I arrived at KPFA on May 13th a little after 8:00 am with a fresh cup of coffee from Edys. It was the first day of HUAC hearings in San Francisco. KPFA was one of the Committee’s targets. Staff members, volunteers and KPFA on-air stars (I recognized the voices of Gene Marine, an investigative reporter with a tough guy private eye voice, chief announcer Fred Haines who sounded like warm honey, and Dale Minor, whose deadpan baritone prepared you for the worst, which is what Dale frequently gave you), all gathered around the desk of a tiny woman with a hunched back and the piercing eyes of a gypsy fortune-teller, Elsa knight Thompson.
Elsa seemed to be from another world than the rag-tag crowd surrounding her. She was on stage (as always, I soon learned, with the daily excitement of her life a continuing drama … vivid and dynamic, performed in her own words, in her own dress, her own jewelry. Everything Elsa did had a flair. She stood out from others by the force of her unflinching character and powerful sense of right and wrong.
Elsa ran our HUAC operation on public telephones like a general managing a chaotic battlefield with a few field radios. I covered the edges of the crowd with a Mohawk portable tape recorder on loan to the station from the manufacturer. Portables were just entering the market. KPFA’s only other portable was an Ampex reel-to-reel packed in a Samsonite suitcase, requiring electrical power. No one knew how to use the new Mohawk so they dumped it on me.
The star witness that day was a KPFA regular, William Mandel. He did a weekly program on the
Soviet press. Mandel had testified in front of Congressional committees before and people expected fireworks. Students lined up outside the hearing room, waiting to get in. The police only allowed pre-selected Committee supporters. Students, using tactics they’d seen students use in the South, staged an immediate sit-in.
Police turned high pressure water hoses on the demonstrators. Fred Haines, stationed near the door, reported, “The police have grabbed a Negro by the ankle and are dragging him down the stairs on his back by the ankle. Down a flight of some sixty hard marble stairs. One policeman is presently dragging three girls all at once together …”
I spent much of the morning with Archie Brown, a Harry Bridges Union man who had fought against fascism in Spain with the Lincoln Brigade. The participation of the Longshoreman’s Union, the old left, suggested the remnants of the past and the sharp edge of the future were forging a bond. Archie advised me to carry a pocket full of steel ball bearings to throw under the feet of the mounted police when the horses charged.
By early afternoon, I had become one of Elsa’s tape runners, driving the raw tapes back across the bridge to our editors in Berkeley. Mandel, as expected, had defied the committee.
“Honorable beaters of children and sadists, uniformed and in plain clothes. Distinguished Dixiecrat wearing the clothing of a gentleman; eminent Republican who opposes an accommodation with the one country with which we must live at peace in order for us all and our children to survive; my boy of fifteen left this room a few minutes ago in sound health and not jailed solely because I asked him to be in here to learn something about the procedures of the United States government and one of its committees. If he had been outside where the son of a friend of mine had his head split by these goons operating under your orders, my boy today might have paid the penalty of permanent injury or a police record for desiring to come here and hear how this committee operates. If you think that I am going to cooperate with this collection of judases, of men who sit there in violation of the United States constitution – if you think I will cooperate with you in any way, you are insane.”
KPFA was on the air that night with an impromptu documentary stitched together as we went along, sometimes only a minute or two before air. Phones never stopping ringing. We updated the documentary every few hours as events unfolded.
Here is Elsa’s opening narration.
We present now the first of two documentary programs produced in KPFA studios on the House Un American activities subcommittee which met in San Francisco in the supervisor’s chambers of the city hall on May 12th,13th and 14th, 1960.
The impact of the events surrounding these hearings have largely overshadowed the hearings themselves. By the time the committee took its noon break on Friday, excitement was intense. And the recording which follows was made inside the chamber as the hearing was about to reconvene. The audience was already seated and outside on the white marble stairs there was a crowd, mainly students, around 150 people. As you listen you will hear the news that the police have turned the fire hoses into this crowd.
Dale Minor: There is a great deal of commotion outside these chambers as you can hear. I have no idea what is going on. A host of reporters and photographers here in the press box are trying to shove their way through the double doors just at my back. They seem to be blocking the outside. There the doors have opened. I can see nothing but booted white crash helmets and motorcycle cops. The demonstrators are in front of the main door, off to the side of my field of vision. (chanting)
A full-scale riot seems to be underway outside the doors, with fire hoses and everything.
It was a new kind of radio documentary in the Unites States based on portable tape recorders just becoming available and it became the signature mark of Pacifica’s programming during the Elsa era. In technics adopted from the BBC, microphones recorded events in real-time, aided by voice over descriptions by a reporter at the scene, done carefully, objectively, with very little emotion.
KPFA ran the HUAC documentary over and over again. Listeners wouldn’t stop calling. They wanted to hear Mandel again. They wanted to hear the students. People would meet in the streets and quote lines from Mandel’s testimony. The broadcasts put KPFA on a new and larger map.
I was entranced. My training at Reed had persuaded me that a good argument supported by facts would win the day. If people really knew the truth about what was going on, they would change things. (I was very young!) I no longer wanted to be a demonstrator. I no longer wanted to be a labor leader or a politician or a festival producer. I wanted to be a journalist.
This revelation coincided with a unique moment in United States’ history. The sit-ins that began in the South were about to change the structure of power in the United States, as direct action assaulted the repressive politics of the Fifties. Ordinary people would feel empowered again.
A note to millennials: The HUAC demonstrations ushered in a new age of student activism across the country. Over the next nine years, the largest student movement in American history coalesced and changed the status quo by confronting it directly… on the streets, in the workplace, in Universities. That’s the only way real change ever takes place in the United States. Abolitionists, the labor movement, the suffragists, the civil rights movement, the gay movement … all originated outside the mainstream and succeeded only by disrupting the power structure with people’s bodies until it bent to their demands.