On June 9 the San Francisco Chronicle published an 8-page special section on the FBI’s “wide-ranging and unlawful intelligence operations at the University of California.” The FBI’s activities, and those of other governmental and non-governmental organizations “to harass liberal students, faculty and regents” over several decades were justified by the Cold War. Not until that War was over was some of the collateral damage revealed. Most of the destruction done to ordinary Americans who were simply living their lives and exercising their Constitutional rights may never come to light.
Since September 11 our government has mobilized for another undeclared war of uncertain duration against an unseen enemy — this time on terrorism. Like its predecessor, the War on Terrorism aims at a powerful and pernicious enemy who could wreak enormous havoc at any minute. Like the Cold War, the War on Terrorism is being used to justify a variety of security measures which can potentially cause more harm to Americans than anything the enemy can do. Unlike the Cold War, we know we aren’t sure who the enemy is; it’s bigger than al-Queda, but beyond that, who is it?
In the Cold War we identified members of the Communist Party as the enemy — even when they were law-abiding American citizens — and looked for them under every bed. But that definition quickly spread to include almost anyone who did, said or even knew some one who proposed an idea that even remotely sounded like something a Communist might favor. Everyone “liberal” — and a lot who weren’t — were potential targets for the anti-Communist brush.
To wage a war without causing more damage to ourselves than our adversaries we need to know what we did wrong in the Cold War. Let’s start by looking at some of the casualties.
The Chronicle stories were based on thousands of pages of FBI files finally released by the FBI after years of litigation. They highlighted the FBI’s efforts to fire Clark Kerr from his position as President of the University from 1958 to 1966. I was a student at Berkeley from 1961 to 1965; very much engaged in the social protests of those years. Upon graduation I went South to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for a year of voter registration in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. My work in the civil rights movement gave me my own small niche in the FBI’s archives.
In 1975 I obtained my personal Headquarters file from the FBI, without much delay. In 1993 I requested files on the University of California and various student groups for a memoir, as well as more pages on myself from the FBI’s regional offices. It was seven years before I got anything, and what I finally paid for was a small fraction of what the Chronicle got after 17 years of litigation. Obviously the FBI didn’t think that the court rulings applied to other requesters; over time it has become very adept at thwarting the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act. In the meantime I did research in the University archives and other places.
What I learned from all this is that Clark Kerr was not a victim of the FBI. He was a victim of the anti-Communist culture created by the Cold War. The War on Terrorism threatens to repeat this history and with it the wanton destruction of the rights which make us proud to be Americans.
Indeed the FBI was only a minor player in the downfall of Clark Kerr. It was a cop, one enforcer, of the culture of anti-Communism. That culture was created by our government and reinforced by the actions of private individuals. It created a climate of fear that was used to compel conformity not only to political ideas but to social and cultural ones. It used government agencies — taxpayer money — to punish those who did not do so.
A key player, probably the key player, in the harassment and downfall of Clark Kerr was an official committee of the California legislature — the Senate Fact-Finding Subcommittee on UnAmerican Activities (SUAC). Created in 1940 as one of seven state committees modeled on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of the U.S. Congress, it waged a thirty year war on the University of California to purge it of people who might be deemed subversive. As it did so, its conception of subversive expanded way beyond a concern with membership in the Communist Party.
SUAC’s chairman from 1949 to 1970 was Hugh Burns. Between 1957 and 1969 he was also President pro Tem of the California Senate, with a great deal of influence over the University’s budget. Burns wanted to discredit Kerr because he “was unimpressed with his diligence in ferreting out subversive activities on the campus.” (Burns oral history)
Working behind the scenes, so far behind that few knew he existed, was Richard Ellis Combs, counsel to SUAC from its beginning. He maintained a file of 20,000 names of “subversives” on 5 x 8 cards at his home in rural Tulare County. Once Burns became Chairman SUAC ceased to hold hearings; instead it met with officials to urge actions that it wanted, published reports and issued press releases excoriating whoever failed to comply. These reports were written by Combs, based on extensive reading of material provided by his network of informants throughout the state. His source at Berkeley was William Wadman, who was promoted from head of the campus police to University-wide “security officer” in 1952.
