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The Witch-Hunting Committees: Never Again!

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Anne Braden (1924–2006) was a speaker, writer, and civil rights activist, as well as the author of The Wall Between (Monthly Review Press, 1958) and contributor to this magazine. “The Witch-Hunting Committees” was based on a series of workshops that Braden gave as the Reagan administration was coming into power. This chapter is from Anne Braden Speaks (Monthly Review Press, 2022).—Eds.

One result of the right-wing takeover in Washington in 1980 was the creation of an entity known as the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, under the chairmanship of Senator Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, and including as members Senator John East of North Carolina and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

At the same time, there was a new push among conservative members of the House of Representatives to re-create a House Internal Security Committee. Both the Senate Committee and the proposed one in the House are in line with one of the main recommendations of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that published a major report before President Reagan took office. This report is a blueprint for turning our nation’s clock back and repressing all who oppose this.


The moves to create these new committees of Congress set alarm bells ringing in the minds of those of us old enough to remember the devastation such investigating committees wrought in our land in an earlier period. A network of such committees was an integral part of the governmental machinery that produced the repression of people’s movements in what is known as the “McCarthy period” of the 1950s.

Actually “McCarthy period” is a misnomer; it is shorthand. Senator Joseph McCarthy headed one of the investigating committees, and because of his particular flamboyance eventually gave his name to the decade of the 1950s. But McCarthy himself flourished only four years—from 1950 to 1954. The repression of which he was a part began before that and continued long afterward—even into the activist period of the 1960s. And in fact it can be argued with some validity that the effects of this period never really ended.


The main congressional committee that bolstered the repression was the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), later known as the House Internal Security Committee (its name changed after growing opposition to it discredited its original name). HUAC began in 1938, under the leadership of a reactionary congressman, Martin Dies of Texas. It was originally a weapon against the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and early efforts of Blacks to win the vote and equal rights in the South. In the period after World War II—in the atmosphere of irrational anticommunism and Cold War initiatives during the administration of President Harry Truman—HUAC emerged as a vehicle of tremendous power and became an instrument of terror and fear, directed at all who worked for progressive social change.

In 1950, a similar investigating committee was established in the Senate—the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), headed by Senator James Eastland of Mississippi. Additionally, a whole network of state investigating committees was established, especially in the Southern states, modeled after the federal ones.


The starting point of all these committees was the setting up of the word “communist” as a “witch” word. Communists, in the images the committees helped create, were witches, the personification of all that was evil. They then went out and roamed the country, purporting to investigate and root out “communism.” Their method was to subpoena before them a wide assortment of people who they claimed had communist allegiances. The committees would then demand that such witnesses repudiate these allegiances (whether they held them or not), and name all their associates and organizational activities. The simple fact that one received a committee subpoena immediately made the recipient a marked person—subversive, a traitor to the country.

The investigating committees kept files on thousands of citizens and periodically issued lists of what they called “subversive organizations.” Hundreds of organizations were on the lists. Also, the committees published many reports on what they called “subversive” activities, and these were widely circulated and quoted by private groups that sought to discredit social change advocates and needed to cite an authoritative-sounding government report to do so.


Throughout their existence, the investigating committees worked hand-in-glove with the FBI in attempting to discredit progressive people and organizations. Many of us knew this at the time, and it has now been documented by disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act and through civil suits filed in recent years by victims of the witch hunts.

Thus far, as this is written in September 1982, the attempts to revive the witch-hunting governmental committees have not received wide support, either among the public or in Congress. A bill to re-create the House Internal Security Committee has been in the congressional hopper for several years, but there has been no serious threat of it coming to the floor. As of this past summer, 159 House members had signed a discharge petition to get it there; 218 signers are needed for such a move, and these are not presently on the horizon.


Denton’s committee in the Senate exists and is apparently attempting to substitute “terrorism” as the witch-word of the 1980s instead of (or along with) the word “communist” that gave the earlier committees their power. It has held several hearings aimed at raising this specter in the public mind. In the summer of 1982, it held hearings on the 1976 guidelines that somewhat restricted the political surveillance functions of the FBI and on current proposals to abandon these restrictions.

During these hearings, Denton made it clear that he thinks there must be increased surveillance of groups that, as he put it, “might seek to find support from and exploit organizations committed to causes such as civil rights reform, prison reform, or a nuclear weapons freeze.” In discussing his concept of “terrorism,” he said that “support groups that produce propaganda, disinformation, or ‘legal assistance’ may be even more dangerous than those who actually throw the bombs.”


