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.
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
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.
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
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.”
Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, is also an
advisory board member of the National Committee Against Repressive