Frank Wilkinson, fighter for the First Amendment
August 16, 1914 – January 2, 2006
Frank Wilkinson died January 2 at 91 from the complications of old age, at home in Los Angeles, surrounded by family and friends. Born in Charlevoix, Michigan, Frank and his family moved to Los Angeles early on, and Frank lived there his whole life. But he didn't really stay there. He lived in the whole United States. Frank Wilkinson was a traveling salesman for the First Amendment and against government spying, spending almost as much time doing speaking tours as at home. He spent his life speaking truth to power: telling the people of the U.S. and the U.S. government itself that Congress, and in particular the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), had no business demanding people publicly disclose their politics.
Frank started out his adult life helping poor people of Los Angeles get decent, integrated public housing. After a decade of high visibility successful work, culminating in plans for a state of the art, public housing project in Chavez Ravine Frank faced the first of many challenges to his work. At an eminent domain hearing, he was asked by development company lawyers to name the groups to which he belonged. That time and one after – before California's "little HUAC" – he took the safer Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. As was intended by the developers, in the sort of headline grabbing hubbub that ensued, the project for Chavez Ravine was killed, and the poor Chicano people who lived there were forced out of their homes and eventually the land became Dodger Stadium.
After Frank was fired from the LA Housing Authority (and to boot, his first wife Jean was fired from her teaching job), Frank started to work for civil liberties and he started getting mad and educated about his rights. When he next faced the federal HUAC, he stood up and stated his First Amendment right to his beliefs and associations. Nothing happened then. But in 1958, as Frank was organizing effectively and nationally to abolish the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and was targeted by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as a primo troublemaker, Frank faced HUAC again in Atlanta. There, he again took the First Amendment, trying to make his a test case and succeeding, getting indicted on contempt of Congress charges. After appealing the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and only losing by a vote of 5-4 Frank's contempt of Congress conviction was upheld.
In his dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black memorably wrote, "…I believe that true Americanism is to be protected, not by committees who persecute unorthodox minorities, but by the strict adherence to basic principles of freedom that are responsible for this nation's greatness. Those principles are embodied for all those who care to see in our Bill of Rights. They were put there for the specific purpose of preventing just the sort of governmental suppression of criticism that the majority upholds here…This country was not built by men who were afraid and it cannot be preserved by such men."
"We will not save free speech if we are not prepared to go to jail in its defense," was also a mantra of Frank's. And Frank went to jail for 9 months with Carl Braden, a fearless civil rights activist. They were the last two people jailed for contempt of Congress for standing on their First Amendment rights not to tell Congress which groups they belonged to. On his release, Frank redoubled the efforts of the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, working with, and unusually, helping organize for other groups including the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, Women Strike for Peace, and the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. Finally, after decades of organizing, and helping build a strong national movement that humiliated HUAC, Frank saw to it that HUAC was destroyed – relegated quietly to the jurisdiction of the House Judiciary Committee on Civil and Constitutional Rights which smothered it. Former and current Representatives Bob Drinan, Don Edwards, John Conyers, Bob Kastenmeier, and the late Phil Burton, must take a bow for their efforts.
In 1986, upon finding that the FBI had surveillance files on him and his group NCARL – Frank filed a Freedom of Information suit with ACLU help against the FBI. Eight years and many hearings later, Frank had in hand 132,000 pages of files. The FBI had targeted him with the explicit and frequent direction of J. Edgar Hoover, under its counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). Agents followed Frank's every move across the country, trying to destroy the movement to abolish HUAC. The FBI worked surreptitiously to cancel meetings, infiltrate and disrupt events, and discredit Frank wherever he went. At a pivotal moment, the FBI learned of an assassination plot against Frank. It staked out the location without even alerting Frank. Fortunately, the attack didn't take place, though neither did the FBI ever try to prosecute anyone for it. At the same time it spied on Wilkinson and disrupted his work, the FBI recognized that Wilkinson posed no criminal threat whatsoever to the U.S. or any other entity or person. At the end of the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Wallace Tashima ordered the FBI to stop its spying on Wilkinson, and enjoined it never to do so again.
Frank spent the rest of his life working to defend the right to dissent and similar concerns, traveling the country tirelessly, long after the fainthearted would have retired. In 1985, Frank helped found and long directed the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation to facilitate the educational work of promoting the right to dissent. Just this fall at the Foundation's behest, Nation Books published Robert Sherrill's biography of Frank: First Amendment Felon, The Story of Frank Wilkinson, his 132,000 page FBI File and his Epic Fight for Civil Rights and Liberties.
Frank is survived by his first wife Jean Benson Wilkinson, children Jeffry, Tony and Jo, second wife of almost 40 years Donna Myers Childers, and her children John, William and Robert, 19 grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and friends around the world. The number of people in whose homes Frank stayed must exceed a million. We thank you all for your hospitality and for your activism. Now ask for your FBI file!
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the First Amendment Foundation in Frank's name. The address is 3321-12th St., NE, Washington, DC 20017.
The memorial service will be held at the Holman United Methodist Church, 3320 West Adams Blvd in Los Angeles at 2 pm on January 28. Condolences can be sent to Donna Wilkinson, 5606 Heatherdale Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90043.
(This obituary appeared on the website of NCARL, the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation. Frank Wilkinson spoke in Gainesville several times, the last time in 2001, when a rigorous schedule of lectures and classes included an event at the Civic Media Center. At the time he was 87.)
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