Busting a Banned-Book Barbecue by
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(144 Stories)

Prompted By Banned Books

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In the 1950s, while McCarthyism metastasized from its original focus on the Hollywood 10, the investigations and blacklists of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) collared union activists, teachers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, writers, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, and any imported household appliances.

It was a cool gig, for sure.

None of the investigating Congressional legislators could define the alleged scourge that lurked behind the Iron Curtain. Communism has never existed anywhere except in Marx’s Das Kapital. But back then, anybody who had rubbed elbows with a suspected Communist could qualify for a visit from the FBI. The most casual association often merited a place on the HUAC blacklist and the possible loss of a job. Even having the wrong titles on a bookshelf made one Red by proxy.

In Los Angeles, an electrical engineer and activist named Emil Freed offered to hold suspicious material rather than watch his friends burn books, pamphlets, films, and papers in panicked efforts to distance themselves from HUAC’s heat.

Freed began by storing boxes contraband books in his garage. Soon he had to rent another garage, and another. After the Watts uprising in 1965, he moved the large, unclassified collection to a rented storefront in South Central Los Angeles. For the next 20 years, Emil and his wife, Tatiana, and a collection of lefty intellectuals met to sort, classify, and make accessible the still-growing collection. They organized a board of directors, raised money, and hired a trained librarian to head up the effort.

Twenty-five years after Emil Freed moved his collection from 26 garages to a larger storefront on Vermont Avenue, I was hired with another writer to create a celebration in words and music of the collection, now called the Southern California Library for Social Research. We wanted to let the library talk… and sing.

We pulled songs and speeches and narratives from red-blooded American socialists, the Wobblies, feisty anarchists like Emma Goldman, feminists like Gloria Steinem, illustrations from Black Panther artist Emory Douglas, excerpts from Malcolm X, excerpts from the controversial pro-union film Salt of the Earth, and Paul Robeson’s memoirs.

A local band, Los Safos played their own renditions of songs from The Almanac Singers — Pete Seeger, Bill Hayes, and Woody Guthrie — and the Spanish Civil War songs adopted by the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade. All the artists involved had been targets of HUAC but their music lived on.

Once their memories were jogged, a list of well-known names from American culture offered to come on board and perform at the celebration. Sitting in the Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue talking history and politics with Ring Lardner, Jr became one of those moments I’ll always cherish. Lardner agreed to fly West to join the celebration. Pete Seeger was not to be outdone: he came out from his home on the Hudson to sing and tell stories as part of the program.

The show went off with all the chaos, hitches, and glitches that usually accompany a one-off, but we filled LA’s Wilshire Ebell Theater and kept the audience listening, laughing, and singing too long into the night. I was ecstatic. We had unsuppressed all that contraband material, the rich harvest of Emil Freed’s book ban bust, and let the Southern California Library’s rescued voices shout to the rooftops. It was a cool gig, for sure.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Very cool indeed Charlies!

    My screen-writer uncle Leonardo Bercovici had the dubious honor of being called before HUAC – actually a cause of family pride!

  2. I didn’t know about Emil or about the library. What a great activity in which to involve yourself. Very interesting pieces of history.

  3. Marian says:

    A worthwhile endeavor, Charles, and glad that the event came off and the material was preserved. I have fond memories of my mother’s cousin’s husband, who was honored many years later for fighting in the Lincoln Brigade.

    • Bravo, Marian. When we did the event, some 30+ years ago, there were still members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who attended and spoke. Crusty old guys who, as young men, had recognized the significance of Spain’s struggle against fascism.

  4. Suzy says:

    This is fabulous! I love learning about Emil Freed and his collection of contraband and/or suspicious materials. What a hero! And how great that you created a celebration of the collection in 1988. Must have been amazing, with Ring Lardner, Pete Seeger, and other luminaries. Too bad he didn’t live to see it.

    • Thanks, Suzy. It was a good event, well-attended, for a good cause. I was still new to Los Angeles and the event introduced me to LA’s lefty political culture with connections to folks I hadn’t yet met in LA’s vast and often off-putting sprawl. Emil Freed was, notably, a Ukrainian immigrant and a strong and inventive man.

      • Suzy says:

        To be picky, Emil Freed was not an immigrant, he was born in New York! His mother came from Brest-Litovsk, which might have been part of Ukraine at some point, but is now Belarus, and was considered Russia when his mother left. And I doubt the Ukrainians would have wanted anything to do with her since she was Jewish!

  5. I don’t think you’re being picky, Suzy. I think you want to keep the record straight, especially in the swirl of the war in Ukraine. Putin is using Ukrainian nationalism as an excuse to attack the country, but his malevolent imperialism doesn’t negate Ukraine’s long history of anti-Semitic nationalism. So let’s drop the glory to Ukraine bit. However, I do think Ukraine is changing in its bid for democracy. As an autonomous democracy, it kicked a Putin puppet out of leadership, elected a Jewish President and seems intent on re-educating itself. Belarus, which has Russian history and leadership is also not happy with its past. Much of the logistical slowdown in the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine was expedited by Bularusian transport workers who sabotaged Russian trainloads of tanks, weaponry, etc into Ukraine. But to your point, Ukraine deserves its independence, but is not to be excused for its antisemitism, Emil Freed or no Emil Freed.

    • Thanx for the insights Charles. In 1905 as young adults my Jewish grandparents came to the States from Ukraine, leaving their parents to fates unknown and unspoken.

      • Sadly, a story many of us know. My partner Susan’s grandparents fled small shtetls south of Kiev to escape the pogroms there, same era as yours.

        • Khati Hendry says:

          Great story, and great information. I had no idea that resource existed. Is it still accepting additions? The event sounds amazing. There was an Abraham Lincoln Brigade (?fiftieth anniversary) event in Oakland years ago, and I think Ronnie Gilbert performed. A few members were still around then. Thanks for this story.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Thanks for sharing this. So glad to have the opportunity to learn about the library. Your concert must have been wonderful.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wonderful story (starting with a sad, horrible time in our history, not unlike today), Chas. So great that Emil kept on collecting – 26 garages full! WOW! And eventually a professional librarian was hired to sort through everything, now a museum. And you got to “put on a show”. Very cool that Woody Guthrie and Ring Lardner came out. What a night it must have been (even with the glitches). Thanks for opening our eyes to something good that came out of that horror show.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    A very interesting story! Even for most people of my (ahem) maturity, the HUAC/McCarthy days are under-studied and little understood.

    Looking at American fascist outbreaks of the past is incredibly depressing to me because we seem to never learn anything from them.

    • I wouldn’t describe McCarthyism as American fascism. That would require the U.S. military to have been complicit. Except in the brilliant DR STRANGELOVE, the U.S. military didn’t endorse HUAC or McCarthy. In fact, McCarthy’s last gasp came during the Army/McCarthy hearings when McCarthy went after the alleged communists in the U.S. military, stimulating the Army’s attorney Joseph Welch to say famously to McCarthy ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir?” That deflated McCarthy’s already wilting HUAC balloon.

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