“Our Gains and Set-Backs in the U.S.A.”: The Southern California Branch of the ACLU’s “The Open Forum,” 28 June 1930

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Formed in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is much more mainstream, though it may not seem so to some, now than it was a century ago. This is because many of its leaders and members were on the far left end of the political spectrum, which, in 1920, was a touch place to be, given the realities of the Red Scare and the conservative backlash against communists, socialists and others, actual or not, who gained momentum in the early 20th century as the income and wealth gap widened and many working class people fumed as the upper echelons of American society greatly expanded their financial positions.

As with most of the country, greater Los Angeles was largely strongly conservative with pro-business, anti-union forces dominant, including such powerful entities as the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, wielding significant influence and Republicans in near total dominance of local politics. The Southern California Branch of the ACLU published a weekly journal called The Open Forum and the Museum’s collection has several issues, including today’s highlighted artifact, the 28 June 1930 edition.

The front page feature is titled “Our Gains and Set-Backs in the U.S.A.” and is interesting to peruse and then compare and contrast with our own time. A core issue of the ACLU’s tenth annual report was that “the constant violation of Negro rights continues unabated” and reference was made to a map, said to be the first of its kind, that “vividly displays those states having legal restrictions on the colored race.” Of these, ten prohibited Blacks from voting, marry whites, go to integrated schools and ride on public transit. Half that many had the same restrictions, save the right to vote. Two more disallowed intermarriage and kept schools segregated while thirteen others also prohibited whites from marrying blacks.

Broadly, the 60-page document “states that repressive measures against the agitation of unpopular causes have been increased by new laws and court decisions” and also noted “that the extensive machinery of repression created since the war” were directed toward labor strikes “and against radical propaganda in industrial centers.” It repeated the matter of the denial of African-Americans having fundamental human rights “and that religious and racial tolerance is firmly entrenched.”

There was some encouraging news to members of the ACLU, however, as it was asserted that:

Public opinion, however, is on the whole more alert to defend civil liberties and to oppose repression . . . while more newspapers speak out against repressive tactics; the Civil Liberties Union gets increasing support for its campaigns and views; and defense organizations of those whose rights are attacked “are alert and on the whole stronger.”

With respect to the national picture, ACLU correspondents from forty states told it that “conditions were the same in thirty-one states, worse in three, and better in six,” though, among those where the situation was degrading, was California along with Georgia and Wyoming, while improvement was found in such places as Kentucky, Idaho, Massachusetts and New Jersey, so it wasn’t as if there was a clear-cut regional differentiation at play.

Moreover, Communists and other left-wing labor organizations were attacked in 32 states and Blacks in a quarter of that number, and the American Legion, launched in the immediate aftermath of the First World War was held responsible for most “attacks,” which were presumably written , while other groups included the Daughters of the American Revolution, chambers of commerce, and religious fundamentalists. Notably, it was added, “it is the first since 1922 in which the [Ku Klux] Klan has not appeared as an active factor in intolerance and repression,” whereas the KKK had reemerged onto the American scene earlier in the Twenties, including in greater Los Angeles.

As for “the gains of 1929 and the early months of 1930,” the report highlighted an amendment to a federal tariff act that gave customs personnel the ability “to ban foreign literature which they regard as obscene” as well as having federal courts with a jury trial hear criminal cases based on this; a South Carolina Supreme Court decision overturning a law allowing the Bible to be read in public schools; a New York judge’s ruling that being a Communist does not make a non-citizen deportable; a federal appears court decision to overturn the conviction of Mary Ware Dennett for mailing her pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life;” an investigation into the jailing of members of the left-wing International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) by complaint of the Federal Council of Churches; and others.

With respect to the “set-backs” experienced during that period there were a conviction of seven men alleged to have sought to kill a North Carolina police chief “in a trial filled with religious and political prejudice;” the conviction on charges of riot of five textile workers in that state; another North Carolina incident in which a strike coordinator, Ella May Wiggins, was killed and six textile workers were also killed and two dozen wounded; the deployment of a militia and violence in a Tennessee textile workers strike; the murder of a worker by a trio of private iron and coal police officers and their acquittal, though two were later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter; denial of citizenship for Rosika Schwimmer because she would not swear to bear arms at war for the country; and the conviction of five women for carrying red flags at San Bernardino, among more.

The situation in Pennsylvania was considered particularly problematic as “outside the struggle in the South the issues” there “are more frequent and sharper than elsewhere in the United States” with brutality cited by state coal and iron police, the closing of meetings of workers and radicals and other actions. Yet, there were other areas highlighted as particularly repressive, including New York City and northern New Jersey, Boston and Massachusetts textile areas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois coal fields, and Los Angeles.

