It’s common today to date the beginnings of progressive politics in Berkeley to “The Sixties”. But leftist activism and idealism on the local scene date back at least half a century earlier.
1911 seemed to be an early watershed year for social and political reform in Berkeley. In October, California adopted voting rights for women, with strong support from much of the Berkeley community.
And in a separate election that April Berkeley voters sent to City Hall a Socialist Mayor and “champion of working men and women”, shocking the political establishment that was used to running the city in the name of “good government” but also, tacitly, for the benefit of local business and real estate interests.
The story of that Mayor—J. (Jackson) Stitt Wilson—is the subject of a small and very interesting exhibit on display through April 24, 2011 at the Central Berkeley Public Library. This is the Centennial of his victory.
Stephen Barton, a long time City of Berkeley employee and housing expert who currently works for the Rent Stabilization Board, put together the exhibit from his personal collection of Wilson memorabilia and research, as well as materials found at the Berkeley Historical Society.
Barton has been interested in Wilson for years and felt the centennial of the election would be a good occasion to try to bring renewed attention to an intriguing figure from Berkeley’s past.
The exhibit includes speeches, newspaper articles, photographs and other items outlining both Wilson’s career as a political and social activist and his family life.
It’s on display in the old lobby of the Central Berkeley Library. Go in the present main entrance, upstairs one floor, and towards Shattuck Avenue until you move into the old building; the exhibit is in wooden and glass cases in the center of the lobby space.
There are also some exhibit materials that can be viewed at any time from the sidewalk in glass cases fronting the old library entrance from Kittredge.
Canadian by birth, Wilson had moved to the United States at the age of 20 and came to Berkeley by way of Illinois where he went to college at Northwestern. By 1911 he had lived locally for ten years and had attracted attention when he ran for Governor in 1910 as a Socialist, winning 12 percent of the vote.
In the election for Mayor, Wilson defeated establishment Mayor Beverly Hodgehead—characterized by the Berkeley Gazette as the candidate of “the once-powerful ring”—and promoted a string of reforms. He won six of the then eight electoral districts in town, in what the Berkeley paper termed a “sweeping and general” victory.
The more conservative of the candidates, Hodgehead, handily won the “Southeast District” and “Telegraph-Bancroft District” (student voters weren’t a factor then), while Wilson carried all the other neighborhoods, piling up his biggest majorities in West and South Berkeley. In West Berkeley he won 612 votes to Hodgehead’s 123.
Totals reported a few days after the election gave Wilson 2,749 votes to 2,468 for Hodgehead. “A whole lot of people lined up for Wilson as a socialist, many more for Wilson as a man, and Hodgehead’s old-time opponents helped out”, one newspaper article reported after the election, calling Wilson a “magnetic speaker.”
The campaign had been a whirlwind affair. In those days election campaigns didn’t start years in advance, but often just weeks or a month or two before the voting. Wilson’s first big public campaign event was, in fact, a speech at Berkeley High School just three weeks before election day.
His victory drew national attention. He was the first Socialist to be elected mayor of a California city.
“While Stitt Wilson was being carried on the shoulders of men who had forgotten their dignity in the enthusiasm of victory, the telegraph wires were flashing the announcement of that victory across the continent. It did not stop there, for Stitt Wilson is widely known in Europe. His name is a household word in parts of England and Wales”, the Gazette reported.
The win set off jubilation in Downtown Berkeley streets. “Men threw their hats in the air and danced and yelled when the result of the election was announced. They carried the victorious candidate on their shoulders from the Gazette office to the Socialist headquarters at the Coffee Club and then back to Center street and Shattuck avenue where, surrounded by several thousand cheering citizens, Wilson was forced to address the throng.”
“Standing in an automobile, Wilson spoke to the admiring audience which greeted every statement with cheers of approval. He told them of his fight—for it was a fight; of his plans and what he hoped to accomplish for the people of Berkeley. He told them, as he had explained during the entire campaign, not to expect a revolution of affairs, as such was impossible, and he reiterated his promises to do all in his power to carry out the provisions of the charter.”
In a statement published in the Gazette two days after the election, Wilson wrote:
“To all the citizens irrespective of your relation to me in the election past, I wish to say, that I made no fight for mere office, and I am not in the mood of a victor in a political game. I feel the sense of responsibility and the burden of municipal affairs that you have placed upon me. From now until I assume the office I intend to familiarize myself with all matters concerning the city, and to give my mind to the program that lies before us. And after the first of July when I enter upon my duties as major of the city, I shall give my time and energy with devotion and enthusiasm to serve our beloved Berkeley.”
