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Frank Wilkinson, 91; Civil Libertarian

The L.A. housing official, imprisoned for refusing to testify before HUAC, became an advocate of 1st Amendment rights.

January 05, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Frank Wilkinson, who began his half century as a national civil liberties leader after being fired from his job as a Los Angeles Housing Authority official during the McCarthy era and was later imprisoned for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, has died. He was 91.

Wilkinson, the former longtime director of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, a civil liberties activist and lobby group, died from complications of old age Monday at his home in Los Angeles, said his wife of 39 years, Donna.

Wilkinson, who spent nine months in prison after being held in contempt of Congress for asserting his 1st Amendment right not to disclose his associations and beliefs before HUAC in 1958, helped form the National Committee to Abolish HUAC in 1960.

The organization was renamed the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation about the same time that HUAC was abolished in 1975. Ten years later, Wilkinson co-founded the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation, which defends the right to dissent. He served as its longtime director.

"For the last 50 years, Frank has been the one or two people most closely identified with the defense of the 1st Amendment," Kit Gage, director of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation and the First Amendment Foundation, told The Times this week.

Nadine Strossen, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, described Wilkinson as "a towering and inspiring figure throughout his entire career, starting from when he was a young person being an advocate for equal rights for the poor and members of racial minorities."

Wilkinson "was also constantly challenging government's power to restrict 1st Amendment freedoms of belief, speech and association, and also opposing government violations of privacy, as well as government secrecy, which continues to be dramatically relevant today," she said.

Gara LaMarche, vice president and director of U.S. programs at the Open Society Institute, a New York City-based foundation, said:

"At a time of fresh revelations and renewed concern about government spying on Americans, Frank's life story -- from being the target of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover to crusader for 1st Amendment rights -- has much to teach us."

Wilkinson's efforts as a nationally known civil liberties leader grew out of his role in a planned public housing project in Chavez Ravine in the early 1950s.

Wilkinson, who had gone to work for the Housing Authority in 1942, was special assistant to the executive director and was director of the office of information.

The authority's $110-million plan to build 10,000 low-income housing units outside poor areas of the city was viewed with suspicion by many in Los Angeles' conservative business establishment, who labeled the effort "creeping socialism."

In what has been described as its biggest battle, the authority began in 1952 to condemn property in Chavez Ravine, north of downtown Los Angeles, for 3,500 new public housing units.

The primarily Mexican immigrant barrio was considered one of the prime pieces of property for an integrated public housing project, and Wilkinson went door-to-door to persuade residents to give up their pieces of land with the assurance that they would have homes in new Richard Neutra-designed high-rises.

"It meant bringing black people and brown people and Asian people out of ghettos of various kinds and have them living with Anglo people in Chavez Ravine," Wilkinson told The Times in 1995.

During the eminent domain hearing in which Wilkinson was called as an expert witness to testify on behalf of the authority, the attorney for the opposition had completed his questions about the property when he asked Wilkinson to name all the organizations to which he belonged.

Wilkinson refused, asserting his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. He was immediately suspended from his job, and the incident spurred both the City Council and the Los Angeles Times to demand an investigation of communist infiltration in the Housing Authority.

After being subpoenaed to appear before the state Un-American Activities Committee later that year, Wilkinson again took the Fifth. Although he and two other Housing Authority employees targeted as Communist agents had signed annual loyalty oaths over they years, they all lost their jobs.

Wilkinson's first wife, Jean, was suspended and later fired from her job as a public school teacher. After many months of unemployment, Wilkinson became a night custodian at a Pasadena department store -- a job offered with the proviso that he not publicly disclose that he had been hired.

In the wake of the Housing Authority controversy, plans for the project in Chavez Ravine were scrapped and the land eventually was obtained by the Dodgers and became the site of Dodger Stadium.

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