Twice in 1952 Burns and Combs met with the Presidents of California colleges to request campus liaisons who would provide SUAC with the names of faculty and staff who were candidates for hiring or promotion so they could be checked by Combs against his files. Robert Gordon Sproul, then President of UC, asked each campus Chancellor, including Berkeley’s Clark Kerr, to be the “contact man” for his campus. However, Kerr did not provide SUAC with any names. Unknown to Kerr, Combs was getting his information from Wadman, who reported to Vice President James H. Corley. Under Corley’s supervision, Wadman also furnished the FBI “information contained in personnel files of students and employees as well as information relating to subversive activities on the campus.”
Corley had been the University’s lobbyist for many years. He maintained his influence with the legislature through a strategy of anticipatory appeasement. Sharing SUAC’s passion for anti- Communism, in 1949 he persuaded President Sproul to require that all faculty sign a loyalty oath disclaiming membership in the Communist Party or any other organization which advocated the overthrow of the Government by force or violence. The faculty rebelled; twenty percent refused to sign. The controversy did not end until 1952 — after 31 professors had been dismissed — when the California Supreme Court declared that a state loyalty oath passed in the interim pre-empted a special one for University personnel.
In October of 1958, soon after Kerr was inaugurated as President, Combs held a confidential meeting at his home to discuss how to remove him as head of the University. Present were Wadman and Bay Area police offers who were heads of their respective Red Squads. Combs had compiled a dossier on Kerr and wanted help from those present in getting even more information that could be used to discredit him.
Once Kerr became President, Corley could no longer cover for Wadman. Kerr reduced Corley’s job and influence and had Wadman reassigned. As SUAC stated in its 1965 Report, Wadman was assigned “so much insurance work that his counter-subversive operation was smothered” and Kerr “again disclosed his aversion to loyalty investigations in general.”
SUAC went ballistic at the loss of its campus source. Its 1961 report contained a lengthy attack on student groups at the Berkeley campus. “Reds on campus” blared headlines all over the state of California. SUAC succeeded in getting one Berkeley student organization kicked off campus that wasn’t Communist, but was something of a campus gadfly (the official reason was that it called itself a campus political party when campus political parties weren’t permitted).
On September 14, 1961 and again on January 17, 1962 Burns and Combs met with Kerr and select Regents to urge the discharge of two Berkeley faculty members they thought were subversives and to protest Wadman’s reassignment. When Kerr did nothing, Burns tried to get the Regents to remove him by revealing a “rumor” that Kerr had been observed by the Central Intelligence Agency to engage in “undesirable contact and associations during a South American trip.”
Over time, Kerr’s refusal to conform to the dictates of the anti-Communist culture piled up as evidence against him. Until 1963 the University of California had a “speaker ban.” Another product of the anti-Communist culture, it prohibited from speaking on a University campus anyone “who would use it as a platform for propaganda.” That meant all known Communists and anyone else deemed controversial by a campus administration. Malcolm X, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, and Harold Laski, a professor at the University of London and Labour Member of Parliament, were among the many non-Communists whose invitations from student or faculty groups were canceled. No one running for public office, including the Governor running for re-election, could speak on a University campus (though they could speak at the state colleges).
Of course the speaker ban didn’t apply to registered students. Bettina Aptheker, a student at Cal the same years I was there, could speak her mind, but when the Berkeley History Department invited her father, a <Ph.D>. in history and an editor of the Communist Party journal Political Affairs, to participate in a symposium in the area of his scholarly expertise, the entire event had to be moved off campus.
Polls showed that the California voters supported the speaker ban. They thought it wise to protect vulnerable, young minds from deceptive ideas. When a student group successfully sponsored a campus talk by someone accused — but not proven — of being a Communist organizer, three dozen carloads of Bay Area citizens went to Sacramento to complain directly to Governor Brown. The scope of the Speaker Ban was an issue in the 1962 gubernatorial campaign; challenger Richard Nixon wanted to broaden it.
