A Celebration of the Dynamic Life of Frank Wilkinson

Posted on October 29, 2006

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October 29 , 2006
2:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Room 254 of the Schmitt Center at DePaul University
2320 North Kenmore
Chicago, IL 60614

Program

  • Robert Clarke, Chairperson of CCDBR
  • Rachel Rosen DeGolia, Former Director of CCDBR, Mistress of Ceremonies
  • Donna Wilkinson
  • Pearl Hirshfield
  • Messages from friends not able to join us — Esther Herst, Quentin Young, Emile Schepers
  • Segment of BBC Documentary about Frank
  • Frank Rosen, V.P. United Electrical Workers, retired
  • Timuel Black, CCDBR Board Member, Professor of History
  • Sara Cooper
  • Congressman Danny Davis
  • Kit Gage, Director of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation
  • Musical interlude with visuals of Frank (Don’t Call Me Red by Ry Cooder)
  • Audience Contribution of memories of Frank

The January 4th, 2006 New York Times obituary described Frank Wilkinson’s half century campaign against U.S. government spying on the American people. He taught us how to defeat the House Un-American Activities Committee, spent nine months in Federal Prison for his work and kept the FBI compiling 132,000 documents on him for 38 years. Frank was a true”First Amendment Felon!” He showed us we can win, and his legacy is his fighting spirit and his unfailing faith that when told the truth the American people will fight for their rights.

More than 50 people joined The Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights in a gathering of Frank’s many Midwest friends and colleagues to celebrate his deep commitment and relentless energy in the fight for civil liberties. Today the fight for the Bill of Rights is more important than ever and Frank’s life is a a model for all of us who continue that fight.

Event Honoring Committee

HONORARY CO-CHAIRPERSONS
Timuel Black
Pearl (Mrs. Hyman) Hirshfield
Donna Wilkinson

COMMITTEE
Aaron & Alice Adler, Sarah Cooper, Congressman Danny Davis ,Dr. Peter DeGolia, Rachel Rosen DeGolia, Martin Deppe, Joan Elbert, Ruth (Mrs. Thomas) Emerson, Kit Gage, Jesus Garcia, Pat Gleason, Richard Gutman (attorney for Chicago Red Squad suit), Susan Gzesh, Yolanda Hall, Carol and Kenan Heise, Esther Herst, Ilse Herst, Mrs. Luster Jackson, Cliff Kelle, Rhita Lippitz, Peggy Lipshutz, Jose Lopez, Bea and Frank Lumpkin, Marilyn McKenna, Kevin Martin, Honrable Abner Mikva, National Lawyers Guild — Chicago Chapter, Mary Powers, Jane Ramsey, Harold Rogers, Mark Rogovin, Bernice Rosen, Frank Rosen, Norman Roth, Salsedo Press, Emile Schepers, Alderwoman Helen Schiller, Elisabeth Solomon, Studs Terkel, Sue Udry, Rev. Don and Mrs. Anne Wheat, Josephine Wyatt, Tim Yaeger, and Dr. Quentin Young

Event Patrons

FRANK WILKINSON BENEFACTORS
Timuel Black
Robert H. Clarke
Michael & Janet Hanley
Rhita Lippitz
Billie Rosman in memory of Ben & Florence Green

FRANK WILKINSON PATRONS
Connie Hall
Willie L Hart
Margaret Lipschutz
National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression/Chicago Branch
Lillian Osran
Anna Nessy Perlberg
Hazel & Hyman Rochman in memor of Charles Spencer
Carl Rosen
Joan E. Spencer
John & Elsa Weber
Janice Weinman

FRANK WILKINSON SUPPORTERS
Laura Baden
Brenetta Howell Barrett
Chicago Democratic Socialists of America
Martin & Peg Deppe
Joan Elbert
Fred Hicks
Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Kane
Ethel Liten
Lou Pardo
Frank & Bernice Rosen
Gertrude Rubin

Frank’s Biography

Frank Wilkinson: Johnny Appleseed Of The First Amendment

Frank Wilkinson was the kind of folk hero of American life that we think of when we think of Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan. Larger than life, legendary and making a profound difference in the fabric of our society. The seed Frank planted was a much more fragile seed: the knowledge of the value and the importance of individuals and groups using the Bill of Rights as a tool to fight against government repression.

Frank came from a privileged background and was supposed to go into the Methodist ministry. Whenever Frank spoke of the First Amendment and Civil Liberties it was with all the passion of a true believer — there was never a more passionate minister in a pulpit than Frank speaking of the First Amendment and its importance in the life of every American.

