The Story of Frank Wilkinson

"On what date?"  This was an innocent sounding question.  But when the FBI agents sitting in Frank Wilkinson's office asked it in response to his question, "Did you burglarize my office?" Wilkinson knew instantly that the course of his life had just changed. 

Frank Wilkinson was an unlikely defender of the First Amendment.  He grew up in Beverly Hills , California in an affluent community.  As was usual among the well-to-do in the early decades of the 20th century, his college graduation present from his parents was a trip to Europe .

Raised in a religious home where the Bible was read aloud daily, Wilkinson contemplated becoming a Methodist minister.  After college, he chose to travel to the Holy Land, now known as Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to spend Christmas where it all began. 

In the Middle East he was appalled to discover poverty.  He had never dreamed that people were living in such conditions.  When he returned to California and was discussing what he had seen, a family friend, Msgr. Thomas O'Dwyer, took him to see poverty not five miles from the home he grew up in.  In astonishment at this other world, Frank began to work for public housing in Los Angeles .  He wanted to help bring poverty to an end.

As Director of Public Housing in Los Angeles , Wilkinson took over the job of placing new families.  He thought the way to do that was to maintain a waiting list.  When one family moved out, he would move the first family on the list in.  This simple plan integrated public housing in Los Angeles .  He also wanted to build thousands of integrated public-housing units in the neighborhood of LA called Chavez Ravine – the city later decided to build a stadium there for the Dodgers instead. 

If you supporting integrated public housing in the 1950s you were automatically believed to be a socialist or communist.  In 1955 he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was routing out imaginary communists during the "Red Scare."

When questioned by HUAC about his ties to communism, Wilkinson replied, "My answer is my answer" and nothing more.  While thousands of others who were called before HUAC "took the Fifth," refusing to answer HUAC's questions on their Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination, Wilkinson chose to base his response on the First Amendment.  It granted the right to speak freely, and also not to speak at all.  It also protected the right of association.  Wilkinson maintained that under the First Amendment, HUAC had no right to question him.

Because Frank was accused of being a communist, his wife – a teacher – lost her job and their kids were allowed to go to the religious sleep-away camp they had always attended only if their father agreed not to visit the camp.  Wilkinson worked as a night janitor in a store to support his family.  While the owner was courageous enough to employ Wilkinson, he did not want anyone to know about it.  Everyone associated with Wilkinson was tainted by the accusation and treated with suspicion.

HUAC cited him for contempt, and in 1958 the US Supreme Court upheld that citation by a 5-4 and ordered Wilkinson and his co-worker Carl Braden to spend a year in prison.  Wilkinson and Braden who, with his wife Anne, were prominent in the Civil Rights Movement, were the last people to be imprisoned by HUAC.  They were escorted to prison in 1961 by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wilkinson served nine months at the federal prison in Lewisburg , Pennsylvania .  He said he went into prison an Orange County Republican and came out determined to abolish HUAC.   To do this, he founded an organization called the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, now known as the First Amendment Foundation.  With Father Robert Drinan, a Massachusetts Member of Congress who had run on a promise to destroy the Power of HUAC and end the tyranny of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Wilkinson succeeded in abolishing HUAC in 1975.  No longer would an accusation of communism be used to destroy tens of thousands of people's lives.  That particular witch hunt was over. 

Wilkinson crisscrossed the United States until shortly before his death on January 2, 2006, telling his story – first to adults, and then increasingly to high school and middle school students.  Even after his ninetieth birthday, he was on the road, fighting to ensure that this kind of abuse of the power of the government would never be allowed to happen again.   He had no idea that while he was out fighting for everyone's freedom of expression and association, the government was abusing his First and Fourth Amendment rights.   

In 1986 he was talking with his friend Archibald Cox, about the frequent break-ins at his office.  Cox, the prosecutor in the Nixon Administration Watergate scandal, suggested he request his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act.  He did, with astonishing results. 

First came those two FBI agents who asked "On what date?"  Then came the deluge of paper.  Wilkinson first received 32,000 documents, then, two years later, another 70,000 documents.  Eventually he had 132,000 documents covering his round-the-clock surveillance by teams of FBI agents, from the time of his release from prison until he made the request for his files.

The FBI had listened to all his – and his kids' – telephone calls, read all his mail, and followed him around the country, sometimes hiring hecklers to disrupt his speeches.  Through wiretaps, they uncovered a plot to assassinate him.  Among the documents was a memo telling agents to "make sure the assassination was carried out" in the handwriting of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover.

Energized by his discovery that he had been under constant surveillance, Frank re-committed himself to civil liberties, spending more than 200 days a year on the road, well into his eighties.  Despite his being hard of hearing since he was a teenager, despite growing older, like the Energizer bunny, he kept going and going and going.  Whenever he talked to kids, he asked them to write a note to him with any questions they had, or points that were not clear, and when he returned to Los Angeles he wrote a reply to each question.

Wilkinson always asked kids to look around carefully and let him know if they saw an FBI agent.   A federal judge had told the FBI it would be heavily fined if an FBI agent was ever found within 100 yards of him.  Wilkinson would have used the money to fight for First Amendment rights for us all.