Why I Support Dissent: My Great-Uncle Who Wouldn't Name Names
This year marks a peculiar anniversary for my family. Seventy-five years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a file on my great-uncle. Ten years after that, he was in a federal penitentiary for refusing to name names. The swirl of events of the intervening decade helps explain why I believe so strongly in the freedom of dissent, and why I find so repulsive efforts to restrict debate on controversial subjects, or to try to harass or intimidate those with whom we disagree into recanting or shutting up.
My great-uncle’s name was Alphaeus Hunton. He taught English at Howard University. He held a master’s degree from Harvard and a doctorate from New York University. His specialty was the Victorian poets, particularly Tennyson. And in 1941, due largely to his activism in the cause of anti-colonialism, the FBI opened a file on him.
Well, a lot of people had FBI files in those days. But Alphaeus, it seems, was special. Within months, agents were following him around, watching his mail, and quietly spreading the word that he was a subversive and should not be trusted or (especially) funded. They spoke to his neighbors and his employers. Because he taught at Howard -- a federal institution -- they tried to get him fired. J. Edgar Hoover signed off on a preventive detention order to be used to justify Alphaeus’s arrest in the event of national emergency. In the file is a poignant letter from my great-uncle, asking whether he is under surveillance. The bureau never answered, and the letter did not slow things down.
Informants spotted him at gatherings that decided on such radical actions as protests against employment discrimination. His words were quoted verbatim and at length. He was overheard on a telephone tap agreeing to meet a friend, but an innuendo-filled cover memorandum breathed the meeting full of menace. Finally he left Howard to join the Council on African Affairs.
By a happy coincidence, it was about this time that the council was placed on the attorney general’s list of subversive organizations. The list was not secret. It was published regularly, including in Billboard magazine, where the editors always added an enthusiastic admonition to readers that they should avoid doing business with such entities. It need hardly be added that the CAA had trouble raising money.
Then came prison; that too was the outcome of the criminalizing of dissent. In the late 1940s, 11 leaders of the Communist Party were indicted under the Smith Act -- which, stripped of its frills, basically made it a crime to be a leader of the Communist Party. They were tried and convicted, then allowed to post bail while they awaited sentencing.
The bail was raised by the Civil Rights Congress, which at the time provided legal defense for many accused radicals, and also did significant death penalty work. The CRC created a bail fund, which had three trustees: Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer; Frederick Vanderbilt Field, scion of the wealthy family whose name he bore; and Alphaeus Hunton. When four of those who had been convicted fled, the U.S. government -- represented by the execrable Roy Cohn -- hauled the trustees before a federal judge who demanded to know the names of contributors to the fund. The three men declined to answer. In the summer of 1951, the judge sentenced them to six months in prison for contempt.
Shortly after, people tried to post bail for the trustees pending appeal, only to discover that Cohn would also insist on knowing who put up that money. Potential sponsors backed out. Nobody wanted to be publicly smeared as a “supporter” of Communism. The appeals failed (although two Supreme Court justices considered the case worth hearing). The men served their sentences.
When their term was up, Hammett went back to writing. Field was still rich. But Alphaeus Hunton, with his master’s degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. from New York University, had become unemployable. For a while he subsisted on writing a bit and on his wife’s meager income. Finally, after further official and unofficial pressures forced dissolution of the council, he gave up on the U.S. He moved to Africa, and never returned to the country of his birth.
That’s why I find it so chilling when we try to make it harder to express dissenting views, whether on campus or in the larger marketplace of ideas. Particularly terrifying is the insistence of today’s activists on knowing the source of funds of those whose views they dislike. If people know the source of funds will be made public, they will be less likely to support unpopular causes. It was precisely to resist this totalitarian idea that my great-uncle went to prison.
I know that all of us have causes to which we are deeply committed. But we have been down this road before. It’s hateful and it’s ugly and it’s un-American.
When I debate these propositions -- and I’ve debated them a lot -- the answer I receive most frequently is that the difference between the McCarthy Era and the present day is that they insisted on public shaming in a bad cause and we’re doing it in a good cause.
Which is how it always starts.
Hoover signed an unknown number of such orders. The Justice Department subsequently decided that they had no legal effect.
In the 1960s, a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee testified that the Council on African Affairs received an annual subvention of $200,000 from the Communist Party. Given, however, that council members regularly squabbled over secretarial time or reimbursements of $5 or $10, this seems unlikely.
The Civil Rights Congress was regarded by the FBI as a Communist-front organization. The term never had a settled definition. Certainly the group defended Communists and had many members who were Communists. Beyond that, the evidence of some formal connection to the Communist Party can charitably be described as thin.
You will notice that I have not said whether Alphaeus was a Communist or not. That’s because the answer doesn’t matter.
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