After Brown won, he and Kerr lobbied the Regents of the University to abolish the speaker ban; this was accomplished in June of 1963. It didn’t go quietly. The Regents were inundated with letters objecting to the idea that students should be free to listen to just any one, especially on a state campus.
One Regent added a long letter to the official record which argued that “to allow an agent of the Communist Party to peddle his wares to students of an impressionable age is just as wrong, in my estimation as it would be to allow Satan himself to use the pulpit of one of our best cathedrals for the purpose of trying to proselyte new members.”
Needless to say, SUAC saw the freedom of students and faculty to invite anyone to speak on campus as a security threat. Both privately and publicly SUAC continued to attack the University and especially its President, Clark Kerr. Its golden opportunity came in the fall of 1964 when students at Berkeley formed the Free Speech Movement (FSM) to challenge a new application of an existing rule that prohibited student groups who engaged in any kind of off campus political activity from meeting on campus, passing out literature, collecting money, or even advertising their off campus membership meetings on the campus proper. Like the speaker ban, this rule was a product of the anti-Communist culture. Because the administration feared recriminations if a student group met on campus which could be accused of Communist influence or a few Communist members, it prohibited all student groups with any interest in off campus politics (including the Young Democrats and the Young Republicans) from doing pretty much anything on campus.
I was the official representative of the University Young Democrats to the FSM Executive Committee. Our concern wasn’t Communism but civil rights. Inspired by the Southern Civil Rights Movement, we had recruited students to participate in civil rights demonstrations in San Francisco the Spring before. We saw the new application of the old rule as a threat to our ability to raise money and bodies for the civil rights movement. The Berkeley students and faculty strongly agreed with us. By the time the dust settled (if it ever did), 773 persons had been arrested for occupying the administration building, the campus administration had been removed, and the Regents had agreed to let the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution apply to the University campus. Since then student groups of all political persuasions have been able to meet on campus, as well as pass out literature, collect money and proselyte.
SUAC was ecstatic, but not about the new student freedoms. Its 1965 report almost gleefully raked Kerr over the coals for shirking his responsibility to discipline errant students. Kerr was soft on Communism, it implied, and that was why he was so easily taken advantage of by the Communist-led FSM.
After Kerr released a 42-page critique of the Report’s inaccuracies and distortions, Burns and Combs retaliated with an unprecedented 162-page Supplement, at a cost of $36,000 to the California taxpayers (including my mother). This attack was so vehement that the Regents stepped in and negotiated a truce. Only then did SUAC’s public attacks cease. But SUAC’s accusations were already being used as political ammunition. What happened at Berkeley was a campaign issue in the 1966 gubernatorial race, helping to defeat Governor Brown. At Governor Ronald Reagan’s first Regents meeting Clark Kerr was fired. He was finally felled by the culture of anti-Communism.
The impact of the Burns report didn’t stop at the California borders and it wasn’t confined to the prominent and the powerful. It followed me throughout the South. I got four honorable mentions in the 1965 Report, all innocuous, three of which were true. Someone pasted those four paragraphs onto a page with other excerpts on “Communists in the Rebellion.” Titled “MISS Jo Freeman, WHITE FEMALE PROFESSIONAL COMMUNIST AGITATOR,” it was circulated in some of the small Alabama towns in which I worked.
That particular piece of paper didn’t reappear in SCLC’s voter registration project in Grenada Mississippi in the summer of 1966. Instead, on August 18, 1966, the Jackson Daily News, which called itself “Mississippi’s Greatest Newspaper,” exposed me in an editorial headlined “Professional Agitator Hits All Major Trouble Spots.” It cited the Burns report as its major source of information, even for things it did not say. It implied that I was a Communist, though it didn’t specifically say so (which would have been libel per se). The editorial was accompanied by five photographs, including one taken on December 3, 1964 of my speaking from the second floor balcony of the administration building. As soon as my boss, Hosea Williams, saw that editorial he put me on a bus back to Atlanta. “That thing makes you Klan bait,” he said. “We don’t need more martyrs right now.”