After completing college Frank spent time traveling in the Middle East where he encountered and lived with the poorest of the poor for many months. He came home to the US with an entirely different perspective on the world. Troubled by what he had seen, he went to talk about his experiences with his friend Monsignor Thomas O’Dwyer. The good father said “get in the car”, nd took Frank to Watts where he saw everything he had seen in the Middle East and more, but had never known existed eight miles from his family home.

In l939 Frank went to work for O’Dwyer to help create a major integrated public housing project for the city of Los Angles at Chavez Ravine (where today Dodgers Stadium stands instead). Because he insisted on integrating public housing for people of all colors, Frank became a “dangerous radical” whose passion for justice led him to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I.

It is ironic that In l943 Abel Meerapol and Earl Robinson wrote a song recorded by Frank Sinatra and also by Paul Robeson, called The House I Live In. It advocated that people of all colors and nationalities living together is what makes America great. Sinatra became a star, Frank Wilkinson working for all the virtues extolled in the song ended up going to prison for trying to create a house to live in for all people no matter what they looked like or what language they spoke.

When Frank refused to answer the questions about his political and personal beliefs to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) — both the “little HUAC” of California and McCarthy’s “big” HUAC from Washington — he insisted on standing on his First Amendment Rights. He believed that too many thugs and criminals had used the Fifth Amendment, which in the public mind was the way to avoid admitting criminal behavior. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court where Frank and Carl Braden (another great housing and civil liberties fighter) lost; and they were the last two people to go to prison under the Smith Act. He and Carl were sent to the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and other prisons.

When Frank emerged from prison in l962 he helped to found the National Committee to Abolish HUAC. He worked with organizations like the National Lawyers Guild and the Southern California ACLU. The struggle was to abolish HUAC and Frank traveled almost constantly speaking to anyone and everyone about the dangers which HUAC represented to the Bill of Rights.

In l975 about the time the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was relegated to an ugly footnote in American judicial history, the National Committee to Abolish HUAC changed its name to the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation. Then Congressman Father Robert Drinan said :”No account of the demise of the House Un-American Activities Committee would be complete without a notation of the extraordinary work done by the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation.

Kit Gage, current director of NCARL said “of the last 50 years Frank has been one of the people most closely identified with the defense of the First Amendment.” Nadine Strossen, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke of Frank as “a towering and inspiring figure throughout his entire career, starting from when he was a young person being an advocate for equal rights for the poor and members of racial minorities.” She continued by saying Frank “was also constantly challenging government’s power to restrict First Amendment freedoms of belief, speech and association, and also opposing government violations of privacy, as well as government secrecy , which continues to be dramatically relevant today.”

Wilkinson was a member of the Communist Party for more than four decades. When he discovered, in l986, that the FBI had been keeping surveillance files on himself and NCARL, he got the prestigious California Law firm of Loeb & Loeb to file a Freedom of Information Act suit against the FBI. After a long struggle the FBI released 132,000 pages of files, the largest file of its kind at that time. The full story of this struggle and Frank’s success in court forbidding the FBI to ever spy on him again is told in Robert Sherrill’s 2005 biography First Amendment Felon. The FBI had been surveilling Frank for 38 years and the book reveals the various styles of FBI sabotage against Frank’s work and with the organizations that he helped to found and build.

Today, Frank Wilkinson is not only a political hero but has also entered the mainstream of American culture. The theatre group Culture Clash performed, in 2003, a play Chavez Ravine in which Frank is a central character. Ry Cooder of Buena Vista Social Club fame has released a new CD called Chavez Ravine on which there is a song in Frank’s honor called Don’t call me a Red. Studs Terkel s brilliant 1984 interview with Frank is available at this event today; and a recent documentary on Chavez Ravine made by Jordan Mechner and Don Nomark also features Frank’s role in the struggle for public housing. The Un-Americans, a BBC documentary, includes material on Frank’s life; and UCLA houses many many hours of oral history of Frank’s life.

Some years ago it was possible for Senior Citizens to buy passes for unlimited flying on major airlines. After Frank flew 100,000 miles on at least one airline, this unlimited pass was denied him by other airlines. Johnny Appleseed walked this country spreading his seeds one by one: Frank Wilkinson flew this country from one side to the other countless times and the seeds he planted are in our hands. As Kit Gage has said “Frank worked to help people to recognize that the Bill of Rights is a living document but not self-enforcing: The only way the Bill of Rights will continue to exist is by the people of the United States acting to exert their rights.”

This is Frank’s legacy to us. The Bill of Rights is in more danger today than ever before. As we honor him today, we must leave knowing that his work is not finished and never will be until all of us have taught the next generations that we must continue the struggle in whatever form it comes into our lives. Now, more than Frank could have dreamed, the threats to our civil liberties continue to grow; and Frank’s struggle becomes more and more a beacon of what an individual can achieve with an unshakeable belief in the basic goodness of the American people.