Somehow I seem to have become an honorary member of the Free Speech Movement, on their mailing list and invited to their reunions. In all honesty, I must admit that when the FSM was making waves in 1964 I was in Ann Arbor making babies. But before that, four years before that, I was present at the creation, so to speak. I was one of the five thousand Bay Area citizens who rose in protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee (commonly known as HUAC), the trailing edge of ugly ‘50s McCarthyism which finally got its deserved comeuppance during the merry month of May in the newly minted 1960s.
Last week I got an email which was sent to the 738 people on the Free Speech Movement Archives list, a forwarded letter from one Irving Wesley Hall addressed to “Dear Fellow Traveler”. (For those of you too young to remember, fellow travelers included anyone in the ‘50s who didn’t believe that members of the Communist Party should be summarily drawn, quartered and thrown to the wolves.)
He reminded us that the 50th anniversary of “Black Friday”, May 13, 1960, is coming right up. He and un-named co-conspirators have set up a website www.notinkansas.us in order to “rescue ‘Black Friday"’ from historical obscurity, to proclaim its relevance today, and--above all--to celebrate its heroes and heroines” and “insure that the alternative and corporate media remember Black Friday during the coming week of May 10-16.”
Well, I remember it. It was the second day of hearings that HUAC was holding in the supervisors’ chambers at San Francisco City Hall with the stated purpose of investigating the international Communist conspiracy and the obvious real purpose of intimidating political activists, CPUSA members among them. People subpoenaed by the committee often lost their jobs, and frequently received death threats and other forms of harassment.
I was finishing my junior year at Cal, and like a fair number of my fellow students had learned about planned picketing of the committee from stories in the Daily Cal. I didn’t know a whole lot about politics in those days, but I had taken a look at the U.S. constitution in my government course sophomore year, and had gotten the general idea that the First Amendment was supposed to guarantee freedom of speech and association.
My roommate for my first two years of college, at a women’s school in the East, was the daughter and sister of distinguished academics who were fired and blacklisted for refusing to testify in front of HUAC—her brother eventually went to jail for six months for relying on the First Amendment when he declined to be interrogated about his beliefs. Dimly, I perceived an inconsistency that needed to be addressed.
So along with many other students from Berkeley I took the F bus into San Francisco on Thursday, May 12, and joined the picket line. My next door neighbor on Ellsworth Street went too. She was a cute girl who had been raised on a chicken farm in Petaluma, in what I learned much later was a hotbed of radicalism, but she looked like she belonged in a sorority. She didn’t talk much about politics.
Did we really wear high heels, hats and gloves? I think we did, but in any event we were advised to dress respectably, and we complied.
The turnout was pretty good, but not huge. The room where the hearings were held was much too small to hold everyone who wanted to witness the proceedings, so most of us just walked the picket line outside. Those who were lucky enough to get inside City Hall chanted “let us in”, but they weren’t admitted.
The next day I had a mid-term, so I stayed in Berkeley. Big mistake. That was the famous Black Friday, the day that San Francisco police turned fire hoses on chanting protesters, washing them down a long flight of marble stairs, and loaded them into paddy wagons as they sang “We Shall Not Be Moved”, a tune they’d just learned from the nascent civil rights movement.
Thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can see the whole thing on-line today, courtesy of the Media Resources Center at the Moffit Library of UC Berkeley, in Operation Abolition , a propaganda film HUAC put together from news footage that was intended to damn the protesters forever. From today’s vantage point it’s difficult to believe that they thought it would help their cause.
There are stirring shots of defiant longshoremen (Archie Brown in particular) invoking their constitutional rights, along shots of other figures who became familiar to me later, among them KPFA’s Bill Mandel and attorney Vin Hallinan, father of our own Conn and his rowdy band of activist brothers.
Seeing the earnest horn-rimmed young men in suits and ties and the fresh-faced young things in crinoline petticoats(demurely pulling down their skirts to cover their knees)being dragged down the marble stairway is nothing if not stirring, even today.
