“Believe All These Things Ye Who Will”: The Southern California Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union’s “The Open Forum,” 18 August 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Several previous posts here have highlighted issues from the Homestead’s holdings of The Open Forum, a weekly four-page publication issued by the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, formed in 1920 during the height of the “Red Scare,” in which leftist organizations and individuals were targeted by federal, state and local officials, including the “Palmer Raids” initiated by the Attorney General of the United States.

An early cause which elevated the ACLU to prominence was its recruitment of Tennessee high school biology teacher John T. Scopes to instruct his classes about evolution in violation of a new state law prohibiting such teachings; this led to the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925. In Los Angeles, the Southern California branch of the organization included such well-known leaders as Fanny Bixby Spence, scion of the ranching and land-owning family from Long Beach; Kate Crane Gartz, a Pasadena socialist and heir of the Crane plumbing company; and Upton Sinclair, the author of the powerful and influential 1906 novel The Jungle, which exposed the meatpacking industry’s unsafe conditions and helped lead to national food and drug laws.

Los Angeles Times, 20 July 1913.

Tonight’s post features the 18 August 1928 edition of The Open Forum, with much of the content dealing with the first anniversary of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the anarchists arrested for the April 1920 murder of a payroll clerk and security guard at a Massachusetts shoe factory. Coming as it did during the height of the Red Scare, the resulting trial of the two men led to a conviction in July 1921 and the sentence to death by electrocution. After appeals were denied by the trial judge, who had sole power to decide the matter as the state supreme court was not given authority to review these kinds of cases, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on 23 August 1927.

There were many defenders of the condemned men who pointed out obvious bias, inconsistencies in testimony, faults with due process and other matters, with none more prominent that Harvard Law School (Thomas W. Temple II was a student there at the time) professor Felix Frankfurter, who later became a member of the United States Supreme Court. In his lengthy and stately essay published in The Atlantic, the well-known monthly magazine that is still published today, Frankfurter surgically dissected the case with special precision directed towards the actions of Judge Webster Thayer.

Despite the many efforts on their behalf, Sacco and Vanzetti died gruesome deaths in the electric chair and it was not until the 50th anniversary of the executions that Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation declaring that their trial was unfair and ordered that 23 August 1977 be declared a day of remembrance for the two men. A detailed overview of the case and its manifold elements is found on the website of the Massachusetts state law library and is well worth a look.

A front page article in The Open Forum reproduced the strong views of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee which asserted that, “though Sacco and Vanzetti were killed by a cowardly and cruel plutocracy posing under the guise of law and scholarship, they are not dead” and that “the essence of them lives with renewed energy.” It also attacked “the incredible infamy” of Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, chair of a three-person committee asked by Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller to analyze the case and, while Judge Thayer was found to have been “indiscreet,” it reported that the trial was fair and the condemned men guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

For the Committee, Lowell was culpable for “all the repulsive characters he undertook to uphold” while it planned to release material “which will portray the unusually aspiring natures of Sacco and Vanzetti—natures that make of them that rare achievement, symbols in themselves actually worthy of the struggles they symbolize.” As these were to be released by 22 August and the anniversary, it was urged “that the lovers of justice throughout the world gather in their respective communities and hold memorial meetings for Sacco and Vanzetti.”

Los Angeles Express, 7 March 1914.

People were asked to “prepare now for the great world-wide assembly in commemoration of the crucifying of” the two men and “for the cause of justice” so that the effect “will make the leaders of plutocratic injustice dear that their days in power are numbered.” Lowell, Fuller and others were to “understand that you have not forgotten their cruel killing” nor broken the spirit of the families of the executed martyrs because “the spirits of Sacco and Vanzetti, longing for the brotherhood of men, still live!”

A separate note reported that the Committee’s work continued and a six-volume work on the case and is proceedings was published by Henry Holt and Company, while letters of the two were being published in the fall by Gardner Jackson and Frankfurter’s wife, Marion. Moreover, there was a statement that a house in Boston near the state house was to be dedicated on the 22nd as a memorial to Sacco and Vanzetti, with an assembly hall on the first floor for meetings.

Jackson and Felix Frankfurter were the prime movers in the effort, to be called Freedom Hall or the House of Free Speech, and Frankfurter recruited his sculptor friend Gutzon Borglum, best known as the creator of the presidential figures on Mount Rushmore, to create a bas-relief artwork to go over the door. Frankfurter was unsure whether Borglum, who was very patriotic but also had ties, then severed, with the Ku Klux Klan, would take on the project, but he did.

