This article is an excerpt from the upcoming autobiography of former People’s World editor and long-time correspondent, Tim Wheeler.
Gus Hall was coming to the Pacific Northwest in February 1962. Members of the Communist Party of Washington State were elated. Party organizer Milford Sutherland had worked hard setting up speaking engagements for Hall to speak at campuses all across the state from Spokane to Bellingham to Ellensburg to Seattle and Tacoma. Hall had recently been released from Leavenworth Penitentiary where he had been railroaded to prison for over six-and-a-half years falsely charged under the Smith Act of “conspiring to teach or advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence.”
Hall and the 12 others jailed under this infamous witch-hunt law were not accused of a single act of violence. They had not stockpiled arms or trained in the woods for terrorism or guerrilla warfare. No, he was imprisoned for his ideas, for upholding the notion that at some time in the future, the majority of the people of the United States might decide to “alter or abolish” the government and replace it with another government. In Hall’s words, he was jailed for “the crime of thinking.”
Hall’s life was an open book. He had been a steelworker, a founder of the United Steelworkers, one of several Communist Party union activists recruited by United Mine Worker President, John L. Lewis, to help organize the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He had served in the U.S. Navy during the war against fascism.
Now he was on a nationwide speaking tour, telling the crowds that the Smith Act was an assault on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights aimed at smashing the labor movement and all other movements seeking progressive change.
He was scheduled to speak at the University of Washington. Members of my youth club at the university were mobilizing to hear Hall speak.
Then, one by one, the colleges and universities where Hall was scheduled to speak started canceling the speaking engagements. Virtually every day, another cancellation was announced in the media. A day or so later, the University of Washington cancelled Hall’s appearance on campus.
I had stopped with a friend, Tim Lynch, at the Blue Moon saloon on 45th Street to quaff a pint of ale. We sat at a booth, a large crowd of other students sitting nearby. Tim started ranting angrily about the cancellation of Hall’s visit.
“We ought to do something about it,” Tim said.
“I agree. It is really outrageous. You know Boeing and other corporations are threatening to cut off funding to intimidate people. Why don’t we try to think of somewhere Hall could speak where the sponsors won’t cave in to the fearmongers?”
I thought of Eagleson Hall at the YMCA-YWCA right in the University District. It was located off-campus at the corner of 15th and 42nd.
“We should start at petition right now,” Tim said. “We don’t even have time to get it printed.”
I pulled out a yellow legal pad from my book-bag and handwrote across the top: “We, the students of the University of Washington, who uphold freedom of speech and assembly, appeal to the UW YMCA-YWCA to open the doors of Eagleson Hall for Gus Hall to speak.”
Tim Lynch signed on the first line. I signed on the second. It turned out that many at the tables and booths around us had heard Tim and me ranting and raving about the vile crime of barring Gus Hall from speaking. We passed the petition around in the dimly lit bar room. Virtually everyone signed. We had to handwrite the petition on another sheet and it too was filled. Others in the bar took out notepads and wrote out the petition text and promised to circulate it among their fellow students.
The next day, Tim and I were racing around campus gathering signatures on sheets of notebook paper. My Party club meeting at the home of Kae and Ted Norton was that evening. Tim and I went to the meeting in their cramped street level apartment and reported on the petition we had launched at the Blue Moon Tavern.
Every member of the club agreed to circulate the petitions. Within 78 hours, we had collected well over 500 signatures. Tim and I went to the YMCA-YWCA. Luckily, Frank H. Mark, Executive Director of the UW YMCA and Elizabeth Jackson, Executive Director of the UW YWCA were there. We met with them and presented the handwritten petitions. We already knew them as friends of the Student Peace Union, the civil rights movement, and other progressive causes.
They studied the petitions and told us they would get back to us soon—within hours—because they knew, as well as we knew—that time was of the essence. Sure enough, within a few hours, when Tim and I returned to the “Y,” these two courageous leaders gave us the nod. Yes. They would provide a meeting place for Gus Hall to speak. We settled on a date: February 10, 1962. Tim and I would contact Hall immediately to give him the news.
We were—no pun intended—over the moon!
Yet as we walked down the steps of the “Y,” I told Tim. “This is just the beginning of the fight. You know the FBI, Boeing, the rightwing extremists, are going to descend on the UW ‘Y’ with a vengeance. We have to launch a counter attack right now!”
We telephoned Milford Sutherland and our own club chair, Kae Halonen, to ask them to start mobilizing in support of Frank Mark and Elizabeth Jackson immediately.
Within hours, the phone began to ring at the “Y” with people calling to thank them for taking a stand for freedom of speech. Bouquets were delivered so that the reception room of the “Y” was filled with flowers.
And sure enough, the FBI and other anti-communist witch-hunters were busy. The whole story is contained in a report posted online at the Washington State HistoryLink.org. The YMCA officials said the scheduled Hall appearance “has brought the wrath of the town down on us.”
The website adds, “An executive with the United Good Neighbors (predecessor to the United Way and a major source of funding for the Seattle YMCA) said contributors were ‘raising hell with us.’ Representatives of the Boeing Company asked that United Good Neighbors cut allocations for the YMCA.”
This sledge hammer intimidation was aimed at the UW “Y” officials even though they were not the sponsors of the event. As the HistoryLink story put it, “His (Hall’s) appearance at Eagleson Hall…was sponsored by a group of UW students, faculty, and staff rather than by the UW YMCA itself.”
I had an idea. My mother’s first cousin, Herb Robinson, was the news anchor of KOMO TV. He was a widely respected journalist, chief editorial writer for the Seattle Times. I telephoned KOMO and asked for Herb Robinson. He came on the line. I told him that “Y” officials, Frank Mark and Elizabeth Jackson, had taken a courageous stand in defense of free speech in opening Eagleson Hall to a speech by a Communist Party leader. Could he arrange an interview? He said he would.
“By the way,” he asked, “We’re cousins aren’t we?”
“Yes we are.”
“Give my fond regards to your mom,” he said.
Herb Robinson himself came to conduct the interview with Mark and Jackson. These two “Y” officials stood their ground. And so did my cousin, Herb Robinson.
Gus Hall came to Seattle.
Eagleson Hall was packed to overflowing. The windows were opened so the vast crowd of students and faculty that gathered outside could hear.
He blasted the Smith Act, J. Edgar Hoover, and the other redbaiters. Hammering the air with his steelworker fist, he warned that the aim of this assault on democracy is not the Communist Party alone but all progressive forces seeking to change our nation for the better. Those who cave in to the hatemongering John Birch Society and Minute Men terrorists were placing all the rights of the people at risk. The crowd gave him a strong ovation.
Doing research for this book a few weeks ago, I drove from the University of Washington Library up to 45th. I turned left and was inching my way toward I-5.
There on my right was the Blue Moon Tavern, the place where Tim Lynch and I plotted on behalf of Gus Hall…and freedom of speech.
Photo: February 10, 1962 edition of People’s World.