Extra Chapter 2
Playing the Communist Card
Joseph McCarthy’s brutal assault on the liberty of social activists and civil rights workers during the 1950s made him such a demonized figure in American history that the term “McCarthyism” was given to the era. But McCarthy, who was an opportunist more than a man of conviction, could not have wrecked the havoc he did without the assistance and aid of the real head of the White Power movement, J. Edgar Hoover. Though few knew it, the FBI head was both chief investigator and mastermind of McCarthy’s inquisition. He was a lifelong, dedicated `red’ hunter the same insane way the Puritans had been witch hunters. To the average American, however, Hoover was seen as a respected crime fighter, a trusted G-man who was seen as a Christian soldier fighting for law and order in America.
Hoover’s genius -- in addition to his ability to marshal dirt on his enemies -- was his talent for self-serving PR. For fifty years Hoover billed himself as America’s titular top crime fighter, all the while allowing the Mafia a free pass to steal from law-abiding citizens.
The irony was that Hoover used hearsay, rumor, snitching, backbiting, and innuendo to build the FBI into an organization as secretive and unconstitutional as Russia’s KGB itself. He had such limitless power that he was able to blackmail anyone, including the nine presidents for whom he worked.
Using the Smith Act legislation that deemed anyone who belonged to the Communist Party a threat to America, Hoover harassed not only the American Communist Party, but also those in the progressive political and labor movements.
While the atmosphere created by Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover spread a fear of Communists through the land, it provided segregationists with their most effective accusation against those who fought for social justice and civil rights: they were Communists. Whenever a politician wanted to pass legislation that benefited blacks or the poor, there was almost always a red-baiter on the other side of the aisle to combat it. As an example, in May of 1950 Sen. William Benton of Connecticut proposed a Fair Employment Practices Commission to combat race discrimination in employment for federal defense contracts. Bennett argued the bill was essential to national security.
Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia countered by saying he could not understand why the Senate “should pass the bill because of the Communists’ propagandizing a state of affairs that does not exist in this country.” Russell charged that The Daily Worker was claiming credit for the idea.
Russell won the day. The “red” taint on the bill was enough to kill it.
It was, in fact, a tactic that worked long before Joe McCarthy began making his accusations, with the segregationists in the South picking up the mantra to charge anyone who dared challenge Jim Crow with being a Communist.
One of the most effective Red baiters was Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, who in 1937 was first elected to the office of public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama. He won that year with a campaign that centered on communist links to local union activity.
In March of 1949 Connor, who later was best known for attacking civil rights workers and blacks with fire hoses and vicious attack dogs, wrote a column in the Birmingham News in which he “revealed” that the Communist Party had selected thirty American cities for take-over duty by their Fifth Column. Wrote Connor, “Among the American cities so marked is Birmingham, the industrial hub of the South. Think of it! Think of the government of Soviet Russia now planning to take over an Alabama city.” One wonders from whom he heard such preposterous nonsense and whether he honestly believed this to be true. What is certain is that the segregationists came to view any civil rights worker as an agitator who was part of a Soviet-sponsored plan to foment social, economic, and political upheaval.
In 1950 Connor wrote that “Communist operations in this country pose a grave and personal threat to all Americans.” He continued, [There was] “a small but vicious group in this land of ours, and in this city of ours, whose avowed purpose is to destroy our American way of life.”
The person he was writing about, it turned out, was Aubrey Williams, a white southerner who was chairman of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Williams was proposing what for Connors was the unthinkable: the integration of the public schools. Connors stated that Williams was surely a Communist sympathizer for advocating such a policy. He said men like Williams ought to be “sent to Russia.”
After Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1954, the segregationists intensified the pressure to keep the status quo.
In the Southerners’ minds, they were facing a second Reconstruction, but this time they were determined to keep blacks from being part of it. Any white civil rights worker who dared help them were “outside agitators” and Communists by definition.
The group that screamed the loudest about linking civil rights workers to a communist conspiracy were the members of the White Citizens’ Council. Formed in Indianola, Mississippi, as a reaction to the Brown v. Board decision, the Citizens’ Council strongly denounced race mixing and was a stout defender of segregation. Robert Patterson, a founder of the first White Citizens’ Council, gave his opinion that the “dark cloud of integration” was “communist-inspired.” He protested “the Communist theme of all races and mongrelization” and promised that if southerners worked together, “we will defeat this communistic disease that is being thrust upon us.”
Many of the South’s most prominent political and economic leaders belonged to the White Citizens’ Council, which had its own paper, The Citizen, and which sponsored radio and TV shows “exposing” the Communist conspiracy behind the civil rights movement.