In any case, while Jackson acquired title to the dwelling, the project went unrealized, likely because the City of Boston refused to issue the necessary permits, while Borglum’s work went through a long, torturous history that is discussed in this fascinating article. The piece from The Open Forum concluded with the note that a memorial on the evening of the 22nd was to include remarks from Sacco and Vanzetti attorney William G. Thompson, associate editor of The New Republic, Robert Morss Lovett, and the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

As a far left-leaning publication, The Open Forum often provided content on labor struggles, attacks by conservatives against left-wingers, and socialist thinking and ideas. So, there is a short piece on the Socialist Labor Party, which notes that:

Socialism presupposes a revolution that does away with all private property in the means of wealth production. Socialism abolishes the political state, the whole state paraphernalia . . . Industry will be owned, controlled and operated collectively . . . As industry will be collective and there will be consequently no “bosses,” the government will be from the bottom up instead of from the top down as it is today . . . The unit is the industrial shop . . . It will be the basis of the industrial government, it will be the polling place of the industrial democracy.

The statement continued that “the Socialist Labor party is a Marxian Socialist party and is the ONLY political party in America that has a well defined plan of social reconstruction. Separately, there was a statement from perpetual presidential candidate Norman Thomas, former editor of The Nation and a founder of the ACLU whose 1928 campaign under the Socialist Party banner was the first of six through 1948.

Pasadena Post, 10 March 1921.

In it, he castigated Democratic nominee, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith who, Thomas stated, “in the minds of many Americans symbolizes the breakdown of certain racial and religious prejudices.” Yet, the socialist observed, the Democratic Party’s national convention in 1928 was in Houston, where a Black man was lynched just before the gathering and the Party excluded African Americans from primary elections.

While Thomas did not blame Smith directly for this, he suggested “he might speak out on racial discrimination, at least as clearly as on the wet and dry issue,” this is, Smith supported the repeal of Prohibition (which finally happened five years later). For the Socialist candidate, “the moral is plain,” in that the Democrats could keep Blacks from voting and Republicans were “the servant of the big business interests who finance it.” The only alternative, then, was “for the men and women who do the work of the world, whatever their race and color, to build their own party” and his party “welcomes the support of white man and colored in this great task.”

Under the heading of “The Libertarians” was notice that Fred Evans was to speak in Boyle Heights on “Birth Control and the Worker,” while a Sacco and Vanzetti memorial meeting in that same eastside community was “organized not by people who endorse the imprisonment in Russia of men guilty of holding views like those of Sacco and Vanzetti, but by people who can speak of these view with understanding and sympathy.” Addresses were to be given in English, Italian and Yiddish, reflective of the ethnic diversity of Boyle Heights.

On the back page are listings and advertisements for other notable events, including two more Sacco and Vanzetti memorial meetings, one at the Los Angeles Open Forum at Lincoln Hall in the Walker Auditorium Building on Grand Avenue near 7th Street, and the other at the Music-Art Hall on Broadway close to 2nd Street and at which Fanny Bixby Spencer was to speak. At Whiting Woods, a rural wooded area in what was listed as Montrose, but is now part of Glendale and is filled with housing, William Z. Foster, the Communist Party candidate for president, was to speak on 23 September at an election rally and workers picnic, with buses leaving from a Boyle Heights cooperative center. Finally, on 26 August, Socialist Labor Party presidential candidate Verne L. Reynolds was to appear at the Open Forum and discuss “The Campaign Issues As I See Them.”

Los Angeles Record, 3 April 1928.

Primrose D. Noel, a contributing editor of the publication who preferred to go by Primm or P.D., was a Highland Park insurance agent and Socialist whose wife, Frances Nacke, was a woman suffrage and labor activist and a gifted public speaker, and who had a “News and Views” column in The Open Forum. He criticized the nomination of Anita Whitney for United States Senator as preventing action in the potential pardoning of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, convicted in a 1916 bombing of a San Francisco parade that killed 10 people and wounded 40 more and who were eventually pardoned.

Noel also had harsh words for a Socialist element “which has lost its balance and is working for the election of” Al Smith, noting that there were several large industrial cities in New Jersey consisting of immigrants and their children who were “easy game for crooked organization and politicians” and that Smith was of that world.

Finally, he noted that Los Angeles Judge Georgia Bullock had a case of a Mexican man charged with failure to support his child, but had three others by a woman who had five children by another man. Noel wrote that the man was given two years on county road camp work with some of his earnings to go to the child by his wife, but “the other eight will be supported by you and me.”

Given the prevalence of eugenics at the time, it is notable that Noel then insisted that “the proper procedure would have been the emasculation of the man, or at the very least, information on birth control.” Adding that Judge Bullock “expressed her perplexity as to what to do,” Noel ended his commentary with “this is just a sample of what we are confronted with by our large and increasing Mexican population.” Clearly, radicalism and racism were not mutually exclusive.