However, thus far Denton has called before his committee only “friendly” witnesses—those who agree with him and want to use his committee as a sounding board. He has not yet attempted to subpoena “unfriendly” witnesses, those he considers to be the perpetrators of “terrorism” and “subversion.” Nor has he yet created any substantive credibility for his committee in the press or the public.

Whether this committee and a revived HUAC could in the 1980s create the kind of fear and hysteria that existed in the ’50s no one knows. Some people say it is impossible, and it may be. But it is well to remember that in 1945 no one would have believed that just a few years later the nation would be paralyzed by the fear that gripped it in the late 1940s and early ’50s.


The old adage that we must learn from history to avoid repeating it is still valid. History never repeats itself in exact detail. Hysteria in the 1980s would be different from that of the ’50s—but it could be worse. When people are encouraged to look for scapegoats, reason can go out the window.


For those too young to remember those days, a few additional points need to be made as background:

  1. It is difficult to convey to people who didn’t live through it—in fact, it is difficult for some of us who did live through it to believe it now—the extent of the fear which these committees created. The very thought of a subpoena from one of them struck terror into the hearts of people everywhere. Such a subpoena almost certainly meant loss of employment, ostracism among one’s friends and neighbors, and the discrediting of whatever social-action endeavor one might be engaged in. There were instances of suicide among the committees’ victims—and myriad lives and careers were destroyed.

But, as bad as was the devastation of individual lives, the greater destruction wrought by the committees was what they did to the social atmosphere. The idea became deeply embedded in the public mind that those who worked for social change were in some manner “subversive” and “treasonous.” As a result, thousands, maybe millions, of people who were never threatened with a subpoena fell into silence for fear that they too would be labeled. And thus the social problems that beset post-World War II America festered for lack of citizen action for a decade. We are still reaping the bitter fruits of that neglect today.


  1. Although the committees purportedly were looking for “communists,” the real targets were organized social-action movements. Probably, most younger people who are aware of the witch hunts of the 1950s at all think of them in terms of attacks on Hollywood writers and actors and actresses. And HUAC did make many forays into the film capital (because that’s where the headlines were), and the Hollywood figures who resisted were brave indeed. But the main targets, which have received less attention in material written in subsequent years, were people’s movements—specifically, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and peace movements.
  2. The committees were eventually abolished because there was resistance to them, and it was organized. Actually, there was always resistance—from the very beginning, the brave few who said “no.” In the early days, however, it was not massive enough, and there were too many people who knew better but remained silent because of an illusion that in this manner they could prevent the onslaught from turning on them.


But gradually those who resisted organized others, and the movement became massive. The National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (NECLC) played an important role from the beginning, and later the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The decisive grassroots organizing was done by the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, which was formed in 1960 and took the issue all across the country and mobilized people everywhere. HUAC was formally abolished in 1975, and the Senate Internal Security Committee in 1977. But long before this, their fangs had been pulled because people were not afraid of them anymore.

  1. It is my belief that the motor power that turned the resistance to the witch hunt into a mass movement came from a source that is rarely given credit for it by historians—the Black Liberation movement that arose in the South in the 1950s. It is this thesis that I develop in the presentations that follow—along with an analysis of what the witch hunts did to the civil rights movement, despite the resistance that this movement ultimately generated.


Finally, one word of caution as we seek to learn from the 1950s. Too often when this period is cited as the height of repression in this century, people overlook another period of repression that is even closer to us in time—the repression of the late 1960s and early ’70s. I think that may be because so many of the people who write such political history are white, and most of the victims of that later period of repression were Black—or Brown or Red.

But the onslaught that descended on the Black Liberation movement beginning in the mid and late 1960s—and on movements of other people of color that emerged in that period—was massive and devastating. In many ways, it was worse than the 1950s. In that earlier period, many of us lost our jobs, some of us went to jail, and, as I have mentioned, a few people committed suicide. But no one was killed by the government in that period—except, of course, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.


In the 1960s and early ’70s, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were killed, Black Panthers and other militants were murdered, and scores of Black organizers (there has never been any full tally of how many) were sent to prison—not for a few months, not for a year, but for long terms, on a wide variety of spurious criminal charges.

