Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Fascinating bit of almost forgotten history...

From today's NY Times:

Frank Wilkinson, a Los Angeles housing official who lost his job in the Red Scare of the early 1950's and later became one of the last two people jailed for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether he was a Communist, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 91...

In 1952, when Mr. Wilkinson was head of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, he spearheaded a project to replace the sprawling Mexican-American neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, home to 300 families and roamed by goats and other livestock, with thousands of public-housing units.

Real estate interests that viewed public housing as a form of socialism accused Mr. Wilkinson of being a Communist. When asked about this, under oath, he declined to answer, causing a furor.

After a City Council hearing, in which Mayor Fletcher Bowron punched a man in the audience who had called him a "servant of Stalin," Mr. Wilkinson was questioned by the California Anti-Subversive Committee. Mr. Wilkinson was fired along with four other housing officials and five schools employees, including his first wife, Jean.

The housing project was scuttled and much of the land eventually turned over to the city, after which it became the site of Dodger Stadium, new home to the former Brooklyn Dodgers...

Mr. Wilkinson consistently refused to testify about his political beliefs. He had, in fact, joined the Communist Party in 1942, according to "First Amendment Felon," a 2005 biography by Robert Sherrill. He left the party in 1975.

Mr. Wilkinson continued his antipoverty activities and, in 1955, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which wanted to know whether he was a Communist. This time, Mr. Wilkinson used what he believed was a novel approach. Instead of claiming his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination, he refused to answer on First Amendment grounds, saying the committee had no right to ask him.

The committee requested that Congress cite Mr. Wilkinson for contempt, but it was not until 1958 that he and a co-worker, Carl Braden, became the last men ordered to prison at the committee's behest. Mr. Wilkinson fought the contempt citation in the courts, but the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, affirmed it.

At a press conference after the decision, Mr. Wilkinson said: "We will not save free speech if we are not prepared to go to jail in its defense. I am prepared to pay that price."

I've always been of the school of thought that said that conservatives, in supressing the speech and rights of Communists (not their activities such as espionage) were a far greater threat to the United States than most Communists. Today, of course, this is manifestly true.

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