Thursday, January 05, 2006

Frank Wilkinson (1914-2006)

I'm unable to blog much this week due to work and other commmitments. Let others write about Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, whose latest stroke is an important, tragic and sad event.

Instead, I write about the passing of an iconic figure in southern California who worked for the betterment of the human condition.

Frank Wilkinson, a "Popular Front" New Dealer, and quiet Red, died the other day at the age of 91. Here are two obituaries, one from the NY Times and the other from LA Times. And if that whets your appetite for more, here is the web site for the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, where he and his wife Donna served on the Board for many years. The Library is itself a marvelous place that contains much in the way of American Radical non-fiction, fiction, and pamphlets.

I was privileged to have met Mr. Wilkinson several times, often at the Southern California Library. Eventually, he remembered me when we saw each other. Physically, Frank Wilkinson was tall (he must have been about 6 feet 5 inches in his prime) and strong. He possessed a defiant, but still gentle soul. He truly lived to help people. He was a wonderful public servant who fought a valiant battle against corrupt politiicans, bankers and developers in the city of Los Angeles. Whenever I had the chance to sit down with him, I loved listening to him speak about LA in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the challenges he and others faced when helping those who were impoverished or working class.

If anyone has not seen the Culture Clash's great play, "Chavez Ravine," I highly recommend its agit-prop take on Wilkinson because it highlighted important truths about Wilkinson, the Red Scare, the destruction of the community of Chavez Ravine and the coming of the baseball Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Culture Clash's play was also willing to explode certain myths about who was truly left in the community by the time Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers bought the portion of the town that had been condemned to build his team's stadium. See: Neil Sullivan's magisterial book, "The Dodgers Move West" (Oxford University Press, 1987). I know Culture Clash used this book as a source because I personally recommended it to them when the play was a work-in-progress.

Ry Cooder's "Chavez Ravine" album also has a song about Wilkinson, though I'll admit the music was not very good--to my ears, at least.

With the passing of Frank Wilkinson, we must again recognize that those who worked for the people of this nation during and shortly after the New Deal are almost all gone. The ghosts of that era far outnumber the living. Rest in peace, Frank. We miss you more than you may ever have known.

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