Civil Rights, Elizabeth Frazer and Carl and Anne Braden

Bill Sr in The Witness, October 13, 1955

Quite a few people started reading these pieces1 several weeks after they got under way and have asked where I got the title. It is from this verse by Rabindranath Tagore:

“The desert resounds with Victory of the Brute;
The children look haggard and aged;
They whisper one to another that time revolves but never advances;
That we are goaded to run but have nothing to reach;
That creation is like a BLIND MAN’S GROPING.”

I said at the start that I hoped the title would convey the idea of a large percentage of failure mingled with a little success in this business of giving the Christian religion a try. The other evening I was honored by being asked to speak at a party in Philadelphia given to Elizabeth Frazier, one of the stalwarts in Christian social action. This courageous warrior I first met years ago at one of our Church summer conferences and I soon discovered that the highly respectable organization, the Episcopal Church, has nevertheless somehow or other convinced her that religion means something more than going to Church on Sunday and pledging on both sides of the envelope. Most of what I have written here has been about past events, to which I shall presently return. But I want to take a couple of pieces to say a bit about where, it seems to me, we are right now, which is what i was asked to talk about at Elizabeth’s party.

There are things to be happy about–if we can be happy without thinking that the victory is already won. Some very good people think that. This summer I wrote awfully good people suggesting that they sponsor resolutions–pretty harmless things generally–at the General Convention on civil rights. I tried to get them to say something about the McCarran Act; the Smith Act; the Walter-McCarran Act; about state sedition acts and loyalty oaths. I suggested too that the Convention might say something about Carl and Anne Braden.2 Both are Episcopalians, with Anne having been on the social service committee of the diocese of Kentucky. They had also done something more than talk about desegregation which our Church, along with most others, finally has decided may be a good thing. But I did not succeed in getting anybody to introduce even a blanket resolution on civil liberties, let alone get anyone to touch a specific act.

The reason? Everybody said the same thing: the atmosphere had cleared. McCarthy is off the front page; the President and the Russians were nice to each other at Geneva, where Mr. Eisenhower expressed the hope that there might be a freer exchange of ideas, books and cultural staff between the two countries. This is already happening, they wrote me, and said how nice it is that the Russian farmers were treated well, and that judges, senators and congressmen are now making the Soviet Union their vacation land. Then too we have Senator Hennings now at the task of winning back our liberties and we have the Fund for the Republic with a lot of money doing battle for freedom and democracy. So everything is ok again and there is no sense in being old-fashioned by taking up any of these dead issues. We shall soon know whether there is ground for the good cheer. The Supreme Court will decide soon whether the McCarran Act is constitutional, with the Communist Party appealing against the order of the Subversive Activities Control Board requiring it to register. If a majority finds the Act unconstitutional and throws out the registration order, to quote I.F. Stone; “It will add a mighty push to the tide now carrying this country back toward its traditional freedoms.” It was fine to be able to report in these pages a couple of weeks ago that a lot of people, including quite a few Churchmen, had filed a brief with the Court denouncing the Act; and a week later a similar document was reported here, likewise over the signature of top people. So it may be that people are waking up and that the Court will respond to the demand by outlawing the McCarran Act. if they do it will end a log of nonsense about a lot of organizations, including the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship and the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born of which our own lton (Utah) is president. Incidentally one on the things condemned in that statement by Americans for Traditional Liberties was, not only ‘guilt by association’ but ‘gullt by family relationship’, about which I shall have something to say presently. Concern over the McCarran Act by all these people is all to the good. It is not so good that these Liberals, of which I am one, look the other way when it comes to speaking up for the rights of Communists. Prosecution of people for their opinions alone–whether disguised as ‘conspiracy to advocate’ or facilitated by group convictions under the membership clause–has to go if we are to return to a free society. Liberals know this well enough but we don’t have the courage to act on our convictions.