“Another group which was formed to maintain the white status quo was the John Birch Society. In early 1959 Robert Welsh, the wealthy candy maker from Massachusetts, gathered likeminded friends in an Indianapolis hotel and founded this group which was named after a Christian missionary and American soldier who had been killed by Red Chinese soldiers in 1945. As far was the members were concerned, any domestic program aimed at helping the poor was socialistic welfarism and a Communist plot to destroy America. After the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the John Birch Society accused Chief Justice Earl Warren of being a Communist and they mounted a campaign to impeach him. Welsh said the Brown decision was a product of “radicalism” within the Supreme Court which “aided Russia’s attempt to absorb the United States.”
Their fear really had little to do with Russia. Their focus was on what Americans were doing at home as the white conservatives claimed that the twin evils of integration and Communism were on the rise.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the John Birch publication, American Opinion, called it “part of the pattern for the Communist takeover of America.”
The truth was that the American Communist Party had disbanded, and that after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the party was toothless and in total disarray. What remained was a commitment by those on the left to civil rights. Since almost no acts of real subversion ever occurred by anyone who had ever been a member of the American Communist Party, what remained for the accusers was what had always worked: guilt by association. To stop someone with a liberal idea, all you had to show was that he was affiliated with the Communists. In truth, you didn’t even have to do that. Guilt by association very often was enough to cost a person his job.
Everyone knows that the Brooklyn Dodgers fled to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. In 1962, after playing several years at the old Wrigley Field in L.A., the Dodgers moved into a modern, beautiful ballpark situated on land on which three hundred Hispanic families had lived with their horses and goats in a beautiful area called Chavez Ravine. The reason the Dodgers were able to move there was because the California Anti-Subversive Committee used its power to stop the men who ran the Los Angeles Housing Authority from building integrated public housing on the site. Monied real estate interests, who wanted the Chavez Ravine land for their own designs, viewed public housing as a form of socialism. When Frank Wilkinson, the head of the Los Angeles Housing Authority, announced a new integrated housing project to replace the Chavez Ravine barrio, a City Council hearing was called.
The meeting was chaotic. During the meeting one of Wilkinson’s critics called L.A. Mayor Fletcher Bowron a “servant of Stalin.” Bowron went into the audience and punched him. When the City Council asked Wilkinson whether he belonged to any Communist organizations, under oath -- on principle -- he declined to answer, causing added furor.
At a public meeting the men behind the integrated housing plan, Monseignor Thomas J. O’Dwyer, Wilkinson, and three other members of the Housing Authority were asked whether they belonged to any organization connected to the Communist Party. All declined to answer. All lost their jobs.
All five were then called before California Anti-Subversive Committee and accused of being Communists. All were fired from their jobs with the Housing Authority. Wilkinson’s wife was fired as a public school teacher for being his wife. WIlkinsons’s sister, who had been nominated for vice-president of the Berkeley Women’s City Club, was unceremoniously tossed out as a member.
Mayor Bowron supported Wilkinson in the face of criticism from The Los Angeles Times, and in 1953 was defeated in the next election by Norris Poulson, who was tightly connected to the Los Angeles real estate lobby and to Fred Burns, the head of the Committee Against Socialist Housing (CASH).
With Republican Dwight Eisenhower in the White House and Republicans controlling the Congress, Burns and his allies went to Washington D.C. Eisenhower had defeated Robert Taft, one of the architects of the Housing Act of 1949, which called for public housing. The new administration cut way back on public housing, even canceling contracts already approved under Harry Truman.
When L.A. received its federal housing grant, Wilkinson and the Housing Authority had promised that L.A. would use the land for public housing. Burns and his wealthy real estate moguls got the agreement cancelled.
When Walter O’Malley began negotiating to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1956, the one hundred and eighty five acre plot that the city was offering O’Malley for practically nothing was the site of one of Frank Wilkinson’s integrated public housing projects: Chavez Ravine.
An article in Frontier Magazine asked, “From public housing to a baseball stadium is a curious turnabout, and if the Dodgers are lured to Los Angeles, what of the evicted people of Chavez Ravine? Were they pushed off their land under the power of eminent domain to make way for a baseball stadium?”
Yes, they were. And it happened because Frank Wilkinson and four other members of the Los Angeles Housing Authority were red-baited and thrown out of their jobs and jailed, allowing the Los Angeles government leaders to take control of that land and give it to the Dodgers..
In 1961, the year construction began on Dodger Stadium, Wilkinson spent nine months at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, after he was found guilty of contempt for refusing to answer whether he was a member of the Communist Party. He wasn’t, but his refusal to answer was enough to land him in jail. After he came out of prison, he was so incensed at the violation of his civil rights, he vowed to spend the rest of his life closing down HUAC and its ilk. It took him and his allies twenty-three years, but HUAC was shut down – finally -- in 1975.
