“What’s Social Equality”: The Southern California Branch of the ACLU’s “The Open Forum,” 23 March 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) commemorated its centennial last year and the organization’s formation in 1920 came during the height of “The Red Scare,” when anti-Communist sentiment led to many intrusions into the civil liberties of Americans accused of leftist sympathies and activities. In Los Angeles, the Reverend Clinton J. Taft (1877-1969), left his pulpit at the Plymouth Congregational Church, to take the position of executive director of the regional chapter of the ACLU and headed it for 20 years.

The chapter’s four-page weekly publication, The Open Forum, was launched in late 1924, and the Homestead has a set of eighteen issues from the Twenties and Thirties, with tonight’s featured object being the 23 March 1929 edition. Among the contributing editors were Ethelwyn Mills, Kate Crane Gartz, Lew Head, Leo Gallagher, P.D. Noel and the famous Upton Sinclair, best known for his searing portrait of the Chicago meatpacking industry, 1906’s The Jungle and a key founder of the ACLU in California. Sinclair, a dedicated socialist for over thirty years became a Democrat when he mounted a serious campaign for governor in 1934, garnering nearly 45% of the vote.


Among the contents in the journal is one by T.H. Bell dealing with the latest manifestation of the fraught political situation in México, specifically the aftermath of the February execution of caricaturist José de León Toral, who assassinated former president and president-elect General Alvaro Obregón the previous summer. The article discussed the persecution of Catholics under the regime of Obregón’s successor from 1924-1928, Plutarco Calles, particularly in the last two years of his administration, as well as Calles’ purported brutality against socialists and union members when he governor of the northern state of Sonora. Bell concluded by asserting that “the peasants of Mexico . . . will get their land only when they follow [Emiliano] Zapata’s advice,” presumably about the agrarian reform movement he led through his 1911 Plan de Ayala, eight years before his death.

Another notable piece, by someone only identified as “G.H.S.,” concerned a supposed radical organization called the Suicide Club, “the members of which shall pledge themselves, individually or collectively, to quick and sudden death when life’s conditions grow intolerable.” It was added that amarchists were more likely to take their lives alone, while socialists and communisits “will slay themselves en masse.” The writer chided that there were wives who would encourage their radicalized husbands to self-murder and mothers “who regard all radical agitation as fiend-inspired” who “might not object” if their sons professed far-left views. Naturally, he stated, the capitalist cadre “would rise upon its hind legs and make the joy-bells ring should such a club come into being.”

Radicals like the perennial socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and Job Harriman, who almost won the mayoralty of Los Angeles in 1911, did not kill themselves and G.H.S. opined that “the radical determined upon dedicating himself to the cause has no business taking the marriage vow” and “the true radical will do his work without money and without price.” Moreover, radicals were to be prepared to be jailed for their beliefs, otherwise “he does not possess the martyr spirit, for radical agitation demands of its proponents a sacrifice at times amounting to martyrdom.”


To conclude, G.H.S. offered “all praise to the martyr-radicals of every land and age!” and offered that “their analysis of the social process has been equalled only by their help in times of social crisis.” Whether such idealism was to be mocked or not, he wrote that “within the mind and heart of man there dwells that which, when aroused, will drive its possessor to climb the Hill of Calvary.” The time was high when “the call to hold aloft the torch of liberty is about sound” and “from unexpected places and remote will come a valiant yourh who will carry on even as their fathers did.” Ending his essay, G.H.S. proclaimed “Good cheer, comrades! Avaunt, ye Suicide Club! Great days are ahead!”

In her “Impressions of Peking,” what is now Beijing, Kate Crane Gartz had little positive to say about China’s capital city, writing that none “of God’s creatures could be so homely, neglected and abused as, not only the few, but the great unwashed masses of this city are—clothed literally in fringes of dirty rags.” She added that those driving rickshaws “never have a chance to go to school, and they don’t seem quite like human beings” and the sight of them transporting rich Chinese was “humiliating.”

The only places where “civilization” was to be found was in the foreign embassies, though she added “I could not approve of luxurious surroundings . . . in such a vicious setting.” Such displays, she noted, means that, absent of any benefit to the Chinese, “one cannot think much of our boasted civilizing influence.” She added,

We Americans and Europeans, the superior white races, go on manufacturing and using Lewisite gas [a chemical warfare agent developed in 1918, but too late for use in World War I] to exterminate our superior and most fit stock, while these miserable creatures have no place to lay their heads, and must dig into piles of rubbish for their precarious nourishment!

Gartz went on to suggest that “it won’t hurt the Chinese to have more of Japanese, for, as bad as we thought the Japanese slums, they are paradise in comparison to the Chinese. And as for our own slums, there is no excuse at all for them.” Within just several years, the Japanese invaded China and wrought all manner of horrors upon the Chinese people, so Gartz’ words are particularly striking.