For years I assumed the FBI was behind this story. It had all the earmarks of an FBI plant, requiring connections between California and Mississippi. My belief was reinforced when the FBI’s Cointelpro actions against the Civil Rights Movement in general and its persecution of Dr. Martin Luther King in particular were revealed. Not until 1997 did I discover that the actual source of the editorial and photos was the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (MSC), an official state agency of which I was completely unaware in 1966. And only after reading many pages in the MSC files at the Mississippi Department of Archives did I realize that I and others like me were not just foot soldiers in the civil rights movement, but cannon fodder in the Cold War.
After years of litigation by the ACLU, in 1994 a federal court ordered Mississippi to open the MSC files and notify “victims” through public advertisements that we could obtain copies. When I got the pages on which my name appeared I discovered that the MSC had its own spy on the Berkeley campus. Edgar Downing, a welder from Long Beach who came from McComb, MS, took photos of me and many others and sold them to the state of Mississippi for its own extensive files. Mississippi’s interest in California was sparked by the couple dozen Berkeley students who had participated in Freedom Summer a couple months before the FSM. The summer 1966 Grenada project brought Downing back to Mississippi, where he took more photos and sold them to Erle Johnston, Jr., Director of the MSC. Johnston, who had been a professional publicist before joining the MSC, arranged for the Jackson Daily News to publish the editorial and the photos which made me “Klan bait.”
Although full of falsehoods and innuendos, the newspaper published the editorial as true, even though HUAC’s Chairman responded to a query from a Mississippi Congressman that there was no record of my having an “association with officially cited Communist or Communist-front organizations.” Why did it do so? Because the culture of anti-Communism permeated the South. Implying that civil rights workers were Communists associated two evils with each other and reinforced Southern beliefs that “outside agitators” were a foreign as well as a domestic threat.
The Jackson office of the FBI clipped the page from the newspaper and sent it to Headquarters. This began a feedback loop. Reports from the Jackson FBI office state that (name blacked out) contacted them, and identified Jo Freeman as a demonstrator in Grenada, Miss. “(__) who has furnished reliable information in the past, advised that FREEMAN is …. also listed by the Un-American Activities Committee of California as a subversive.” The fact that California thought I was a subversive shows up on several pages in my personal FBI file, even though the San Francisco FBI office repeatedly says that “No subversive activity is known.” The Burns report didn’t say I was a subversive. I realize that to the State of Mississippi all civil rights workers were subversives, but it is California that is credited with my designation as such. Mere mention in the Burns Committee report was enough.
I will probably never know all the “subversive” files my name appears in. After Burns left the California Senate and Combs retired, the new President Pro Tem discovered himself and “more than a score” of legislators in Combs’ cardfiles. He promptly abolished SUAC, sealed its five hundred cubic feet of material and consigned it to permanent storage in the State Archives. It’s not open to the public, or to those listed on its cards, and may not be in my lifetime. I will also never know the personal consequences of having an FBI file or a listing in the 1965 Burns report. But based on what I do know, I’m reasonably sure there were some consequences, none of them salutary. These consequences harmed thousands and thousands of good American citizens. It did not matter if you were a powerful President of a major University, or a foot soldier doing voter registration, once you were labeled by the anti-Communist culture as a subversive, or a possible subversive, or someone who might participate in activities which other possible subversives also participated in, you were labeled forever, without even knowing it.
What does this portend for the future? Nothing good. Will our fear of terrorism take us down the same path as our fear of Communism? If we are to fight this war without shooting ourself in the foot — and the knees, and the abdomen, and the chest — our security agencies need to be very open about everything they do and everything they find. Secrecy creates corruption of purpose. Real protection requires accountability, oversight, and transparency. If we ask the fox to guard the henhouse, we have to keep a steely eye and a heavy hand on the fox.