Had Wilkinson been allowed to build integrated housing in Chavez Ravine, certainly the Dodgers would not have ended up there. But integrated housing in 1961 was anathema to the bigoted town fathers, and they wanted that land to give to Walter O’Malley. To succeed they needed to remove Frank Wilkinson, and the only way they could do that was by red-baiting.
What HUAC did to Wilkinson was a disgrace, but it was typical of the times. Before he died in 2006, Wilkinson received a lifetime achievement award from the ACLU, and the city of Los Angeles praised him in a citation for his lifetime commitment to civil liberties and “for making this community a better place in which to live.”
Wilkinson’s story is informative – and chilling.
Frank Wilkinson: “The number one target of HUAC at all times was those who were fighting for integration. Listen to this racism: in 1930 HUAC said the National Negro Aid for Congress was a typical communist front organization. They said it was a typical Communist front because – and this is the charge that made them UnAmerican – they called for the abolition of all laws which result in segregation. They called for the abolition of all laws that disenfranchised the vote for Negroes. They called for the abolition of all laws involving misogyny or intermarriage, abolition of all laws which prevented colored children from attending public schools, called for the abolition of laws which block the colored race from renting of selling houses, all laws which were for equal admittance to hotels, restaurants, railroad stations, waiting rooms, etcetera. By 1954, when the Supreme Court decided Brown versus Board of Education, you’d have to say that the United States Supreme Court had become the number one Communist front in the country.
“I was born in 1914. I graduated from ULCA in 1936 and was brought up in Beverly Hills. I had a very sheltered background, where I didn’t know anything at all about the real world. When I graduated, I did not know there had been a Depression. That’s sheltered. As a graduation present, my mother and father gave me a trip to Bethlehem, Jerusalem. After that I was supposed to do graduate work in the Methodist ministry.
“I encountered poverty for the first time in Chicago on the way to the Holy Land. I went to the Maxwell Street settlement and Hull House and saw how poor people lived. Something out of my Methodist conscience caused me to want to simulate life of the poorest of the poor people, and I went from there to live on the Bowery. I tried to solve the problem of those eating out of garbage cans by buying them ten-cent meals. I quickly ran out of the money I was given for the first three months of my trip.
“I somehow expected there would not be poverty in the Holy Land. When I arrived in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 1936, there were so many beggars in front of the Church of the Nativity that I was not able to enter the church. Hundreds of beggars, barefoot, in sack cloth were begging for baksheesh. A tenth of a penny was the going donation to a beggar in Bethlehem. Waiting to know what it was like to be poor, I moved into the Old City of Jerusalem and lived there for twenty six days with Arab peasants who were living on the streets of Jerusalem. If you were British or Jewish, your life wasn’t worth much. I was introduced as an American. They never heard of America, but they did understand I came from Hollywood.
“I came back to Los Angeles not knowing what to do. I gave up the plans of the Methodist ministry. In my good fortune, I was visited by the ex-diocene director of charities in Los Angeles, Monsignor Thomas J. O’Dwyer. He was looking for someone to join him in a campaign for slum clearance in Los Angeles. I had come out of a rigid, segregationist Methodist background. I had not encountered a Catholic. I only came to know people of other denominations at UCLA when I was chair of the student board of the Religious Conference, which was founded by the national counsel of Christians and Jews. As the chair of that, I got to know Catholics and Jews and Protestants other than Methodists. But only my return from this real rebellion against the hypocrisy of Western faiths, I wondered two hundred years after Christ, twelve hundred years after Mohammed, after 5000 years of Judaism, why there was such a conflict of the teachings of Western religions and practice? So here came a Catholic wanting to see me and not just an ordinary Catholic, but the leading monsignor. I poured out all my feelings of skepticism of the church and the hypocrisy on this priest, who must have been sixty. I was twenty four. He listened to me, and when I was all through he very calmly said, `You did not need to go so far to get so excited.’ He took me out of my home in Beverly Hills to the ghetto of Watts and showed me the conditions of housing among blacks and Hispanics. It was equal to or worse than anything I had seen in the Holy Land. And when he sensed my acute social reaction, on the spot he hired me to become his secretary as part of a movement to make Los Angeles the first city to be slum free.
“Suddenly at age twenty four I was given direction. I put all my zeal into housing. You have to realize that until 1947, when we started our program, L.A. was as segregated as Atlanta, Georgia. The lines were so sharp. The only place in L.A. that was integrated was Watts, a fluke. It was one third white, one third black, and one third brown in 1942 when we established the Housing Authority.
“Our plan was to take people out of the slums of Watts, which was equal to what I had seen in Bethlehem, tear down bad housing, and relocate them. We were working under Plessey v. Ferguson, separate but equal, the law of the land.
“Our program required state-enabling legislation in Sacramento, and I went up for that. We had chosen our sites, and each individual project had to be approved. One was in an area called Soutel, a miserable slum immediately adjacent to Sepulveda Boulevard, not far from UCLA. We decided to put one of the projects there.
