Jerry Brown Repeals California’s Subversive Organization Registration Act
Obscure Statute Recalls the Golden State’s Red-Scare Years and Its Grand Inquisitor, Jack B. Tenney
During California’s 1941 January-to-June legislative session, Germany had conquered Western Europe and was preparing to invade Russia.
America had not officially been drawn into World War II because Japan had yet to bomb Pearl Harbor. But it had approved the Lend-Lease program to aid Great Britain and Russia.
For more than 60 years, the law remained in effect only becoming history on August 16 when Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1405, striking Tenney’s statute from the codebooks.*
The Democratic governor was three-years-old when Tenney’s registration law was signed by Gov. Culbert Olson.
Tenney’s 1941 legislation was a foretaste of his coming notoriety as the chair of the California Senate’s Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, which he helmed from 1941 to 1949.
What became known as the “Tenney Committee” charged itself with investigating any “interference with the National Defense Program in California” and any efforts to render Californians “less fit physically, mentally, morally, economically or socially.”
While “Red Fascism,” as Tenney called it was the committee’s chief focus it also tried to justify itnernment of Californians of Japanese ancestry in World War II as well as attempted to root out sympathizers to Nazism and other “unpatriotic” causes.
Among those investigated by the committee was Carey McWilliams, author of California: The Great Exception; actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson; Edward G. Robinson, who Tenney said was “frequently involved in Communist fronts and causes;” and union activists like Luisa Moreno who worked with McWilliams to organize farmworkers in the 1930s.
Tenney championed the taking of a loyalty oath by University of California faculty in 1949 and carried legislation banning the use of “propaganda” in public school teaching.
Among the Tenney committee’s members was then Assemblyman Hugh Burns, a Fresno Republican who later served as President Pro Tempore of the state Senate. Burns became chair after Tenney was ousted when his focus on “reds” shifted from Hollywood, unions and liberal intelligentsia to more
It wasn’t difficult for Tenney – a Democrat and supporter of Upton Sinclair’s socialistic End Poverty in California campaign – to convince his war-feverish colleagues to back his registration law.
He had two Republican coauthors – James Phillips of Piedmont and Lee Bashore of Glendora. Phillips was an early member of the Tenney Committee. Bashore died of a heart attack at age 46 in September 1944 while attending a national tax conference in St. Louis.
Tenney’s Subversive Organization Registration Act outlived him by more than 40 years. He died in 1970 at the age of 72.
The law was the last statute in California’s Corporation Code, beginning at Section 35000 et seq., requiring any groups that intended to directly or indirectly overthrow the government to alert the Secretary of State of their existence. Under oath.
In more than three decades, not a single registration was logged, which probably wasn’t the reason Tenney and his supporters wanted the law on the books anyway.
Thumbing Their Nose at FDR
The law generated at least one prosecution, however.
Robert Noble and several others were convicted of violating Tenney’s law because of their membership in “Friends of Progress,” a group supportive of some policies of Nazi Germany.
At one meeting, the trial record showed, a speaker thumbed his nose at a likeness of President Franklin Roosevelt.
An appellate court tossed out the convictions in 1945, finding insufficient evidence that Noble or any of the other persons brought to trial were working for Germany or trying to overthrow the American government.
The court did express some regret that the lack of evidence prevented them from upholding Noble’s conviction – if only for his harboring anti-American sentiments.
“We are not unmindful of the fact that individuals such as the appellants … have by their acts and statements justly earned the contempt of patriotic Americans,” the Third District Court of Appeal writes in People v. Noble.
“It is difficult to understand how persons who live under our constitution and our laws can utter such sentiments as appellants have uttered.
“This court can only regret that the state of the record is such that we are compelled to reverse the judgments of conviction; but we do not believe that anyone can study the record in this case as we have studied it and arrive at a different conclusion.”
As to the law’s constitutionality, the court expressed “grave doubt,” but tossed out the convictions on other grounds.
Filing an amicus brief supporting Noble and the other plaintiffs was the American Civil Liberties Union.
More than six decades later, the ACLU sponsored AB 1405 by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, a Fremont Democrat – the bill finally repealing Tenney’s law.
“This bill properly repeals antiquated and unconstitutional language related to registration of so called ‘subversive’ groups. This statute is an unnecessary statutory remnant of the McCarthy era and is inconsistent with constitutional protections of free speech, freedom of association and political affiliations,” writes the ACLU in support of Wieckowski’s bill repealing the registration law.
Echoing the ACLU, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Hesperia Republican, said during the May floor debate on Wieckowski’s bill:
“A vote for (AB)1405 is a vote for free speech. It is a vote against government trying to squash that fundamental right that is enshrined in the First Amendment.”
Tenney’s measure, 1941’s AB 271, cast a wide net.
Senate amendments specifically exempted labor unions and religious groups from having to register.
But the law demanded registration of “every corporation, association, society, camp, group, bund, political party, assembly, and every body or organization composed of two or more persons or members, which… directly or indirectly advocates, advises, teaches, or practices, the duty, necessity, or propriety of controlling, conducting, seizing, or overthrowing the Government of the United States, of this State, or of any political subdivision thereof by force or violence” or “solicits or accepts financial contributions, loans, or support of any kind directly or indirectly from, or is affiliated directly or indirectly with, a foreign government or a political subdivision thereof.”
Such groups in existence on September 13, 1941 – the law’s effective date – had 30 days to provide the Secretary of State with a list of its goals, property it owned or used, names and addresses of its directors and members, its charter and by-laws, all books or leaflets it distributed and any uniforms or insignias worn by its members.