Wilson stood for public ownership of utilities, and would battle PG & E during his term in office. He was a strong advocate for tax reform, arguing in 1911, “the wealth the individual creates should go to the individual. The values which are created by the social body by its very sociality should go to the social body.”
“If we should personify the city or state we would say that this Social Mother, in whose household we all live, needs streets and sewers for us all; schools for all our children; peace officers and fire fighters; and social administrators for all these affairs. She, the city, provides or ought to provide social necessities, public utilities, communal enjoyments and civic equipment for all the people. And to do these things she must have money. She must have her own purse. That purse must fill and refill from her own earnings. She has no need to be a pauper, or a beggar, or a thief…the City or state should be a queen in her own domain, living on her own legitimate earnings…taxation on land values.”
He argued for the principal that vacant land should be taxed at a higher rate, or perhaps in place of, buildings and improvements.
As Barton explains it, Wilson wanted to tax undeveloped land because “taxes on land value recapture value that is created by the community and the local government. That makes such a tax particularly fair and reduces any disincentive effects the tax might have on production of needed goods like housing, since the land is there and more cannot be produced.”
“At least not without filling in the Bay”, Barton adds half facetiously.
Wilson did not win public elective office again after his one term as Berkeley Mayor. He did not run for re-election (perhaps because one of his young sons died during his term in office, Barton speculates) and was unsuccessful in a later try to regain the office.
While he was Mayor he ran for Congress in 1912, garnering 40% of the vote. “In this nation the development of industry under the trusts and monopolies, is becoming ominous. No patriot can but view the situation with alarm; no lover of freedom but must feel resistance to the encroaching power of America’s plutocracy”, he told voters in that campaign.
In 1912 and 1914 he worked for unsuccessful ballot initiatives for property tax reform in California. In 1932 he ran for Congress again, managing a respectable showing against both Democratic and Republican candidates, but still losing.
(That election, in an era of Communist-baiting by the right, was marred by accusations that he hadn’t been a citizen when he served as Mayor. Wilson explained that the record of his 19th century naturalization as a United States citizen was in Chicago, but couldn’t be found in court records there decades after he had emigrated from Canada when he sought to obtain the record in order to get a passport to travel to Europe after World War I. He later obtained another court confirmation of his citizenship.)
He was a spokesman and writer for a cause often termed “Christian Socialism”, which championed the idea that if one wanted to live by the values of Jesus, socialist principles were more relevant than pure capitalist ones. He was also, Barton notes, an advocate of “New Thought” that “saw all religions as sharing in truth and all people capable of being ‘in tune with the infinite’.”
In 1935 Wilson was an enthusiastic stump speaker for Upton Sinclair, who was running for Governor of California on the EPIC (End Poverty in California) platform. Wilson continued to be active in politics until his death in 1942.
When he died, August 28 of that year at the age of 74, the New York Times recalled him as “Berkeley’s Socialist Mayor of thirty years ago and lifelong champion of working men and women.”
Exhibit organizer Barton says he started out primarily interested in Wilson’s political life but also became intrigued with his family. He “sent his children to Berkeley public schools and, with his wife Emma, raised two very successful and independent—and based on the newspaper pictures very beautiful—daughters, which tends to show that his support for women's rights was not just theoretical”, Barton says.
The Wilsons lived at 1745 Highland Place in a brown shingle designed by Bernard Maybeck.
Daughter Violette Wilson went to Berkeley High School where she co-wrote and co-starred in a play with classmate Thornton Wilder. She went on to UC Berkeley but dropped out, saying she didn’t want to be a “toy wife” (perhaps this was because in that era there was an expectation that many college women would find husbands among their classmates.)
In 1915, Barton notes in materials included in the exhibit, she was photographed wearing riding pants to protest “dress slavery” arguing against laws that prohibited wearing the clothes of the opposite sex.
Violette had her own stage career and married actor and theater producer Irving Pichel, who then ran the Berkeley Playhouse but later went to Pasadena to direct the famed Playhouse there.
In addition to Violette and sister Gladys, the Wilsons also had three sons, all of whom died tragically. Jackson Stitt Wilson, Jr. died in 1903 at the age of 2 of diphtheria, as did his brother, Melnotte, at age 7 in 1912.
Their older brother William Gladstone Wilson attended UC Berkeley and would die in an airplane accident in World War I while serving in the armed forces.