“The chair of the appropriations committee of the state legislature was an assemblyman by the name of Augustus Hawkins. He was the father of public housing slum clearance in California. He called me up to the stand to testify on the need for this enabling legislation.
“We were confronted by the pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ of Westwood at UCLA, a very large, expensive Protestant church in Westwood Village. He asked me if we intended to build the project there. I said we did.
“He said, `I’m opposed to that. Cause if you do that, you undoubtedly will bring the black students from Soutel across Sepulveda Boulevard three or four blocks to the Emerson Junior High School where they will be sitting down in the same classroom as my daughters. And while I have no racial prejudice, you can understand that I could not tolerate that project in my community.’ So the program at Soutel was killed in the hearing.
“A couple years later, by 1942, all the sites had been selected, including the Watts Central Avenue area. Watts had started out as a white community, but it had been naturally integrated with blacks and Hispanics living together along with a number of white families. Three projects were being built initially in Watts, one for whites, one for blacks, and a third for Hispanics. The Housing Authority was yielding to pressure of a strong racist nature in L.A., a time when L.A. was bound by restrictive covenants from one end to the other. So the Housing Authority was yielding to public pressure.
“Monsignor O’Dwyer, myself, the League of Women Voters, the president of the Catholic Women’s Club, and some local architects made up the Housing board. Monsignor O’Dwyer was in charge, and I was the foot soldier carrying the load.
“When we learned that we were to build separate but equal housing units, we immediately protested to the Housing Authority, which we had helped to establish, and we demanded that they integrate, particularly in the Watts area where the slums already had been integrated. The Housing Authority would not give in, and the result was that Father Maguire, myself, and the others took a stand that it had to be integrated. We stood in front of that project with little signs. We didn’t use the word `integration.’ That was a word for later. We talked about `open occupancy.’ After three days at the most, the Housing Authority, fearful of the bad public relations of having this priest protesting there and dealing with a project in the heart of Watts, which was no great deal, decided to give in and integrate. They said to O’Dwyer, `Who do you want to run it?’ And he said, `Let Frank try.’ So I was then hired as the first manager of the first integrated housing project in Watts in 1942.
“I found out we had won from Lloyd Washburn, the AFL representative to the commission of the Housing Authority. He later became Undersecretary of Labor to President Eisenhower. He came out to the sidewalk and he said to me, `Frank, we’ve decided if you love niggers so much, we thought you’d like to live with them, so we made you the manager.’
“I was twenty eight years of age, and I was managing the first integrated housing project in Watts, five years before Brown versus Board. So by 1954 we were all deeply concerned about integration.
“Two of our biggest integrated projects were going to be at Chavez Ravine and Rose Hill. I picked sites out of the ghetto, out of the barrio. I wanted every place to be a new area, including one in beautiful hills above City Hall. So not only were we getting creeping socialism – that’s what Robert Taft called it – but we were breaking down racial barriers. The colored people were going to move all over this town, and there would be no stopping them. The racists needed someone to hold the colored people back, and that was the issue. It was that way in Rose Hill and that way in Chavez Ravine.
“Part of my job was to educate people. Because all of the slums were in the south and east of L.A., people on the west side didn’t even know there were slums. I took ten thousand people from the west side on tours to see the slums. I developed a film with Chet Huntley narrating to convince people on the west side there was a problem. The arguments were not social, but economic. You’re paying the taxes for health, housing, police for these slums. It was an argument that had to be made. It explained the need for integration.
“When I was attacked by HUAC and subsequently fired, I assumed it was because I was the spokesperson for the group letting people live where they wanted to live.”
Wilkinson was fired for the same reason most of HUAC’s victims were fired. They bristled at having to answer the question whether they were Communists and whether they were members of any Communist organizations. By 1952, even though he had signed a string of loyalty oaths, Wilkinson finally had enough, and he defended what he felt was his constitutional right to refuse to answer HUAC’s questions or to sign another loyalty oath.
Frank Wilkinson: “With the onset of World War II, I was asked to sign a loyalty oath, and I signed it without any question that I was not a Communist, fascist or a Nazi. We were building public housing in Los Angeles, and there was a gradual opposition to our program from the real estate lobby and the slum owners. We had a Republican mayor, Fletcher Bowron, who was a close friend of my father. We brought in the VFW troops for support, and every year from 1942 to 1952 I signed that loyalty oath til I got to the point where I asked the director, `Why do we have to keep proving we are loyal? Look what we’re doing. We’re building integrated housing.’ We were doing this four years before Sotheby v. Kramer came down striking out restrictive covenants.”
After he lost his job with the Housing Authority, Frank Wilkinson was blacklisted. For months he could not find work until he was hired by a friend to work as a night janitor.