Right now, everybody seems to agree, there is an increasing disposition on the part of the American people to maintain peace with co-existence. It is ;probably partly because fear of the bomb due to the warnings of top scientists that the choice is co-existence or non-existence. Then too I suspect that American businessmen, always willing to make a dollar, see markets in the East and do not propose to remain idle while other nations grab them. In any case it is hopeful to find the President operating in Geneva on the very premise he cabled a mass meeting of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship just ten years ago: “American Soviet Friendship is one of the cornerstones on which the edifice of peace should be built.” Maybe he and other public servants will soon realize that it is a bit silly to prosecute as ‘subversive’ an organization that has battled for years for the premise he once operated on and has now returned to. International tensions have eased in recent months and we may hope will be still further eased. The ending of the cold war at home ought to go along with it. If the Court throws out the McCarran Act, as many think it will, that will be number one. Then maybe after awhile we will get around to the Smith Act and the Walter-McCarran Act and all those state sedition acts, loyalty oaths and blacklists. Those goaded to run may have something to reach after all. We may be free yet. Who knows?

Bill Jr.   Dad could get mightily exercised about this. He had just gotten through a grilling in Washington and, while he weathered it with his usual aplomb and humor, the residue of suspicion remained and hurt his relationships. Generally, he was consistent on the matter. When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was dropped from the National Board of the A.C.L.U., Dad, with others, fought that this was a betrayal of principles. Years, later, the A.C.L.U. reinstated Ms. Flynn, posthumously! At the same time, in the late 1930’s, for the American League against War and Fascism, he argued that the liberties of the American Nazi party should be taken away. Where he would have stood on the issues in Skokie, Ill., when that occurred, I could not ascertain. The matter of loyalty oaths is a haunting one. When she was a teacher in the Boise school system, my wife, Polly, refused to sign a ‘Loyalty Oath’, and was mightily attacked, particularly by one talk-show host, day in and day out.

So, too, supposed records about me were passed all around Idaho and we had to defend ourselves.3 My response was basically three-fold: “Yes, I was a member of three international organizations: 1. The Christian Church…Episcopal unit; 2. The Red Cross…Boise board; and 3. A.T.T., in which I owned stocks and they did have overseas investments. I have enough trouble living up to the social values of No. 1 and I really didn’t need other institutions or agencies to give me hoped-for values. Fundamentally, I was an ‘uneasy pacifist’ and always had been…uneasy, because there were often countervailing concerns of justice which might call for violence.’ My Cathedral wardens and chapter, mostly conservative Idaho Republicans and, vocationally, lawyers, engineers, dentists and doctors and business magnets, said ‘hog-wash’ while my bishop, Norman Foote, simply said that he had known me and worked with me for years, and that it was my job as Dean to represent him in areas of social concern in the capital city of Boise. Most of this was traced to the work of the John Birch Society which, of course, never came to talk with us — just tended to send letters that followed the coward’s path — that is, anonymous letters and phone calls. So it goes.  And, probably, most of this started when we had Dean Paul Roberts, my predecessor, for a week’s mission during which we joined other clergy in town and area complaining about a movie on a San Francisco march produced by the House Unamerican Activities Committee and, eventually, because, following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, we marched the Tre Ore worshippers from the Cathedral to the State House steps for the final Word of the Passion, having received threats that we were in danger of being shot. I tended to negate this threat until a close friend said that he knew the person who made it, and that, during W.W. II, he had indeed worked for Bill Donovan’s O.S.S. and knew how to make ‘accidents’ happen so there would be no trail or trace. Like Dad and Reinie Niebuhr making speeches in the North Carolina textile and Kentucky mine areas in the early days, one gets the podium with mixed-feelings.

  1. Originally, Bill Sr. used the title Blind Man Groping for a weekly column in THE WITNESS
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Braden, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Braden, 
  3. Tim: This John Birch “dossier” on Dad was circulated around Boise HS during my senior year.  I’ve always  wondered whether, via a particularly unscrupulous teacher, it cost me my National Merit Finalist scholarship and planned attendance at Columbia.