State archives detail battle against ‘subversion’

The headline blared across the front page of Berkeley’s Daily Californian: “2,700 Homosexuals at Cal.” Today, it hardly seems newsworthy at the heart of California’s social liberalism, UC Berkeley. But in 1965, when the article was published, university police were removing every other stall door in men’s bathrooms to prevent such subversive behavior.

In a day and age where gay marriage is polling at 55 percent support nationwide — a number that is higher among the younger and more liberal voters at UC Berkeley — the article and the events it describes sound like an archaic and backward relic of the past. And in many ways, they are.

A yellowed clipping of the story sits in a file folder in one of dozens of boxes containing files that detail the investigations of the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American activities, which was formed to protect California from communists, union members, social upheaval and a seemingly impure academia. Apparently, what happened in the men’s bathrooms at Cal fell under that category.

The committee’s activities provide a political snapshot of California at the time – and it’s not a pretty picture. Nor is it complete: California was far more than the sum of the committee’s investigation, but the panel’s role offers a glimpse into some of society’s deepest concerns.

Reading the state archives’ files on the committee’s activities – all 80 cubic feet of them — is like digging through the artifacts of a backward and intolerant culture. Yet at the time, fear of communist infiltration – the fundamental motivation for the committee — created a platform upon which the panel and its federal counterpart could build public support.

Just a year after that Daily Californian article was published, that public sentiment was captured in the committee’s reaction to the Free Speech Movement sit-in at UC Berkeley in December 1964. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Sen. Hugh Burns, the Republican chair of the committee, attacked the students and faculty involved, and received responses in support.

“As a 1950 graduate of University of California (Berkeley) I would like to comment on the recent trouble at the Berkeley campus which has held the national spotlight for several weeks,” reads one letter, signed by a Cal alumnus named William Kennedy. His letter was representative of numerous missives sent to Burns.

“I agree with your assessment of the situation—that the whole thing is a creation of silly kids, addle-brained faculty, and agitation by the Communists,” he continues. “Do you believe the Reds are now concerting a drive directed at our colleges and universities? And to what extent have they already succeeded?”

Despite that support — even from Cal alumni — Burns felt a backlash.

“It would certainly seem that a man with a mind open only to prejudice is hardly fit to define which activities shall be termed ‘Un-American,’” Linda Skory wrote in response to the Burns’ comments. Skory’s comments were echoed by others.

To people who were critical, Burns answered in kind.

“The attitude of defiance of the law among our young people is frightening. People like you and I who have seen this wonderful State grow, realize the degradation that could result from this outbreak if not properly handled,” Burns wrote to a supporter, according to the archives.

The Free Speech Movement was not a surprising target for Burns’ views. Throughout the archives there is an evident bias in the committee’s scrutiny towards educational institutions and movements that mobilized people against the status quo. For example, the reports’ indexes show extensive investigation of the NAACP and organizations like it.

Two investigations in particular characterize the sensationalism that surrounded the committee’s hearings on such organizations. They focused on the deaths of two UCLA students — Everitt Hudson, and Sheldon Abrams — whom the committee believed to be affiliated with the Communist Party. That belief was enough for the committee to subpoena their acquaintances and associations at UCLA for what seemed less like a congressional hearing and more like a murder trial.

Hudson had been affiliated with Communist organizations while at Stanford before transferring to UCLA. When he died in his co-op in 1948, the cause of his death was listed as natural, according to newspapers, but Richard Combs, the Committee’s counsel, took it upon himself to conduct hearings as if they were homicide investigations.

In addition to questioning Hudson’s parents, Combs subpoenaed Lola Whang, one of his friends at the co-op. According to the 1951 report, She was willing to cooperate initially, but after speaking to a lawyer refused to answer most of Combs’ questions, which revolved around her and Hudson’s involvement with the Communist Party.

“The net result of the hearing elicited the fact that the witness had lived at the Third Street address with certain other individuals whom she refused to name, that she was Korean, and that her mother was in Korea at the time the hearing was held,” the report writes of Whang’s testimony.

The circumstances were suspicious—Hudson wrote letters to his family expressing concern for his well-being and apprehension regarding his involvement with the Communist party. But the report details primarily his—and Whang’s—involvement with Communist groups rather than the conditions that made his death suspect. Despite the obvious reasons for Whang’s silence, given the current climate regarding communist activities, however, the report treats her silence as guilt.

“If anyone had actually committed a crime, they would have been arrested and tried and the story would have been in the newspaper, and you would have known about it,” said John Burton, chair of the California Democratic Party and the Senate president Pro Tem at the time the archives were released. Burton opposed the documents release in the late 90s.

“People lost jobs, lost livelihoods, had their names smeared both by the state [committee] and by the federal [committee], so why the hell should the names be made public when there’s a bunch of unsubstantiated crap in it?” he said.

Despite that apparent lack of substantial evidence in the reports, such investigations were viewed as legitimate.

The committee attempted to connect Hudson’s death to the death of another UCLA student Sheldon Abrams, and Abrams’ involvement with the UCLA chapter of the NAACP. After Abrams’ death in 1956, the Committee’s 1957 report included an entire chapter on the NAACP chapter at UCLA.

“In February, 1956, young Abrams rented a small apartment at 133 Wadsworth Street, Santa Monica, California, and on the morning of April 20, 1956, his dead body was found at that address in a room literally jammed with hundreds of Communist, Marxist, Socialist, and Trotskyite literature, original letters received by the decedent and copies of letters sent by him to various contacts throughout the United States,” the report details. It focuses primarily on the letters and documents linking Abrams to potential Communist activity, rather than the facts surrounding his death.

Among those letters was one regarding the establishment of an NAACP chapter at UCLA: “Abrams expressed the opinion that the NAACP, being a respectable and liberal organization, might be used as an unwitting tool by the Young Socialist League in connection with a program for a demonstration of civil disobedience on the campus,” the report says.

The Committee’s concern over the NAACP was in keeping with its general tendency to investigate any group that mobilized against the status quo. Like the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the NAACP challenged popular ideas about American society, and fear of communism gave those in power the means to criminalize such subversion.

“Senator Burns says his Un-American Activities Committee is not going to investigate whether there is communist influence at Berkeley because he already knows it is a movement of the right thinking students and faculty and has investigation would fall flat so he just stands on the sidelines and shoots off his mouth in name calling that he can’t backup and doesn’t’ have to prove,” Charles Dock wrote to the Los Angeles Examiner regarding Burns’ statement on the Free Speech Movement.

If those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, the question is this: What did California, and the nation as a whole, learn from the investigations of its own citizens?

“Sure it could happen again, but it’s happening to some different guys,” Burton said, referring to reports in which association with Islamic groups, no matter their nature, creates an automatic suspicion regarding terrorism. “During the Cold War politicians probably in every state and in this country used the Cold War and fear of Communism for their own political purpose.”

Today, similar fears are raised.

“They [NSA] say that they stopped 50 terrorist plots or something like that but every time a terrorist plot was stopped you read about it in the paper and I didn’t read anything in the papers about terrorist plots being stopped, so I don’t know if I believe that,” Burton said.

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