Originally published in The Nation on January 10, 2006
When Frank Wilkinson died on January 2nd, obituaries focused on his role as a leading defender of the First Amendment and as a fierce opponent of McCarthyism. But Wilkinson was by all accounts–including the compelling new biography about his life and work, “First Amendment Felon” written by longtime Nation contributor Robert Sherrill–an ordinary, even a conservative, American who became an accidental champion of our right to speak and (by extension) to think what we choose.
For decades, Wilkinson waged a David vs. Goliath battle against the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover and others who illegally wiretapped and harassed domestic dissidents opponent. (In later years, Wilkinson obtained his FBI file–all 132,000 pages of it!)
As many obituaries noted, as a result of a shameful Supreme Court decision, Wilkinson was one of the last two people jailed for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) whether he was a Communist. As a result, in 1961 he spent nine months in federal prison in Lewisburg, PA. After prison, Wilkinson spent more than a decade on the road, working with the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, determined to shut down HUAC. When HUAC was finally abolished in 1975, Wilkinson’s crusading work was widely cited as a key reason for its demise.
But there was another important part of Wilkinson’s legacy–his pioneering work as an activist for affordable public housing–which received too little attention in the national obituaries. Of special significance was his role in the controversial battle of Chez Ravine–a tightly-knit Los Angeles neighborhood–which became a legend of urban planning, inspiring a recent album by guitarist Ry Cooder, a play by the Culture Clash Theater group, documentaries and many books and academic articles.