1961--SLATE sponsors Frank Wilkinson on campus

 

Frank Wilkinson' speech at UC Berkeley

 

On March 22, 1961, 3500 UC Berkeley students rallied to hear a speech by Frank Wilkinson.  Wilkinson was a well-known progressive activist who had been recently indicted in a federal district court for refusing to answer questions asked by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  The Committee wanted the names of his political associates and the organizations with which he and others were affiliated.  By the time of his Berkeley speech, Wilkinson had helped form the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, and had become the most recognizable public opponent of HUAC.  Taking advantage of UC President Clark Kerr's relaxation of restrictions on political speech on campus, SLATE gave Wilkinson a podium while he was in the midst of a tour of campuses where he spoke before thousands of students.  Wheeler Auditorium could not hold the overflow crowd wanting to hear Frank, so a loud-speaker was set up outside.  

Wilkinson's advocacy for public housing in Los Angeles

Wilkinson had been a long-term, effective figure in the Los Angeles Housing Authority (LAHA), fighting for the construction of affordable public housing.   He publicly defended a plan for a new major public housing project, Elysian Park Heights, to be built in the mostly Hispanic and impoverished Chávez Ravine area.  The Ravine landlords, the LA Police Department  and the LA City Council, however, wanted to raze the existing housing in the Ravine and buy the property to build a Dodger baseball stadium.

Frank testified at length before a court condemnation hearing, where he emphasized slum-like conditions in the Ravine and the need for public housing.  At the hearing, the landlords' lawyer brought up a political dossier on Frank Wilkinson and other Housing Authority employees that had been given to him by LA Police Chief William Parker. Wilkinson responded to the obvious red-baiting tactic by refusing to answer questions about his political associations, as "a matter of personal conscience."  The court ruled him disqualified as an expert and his testimony about the need for public housing was stricken from the record. The Los Angeles City Council then passed a resolution calling upon HUAC to come to Los Angeles to investigate the Housing Authority. 

 

A citation for "contempt of Congress" and a jail sentence
 

The California Senate's "little HUAC" (the California Senate Fact-finding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities) subpoenaed both Frank and his wife, Jean, a high school social studies teacher, for a closed session.  It was clear the Committee's only purpose in investigating the Wilkinsons was to discredit the Los Angeles Housing Authority and neutralize its influence on public policy .   As a matter of "personal conscience and social responsibility," Frank and Jean refused give answers to the Committee's political questions.  They were both fired immediately.   Frank was subsequently subpoenaed twice by HUAC and in both cases refused to testify.  Rather than cite the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination, Wilkinson asserted his rights of free speech and association under the First Amendment. This earned him a citation for contempt of Congress.  As the investigation of the Housing Authority continued, its public housing program collapsed and Chavez Ravine became Dodger Stadium in 1962.  On May 1, 1961, five weeks after his Berkeley speech, Wilkinson entered Federal Prison to serve a year-long sentence.

 

 

Students gather on the steps of Wheeler Hall to listen to loudspeakers carrying the speech of Frank Wilkinson, anti-HUAC activist.

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Frank Wilkinson's speech was piped outside of Wheeler Auditorium, and the crowd in Dwinelle Plaza listened attentively, caught up in his moving personal story and his warnings of HUAC's threat to civil liberties in America.

The crowd stretched all the way to Sproul Hall,  and newspaper and FBI surveillance photographers used the Sproul balcony as a vantage point.

A large crowd in UC Berkeley's Dwinelle Plaza waits to hear Frank Wilkinson's SLATE - sponsored speech.

Another crowd shot

Some found a wall a convenient place to sit and listen to Frank Wilkinson.

A typical Berkeley student audience for the time, so serious, so white.