And just as the social problems allowed to fester in the 1950s still plague us today, so we are crippled as a nation because the transformation of our country which was set in motion by the civil rights movement of the ’60s was cut short by these attacks on that movement. One reason the attacks were so effective was that too many white people—even some who themselves had been victimized by the repression of the 1950s—failed to understand what was happening and therefore did not act soon enough to help build a united movement to stop it.

Especially for those of us who are white, there are profound lessons in this history that we must heed as we organize to resist the repression of the 1980s.


One of the important things we are in the process of doing here this weekend, in my opinion, is correcting some misinterpretations of history that have been abroad in our land. Much has been said and written about the repression of the 1950s and the deep damage that was done to our society by McCarthyism, and all that is true. But when I think of the 1950s, I don’t think of repression—I think of resistance.

The first social movement I was ever a part of was what I call the “resistance movement of the 1950s.” In the life of a social activist, there is never anything quite like the first movement one participates in. For the young people who went to Mississippi in the early 1960s, there will never be anything as meaningful as Mississippi; the young antiwar activists of the Vietnam War period may look back on that movement as the golden period of their lives. In the same way, for me the beginning was the fight back of the 1950s.


Me and Joe McCarthy got active about the same time—or actually I preceded him by a year or two. I became involved in social issues in the very late 1940s. Looking back on it in later years, I realized that I had had a very unique and fortunate experience in the years soon after that.

My husband and I came under attack in a very unusual case in Kentucky, and so as a matter of survival we had to travel the length and breadth of this land organizing support. In the process, we met everywhere the people who resisted the Korean War, who fought for the Rosenbergs, who continued to struggle for civil rights and social justice—the people who never lost their vision of building a truly humane America, in short the people who were and are the cream of this country. We met that resistance movement of the 1950s.


When we ask the question “who really stopped McCarthyism,” we could of course suggest that it never really stopped. And in a certain way that is true. But it is also true that there did come a change. There came a time when the committees no longer frightened people, when people were no longer afraid to express their views, sign a petition, go to meetings, when people were out in the streets again demonstrating for social justice.

The resistance movement—our resistance movement—played a part in making that happen. Perhaps it is even correct to say that a relatively small band of people stuck their finger in the dike in those years and stopped fascism in America—and perhaps held off a Third World War. And that’s important, because if we did it once, we—and others who are younger—can do it again.


But if we are really to learn for the future, it is important to understand all the social forces that were at work. And it is also true that we who were fighting back at that time did not really turn the tide against repression. In my opinion, the beginning of the end of the 1950s came on December 1, 1955, the day Rosa Parks sat down on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Tomorrow on one of the panels, we’ll be talking about the impact of McCarthyism on the civil rights movement. And it is certainly true that the ravages of McCarthyism crippled that movement and built fences around where it could go. But tonight I want to talk about the impact of the civil rights movement on McCarthyism.

For in truth it was the new Black Liberation movement—arising in Montgomery and spreading from there across the South and finally all across the country, a movement ultimately joined by many whites who recognized its struggles as their own—that broke the pall of the 1950s, and opened up the way for all of us to struggle again.


From there flowed the antiwar movement of the 1960s, the new women’s movement of that decade, the struggles of other minority groups in this country, the new labor organizing drives in which we are now involved in the South, and many other movements for social justice that have developed in the last twenty-five years.

From that Black movement, in my opinion, also flowed the civil liberties victories we won in that period. The beginning of the end of HUAC came, I believe, when it was foolish enough to go South in 1958 and attack people active in the civil rights movement.

For when 200 Black Southern leaders joined in a public demand that HUAC stay out of the South, the impetus was provided for the formation of the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, and over the next few years the motor power of the Black Liberation movement was united with a determined civil liberties movement—which until then had been mostly white. Out of that unity came a power that was strong enough ultimately to win.


And I think it takes nothing away from the brave students who conducted the first mass demonstration against HUAC at the San Francisco City Hall in May 1960, to recall that they themselves, at that time, said they were inspired to action by the Black students who had launched the sit-in movement in the South in February of that same year.

The repression of the 1950s was an effort of the few in power to keep the rest of us under control. But the oppression of Black people in our society was so severe that they just could not be kept under control. They burst through the straitjackets that had been constructed because they had to. In order to try to survive, in order to try to make this country create room for them, they had to forge movements that by their very nature would change our institutions—and in so doing they stretched the society for all of us.

Now I think all this is important to understand—not just for academic reasons but so that we can understand the present and look to the future with clear eyes and confidence.


