California’s “Un-Americans:” Legislature tracked thousands of citizens

Although U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin serves as poster ogre for anti-Communist crusades of the early 1950s, Congress’ most notorious “Red Scare” investigations took place under the purview of the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC, as it was known, pre-dated McCarthy by 14 years and continued for more than a decade after his demise. As documented in Frank Donner’s 1961 book “The Un-Americans,” the committee investigated thousands of U.S. citizens for alleged ties to the Communist Party.

Turns out, the feds weren’t the only folks interested in “un-American” activity.

The California Legislature also was into that game through an entity known as the California Committee on Un-American Affairs. The California State Archives recently released records kept by that joint committee, which existed under various names from 1940 to1968. The files reveal the extent to which California tracked its citizens’ political activity, detailed in more than 125,000 index cards on approximately 20,000 organizations and individuals.

According to archivist Jeff Crawford, the focus shifted according to events of the day, from labor unrest and fascist movements in the early ‘40s to communist influence in the ‘50s to racial unrest, Vietnam War protests and California’s over-heated counter-culture movement in the 1960s.

At a time when concern over federal intrusion into personal privacy has been super-sized by the exploits of Edward Snowden, these archives indicate that even state government has a long history of snooping. Every person or organization that was a subject of discussion for the committee was methodically listed in on the cards, which cross-reference other files that contain newspaper clips, mailing order and subscription lists, posters, correspondences and even Dictaphone tapes that connect people and organizations with elements deemed subversive by the committee. The documents span the entirety of the committee’s 30-year history.

State Sen. Jack Tenney (D-Los Angeles), a lawyer, labor leader and song writer, chaired the committee from 1941 to1949. Among his controversial efforts were amending the state constitution to mandate constitutional oaths for University of California faculty and introducing legislation to forbid the teaching of “un-American” subjects in public schools.

Those investigated by the committee reads like a laundry list of California luminaries, spread across three decades. In an effort to track down Communists and Communist sympathizers, the committee kept tabs on, among many others, UC Chancellor Clark Kerr, authors John Steinbeck and Dashiell Hammett, and actors Marlon Brando and Kirk Douglas.

Not that those efforts led to overcrowded prisons. According to historian and former state librarian Kevin Starr’s book “Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950,” not a single one of the people discussed during Tenney’s chairmanship was convicted or even indicted for subversion.

In the 1960s and ‘70s the committee turned its attention to civil rights and Vietnam War protests. Among those who earned index cards were future Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, D-San Francisco; Free Speech Movement activist Mario Savio and one of his cohorts, future Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles; beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton and other Black Panther Party members; and United Farm Workers’ founders Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta.

Brown, listed as a “Negro attorney,” first gained the committee’s attention in July 1963 where an entry identified the future speaker as an attorney for Terry Francois in a paternity suit. Francois was an activist on issues involving discrimination in housing. Later that same month, another entry finds Brown as “saying that he had been erroneously quoted as having said ‘the San Francisco Chronicle are the enemy of the Negro people.’” Among many other entries, a June 1964 note reports that Brown “won Demo. nomination for Assembly, 18th District, S.F.” Later notations list Brown’s endorsements for office. A Chronicle photo is cross-referenced, purporting to show Brown being arrested on April 16 at a 2:00 a.m. demonstration aimed at the San Francisco “Redevelopment Agency.” Also tracked in 1964: Brown’s involvement in the defense of demonstrators who protested hiring practices at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel.
Brown’s November 1964 election to the Assembly didn’t discontinue the committee’s interest in his activity. His card bears three entries for 1965, including a May 20 reference to an “anti-administration” speech against the Vietnam War at UC Berkeley. The final Brown entry occurred in 1967 and dealt with his association with the California Federation of Labor.

And then, there was this 1963 entry about Brown: “Note: Would classify as erratic.”

The Watts Riots, student protests at Berkeley, and the Delano Grape Strike were found in a special section called the “Bay Area reports.”

Finally, there were records compiled on the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The group performed faux minstrel shows that were considered overtly politically incorrect because it used black face and sang Stephen Foster songs while performing sexually lewd and racially provocative material.

Such direct confrontation with racial tension and sexuality caused Sen. Hugh M Burns, D-Fresno, a member of the committee, to discuss banning the Troupe from California campuses by pressuring UC administrators. Among the archived documents is a police report of a Troupe performance at UC Davis, where an officer wrote, “I could see nothing educational about this program other than observing how obscene a group of people can become in public.” Although they caused an outrage, there was little follow-through by the committee and the Troupe continued to perform.

The archive is accessible in the research library on fourth floor of the California State Archives in Sacramento. A reference guide is available for aiding people who want to find a specific document within the collection, and the archivists are available to retrieve the actual document.

Ed’s Note: Jonathan Lerner is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of California’s Sacramento Center.

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