Frank Wilkinson: “I was fired in 1952 from my work in the Housing Authority. They never asked me if I was a Communist. They asked me, `What organizations, political or otherwise, did you belong to since 1929?’ For thirty days in the paper there were headlines, `Reds Take Over Housing’. Wild, wild stuff. I couldn’t walk anywhere without my picture being taken. My wife was fired from her job. She had spent fourteen years as a social studies teacher, one of the most distinguished teachers. She was fired based on guilt by association.
“I couldn’t do anything. I was unemployable. After ten months, a Quaker candidate called me up. I said I needed work. He was connected to a department store, and they could get me work as a janitor. I had been earning a hundred thousand dollars a year in today’s money, and they offered me the job at a dollar an hour.
“I said, `Oh please, anything.’ I took the job. They said, `Don’t tell anybody I’m hiring you. It’ll hurt us. The store closes at six. Don’t arrive until six thirty. There are three floors. Take all the time you want. Work all night if you have to. We’ll pay you a dollar an hour.’
“I worked there every night from six thirty at night until four thirty in the morning cleaning all the show cases, the floors, sixteen toilets, everything, all by myself, alone in that building, for a buck an hour. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life.
“Meanwhile, I had two sons and a daughter. My sons had always gone to the YMCA. My blacklisting came in 1952. In the summer of 1953 I wrote in to say that my kids wanted to go to the summer camp again. They were to leave on a Saturday, and I didn’t hear back until the Wednesday before. I got a phone call from the director of the Y, who also was my Sunday School superintendent from the time I was ten years old until I was out of college. I was very active in the Hollywood Methodist Church, leader of the junior high, high school, and college young people. He came to my house and said, `Frank, I am here to tell you why your children are not allowed to come to camp. The board has had several meetings on this. They do not want your children there.’ And I argued with him that that just was not the Christian thing to do. I said, `You’re blaming the children for the sins of the father.’
“Finally I got a concession from them. They would let my children come on three conditions: He said, `1, the doctor for the Y is unwilling to give them a free medical check up. You’ll have to get a private doctor to do that. 2. You may not bring your children. You have to get someone else to drive them there. No one wants to see you there when you say good bye to the children. 3. On Sunday morning, when all the families come up for chapel services, you may not come. On those three conditions, your children can come.’
“I was gradually breaking down. I was broken when I lost my job, the shock of that, and the damage that did to my life, but then to have my kids hurt this way…I began to cry. I said, `Of course, let them go. Please let them go.’ I got surrogate parents to take my kids there to go for chapel services.”
While still working as a janitor, in 1952 the retired director of the ACLU, the Reverend A.A. Heist, a retired Methodist minister, formed a committee called the Citizen’s Committee to Preserve American Freedom. It was set up to defend people subpoenaed by HUAC. Hollywood had been a prime location for HUAC’s dirty work. They had red-baited the Hollywood Ten in 1948, and they returned for hearings again in 1951 and 1952. HUAC would hold a hearing or two a year right through 1960. In addition to Frank Wilkinson, Heist called on Eason Monroe, who would go on to become the director of the ACLU in Southern California.
Wilkinson at first was reluctant to join. He was afraid his radioactivity would bring ruin. Wilkinson told Heist, `Once the word is out I’m connected with it, I’ll destroy your committee. You don’t know what’s going on in my life.’ Wilkinson said no.
Two days later Heist came to his house with Eason Monroe and a couple others. They said to him, “We know your problems. We still want you.”
Said Wilkinson, “You’re crazy. I need the job desperately, but I don’t want to destroy the defense of civil liberties.”
Monroe replied, “Frank, I’ve been through something similar to you, and I’m asking you personally. Please take this job. The ACLU won’t let me defend the subpoenaed people. It’s hard enough to get them a lawyer. They just don’t want anything to do with it.” At the time one couldn’t join the ACLU unless one signed a loyalty oath. Pleaded Monroe, “Please do it. We need a separate organization to do it.”
Frank Wilkinson: “So I took it. Eason Monroe offered me fifty dollars a week, about the same as what I was getting as a janitor. And I went to work on the committee. And from then on, it was all up hill. I did a wonderful job organizing resistance.”
Despite the personal deprivation, Wilkinson did not cease his civil rights work or his campaign to defend those being persecuted by HUAC.
Frank Wilkinson: “As secretary of this L.A. Citizens Committee Against the UnAmerican Committee, I was invited to travel nationally to talk about how we were fighting back against HUAC in the South. I was invited to Washington DC. This was before the Brown decision. I was in Washington in May of 1954, and I went to the Supreme Court knowing Brown was due to come down. I tried to get in but couldn’t. Izzy Stone gave me his press copy of Brown v. Board of Education. I knew the case. I went that day before I knew the importance of it.