Categories in the report of note were under such headings as “Repressive Laws;” “Political Prisoners;” “The Police and the Reds;” “Alien Rights;” “Intolerance in Schools and Colleges;” “Censorship;” and “Fascist Propaganda in the United States.” Also notable were maps showing where states enacted laws against radicals, those restricting the rights of Blacks, and those whose laws permitted religion in public schools.

Finally, the ACLU announced eight initiatives it was taking to the courts concerning anti-evolution laws; Bible-reading statutes; a campaign in Pennsylvania to deal with the aforementioned violence and repression; another in Massachusetts over censorship and radical meetings; one dealing with court powers to issue labor dispute injunctions; working to limit the Post Office department’s censorship over purported obscene materials, including regarding birth control (this one being especially timely at this moment); another concerning censorship of films and radio programs; and one to address police powers in quashing strikes and meetings, as well as “to abolish the third degree.”

Another article that has great resonance in our time during which, in the aggregate, states spend more on prisons than education is Ralph V. Chervin’s article “Caged! . . . Why?” He noted that former San Quentin State Prison warden Frank J. Smith spoke at a recent branch open forum, but Chervin, who’d been arrested in a well-known incident involving working with Margaret Sanger and the distribution of contraceptives for birth control, observed “San Quentin is still on the map and is likely to stay there for awhile.” He added,

The average criminal instinctively knows, without being able, perhaps, to articulate it comprehensively, that the social unequal arrangement is at the base which has driven him to crime. It has been estimated by criminologists that 85 per cent of crimes are of economic character. The other 15 per cent comprise crimes of passion and insanity.

Chervin went to observe that “in spite of our houses of detention and correction crime is on the increase” and this was to be expected “with the millions of unemployed workers shut off by our iniquitous system from the means of production and distribution.” He claimed that “it is useless to think that with the present arrangement of society crime can be prevented” but what was required was “a rearrangement of society on a new economic basis” by which the working class would have “free means” to the production and distribution of goods and services and thus “do away with our economic crimes, jails and pens.”

He also called for “pathological institutes” for those criminals who were driven by passion and insanity and where these persons “would be treated with scientific detachment coupled with compassion” this being “a healthy sentiment based upon sympathetic understanding of our socio-human needs.” For this, however, we would need “the awakening of social consciousness” and this was not possible so long as “our society is unbalanced with riches on one hand and poverty on the other.”

Chervin asserted with the surging passion of a true radical that:

The day of reckoning is coming to balance our books. Symptoms are already here for those who can see. The panorama of economic life changes fast now. The Machine Process accelerates it. The Dark Ages of the past are being reduced to dark decades only. And they can’t last forever. Cynicism—our “blue Monday” hangover from our criminal debauchery of the world war with its material animalism—will disappear. The dawn of the Renaissance will approach and the aspirations and ideas for better things spring up . . . And perhaps one of our first acts would be to destroy these iniquitous mon[s]trosities—our modern, American bastil[l]es—and liberate the unhappy inmates.

From these lofty heights of left-wing idealism, Chervin added that the “mental stagnation” of 1930 was such that “this brings us to another parade on Armistice day, when the minions of capitalism still belching with patriotic exudations, gave us the Centralia victims.” This referred to a violent clash between members of the American Legion and IWW on the first Armistice Day commemoration in the Washington town in 1919.

Addressing “class war prisoners in our pens” who “keep up their spirits much better than ordinary prisoners” because they know there were thousands of comrades with “class-conscious hearts” in support on the outside, Chervin then concluded by saying that the typical inmate “loses all hope” in confinement and, if released, “is broken down bodily and mentally.” There was no “correction” as the term generally defined prisons; instead, a prisoner “loses even those good qualities” which were present before confinement. With ostracization and shunning by society, there was no way “to make a new start” and so the ex-con “generally takes to crime again.” The piece ended with this quatrain:

The vilest deeds, like poison weeds,

Bloom well in prison air;

It is only what is good in Man

That wastes and withers there.

In his “News and Views” column, editor and insurance agent P.D. Noel noted that bootlegging after a decade of Prohibition was such that 175,000 foreigners entered the U.S. annually from abroad “and that more than 2,000,000 have joined us in that manner since 1921.” Meanwhile, Congress was agitating “for almost total stoppage of any more additions to our melting pot, even in opposition to our chambers of commerce and big business.”