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She did suggest that “Shanghai is very different from Peking; it has some modern buildings, which give it more of the appearance of one of our own cities,” but Gartz continued that “the Chinese part is still different from anything we could imagine from the beautiful pictures we have seen.” For her, “the main impression of China is its crowds of creatures, not to day himan beings, who never should have been born; their faces seem to fit their miserable bodies shrouded in shredded rages.”

As long as gross inequities existed in Chinese society, such as Gartz knew of it, “where is the hope? Perhaps the revolution will stir them into action, although Chiang Kai-Shek, in whom we had hope, has fallen terribly short of his promise.” The author then closed with the belief that “we are a different race—we have nothing in common, strange as it is for me to say this.” Adding that all she wanted to do was get away from the country, she noted “they say India is ten times worse, for all of England’s one hundred and fifty years of influence” and then warned “to go there and exploit them without helping them, as has been done these many years, is inexcusable, unforgivable.”

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P.D. Noel’s “News and Views” had one component called “Too Much Jazz” in which he said that “an organization devoted to civic and other public affairs” had an event recently in which part of the program involved music, during which there were “two girls dancing almost in the nude, having nothing more on than brassieres and hip trunks.” He went on to report that a society of lawyers called the Justinian Club had a meeting in which there was “a number consisting of Negroes concocting jazz music (?) from tin cans and other improvised instruments” and claimed that “the usual results of these attempts to increase attendance are quite the reverse.”

In its “From Varied Viewpoints” section, James Deegan wrote an interesting response to an editorial from 2 March from “G.H.S.” and apparently contradictory statements made about one constitutional amendment, the 18th and Prohibition, and another, the 14th and the rights of Blacks to vote. Deegan excoriated the editorialist “who was born and reared in the South” for not seeming to understand that the latter amendment “has been persistently violated by a majority of the southern states for the past sixty odd years.”


Deegan then asserted that the blatant violation by the South of the 14th amendment

was followed by Big Business, then by the bootlegger, and still later by the criminal element, until now it is no longer considered fashionable to pay any attention to the Constitution or any of its amendments when it interferes with your business interests.

After observing that “there is no record in history where the people ever put up a good fight for a cause that did not appear to their economic interests or their ideals or both,” Deegan challenged G.H.S. “to show where there has been any improvement in the economic, moral or material conditions of the workers after a ten-year trial of this ‘noble experiment.'”

Harold Z. Brown, who, along with Harriman, was a teacher at the Commonwealth College in the New Llano Colony in Louisiana, after Harriman’s Llano del Rio colony north of Los Angeles failed in 1917, and who was in New York in 1929, wrote that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were executed in August 1927 after a highly controversial conviction for the killing of a paymaster and guard for a shoe company, “are more alive today than before the electrocution.”

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Brown noted that books were written about the men and their case, that Vanzetti’s statement to the court “has become a classic of English literature,” that the published letters of the pair were being translated into other languages, and that Sinclair’s two-volume novel, Boston, including its interpretations of the case, had been lionized “as a great novel of compelling interest.” A Sacco-Vanzetti National League formed four months after their deaths and there were two plays recently performed about the anarchists. All of this led Brown to conclude that “their deathless vitality is proved by their permanent resurrection as a symbol of working-class heroism and employing-class ‘justice’ in the minds of millions of workers the world over.”

A brief note titled “Socialist Labor Party” discussed an unnamed local man and member of that party who wrote of the fact that machinery installed at the cement company where he worked “resulted in the reduction of the forces from sixty-five to twenty-nine men.” This was in line with other effects from the introduction of “almost automatic labor-saving devices” that led to a 5.6% decline in employment, according to the 1924 national industrial census, while output grew nearly 14%. Expected returns for the new version of the census, to be released later in the year, suggested that this process would only expand. Given that Marxist economics, it was said, was the only scientific form, “the only solution lies in the proletarian revolution” so that there had to be “the substitution of the Industrial Republic of Labor for the present chaos.”

Not as radical, but still far left-leaning, was a letter from Thomas L. Brunk of Alton, Illinois, who railed against the “strong division between the honest mass and the dishonest gamblers who are holding the reins of government for their own interests.” To deal with the growing problem of “abuses of credit for speculation,” growing military spending, grossly enhanced profits, and “encroachments upon the common natural rights, of all to the earth and the fullness thereof,” Brunk proposed “a convention to discuss the rewriting of our Constitution.”

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To hold such a confab, he argued, “would create the greatest howl in the speculative inferno on Wall Street” and the public would see how they were abused into “believing that it [the rampant financial speculation] was all for their benefit.” Brunk continued that “such a public furore is exactly the psychic pabulum needed to stir the whole nation to action. As government had to come before industry and business and its mechanisms used to check the greed of these, “the time is ripe for a new Constitution and the sentiment is abroad in its favor.”