And that’s the effect the film had at the time. Operation Abolition was shown on campuses everywhere (I saw it first in the basement of the old Newman Hall on Northside) and everywhere it inspired students to new frontiers of political activism. An answering film, Operation Correction, was created, but it wasn’t really needed.
Here’s how Irving Hall tells it on his website:
“Youngsters in their teens and twenties passionately committed to the Bill of Rights dealt the committee a mortal blow. HUAC's well-funded cinematic counterattack backfired. Newly politicized students from across the nation cheered the spunky kids in Operation Abolition and flocked to Berkeley, eager to change the world.
Much to our surprise, our spontaneous, spirited and courageous defense of civil liberties changed America forever. Our political baptism changed our lives forever….”
After Black Friday, opposition to HUAC was big news. Since I’d missed the main event, I resolved to get a ringside seat on Saturday, May 14. My friend Frank had a car, so we took our sleeping bags and drove into San Francisco late Friday night so we could be first in line when City Hall opened in the morning.
This was my first lesson in never trusting the newsies. We did indeed get in line outside the door at 5 a.m., and we were interviewed by the Hearst Examiner reporter assigned to talk to the first people in the queue. I wouldn’t tell him my name or anything else, but Frank said he was a UC maintenance man (true, though also a past and future student). The story next day said that “Frank ___ , a Cal student, spent the night with his girlfriend in a parked car on Polk Street”—scandalous stuff in those days, and he wasn’t even my boyfriend. Fortunately my actual boyfriend didn’t object.
“Because of May 13, I became an activist for life. It was a blessing to have been arrested, to experience youthful righteous solidarity, to plead a just cause against mass media lies, to challenge the FBI and Congress—and win…
Had we not skipped classes that day, protested in the City Hall rotunda against our exclusion from the hearings, and had we not spontaneously responded with non-violence when the police attacked, my life would have taken a completely different course. What if I had stayed at home? Or not participated in the empowering national writing and speaking campaign that disgraced the most powerful man in America, J. Edgar Hoover, and placed under permanent house arrest the most tyrannical committee of Congress?”
I myself clearly remember watching student leader Michael Rossman (may he rest in peace), the recording secretary for the Bay Area Student Committee for the Abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, being interviewed on televison (Sixty Minutes?) in about 1964 as I sat on the couch in Ann Arbor nursing the latest baby. The interviewer's spin was that the student movement was over, that things were soon going to get back to normal. How wrong that turned out to be.
I’d been working in the local civil rights movement and was starting to organize against what would become the war in Vietnam. I knew that there was still a lot of work to be done, and I was confident we could do it. We did eventually accomplish many exciting things in those years, though it took a little longer than we’d expected.
When you’re young you believe that you can do what needs to be done, and so you just do it. Seeing all the earnest young people last night who insisted on being present at the ASUC meeting, trying to shed some light from their personal perspectives on the Israel-Palestine imbroglio, reminded me of our youthful selves. Regardless of which side they were on, their passion was impressive.
The ASUC students who insisted on bringing these problems into the public discourse are brave, whether you agree with them or not. The people who have been trying to stifle the debate about what’s wrong in the Middle East in Berkeley and elsewhere look more and more like the House Un-American Activities Committee. They’ve won a few battles—they may even win this little skirmish at UC Berkeley--but eventually truth will prevail, and they will lose their war to prevent free and open public discussion of a crucial situation that increasingly affects the whole world.
Irving Wesley Hall emailed yesterday:
Guess where we're celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1960 "riot" against HUAC? At the scene of the crime! Communist Dupes will occupy San Francisco City Hall rotunda once again between noon and 1:30 on May 13. Join riot ringleader Bob Meisenbach, his co-conspirators and the survivors of the cast of thousands mobilized in San Francisco in May 1960!For more information, check his website: notinkansas.us.
[Error corrected from original: Brown, not Moore]