It is important to realize that the civil rights movement was very much an unfinished revolution and that this society is one that still does not have room for Black people or other people of color. And there came a time when those in power struck back against that movement in a massive counter-attack, because they realized, perhaps better than some of us, that it was shaking the whole society and the base of their power. So we had the new repression of the late 1960s and early ’70s, and racism that had been on the defensive in the ’60s went on the offensive again.

So we come to the 1980s—and to the present economic, social, and moral crisis that grips our nation—with white people being told that in some manner it is Black and other people of color who are causing their problems, and with Black and Brown and Red people under increasing attack—with unemployment at catastrophic levels in every Black community in this nation, with police violence against Black and Brown people on the rise everywhere, with the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups growing again, and with Blacks being slaughtered in Buffalo, New York, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and dozens of other communities.


What we who are white do about these things—the extent to which we see that we too are the victims wherever these atrocities exist, the extent to which we are able to build again a movement for justice that unites white people with people of color—will have a great deal to do with whether we move in this decade to a new and broader democracy for all of our people—or to a new and more terrible repression that could make the 1950s look like a picnic.

I would suggest that those of us who lived on the social frontiers through the turbulent history of the last 30 years have an obligation never to forget or to let others forget—that it was when Black people moved in a very organized way for their own freedom, and when a significant number of white people joined that struggle as their own—that we entered a period that not only broke the back of a time of fear and repression, but ushered in a period that brought social progress for all of our people.


Last night, I talked about the impact of the civil rights movement on McCarthyism. Today I want to talk about the other side of that coin—the impact of McCarthyism on the civil rights movement, because that was real too.

First, though, for those of you who were not present last night, let me repeat briefly my analysis of what the civil rights movement did to the “silent ’50s” and to this country. I sincerely believe that it was indeed the tremendous force of the Black Liberation movement—a movement ultimately joined by a significant number of white people who recognized its struggle as their own—that indeed broke the pall of the 1950s and set citizen-action in motion again, all across our country and on many issues. That Black Liberation movement reflected the buildup of decades of pressure and preparation in response to the tremendous oppression of Black people in this country, and thus it was simply too strong to be contained even by the repressive forces that characterized that period.


I want to mention here just one central documentation of the impact of that movement on the country: the contrast between the movement of the brave few who openly opposed the Korean War, and the mass movement that mobilized against the Vietnam War. The issues in those two wars were very similar, but the response in this country was very different. What had happened in between was the civil rights movement.

But I think it is also true that in certain profound ways that civil rights movement was crippled by the witch hunts of the 1950s, and by the atmosphere that lingered on from these days far into the activist ’60s. For that atmosphere set in motion a certain dynamic that built fences around where the civil rights movement could go.


We have to remember that by the time Rosa Parks sat down on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, and the new Black upsurge began, we were already deep into the Cold War, the repression of that period, and the resulting domestic devastation. In the South, as elsewhere, radical organizations of Blacks—and those that brought Black and white together, organizations that because they were radical had a long-range analysis—had been destroyed.

For example, the Southern Negro Youth Congress that had dramatically challenged white Southern society in an earlier period was gone. The National Negro Labor Council that had reached into some sections of the South in the early 1950s was gone. The Progressive Party, which had brought Black and white together to oppose segregation and to seek an end to the war drive, was gone. The Southern Conference for Human Welfare, that had fought for Black rights and a broad range of social and economic reforms, was gone.

And the CIO, which in the 1930s and ’40s had begun to bring Black and white workers together in struggle in the South, had been split—its moral fervor, its commitment to the struggle against racism, and its drive to organize all lost in the devastation, as Operation Dixie, its much-publicized Southern organizing drive virtually abandoned.


Thus the new Black movement, uncontainable and carrying with it a great moral force, arose in a setting in which radical analysis had been virtually silenced, and radical questions were not being asked.

Furthermore, once the new movement had taken off, it came under recurring attack from some of the Southern repressive machinery spawned by the national witch hunt. The HUAC came South only a few times—and, as I mentioned last night, when it did, it generated an opposition that joined the Black-led civil rights movement with the mostly white civil liberties movement, and this combination, in my opinion, was the beginning of the end of HUAC.


But Senator Eastland’s investigating committee that paralleled HUAC made regular forays into the South, and—even more effective—most of our Southern states set up state investigating committees that were modeled after the federal ones. We had LUAC in Louisiana, FUAC in Florida, and similar groups in other states, plus official bodies with such euphemistic names as the Georgia Education Commission and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission that played similar roles.