Finally, the main front page article, titled “Here is a Man” concerns A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), the head of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. A socialist who began his involvement with Black workers in the late 1910s and who ran, in the early Twenties, under the Socialist Party banner for state controller and secretary of state in New York, Randolph formed the Brotherhood in 1925 with its African-American membership seeking to align with the American Federation of Labor, though it took a dozen years for that to happen.

The author, Ruth Loomis Skeen, moved to Los Angeles when her husband, a doctor and former New Mexico state senator, developed tuberculosis, though he died shortly afterward in 1926. Skeen was a prominent clubwoman and supporter of woman suffrage in New Mexico and continued her political activism in the Angel City, including seeking better relations between whites and Blacks. Her essay was in praise of Randolph after his recent visit to Los Angeles and she began by noting that “A. Philip Randolph has come and gone. Don’t ask me, please, who he is. He is a good-looking, sophisticated, well-dressed young man in the early thirties, with the accent of an Oxford Don, a sound education and a great deal of culture. Incidentally, his skin is brown.”


Skeen continued that “ordinarily, we don’t refer to a man’s skin since, fundamentally, skins don’t count. It’s what’s inside of them that matters. But, in this instance, the skin is important.” While the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was not incorporated within the AFL, she noted that Randolph “has just succeeded, after three years of struggle, in putting over the neatest but of history, the biggest piece of drama that has been accomplished by the colored race.” This was the securing of an international charter from the AFL “which gives the Brother of Pullman Porters its recognition and support.” With no small measure of sarcasm, Skeen added, “Bravo, old A.F. of L., we had thought you dead; we find you were only asleep.”

The piece included a vignette of “a decadent day in Hollywood” with nothing of consequence or meaning happening, so that Skeen felt “God, what a world. Everything’s so damned futile.” Then, a woman came in and told her that “they’re having a banquet on Central avenue for Philip Randolph. Let’s go.” At the event, with “a pleasant group of decent citizens of both races,” Randolph spoke, to which Skeen wrote, “in a little while I am glowing inside. Gee whiz, I’m alive after all.” She added that the union leader “tells the story of this struggle simply, quietly, without heat, almost impersonally, almost gently. This man has something big. It’s vision.”

Skeen continued in a remarkable passage:

When a man who knows the history of his race and has seen it discriminated against and mistreated for three generations, can say that there is no bitterness in his heart, that he looks toward a world brotherhood, he is evolved, raised above the crowd. He has creased to be personal, racial—he has become universal.

We need not worry about the future of the dark Americans in our midst, they are making it. We can’t stop their progress, we can only, stupidly, retart it. But we can be concerned about the future of our own . . .

We MIGHT stop playing with dangerous toys and turn human. We might take an interest in what these dark Americans, who share with us the mystery and adventure of living, are doing among themselves. But will we? I wonder.

Still, here and there our race is waking up to the fact that the new Negro has ideas of his own. You might fool a dark man for two generations, but you can’t hoodwink him for three. That’s why the Friday Morning Club and the City Club listened so carefully to what Randolph had to say.

If you have a mental image of the dark American as a vaudeville performer or a cotton picker, bowing in a battered hat and saying, “Yessuh, Boss, yessuh,” you should make it a point to see and hear Philip Randolph.

But if you’re afraid of being jolted from the pleasant idea of your own superiority which you have built out of the old fabric, you had best remain at home and read your Octavus Roy Cohen [a popular writer who employed black dialect for comedic effect]—Anyhow—


A short note on the front page also included a warning by Randolph to Black porters and maids on Pullman card to vote against a “wage conference” offered by the Pullman firm as he argued it was a cynical attempt by the firm “to give the members a small wage increase” to try and blunt the prospect of a larger raise negotiated by the Brotherhood.


On the last page is a brief statement by Randolph titled “What’s Social Equality?” where he takes to task white supremacists like Thomas Dixon, whose novel The Clansman was made into D.W. Griffith’s popular motion picture Birth of a Nation, by stating “with tongue and pen they cry out to the high heavens against the Negro aspiring to become educated, to vote, to do the most skilled work, work which they dub a ‘white man’s job.'”

Randoolph continued:

that to the Negrophobist, educational opportunity is social equality; that political opportunity is social equality; that economic opportunity is social equality. Hence to deny that you want social equality is to admit that you don’t want educational, political and economic opportunity . . . you cannot educate a person or race in the same things in which you are educated and continue to convince him, or it, that he or it is inferior to you.

Skeen’s fulsome praise for Randolph is not just very interesting, but a significant and notable contrast to the statements made by other contributors like Gartz and Deegan in a newspaper that is a fascinating document of the left-leaning ACLU that still causes controversy, but also remains a vital entity for civil liberties, a century after its founding.

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