If subject to foreign control, the group was required to say how that was controlled. Any changes in its by-laws had to be reported within 10 days.
Since most groups seeking overthrow of the government wouldn’t wish to advertise their goal, the law clearly anticipates noncompliance.
Tenney’s apparent intent was to create an easy way for the state to punish those whose activities were considered subversive.
Failure to register was a felony carrying a minimum fine of $1,000 for the organization and $500 for an officer or director of the offending group who also could be sent to jail.
Group members and persons who attended meetings of subversive organizations that failed to register could be fined $20 and spend at least 10 days and up to one year in jail.
“Mexicali Rose” and Zion’s Fifth Column
Jack Breckinridge Tenney was born in 1898 in St. Louis, moving with his family to California in 1909. He served in World War I.
He worked his way through law school and, when clients were scarce, wrote songs.
In 1923, Tenney penned “Mexicali Rose,” which didn’t shoot to the top of the charts at the time but did so when covered by Gene Autry in 1939. Bing Crosby, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys have also recorded the tune.
Before entering politics, Tenney served as president of the Los Angeles local of the American Federation of Musicians.
Tenney blamed his re-election loss on radicals in the Los Angeles union movement and his politics swung away from the left, according to Robert Nedelkoff in the Winter 1999 edition of The Baffler, a quarterly journal of art and criticism.
Elected in 1936 as a Democrat to the Assembly, he switched parties and ran for the Senate in 1942 where he served three four-year terms representing Los Angeles County.
Tenney’s Un-American Activities Committee was a precursor to the federal hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
“One of the committee’s troubles under Tenney’s leadership was that it roamed and rambled into fields of character assassination and guilt by association which had nothing to do with overt subversiveness,” says a supposed San Francisco Chronicle editorial of the time cited by legendary lobbyist Artie Samish in his memoir, The Secret Boss of California.
“Anyone who was in favor of overthrowing Tenney, as distinguished from overthrowing the government, was likely to be hauled up and smeared by inquisition and innuendo. His methods have done more damage to the cause of intelligently combating Communism than almost any other influence in California.”
Said Luisa Moreno of Tenney’s modus operandi:
“While the (other) members were cautious and passive, Tenney was a bully with a scathing tongue. He reduced his victims to tears. By the time he finished with them, they felt depleted.”
When she was called before the committee in 1948, Moreno was applying for U.S. citizenship. She invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked by Tenney if she had been a member of the Communist Party.
“During the testimony… Tenney threatened me with sending the transcript to the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” she said. Moreno was eventually deported.
In seven years of hearings around the state, the committee amassed 10,000 pages of testimony in 41 volumes, according to its 1948 report on “Communist Front Groups.”
Among its findings was the conclusion in 1943 that the American Civil Liberties Union “may be definitely classed as a Communist front or ‘transmission belt’ organization. At least 90 percent of its efforts are expended on behalf of Communists who come into conflict with the law.
“While it professes to stand for free speech, a free press and free assembly, it is quite obvious that its main function is to protect Communists in their activities of force and violence in their program to overthrow the government.”
Elsewhere, the committee’s 1943 report says the 240 Japanese-language schools in California are “strikingly similar to the Workers’ Schools of the Communists, the summer camps of the German-American Bund and the Italian language schools. The ideologies were radically different, of course, but in each case a scheme for world domination was being taught youngsters: a racial superiority, along with a contempt and disrespect for America’s ‘decaying democracy.’ “
In hindsight, the tone and “substance” of Tenney’s committee reports seems laughable but at the time such innuendo ended political and acting careers. Failure to swear never being a member of the Communist party was grounds for dismissal — as it was for 157 University of California employees.
He placed fourth in a bid to become mayor of Los Angeles in 1949. A run for Congress in 1952 in which he enlisted the aid of anti-Semite Gerald L. K. Smith was also unsuccessful.
Tenney also appeared as the vice-presidential candidate on the 1952 ticket of Smith’s Christian Nationalist Party. Despite not giving his consent, Gen. Douglas Macarthur was the party’s presidential candidate.
Mildred Younger, the wife of future state Attorney General Evelle Younger, dislodged Tenney from his state Senate seat in the 1954 GOP primary, partly by confronting him over his ties to Smith.
Younger narrowly lost to Democrat Richard Richards in the general election, 48 percent to 49.1 percent. She would have been the first woman in the state Senate.
Her subsequent career as radio and television host ended in 1958 when she lost her voice after a car accident and a bout with polio. She didn’t regain her voice until 1975.
Tenney wrote several anti-Semitic polemics, including 1953’s Zion’s Fifth Column. (A sympathetic “biographical note” on Tenney precedes the polemic.)
In 1959, Tenney moved to Banning and worked part-time as city attorney for nearby Cabazon. There was another failed run for Congress in 1962.
*The Senate Judiciary Committee’s analysis of Wieckowski’s measure says the Subversive Organization Registration Act was created by SB 132 carried by Sen. George M. Biggar, an Albion Republican. The analysis says Biggar’s measure was Chapter 183 of 1941. Tenney’s AB 271 was Chapter 183. According to the California Federation of Labor’s 1941 Report on Labor Legislation, Biggar’s bill died in committee. “While its intention was to prevent persons engaged in subversive activities from holding public office, its provisions were so broadly stated that only a specific exemption would have protected labor unions from the danger of its use against them,” the federation said. Tenney’s bill was also worrisome until a clause exempting unions was added in the Senate.
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