Not all of the content in The Open Forum was by radicals and another contributing editor was Lewis M. Head (1873-1934), who was a Republican, though of a decidedly progressive stripe. Head, a native of New Hampshire and a graduate of Yale University, had a background in journalism, including in Chicago, and publicity and advertising in various parts of America before he landed in Portland, Oregon by 1910, where he worked specifically in advertising and publicity work.

Record, 22 October 1928.

This led him to be hired by Frank Clark, manager of the massive San Fernando Valley landholdings of the Lankershim-Van Nuys clan being subdivided by the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company, with Head assisting with publicity for development of the tracts. He then went to work, in 1913, for the F.P. Newport Company, which dealt with real estate in and around the Port of Los Angeles.

Head, who moved to the Greer-Robbins Company of real estate developers in 1917, parlayed his experience with journalism to write articles in local newspapers for his employers. Moving to Pasadena, he became an editor of the Crown City’s Star-News newspaper, during which time he also, perhaps with some left-wing epiphany, became a contributing editor to The Open Forum and remained an active member of the regional ACLU chapter for about a decade.

After leaving the Star-News, Head worked at the Los Angeles Record, which was the most liberal of the major English-language dailies in the Angel City and, among his writings, was a history column called “Thrilling Days in Old California,” which continued through the last couple of years of the Twenties. He was also an ardent supporter of municipal ownership of water and power in Los Angeles and Pasadena and was a major figure in two organizations for that purpose.

Head’s contribution to this issue was his critique of Herbert Hoover’s acceptance speech in Kansas City at the Republican National Convention for the presidency. Specifically, he was offended that the candidate “is a mathematician; deals in percentages and computations; purposes to operate the government of the United States as a construction engineer would operate the affairs of a great manufacturing industry.”

Hoover was a mining engineer and then a hero for his food management programs for European nations during the First World War, followed by his long service as Secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations, so the idea that he thought as Head indicated should hardly be surprising. The writer, however, was concerned with “bringing up children, mating men and women, caring for the sick, injured and hungry and alleviating human misery,” which, in turn, is obviously understandable and somewhat prescient given what came within a couple of years when Hoover was president. So, Head’s next statement is striking and, of course, grossly exaggerated:

If the human element is worthy of any consideration, if love, affection, kindness, thoughtfulness, joy, happiness, laughter and the really worthwhile affairs of human life count for anything at all, Herbert Hoover’s nomination is the most grotesque blunder civilization has yet witnessed.

Head attacked Hoover’s plan to lower taxes for those at lower income levels, but capitalists who got him where he was would not permit that, so this was “Pure Bunk!” while the agricultural plan for small farms and making changes to tariff policy was also subject to corporate interests that would balk at what was “More Bunk!”

A scathing right-wing jeremiad against Head, the ACLU and the newspaper, Record, 1 July 1930.

As for the idea that “labor and employer are nearer together than ever,” Head scoffed at this and told his reader “believe all these things ye who will” and called Hoover “a cheap politician who is completely possessed by one insane idea based on simply making promises that could not, in the main, be carried out—though this was (and is) hardly novel to Hoover.

Moreover, the writer claimed that the candidate “utterly ignores the great problem of Southern California, in which he was once desperately interested—the Boulder Dam project!” Head insisted that Hoover talked about a good water policy and offered a billion dollars towards it “but he completely ignores what these plans are.” By not supporting a bill, the Swing-Johnson, which authorized the dam project that would keep government from competing with individuals in business, Hoover stood to “oppose the manufacture of electricity by the United States at the Colorado River!” When, however, the dam was completed in the 1930s, it was named after Hoover—today, we are experiencing climate change issues that are seriously affecting water supply from this project.

Head also castigated the candidate for his advocacy of peace while also promoting a strong defense (again, hardly a rare position for any presidential candidate), but the worst of it was that Hoover told the convention that there should be “no privileged class” and “this is the crowning joke of the Hoover speech.” The Republican was paraphrased as saying there should be more individual initiative as the barrier against socialists and anarchists and that joining the League of Nations was not a good idea, while the United States should cooperate with it.

Again, Hoover was pilloried for his mechanical and analytical approach and Head averred that the speech “is the coldest, most diabolical concoction the Republican millionaires have ever asked us to swallow.” He ended by suggesting that, already inclined to not support the candidate, the convention oration cinched the matter and Head sated “I could name more than a dozen of the most reliable Republicans in Los Angeles who have been diverted from Hoover by Hoover himself!” and avowed that he didn’t care who won the race (Smith) “so long as Hoover is defeated.”

The three presidential campaigns of the Roaring Twenties, however, were all about GOP dominance as Harding, Coolidge and Hoover coasted to victory each time and Head was most definitely an outlier in the party, locally and otherwise. Still, it is interesting to read his screed as it is to peruse the contents of a publication that ran very far to the left in its views at a time when conservatism ran the political roost.

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