A Rich Life on Behalf of the Poor

frank in chair

1st Amendment activist Frank Wilkinson, once imprisoned for his views, is memorialized.

January 29, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer
National civil liberties leader Frank Wilkinson, who died Jan. 2, was remembered Saturday as “the Johnny Appleseed of the 1st Amendment” at a packed memorial service at Holman United Methodist Church.

Wilkinson “sowed seeds of liberty in every city of the country,” said Kit Gage, director of the First Amendment Foundation, one of several groups her former colleague launched in his 91 years. Well into his 80s, Wilkinson gave nearly 200 speeches a year on 1st Amendment issues, fair housing and civil rights.

The son of a physician, he was born in Michigan and came to Los Angeles when he was 11. He graduated from Beverly Hills High School and UCLA and considered becoming a Methodist minister. But after seeing extreme poverty during a trip around the world, Wilkinson became an advocate of affordable, high-quality public housing.

A member of the Communist Party for more than 30 years, Wilkinson lost his job at the Los Angeles Housing Authority in the McCarthy era after refusing to answer questions about his political affiliations during a city hearing concerning housing in Chavez Ravine. But he continued his anti-poverty work and was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958.

Rather than assert his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, as others did, he refused to answer questions citing the 1st Amendment. His case went to the Supreme Court, where he lost, 5-4. He spent nine months in prison for contempt of Congress.

After his release in 1962, he dedicated himself to abolishing the House committee, which he considered un-American. The campaign succeeded — in 1975.

Wilkinson played a key role in other civil liberties battles over the next 30 years.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a leader of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, praised Wilkinson as man “who inspired people because he was courageous.”

“It’s important to remember his life, but it’s also important to pick up the torch,” she said. “We should have a Frank Wilkinson Memorial Brigade. No meetings. Just a large e-mail list to do outrageous actions.”

Although he achieved a great deal, including successfully suing the FBI for its 132,000-page file on him, “Frank had one unachieved goal at the end of his life — to chisel J. Edgar Hoover’s name off the FBI building,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, referring to the late FBI director.

Wilkinson loved music, a gift he passed to his children. At the service Saturday, his daughter, Jo, sang “Amazing Grace” and his son, Jeffrey, sang “Softer Than a Song,” a tune by Wilkinson’s grandson Joshua.

Several speakers emphasized that Wilkinson loved to interact with young people.

Andrea McEvoy, a high school history teacher from Culver City said that when she first brought Wilkinson to one of her classes a few years ago to discuss his experiences, she was concerned about how a man in his 80s would do with a group of “16-year-olds with the attention span of a music video.” Within moments, though, Wilkinson had her students “on the edge of their seats,” McEvoy said.

“He taught them what fear can do to a country. They really listened. Frank took over the semester. We never made it to Reaganomics,” the teacher said, drawing laughter.

Wilkinson’s family — including his stepchildren from his marriage to his second wife, Donna, who arranged Saturday’s program — presented the personal side of a man they clearly loved and admired. They recounted that he gave them back rubs, sang lullabies — some with a distinctly political tilt — and typed their school papers.

Perhaps the most poignant remarks were offered by Wilkinson’s 60-year-old son, Tony, who recalled when the family was trailed by federal agents and their house was firebombed.

But his father, “with thousands of others, helped to create this ocean of love that sustained us and carried us all, up and over our fears.”

Frank’s work is carried on by the organization he helped found in 1960, now known as the Defending Dissent Foundation.

Please consider making a donation in Frank’s memory today.

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