“As late as 1956, two years after Brown v. Board, HUAC held a hearing in which they subpoenaed fifty members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and various bands in town. We had two musicians’ union in L.A., one white and one black. But the jobs that went out went only to the white local. The black local only got what was left over. A group of white and black musicians got together to end Jim Crow once and for all. Cesar Patrillo, head of the musicians’ union out of New York was outraged the union was breaking down the Jim Crow local, and he was the one who invited the UnAmerican Committee to come in and subpoena all of the white and black leaders who brought the unions together.
“They subpoenaed trumpet players and violinists. The musicians wondered whether HUAC was dumb enough to subpoena a whole symphony orchestra. I remember their joy when a tuba player finally got his subpoena. They finally had a whole orchestra, and when HUAC came to town, the musicians union of L.A. rented the largest concert hall and gave a concert entitled Force and Violins.
“That year the committee also called before it all the foreign-born leadership including the minister of a large Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, and I was helping to defend them. I brought in Alexander Meicklejohn, a great scholar, the former president of Amherst, to speak on their behalf. I read this testimony before the Hemmings Committee, a brilliant statement about the meaning of the First Amendment, how far the First Amendment must go.”
HUAC, tired of fighting Wilkinson, figured out the way to get rid of him once and for all was to subpoena him and throw him in jail.
Frank Wilkinson: “Everyone else who had been subpoenaed was pleading the Fifth Amendment. I wasn’t, and even the members of the committee couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, `I plead the First Amendment,’ and they kept saying, `Come on, Frank. Don’t you have one more thing to say?’ I kept saying, `The First Amendment.’
“I was sentenced to a year in jail, and I appealed it, and so in 1956 the ACLU was taking my case all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Wilkinson’s work on behalf of integration in Los Angeles had become known nationwide, and in 1957 he was asked by Dr. James Dombroski, a civil rights organizer, to come to Atlanta to help him fight HUAC, which was coming to Atlanta to try to stop the civil rights work going on there. It was then that Wilkinson saw first-hand that the HUAC’s source of information was the FBI. Not only did the integrationists have to battle the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan, but a less visible but equally dangerous opponent was J. Edgar Hoover.
Frank Wilkinson: “I had never been in the South. One day I got a phone call from Dr. Dombroski saying he wanted me to fly down in Atlanta to organize resistance to HUAC. He knew I had come from a religious background. He said he needed me.
“I called the airlines to book a flight. This was on July 25, 1957. I flew to Atlanta, took a cab to the Biltmore, and within one minute of arriving, there was a knock on my door. Here was a tall, white federal marshal standing in the doorway. He asked if I was Frank Wilkinson, and I said yes.
“He said, `I have a subpoena for you from the House UnAmerican Committee,’ and he handed it to me. I was absolutely dumbfounded. I had no idea I would even be in Georgia until twenty four hours before, and here I get this. I invited the man in.
“I said, `How did you know I was here? I didn’t know I was coming.’
“He said, `I know nothing about that. They called me from Washington yesterday and said to serve you.’
“At the time we had no knowledge of the FBI’s involvement. We thought it was all HUAC. I was a leader in the campaign to abolish the committee, and I figured they were everywhere. I had given them trouble in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and L.A.
“Thirty years later I found out they had a wiretap. Not until 1985 did I find out that I and Carl Braden, and Dr. King and Dr. King Sr. in the Ebenezer Baptist Church all were under twenty-four hour surveillance by the FBI. We had no knowledge of that at the time.”
More than anything, Wilkinson’s organization tried to make sure that those subpoenaed by HUAC would have adequate legal representation.
Frank Wilkinson: “Back then Martin Luther King was not very well known nationally. His associate, Ralph Abernathy, was better known in Montgomery than King. Many of us didn’t know much about the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Dr. King Sr. set up an office for me in the church in Atlanta to work
“As we did in Los Angeles, whenever HUAC came to a town we tried to organize those who were subpoenaed so not only did they have good legal representation, but if we could get one or two lawyers to handle everybody on a cooperative basis, it was less costly. Our other tactic was to take our fight to the public. My job was to take a petition arguing that a dialog between whites and blacks was urgently needed everywhere in the South. Things were polarized in every aspect. This was in 1958, three years before the Freedom Rides.
“I took a petition around to all the black clergy of Atlanta. The petition argued that a dialog between whites and blacks was needed without having HUAC come in and try to say it was un-American. The clergy understood immediately. This shows how advanced the black clergy was in terms of understanding. We got two hundred signatures clergy. I then took the petition to the Atlanta Constitution to have it placed as an ad to greet the committee when it got there.
“Dr. Dombroski and I went to see Ralph McGill, the great editor of the Constitution. McGill was willing to talk to us.
“He said, `I can never take this ad. It would destroy the newspaper.’
