“A Concrete Illustration of the Value of Free Discussion”: The Southern California Branch of the ACLU’s “The Open Forum,” 30 March 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In an era where Republicans ruled the political roost, including in greater Los Angeles, the journal The Open Forum, published by the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union really stood out for its left-leaning views. The ACLU, radical as it might seem to many today, was far more on the fringe in the Roaring Twenties than in our Twenty Twenties, and content from the 30 March 1929 edition of the publication readily demonstrates that.

A front page feature was a reprint from The Canadian Forum, which was launched in 1920 by faculty of the University of Toronto, and which was an abbreviated three-act farce called “The Tyrants of Toronto” and which was said to be “a (very) Light opera by Gullem and Silliman,” a play on the names of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan. This “play” dealt with issues of race and politics that, while focused on that Canadian metropolis, could be applied virtually anywhere. Just a sample from a recitative from a chief inspector will provide the gist:

A am the very model of a modern chief inspector;

When sedition lifts her head I can instantly detect her;

I know the devious ways of each bolshevist and criminal,

And comprehend the workings of their processes subliminal;

Be their colour what it may, red or orange, I can tell

The quintessential nature of the politics by smell;

They may shout in Greek or Hebrew to the limit of their lungs,

It’s all the same to me for I’ve got the gift of tongues;

For custom, law and precedent I do not give a damn;

I am the constitution—I am the great I am.

Chorus of Policemen:

He is the great I am

He is the great I am

‘Tis greatly to his credit

That he himself has said it,

When he might have been a Rooshian,

A Frenchman or a Prooshian,

A Nigger, Chink or Jap,

Or some other foreign chap,

He still remained the great I am,

Remains the great I am.

Other front page news concerned the United States Supreme Court hearing the case of Rosika Schwimmer about if a non-resistant pacifist could become an American citizen—the ruling from the high court was that such a person, refusing to say (even a 52-year old woman who could not serve in the military) they would take up arms for the nation, could be denied naturalization. though Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of America’s greatest jurists, issued a resounding dissent that emphasized the vital nature of free thought.

In California, the state senate took up a bill to eliminate the “third degree” in trying to get arrested prisoners to confess to crimes. Sponsored by the Los Angeles Bar Association, the legislation was aimed at the fact that the organization “found an abundance of evidence that the police have greatly exceeded their authority in beating up helpless men, arresting them without warrants, holding them incommunicado for long periods, searching premises without warrants, failing to arraign prisoners promptly before a magistrate and otherwise disregarding their civil rights.

On the second page is a summary of a speech by Socialist Norman Thomas, a frequent candidate for president, whose “A Program for Peace” included the assertion that the means to avoiding all war was to move towards disarmament, especially in the matter of navies. Thomas added, however, that this would be impossible “unless we can handle the difficult economic problems that are the basis of so many rivalries and hates in the world today”—this was several months before the crash of the stock market that ushered in The Great Depression.

Thomas continued that “not the best intentions in the world will avail us much unless we are willing to face questions of tariffs, economic imperialism, the allocation of raw materials, debts and reparations, with a realistic knowledge that there is a price of peace and that no nation can play the role in world affairs the unconsciously America is assuming without grave danger.” He went on that industrialization mandated wither “cooperation on a world-wide scale or destruction.” A “growing internationalism of capital” and the specter of an international bank were warning signs if they could not “check the rival imperialism of rival capitalists.”

Any success of such an institution, he averred, would “be at the price of such a complete domination not only of the working class but of what may be called proletarian nations that it will only intensify a bitterness that sooner or later will turn class struggle into class war.” Thomas declared “we who do not believe in salvation by catastrophe cannot afford to let the dominant internationalism be an internationalism of bankers.”

Contributing Editor P.D. Noel’s “News and Views” included a discussion of tax evasion, noting “most of our taxes are shifted by those who pay them to the shoulders of the consumers,” though this could not be done for those on real estate, income and inheritances. He added that “the tendency over the country is to put the burden of government on those best able to bear it—those who are benefiting from monopolies and special privileges.

The bulk of federal revenues were from income taxes, introduced (well, reintroduced if we recall the income tax implemented during the Civil War and then rescinded after the conflict ended) in 1913. Prior to that date, as he noted, “our national revenues were procured from import duties, internal revenue taxes on alcoholic liquors and tobacco, etc.” Though the federal Supreme Court first ruled that income taxes were unconstitutional, that view changed, but Noel ended by insisting “some day we will be wise enough to tax our millionaires out of existence.”

As to gender equality, Noel noted that, although the typographical union was considered conservative as far as unions went, it did follow its principle regarding the sexes being treated equally and did so more than others who preached but did not practice. He added that “its women members get exactly the same wages and hours as do the men doing similar work” and in Los Angeles, the union’s February report stated that “half the new members initiated were women.”

A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Pullman Porters’ Union, was at the City Club’s forum the previous week and Noel recorded that “he is as forceful and intelligent any speaker who has ever spoken there.” Randolph addressed purported biological differences between the races, but Noel opined that ‘it was unfortunate that the question regarding segregation of the races was taken by him in a local manner, such as we have in cities and communities in this country, rather than on a large national scale of separate states or countries. Moreover,

It is doubtful if the Negroes will ever be anything more than a discriminated-against people in this country. Where two races, so different that they will not intermarry, exist in the same land, one will dominate and the other be subservient.

