Published originally at VTDigger.org
by Greg Guma
Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series excerpted from “Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress by Greg Guma, a longtime Vermont journalist. This is the ninth installment. All of the essays in the series can be found here.
In 1956, Frank Wilkinson, a housing organizer from Los Angeles, was summoned to appear at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee had already wrecked the local housing authority in a hunt for Communists. It had also cost Frank the job.
When subpoenaed he refused to speak – but not on the usual Fifth Amendment (self-incrimination) grounds. Instead he took the First Amendment on the grounds that the committee, by forcing him to answer questions and using tactics of intimidation, was violating his right to freedom of speech.
Wilkinson spent a year in jail for that defiant stand. But he emerged unbowed and fought for the abolition of HUAC for more than a decade. In his dissenting opinion on Frank’s Supreme Court case, Justice Hugo Black called it an attempt by HUAC “to use contempt power … as a weapon against those who criticize it.”
Fortunately,the tactic didn’t work. Frank poured his energies into the National Committee to Abolish HUAC – and finally succeeded in doing it in 1975.
I got to know him around this time, helping with his ongoing national road tour to talk about constitutional rights and the threats of repressive laws. Frank was one in a series of mentors, people who demonstrated through their ideas and deeds how to make a difference and, in some cases, live a conscious life.
For spiritual grounding I turned to Buddhism, studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, exiled leader of the Surmang Monastery in Tibet. Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the first teachers to introduce Buddhism to North America, had come to the U.S. a few years earlier and established a meditation center, Tail of the Tiger, in Barnet, Vt. It later became Karmê Chöling, first in a network of Buddhist retreats known as Dharmadhatus. I frequently visited Tail of the Tiger during its early years, meditating for days, sometimes weeks.
I also learned valuable lessons from anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin, Toward Freedom publisher Bill Lloyd, renegade lawyer Bill Kunstler and peace activist Dave Dellinger.
As HUAC faded away Frank Wilkinson’s organization changed its name to the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, known as NCARL. Nixon was gone but a Senate bill to re-codify and revise all federal criminal laws was being actively pushed. It was packed with new repressive features, Frank warned, and left obsolete laws in place.
He lobbied against the bill in its various forms and guises – S.1, S.1437, HR.6869, S.1722/HR.6233, and so on – until he retired from field organizing in the 1990s. By that time he had spent about half a century on the road.
One of Frank’s main arguments was that so-called “omnibus” legislation usually gets worse before it passes. In this case, it was also unnecessary. Like many things, criminal law can be reformed and unified step-by-step. The need to improve fragmented, inconsistent laws is obvious, but the atmosphere in Congress makes comprehensive reform – in this or almost any area – virtually impossible without compromising basic rights.
At one point in the Criminal Code fight, a bargain was struck in the Senate between the liberal Edward “Teddy” Kennedy and arch-conservative Strom Thurmond to co-sponsor a version of the basic legislation. Their brainchild was a bill that improved some statutes while making others worse. Provisions aimed at dissident activity were kept and new offenses were created.
When I briefly cornered Teddy Kennedy for an interview behind the stage in Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium during his 1980 presidential run he denied that there was a problem.
Constitutional rights could be violated, I suggested. “We won’t let that happen,” he replied, testily. Famous last words. Two decades later, under the Bush administration and a compliant Congress, the ghost of Criminal Code revision was resurrected within the USA PATRIOT Act and other “war on terror” laws.
Explaining the dangers of “omnibus” lawmaking, Frank Wilkinson would point to the enormous size of the criminal code bill – hundreds of pages, thousands of provisions. Then he would note wryly that legal experts, sitting quietly in a library, could carefully make a thousand amendments and probably come up with a decent law. But the Senate and House are not law libraries, and the chances of a slow and dispassionate debate are slim.
Beyond his power to persuade, Frank was one of those special people, a truly courageous and fully human being, a peaceful warrior on the side of the people. When his government files – literally several hundred thousand pages – were released under the Freedom of Information Act in 1980, we learned that he had been tailed, harassed and generally messed with by the FBI for decades on the personal orders of J. Edgar Hoover. The bureau even watched an assassination plan unfold in 1964, filing reports as the scheme was being hatched. Word from the top was to let it happen.
As we became friends and political allies I organized speaking tours, carried his bags, did advance work, and learned more about civil liberties and the life of an organizer. Frank’s grasp of history and politics, combined with a selfless and compassionate style, was deeply impressive.
He also knew how to work a crowd, getting his audiences activated and motivated to contribute.