“I was full of disbelief. Here we had two hundred people with unequalled credentials, and this great editor said he could not take it. We had to place the ad in the Washington Post, fifteen hundred miles away. No one in Atlanta reads the Washington Post.”
Frank Wilkinson, red-baited and angry, joined with civil rights activist Aubrey Williams to form what they called the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation in an attempt to put HUAC out of business.
Frank Wilkinson: “On August 7, 1958, Aubrey Williams invited me to Montgomery, Alabama. He said to me, `I’m going to start a committee to abolish the UnAmerican Committee. I’ll build an umbrella over you, and I want you to be the director of it.’
”Aubrey Williams was one of the most unlikely people to lead a campaign against the UnAmerican Committee. Aubrey had been close to Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins. He had been hired by the Roosevelt administration to run the National Youth Administration, and it was Aubrey who had located Lyndon Johnson at San Marcos College in Texas where he was a school teacher, and he went there and go acquainted with him and made Lyndon Johnson the lead of the NYA in Texas, and from there Lyndon ultimately became a Congressperson and President.
“Aubrey was strongly anti-Communist. When he was starting out under Franklin Roosevelt, he complained that the Communist Party had tried to infiltrate the WPA. He would boast, `I got every Communist out of the WPA.’
“He was a red-baiter, and I had been subpoenaed myself before the Committee in 1952, but he was impressed by the challenge I had made under the First Amendment.
“I asked him, `Why are you so interested?’
“He said, `In 1953 the Eastland Committee, the Senate on Internal Security subcommittee, had subpoenaed him and Virginia Doer in New Orleans. Paul Crouch, one of HUAC’s stable of informers, had got up on the stand and said that Aubrey was a Communist. Not only was Aubrey not a Communist, but he was the most anti-Communist. Crouch had said he was `the most important Communist in the South, so important he doesn’t have to pay any dues, so important he doesn’t have to go to any meetings, so important he doesn’t have to carry a card. But we all knew he was the transmission belt of the Communist Party in the South.’
“When Aubrey rose to object, Senator Eastland wouldn’t let him challenge the man. They did not allow cross-examination of their accusers.
“Aubrey also told me the story of Virginia Durr, a neighbor. She was on the stand, and Crouch labeled her a Communist. Her husband Clifford, a lawyer, the head of the national Committee of Mitigation Commission under Roosevelt, was sitting there. Clifford was so incensed that Couch called his wife a Communist that he got up, went up to the witness stand, and he took a swing and knocked Crouch clear off the witness stand. Hit him one blow, and he said, `If you go outside and repeat that, I will sue you until you are dead.’ And Eastman banged the gavel and closed off the hearing. There was total confusion, and then they went back to Washington where a report was published that Aubrey Williams and Virginia Doer had been identified as Communists. Which was all you needed. So Aubrey felt that HUAC had to go.
“Aubrey had had his own bad experience. He also had a theory as to why this had happened. He said, `He must have known that Virginia was related to Hugo Black. Black was her brother-in-law. He said, `Eastman probably knew that the Brown v. Board decision was going to come down and Black would be writing it, and Eastland thought that by smearing Virginia Durr, it would be guilt by association indicating that Hugo Black was directly related to Communists.’ That was Aubrey’s theory, and I think that’s a very reasonable theory.”
Wilkinson’s work to stop HUAC ultimately led to his being sentenced to a year in jail by HUAC. After getting the two hundred black clergy to sign the petition calling for dialog between blacks and whites, he had become an important HUAC target. That he was subpoenaed at the Biltmore Hotel the morning after his arrival showed how strongly the committee viewed him as a threat.
Frank Wilkinson: “I had seen man after man after man called up before the committee and gotten fired, and I said to myself, If I ever get a subpoena from that committee, I’m going to go to jail. I’m going to do civil disobedience as an act of personal conscience.
“Before I was to go before the committee, I called the ACLU in New York and asked Roland Watts to give me the names of a couple of ACLU lawyers in Atlanta. All they do is sit beside you while you read the three sentences about pleading the Fifth Amendment. I went to see the two names, and both said, `I’d love to do it, but it would destroy my practice if I did.’
“I called Roland back. `These men wouldn’t do it. Give me more names.’ For four days we went through twelve top ACLU lawyers in Atlanta. The last one I called was Abrams, who later became president of Brandeis. He was the warmest of them all. He said, `I’d love to do it but my partner is in Europe, and I couldn’t do it without consulting him. This is difficult down here.’
“I had no more names. I called back to the ACLU. I had fifteen minutes before I had to go on the stand. They told me, `You’ll have to answer another question, because if you go up there without a lawyer, this test case will be thrown out. We’ll win on the basis of your being denied the right to council. If they ask if you want a lawyer, say no. And that will protect us on procedural grounds.’
