Today the nation celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King. While he is now a national hero with a federal holiday, throughout his life he was hounded by the very same government, especially Hoover’s FBI, as they desperately tried to crush the civil rights movement. It is because of this attempt to use state power to crush the civil rights movement, that King’s life intersected with our own organization’s history, when we organized opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee under the name: National Committee to Abolish HUAC. Frank Wilkinson, our first executive director, went to jail for refusing to answer questions from the HUAC about his personal political convictions, citing his First Amendment right to keep his political activity private. Before going off to jail he was given a send off by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. King. Dr. King had taken a keen interest in both Frank’s case and the movement to abolish HUAC. This excerpt from a piece published earlier this year about the decades long struggle to defeat HUAC sheds light on why Dr. King and the civil rights movement more generally were interested in abolishing HUAC.
The Civil Rights Movement Joins Forces Against HUAC
Some of the strongest support for the national movement against HUAC came from the civil rights movement. The night before Wilkinson and his co-defendant Carl Braden turned themselves in to serve prison sentences for defying HUAC Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held a dinner in their honor. King himself had signed a petition for amnesty for Wilkinson and Braden, as he believed “We’ll never achieve peaceable integration in the South until the Un-American Committee has been abolished.” Braden himself had been a civil rights activist and while Wilkinson had pled the First Amendment when called by HUAC in Los Angeles, both his and Braden’s prison sentences stemmed from refusing to testify at a 1958 HUAC hearing in Atlanta, Georgia. The hearing was ostensibly about Communism in the South, but was largely meant to harass civil rights activists.
This was a repeat of history. As documented in Hammer and Hoe, in the late 1930s, HUAC devoted attention to the nascent civil rights organization the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. The organization attracted the support of Southern Communists, who were organizing an effective campaign for civil and labor rights, but it also attracted the support of liberals. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even attended its inaugural meeting. In attacking most Southern politicians spent more time assailing its promotion of “social equality” (i.e. the idea that all people are equal regardless of race) than expressing fears about global revolution. Its links to prominent New Deal liberals were particularly important to HUAC members who thought it proved that the New Deal was working with Communism. Thus, many in the civil rights movement, King included, understood HUAC was a potential bludgeon with which to crush the civil rights movement and rightfully linked their cause with the movement for its abolition.