IT WAS HARDLY A DISTINCTION HE SOUGHT, but at one point in his life, Frank Wilkinson was a one-man full-employment program for the FBI. When he and his attorneys were finally able to check out the Bureau’s file on him, they learned that the organization had employed up to eight agents a day in keeping him under surveillance.
It’s not easy to measure the productivity of such public servants — how do you quantify the repression they sought to instill in the body politic? — so they impressed their superiors with a torrent of paper. It wasn’t until Wilkinson was 65, in 1979, that he even discovered the Bureau was shadowing him, and when he first requested his files, he got back 4,500 pages covering his activities as a Los Angeles city housing official, in which capacity he’d advocated for public and integrated housing. Later, his attorneys pried loose another 35,000 pages of reports on his decades-long efforts to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, and then a subsequent 70,000 pages on the same topic. In the end, the written record of 38 years of spying on Wilkinson, all supported by our tax dollars, ran to 132,000 pages — even though the Bureau’s report concluded that, “It does not appear that Wilkinson has shown the willingness or capability of engaging in any act that would significantly interfere with or be a threat to the survival of our government.”
Which is true as far as it goes. But in fact, Frank Wilkinson, who died last week at 91, posed all manner of threats in the course of his very long career to any number of horrific policies that our government sought to defend — housing segregation and the stifling of dissent foremost among them. Born into a family of serious Methodist overachievers, Frank grew up in Beverly Hills in so comfortable a cocoon that when he graduated from UCLA in 1936, he still had no direct experience, or much awareness, of the Depression. His post-graduate travels, however, led him to the slums of the Midwest and Northeast, and eventually to those of the Middle East, and his response to the shock of poverty shaped the rest of his life. (Indeed, there are some interesting overlaps between Frank’s life and that of the great American socialist Michael Harrington, another religious child of privilege who traded in his faith for a life of secular militance upon his discovery of poverty amid plenty.)
IN SHORT ORDER, the articulate young Mr. Wilkinson was lecturing on poverty and slums in exotic climes, until Monsignor Thomas O’Dwyer, head of Catholic Charities for the L.A. Archdiocese, told him there was no need to go abroad to find material misery, and took Wilkinson on a tour of Bunker Hill and Central Avenue. With that, Wilkinson found his calling — to rid L.A. of slums and to be part of efforts to build human-scale public housing across the basin. The need was surely there; one 1937 survey concluded that fully 30 percent of the dwellings in the city lacked an indoor toilet.
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In the late ’30s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal funded public housing on a large scale, and in Los Angeles, architects as stellar as Richard Neutra designed some of the projects. As an official of the city’s housing authority, Wilkinson conducted tours of the worst slums for appropriately scandalized matrons. He had films made documenting slum conditions (one narrated by a local broadcaster named Chet Huntley). He managed the Ramona Gardens project, which was the first one to be racially integrated. African-Americans were flocking to L.A. for jobs in the defense industries, but were still confined to a few grotesquely overcrowded neighborhoods by racial covenants designed to keep Los Angeles white, and for a few years in the early ’40s, Wilkinson was a lonely voice — and more remarkably, within the confines of the small world of public housing, an effective force — for integrated housing. Several years later, with black overcrowding reaching dangerous dimensions, he reluctantly acceded to the creation of some virtually all-black projects — in defiance, as he once told the tale, of some of his communist comrades who insisted that the party’s commitment to integration had to trump the calculus of immediate need.
By the late ’40s, the city had reached a deal with the Truman administration to greatly expand public housing in L.A., the centerpiece of which was to be a Neutra-designed project in Chavez Ravine. Wilkinson was testifying in court on the project’s behalf in the summer of 1952 when the opposing attorney asked him to name all the groups to which he belonged. Wilkinson refused to answer — a refusal which was to cost him his job and to provide the ammunition that private-sector homebuilders and a right-wing daily press needed to derail public housing in L.A. The following year, moderate Republican Mayor Fletcher Bowron, who’d backed public housing and employed Wilkinson, was ousted by the more right-wing Norris Poulson, and L.A. was plunged into an era of civic conservatism that lasted until Tom Bradley’s election in 1973.
Wilkinson, meanwhile, developed a knack for the principled non-answer. When the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) asked him about his politics, he declined to answer not by invoking the Fifth Amendment, which would have entitled him to some immunity, but the First, which offered no such comforts. Convicted of contempt of Congress, he served nine months in federal penitentiaries in 1961, then spent the next 14 years giving countless speeches on countless campuses on the necessity of civil liberties, and heading up a group demanding HUAC’s abolition. In 1975, the House terminated HUAC — and only then did Wilkinson leave the Communist Party that most of his comrades had already long abandoned.
His gift for speaking (he registered injured innocence and indignation especially well) remained almost until the end. In the late ’90s, he appeared on a panel of veteran L.A. leftists at Occidental College. Asked to provide pointers for future progressives, he boomed, “You’ve got to outlive the bastards.” He did.