“So I went up on the stand in a federal courtroom in Atlanta. They sit like judges. It was unbelievable the way they postured. They were a committee of Congress sitting where the judges usually sit in a federal district court. In front of them were two chairs, one for me and one for my counsel. I went up to one chair and sat down.
“They asked, `Do you wish to have counsel?’ I said no. I looked over at the jury box, which was being used to hold spectators, and all twelve ACLU lawyers I called were sitting there watching the proceedings. None of them would come ten feet and sit beside me. That is an example of what Atlanta was like in 1958.”
Wilkinson’s fellow defendant was Carl Braden. It would be the second jail sentence for Braden. In 1954 he and his wife Anne had been working for The Louisville Courier-Journal. He was a copy editor, she a reporter. They were social activists, but not yet involved in civil rights. The GI bill was set up to provide housing for World War II veterans, but in Louisville only white soldiers could apply. When a black GI by the name of Andrew Wade IV tried to buy a house, he was turned away. Carl and Anne, posing as home buyers, bought the house, and they sold it to the Wade family. When the Wade family moved in, there was outrage. Rocks were thrown, and a cross was burned on the lawn. The next day May 17, 1954, the day the Brown v. Board decision was passed down, a bomb blew the house apart.
Carl, his wife Anne, and five others were charged with overthrowing the government of the commonwealth of Kentucky. Carl Braden, the ringleader, was sentenced to fifteen years for his part in this “Communist plot,” as the prosecutor called it. He served six months, forty days in solitary. When he got out, Braden found that his journalism career was as good as over.
So Braden worked to try to integrate the South, and for his efforts, he and Frank Wilkinson were called before HUAC and asked whether they were Communists. When both refused to answer on Constitutional grounds, both were sentenced to a year in jail. They were the last two victims of the HUAC era.
Frank Wilkinson: “Carl Braden and I were both found in contempt of HUAC, and after we were cited, we had to prepare for an appearance before the federal district court on the contempt charge.
“Carl’s two lawyers were Leonard Boudin and C.U. Tucker, an AME bishop. Carl was proud of the fact he had a white lawyer and a black lawyer. We met at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel in Atlanta, a hotel that would not allow any person of color to come to the hotel for any reason, unless they came through the service entrance to work in the kitchen. We had to bring Bishop Tucker through the freight elevator to get him up to our room to work on our legal defense.
“Our trial itself was unbelievable. The committee demanded a jury trial. We did not answer questions. That was a constitutional question, whether we had a First Amendment right to refuse to answer. Why did we need a jury? While we were before the committee we were not allowed to cross-examine our accusers, and now they want full due process? I said, `This is ridiculous.’ After they brought in the first panel of jurors, my lawyer, Roland Watts asked me, `Do you want to question the jury?’ I said, `Hell, no. Just seat them. Take the first twelve.’ So Roland said, `We’ll take the first twelve.’
“At that point the judge called the two lawyers to come to the bench. He said, `Watts, I don’t understand your client. I want to give him another chance. Tell him he just seated the head of the Ku Klux Klan of Atlanta on his jury, and tell him to remove him.’
“Roland said to me, `You just picked the head of the Ku Klux Klan on your jury, and the judge will allow you to remove him.’
“I said, `Absolutely not. Tell him to stay. Maybe he will learn something.’
“The jury was out twenty one minutes in my case and twenty six minutes in Carl’s case. So I proved I was more dangerous than Carl was.”
Wilkinson and Braden began serving their sentences on May 1, 1961 -- May Day in the Soviet Union. Some think J. Edgar Hoover did this as ironic payback. When it was rumored that President John Kennedy was going to pardon them, J. Edgar Hoover stopped that cold after accusing Wilkinson and Braden of spying for Russia while they were in prison. Guards testified they had been caught observing the landing and taking off of planes at nearby Donaldson Air Force base and were reporting this information back to the Russians. While they were in prison! No charges were filed, of course, because the charges were trumped up, but Hoover was able to make sure they didn’t get their pardon.
Wilkinson left prison on February 1, 1962. Undaunted, he resumed his anti-HUAC campaign, lecturing around the country, proclaiming the evils of abusing the Bill of Rights. Only when J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972 was Wilkinson able to claim victory. He had outlived his enemy. When HUAC was disbanded in 1975, he could crow again, but quietly, because he knew that whenever conservatives regained power, they would resuscitate HUAC to fight those who wanted social justice and equality. HUAC, Wilkinson knew, would always be available as a weapon against those who fought for personal freedom in America.
When in 1986 Wilkinson asked for his FBI dossier under the Freedom of Information Act, he discovered that Hoover had compiled one hundred and thirty two thousand pages on him. All because Frank Wilkiinson championed integrated housing in Los Angeles and because of his untiring belief in the First Amendment.