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Frank Wilkinson, 1915–2006 He “Outlived Those Bastards”
C ivil liberties activist Frank Wilk inson had a presence that filled a room in life and it did so again after his death January 2, 2006 at the age of 91. It was standing room only at the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles where I joined some 700 other people at a memorial and celebration of Frank’s life. I worked with Wilkinson for over 30 years, and many in the audience had that same honor. We shared memories of Frank with his family, his wife of nearly 40 years, Donna, the assorted children from two marriages, nearly a score of grandchildren, and six greatgrandchildren.
Wilkinson did not start out as a civil liberties activist, but as a housing activist engaged in the struggle for civil rights; first with a Los Angeles Catholic coalition seeking better housing for the poor, and then with the Los Angeles Housing Authority (LAHA). As an activist, Wilkinson had pestered the LAHA to build better housing in better locations, and to create integrated communities (this was in 1942)—decades before the law and society caught up with these ideas. Over the next few years Wilkinson did just that, against the advice of his friends in the Communist Party who thought Los Angeles was not ready for integration.
This was, after all, the Los Angeles of rising bigotry and violence against Mexican Americans, especially young men called “pachucos.” These were rebellious youth who wore baggy pants, “Zoot Suits,” or other flashy apparel, and who refused to be servile in public.
Despite this history of bigotry, Wilkinson had a dream of building decent integrated public housing for the poor. In the 1940s and early 1950s there was a thriving poor and working class community near downtown Los Angeles. It was in the hilly terrain of Chávez Ravine that three villages—La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde—were home to over 1,000 people, including many Mexican Americans. It was nicknamed the “Poor Man’s ShangriLa.”
Wilkinson had the job of convincing residents that if they supported a public housing project in Chávez Ravine, they would get first choice of the new rental units, a promise guaranteed in writing by LAHA. Some resisted, but others agreed. Support grew. The LAHA scheduled hearings in 1952 for taking 35 acres through eminent domain. It was to be an integrated community. “It meant bringing black and brown people and Asian people out of ghettos of various kinds and have them living with Anglo people in Chavez Ravine,” Wilk inson later told a newspaper.
Wilkinson had collared his friend Richard Neutra, a Los Angeles architect with an international reputation, to design the public housing units for a variety of income levels with singlefamily homes alongside lowrise and highrise apartments. There would be parks, playgrounds, and adequate parking for the projected 3,500 residents. Space was left for building elementary schools and shopping centers. This was prime real estate just north of downtown—and that was the problem. Powerful political and real estate interests began to organize against the plan. A diversionary scapegoat was needed. The Committee Against Socialist Housing was formed.
I n the midst of the “red scare,” Wilkinson was testifying about rat infestation when an attorney for a developer asked him to name all the organizations he had belonged to since high school. Wilkinson knew what they were after, but he tried to bluff his way through by talking about being in Youth for Herbert Hoover and other organizations. The attorney, however, had been fed information from an FBI dossier provided to the LA chief of police.
Wilkinson refused to answer further questions about his political memberships and he was promptly fired. Wilkinson then was called before a California state committee investigating subversion. A group of schoolteachers wrote to support him and they too were fired. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times carried screaming headlines demanding a “red probe” of the LA Housing Authority. The City Council, which had unanimously supported the Chávez Ravine housing project, suddenly killed the plan—with rumors of bribes from real estate interests.
It was hard on the family, especially the children. Frank’s son Tony told us at the memorial: “We knew our phone was tapped. We knew about the phone calls of silence…we knew about the parked cars with men in suits.” The FBI learned of an assassination attempt targeting Wilkin son and did not warn him or his family. The FBI instead staked out the Wilkinson house waiting to see what happened. Tony said this was part of a pattern. “Later, we heard the explosion of the firebomb on our front stairs. We saw the painted swastika. We knew about the death threats; one that was signed warned Wilkinson to ‘make your final preparations….’ The response from LA county sheriff was: ‘That’s not a threat, that’s just good advice’.”
Wilkinson eventually found work as the night custodian of a store
owned by a sympathetic ally who insisted the job would last only
as long as it was kept a secret.
Wilkinson, in 1953, became a leader of the Citizens Committee to Preserve American Freedoms, which defended those called before Congressional investigative committees. A few years later he was subpoenaed to appear before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). He claimed a First Amendment right to refuse to testify. In 1961, in a 54 vote, the Supreme Court rejected the First Amendment defense. Wilkinson would be one of the last victims of the McCarthy era to be sent to jail for refusing to testify.
After nine months, Wilkinson emerged from prison to resume work with the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, which he had helped found in 1960. When HUAC was finally abolished in 1975, the anti HUAC group morphed into the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation (NCARL). In the mid 1980s, Wilkinson helped found the First Amendment Foundation.
For decades, Wilkinson crisscrossed the United States speaking to audiences ranging from grammar schools to Rotary Clubs to college classrooms. As he did so, the FBI spied on Wilkinson and sought to disrupt his organizing and have his speeches cancelled. Wilkinson sued, forcing the FBI to disgorge 132,000 pages of files on his activities. (The story is told in First Amendment Felon by Robert Sherrill.)
In his audio CD containing a song cycle on the history of Chávez Ravine, Ry Cooder includes a lament about Wilkinson titled “Don’t Call Me Red.” Cooder spoke at the memorial event and afterwards talked about how he transformed serious historic research into a work of art. Cooder was especially delighted with a particular Wilkinson comment, which he incorporated into the song. Wilkinson gleefully told Cooder: “I outlived those bastards after all.”
Frank Wilkinson spent over 50 years defending dissent and the First Amendment. It was on our minds as we gathered to celebrate his life. Speaker after speaker told us what we already knew in our hearts: it was our turn to stand up. And we knew that collectively, as a movement tirelessly working to extending civil rights and civil liberties, we will always outlive “those bastards.”
Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, is also an advisory board member of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
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MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
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MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
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MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
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LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.