In its “From Varied Viewpoints” section of letters from readers, Sophie Feider comments on a panel discussion at the Biltmore Theatre, situated next to the hotel of that name next to Pershing Square, on Eugene O’Neill’s controversial play, “Strange Interlude.” Feider called the work “an innovation in the theater world evoking serious and extensive discussion” and highlighted the contributions of three of the speakers, most notably Upton Sinclair, best known for his 1906 novel The Jungle and who was a contributing editor to The Open Forum.

Feider wrote that “most delightful of all the speakers was Upton Sinclair,” who expressed concern that, because O’Neill’s work “offered no social solution, it represented the breaking down of a social order.” The author insisted that the result of the play was “that no matter what one does, nothing comes out right, nor does it end in happiness for anyone.”

Moreover, “all the characters produce nothing, and spend their lives in sexual experience, and so make a mess of things for themselves and others.” When Sinclair stated “life is optimism, and faith and action” as well as “it is possible to know what is right and what is wrong” so “that alone has made survival possible,” Feider ended with the observation that “hearty applause indicated a concurrence of opinion.”

D. Webster Groh of Hagerstown, Maryland wrote about Prohibition, stating that he preferred temperance instead, observing “temperance is self-government, prohibition is politician government. The former is from within, the latter from without. One frees us, the other enslaves.” Groh continued that he abstained from caffeine, much less alcohol, because of the effects on health, “yet I would not force others to do likewise” though he hoped to persuade people to his views “restraining them only when they so abuse their liberty as to injure or endanger their own or others’ lives or safety, by being intoxicated.”

He tried to equate the use of matches with alcohol and pleaded, “punish not the seller nor beneficent user thereof but only the abuser” and advised that “the habitual drunkard should be restrained from the use of alcohol by imprisonment at useful labor daily.” Moreover, there should be a healthy diet and no tobacco and caffeine “until he is cured of his bad habits.” For a second offense, the sentence should be double, and the penalty doubled with each further conviction. Finally, he suggested “tax distillers heavily as formerly to get enough money to make alcohol pay all the expenses that its use creates.”

“G.H.S.,” on the other hand, wrote that “personal liberty exponents may as well argue in behalf of theft, murder and rape as to argue for the return of the liquor traffic” claiming that those who made, sold and consumed alcoholic beverages “are just as much outlaws . . . as are thieves, murderers and rape-fiends.” This person claimed that “human advance is not made through exclusively intellectual channels” while adding that “the material contributions of life contribute vastly more to human progress than do the activities of the human mind.”

It was not morality or the need to educate that drove the passage of Prohibition, rather, it was “the necessity of the social and economic conditions of our time” because “American capitalism simply cannot function efficiently or continue its development with a liquor handicap.” Asking whether occasional breaches of the law necessitated its repeal, G.H.S. claimed “this nation is fully committed to prohibition” and thundered, “violators of the law, if caught, may prepare to pay fines, therefore, or go to jail. The day of argument has gone; the day of judgment is here!”

Reader “T.H.B.” noted the recent deaths of Lillian Harman in Chicago and Lillie D. White in Los Angeles, the former being the daughter of the notorious Moses Harman, the Kansas and then Chicago-based publisher of the journal Lucifer, the Light Bearer, which had its own dating system from 1601, when Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for his astronomical heresies. T.H.B. emphasized the value of the work of the Harmans and White in their approach to sex among the genders and opined,

The radical who needs a little encouragement might do worse than get a few copies of the good old paper and note that many articles are being written today in language just as plain without any threat of prison about it and that the abominations Moses Harman attached are gradually being got rid of as regards their worst forms. In considerable part that progress has been due to the devoted people who in spite of threats, abuse and filth, persisted in their propaganda.

Finally, Professor Gaetano Salvemini, a historian of the French Revolution and of Italy after its unification, former editor of the Italian weekly newspaper L’Unita and a member of the nation’s parliament before the rise of dictator Benito Mussolini, was scheduled to speak twice in April on fascism at the Los Angeles Open Forum at the Music-Art Hall on Broadway south of Second Street.

It was noted that Salvemini was arrested in 1925 on charges of writing for a banned publication and faced trial before a general amnesty by Mussolini for anyone accused of political crimes led to an end of the prosecution. Salvemini fled to London, resigned his professorship at the University of Florence and stated he would only return to Italy “when we shall have reconquered a civilized government.” He excoriated the fascisti for suppressing liberty and the free teaching of civil education so that it was “reduced to the servile adulation of the dominant party . . . which offends the moral conscience of the teacher and the alumni.”

Whatever one may think of the leftist viewpoints expressed in The Open Forum, there are many elements that resonate with us today, more than nine decades later, whether it is about the role of policing, war, economics, race relations, the role of art such as in the theater, the role of government in policing its citizens as with Prohibition, and authoritarian politics, among others. The purpose statement for the publication reads that “it offers a means of expression to unpopular minorities” as it sought “to give a concrete illustration of the value of free discussion.”

2 thoughts

  1. I read you articles daily. This one was particularly interesting and entertaining. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Ion, for your continued interest and support and we’re glad you enjoyed this post!

Leave a Reply