1962, on completion of our one-year prison sentence for contempt
of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, we were
thrilled to receive word that we were to be welcomed out to
a Pete Seeger concert in New York, for Carl Braden and me.
prison authorities in lockstep with the FBI knew of the plan,
probably before we did, and made plans to prevent us from
arriving on time! Although they knew we were heading for New
York, they bought Greyhound tickets for us at taxpayers' expense,
to send us to our homes in Louisville and Los Angeles.
did not learn of their ruse until two days before our date
of release. The whole scheme was uncovered by the 'inmate
grapevine" who also told us the name of an inmate to
be released the next day. We met with him immediately and
asked for his help. He was a Black Jew from Brooklyn whose
practice was to remain isolated in his cell at all times reading
the Torah. He agreed! We knew of a phone number he could call
and get word through to Pete and those arranging our welcome-out.
As the prison guards do not allow an inmate to take anything
in writing, he had to memorize the number and relay our problem.
The 'grapevine" also learned that while those to be released
get out at 8 A.M. (plenty of time for us to make the five-to
six-hour drive to Manhattan), in our case we were to be held
until the west bound Greyhound departed at 5 P.M. So our message
was: 'Have a car ready at the back of the bus at 5 P.M.; and,
we'd get there as quickly as possible."
waiting around that day, five inmates came up to us in the
prison yard, asking what seemed under the circumstances an
almost unbelievable question: 'Do you know Mr. Hiss?"
I replied, 'Alger Hiss?"
they insisted in their formality: 'Yes, Mr. Hiss!"
we acknowledged that we did know Alger, they told a most heartrending
story that I shall never forget. These men were in their seventies
and serving life sentences. They had been in Lewisburg both
before and during Alger's five-year sentence and faced the
balance of their lives there. They asked individually and
collectively to 'please tell Mr. Hiss how much we miss him
here at Lewisburg!" And when I asked them what about
Alger made them so greatful, they replied in several voices:
'At night he read to us." 'He told us stories."
'He read poetry to us." 'He wrote letters home to our
families!" I can hear them even now!
hours or so later we were driven to the Greyhound bus station,
handed our tickets to Louisville and Los Angeles, and put
on the bus. Our freedom occurred at the moment the bus door
closed. We asked the driver to reopen the door, jumped off
and ran to the back of the bus: two cars were awaiting us,
for the speedy drive to New York. If only we could have caught
a picture of the look of consternation on those prison guards'
faces. They and others like them will never understand the
spirit of solidarity that binds inmates together!
arriving in New York it was after 10:30 P.M. Pete was still
singing and Willard Uphaus, who had just completed his own
year-long sentence for similar contempt for a "little
HUAC" in New Hampshire, was still speaking. The large
auditorium was still filled.
I walked out on stage and met the so-appreciated applause,
my mouth went dry. It had been a long time since one could
speak out loud. On the way to New York I learned that I was
to leave early in the morning; to fly to Montgomery to see
Aubrey Williams, one of our founders who was fighting a losing
battle against cancer; then to Chicago for another welcoming
at the University of Chicago arranged by Dick Criley, his
nephew John Williams, and the Chicago committee to defend
the Bill of Rights.
began by saying, 'If any of you see Alger Hiss, please give
him this message from his old inmate friends at Lewisburg"...
somehow I got it out! Then the most amazing coincidence occurred:
Alger stood up in the middle of the auditorium! The audience
went wild, cheering him all the way to the stage and we embraced.
what we now know, a sizeable number of FBI agents were undoubtedly
present! However I have yet to find a report on the event
in NCARL's [National Committee Against Repressive Legislation]
130,000-page FBI File. I presume there are some moments in
our lives they find it best not to report!!!
FRANK WILKINSON, January 2001
Wilkinson, a longtime civil liberties activist, was a public
housing official and social worker, who became active in the
movement to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee.
He was sentenced to a year in prison for refusing to answer
questions before HUAC in 1958.
to We Remember Alger