These committees, state and federal, tended to scratch each other’s backs—quoting each other’s reports back and forth, to make themselves sound authoritative and official. All of them went after the civil rights movement, labeling it as Communist. They of course attacked organizations like the one I was with at the time, the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), which stood firmly opposed to anticommunism, but they also labeled as Communist new organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and such overtly anticommunist groups as the NAACP.


Now the practice of labeling the desegregation movement Communist was not new. It long predated McCarthy and was a familiar part of the Southern scene in this century. I can recall that when I was a child growing up in Alabama, the first time I ever heard of people opposing segregation I also heard that this must all be a Communist plot—generated by outsiders, people who could not possibly be really American.

But what the national witch hunts did was to give such labeling credibility. It enabled the Southern segregationists to tie their kites to a national windstorm. It made it possible for them to pose not as defenders of a corrupt Southern way of life, which they were, but as guardians of the national security and all that was patriotic.

There is no doubt that this had an effect on the movement. I don’t think it affected Blacks very much; it was pretty hard to persuade Black people that their struggle for human rights was some kind of subversive plot. But I think it did affect many white people—frightened away many people who might otherwise have joined the movement, who could have stood up to the physical threats and the economic pressure, who might even have been willing to go to jail and risk their lives, but who could not bear the thought of being called traitors to their country.


This undoubtedly had an effect on the possibility of the movement becoming at the outset a true joint movement of Blacks and a significant number of whites—a movement like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often said he envisioned, a movement not of Black against white, but of people against injustice, of right against wrong. Our failure to build a stronger movement of that nature at that time had profound negative effects on the continuing struggle against racism in this country, and I believe we are still plagued by the bad after-effects of that circumstance today.

Even more serious, however, was the effect of the witch hunt that I alluded to a moment ago—the fact that the mass movements of the late 1950s and ’60s developed at a time when the general atmosphere in the country closed the door to the asking of really basic questions about the society.


Especially it was crippled by the fact that this was a time when one could not question our economic system. One effect of the rampaging anticommunism of the 1950s was that it made capitalism sacred. Thus one could not suggest that our economic system might have flaws without being labeled a traitor. Yet this economic system was obviously not working for Blacks. How in the world could the movement really deal with the oppression of Blacks without questioning economic injustice?

The battle of the lunch counters, and for the vote, were critical battles; they were a beginning, they were the opening wedge. But there were built-in limits on how far they could go in actually changing the conditions of the lives of the masses of Black people. And when that realization set in, there came a period of frustration and fragmentation of the movement.

Later of course the Southern freedom movement did move on to the economic issues—in the late 1960s. And when it did, that’s when the real repression came down, the murder of Dr. King, and all the other counter-attacks of that period. But by then the massive momentum of the early 1960s had already been lost in a splintering process.


In my analysis, it was for this reason that the movement was not as well able to stand up to the massive attacks on it as it might have been in an earlier period. If the economic struggles had been integrated into the struggle against segregation from the outset, it might have been a different story—and if it had not been for the manner in which McCarthyism enshrined capitalism such integration of the issues might have occurred.

And I think we are still living today with the bitter fruits of the fact that the Southern freedom movement, in its initial stages—in its most massive and cohesive stages—was not able to make a major assault on the issue of economic injustice.


Finally one more point. There has been considerable talk here this weekend about the question of fascism. How close were we to it in the 1950s? What is the possibility of fascism in this country in the future? I just want to say that I think there is only one basis on which real fascism could come to the United States, and that basis is racism.

I never really thought we were going to have fascism in the 1950s. I knew there would be a rough time, and there was. But I didn’t think there was a mass base for fascism, and it has to have a mass base. Great numbers of people have to be terribly frightened of something to buy police state measures in their frantic search for security. In the 1950s, they were told to be afraid of the Russians and many of them were. But the Russians were pretty far away.


But if enough white people became convinced that it is Black people who are causing their problems—a proposition that powerful forces in this country are trying to convince them of right now—they have a frightening enemy that is right here at home. And under that circumstance, they could buy a police state. That is your potential mass base for fascism in this country.

Closing the door to the possibility is one of the major challenges that we—we who believe in justice and especially those of us who are white—face in the 1980s.

2023, Volume 74, Number 08 (January 2023)
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