Concerning “Race Antagonisms,” Noel wrote that “it must be recognized that there is a tremendous opposition of the whites to the Negroes among many lines” and gave a recent example in Pasadena, where he stated, “the swimming pool in Brookside Park [near the Rose Bowl] is emptied and chemically treated every so often, but ALWAYS after it has been tuned over to the Negroes.” It was common practice to only allow people of color to swim in public pools on a given day of the week, after which the water was drained and the pool refilled.

Addressing unemployment, Noel stated that “two of the outstanding reasons . . . are cheaper immigrants and the displacement of workers by machines.” He cited the vast difference between American and European automobile plants, where, with the latter, 200 workers turn out a few dozen car bodies, while, in the former, that same number can church out 8,000. Calling this, cynically, a “shining example of how machinery has displaced men,” the writer added it took a third of the labor to assemble a car that it did fifteen years before.

The “From Varied Viewpoints” section comprised the third page and a letter from Upton Sinclair, a contributing editor and famous for The Jungle, his 1906 novel about the meatpacking plants of Chicago that helped change food and drug laws and working conditions in the industry, to The Living Age, a New York magazine, praised the journal for providing European content for the benefit of Americans.

He, however, took it to task for offering “an excess of the official or ruling class point of view” adding “that the really vital movements in Europe are those of popular protest” so those voices needed more representation. To Sinclair, whose prescience was probably not what he then believed,

Otherwise, it will happen that when the next great upheaval comes in Europe we won’t understand it any better than we did the Russian Revolution, and will be a prey to the same professional liars who caused us to waste our energies and our idealism from 1917 until the present moment.

Kate Crane-Gartz, a rare woman with a hyphenated surname in the era, wrote to the Secretary of Navy decrying the fact that there were “Six millions [spent] for four hundred and two airplanes after a war to end war and after we have signed the Kellogg[-Briand] Pact [of August 1928], renouncing war as a method for settling international disputes!”

She went on to ask “what right have you to appropriate millions of our hard-earned money, for such monstrous purposes?” especially as “we have millions of unemployed and hungry, and so much misery in our midst” as the military would “dare to flaunt on the front pages of the newspapers that you intend to squander still more on killing machinery.” She ended with another query as to why public officials would consider “the welfare of humanity and cease finding out ways for destroying it?”

Finally, there is an interesting local item under the title of “Red Squad on the Rampage.” The short piece noted that “when the members of the local International Labor Defense attempted to stage of protest meeting at the Plaza,” the historic birthplace of Los Angeles, he prior Saturday, “the Red squad of the police department prevented it” by having officers placed in the square “and every one was kept moving.”

When ILD members headed over to Alameda Street to give that locale a try, “nine persons were gathered into the police net and taken to headquarters,” with the names including largely Jewish members like Isidore Lutsky, Myer Gurelick, Libby Fuchs, and Martin Shapiro. Most were freed, while a few were charged with disturbing the peace and two minors, Jessie Shulem and Jesse Shapiro, taken to Juvenile Hall.

The ILD was formed in 1925 as an American component of the International Red Aid system established by Comintern, so it was added, that the police also raided the local Communist headquarters on Wall Street between 3rd and 4th (the three-story brick building appears to be from the period) and wound up “leaving the place in sorry shape.” Two men were arrested and one, Joseph Rady, was charge with criminal syndicalism.

The next morning, the police raided the Teatro Estella, which operated for about twenty years from the early Teens to early Thirties, and was just south of the Plaza Church where the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is today. A speaker, Juan Arispe, “was to have told about the work of the International Labor Defense,” but “was grabbed and ‘taken for a ride’ . . . and dropped somewhere in the harbor district” while “several other Mexicans were held for some time and questioned.”

A calendar section includes the Open Forum events at the Music Art Hall on Broadway south of 2nd Street with presentations on terrorism against textile workers in North Carolina; Mexico and the Mexicans by Alfonso R. Carillo; and public health and social progress. Other events included meetings of the I.W.W., I.L.D., the Socialist and Socialist Labor parties, the International Brotherhood Welfare Association and more.

A “Progress of Liberty” section noted that Los Angeles Mayor John C. Porter declared 15 June Marna Carta Day to celebrate the early foundation of American liberty, while also observing that the city’s parks commission banned Los Angeles County Unemployment League meetings at Pershing Square with an ordinance read which curtailed “political, economic and religious discussions in city parks.”

This edition of The Open Forum was issued as the Great Depression was worsening and a left-ward shift, though not as far as most ACLU members wished, was occurring in America, while, in Europe, it would only be a few years before Hitler seized control of Germany and began his relentless campaign for war and domination on that continent. As noted above, comparisons and contrasts between what was discussed in the publication and what is happening now are also of heightened interest.

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