Mort Elkins (center) in his Army Air Corps uniform. (COURTESY MATT ELKINS)
Mort Elkins (center) in his Army Air Corps uniform. (COURTESY MATT ELKINS)

My parents, McCarthyism and how ‘the unthinkable is always possible’

An enemy among us, of far greater danger than the political heretics they pretend to control, will always be the demagogues waiting to play on the fears of the people.
— Frank Rowe

My parents, Morton and Thelma Elkins, liked to say that California was founded by those who chose to leave someplace else. My dad arrived from Philly in the late 1940s to attend graduate school at Stanford on the GI Bill. My mom graduated from Hunter College, took a job in the New York shipyards, then visited a friend in San Francisco and never went back East. They both left behind families bewildered by their choice to relocate so far away.

Political southpaws, they soon found themselves involved in the hot mess known as McCarthyism and its “theater” production, the House Un-American Activities Committee. They bore the scars of this era for the rest of their lives, in ways I could not fully comprehend.

My sisters, Rachel and Judy, were 6 and 4, and Mom was six months pregnant with me, when my father and his attorney entered S.F. City Hall in May of 1960 for his confrontation with HUAC. He had lost his job as an English teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District for refusing to sign the newly legislated loyalty oath, known as the Levering Act, and had been subpoenaed to appear before the committee.

The oath required state employees to defend the constitutions of California and the United States, and to forswear allegiance to radical causes. Protesters from all walks of life refused to sign, and lost their jobs; my parents were among their ranks.

The new oath was simply unacceptable to them, as it violated freedoms ensconced by the Constitution. Their refusal to sign was an intellectual exercise; the paranoid mood that pervaded government (and much of the public) made their refusal subversive and, therefore, a possible communist conspiracy.

My dad’s grilling by the HUAC was broadcast live by KQED. The questioning focused on his job as a warehouseman, which he took after losing the teaching position. He had become active in the ILWU, running for office, organizing. This was another red flag for HUAC. After beating around the bush for a bit, they finally got to the point. “Did you ever take money from the Communist party?” If it were a thing at that time, he probably would have said, “as if.”

Granted, my parents’ friends held different political opinions and values, which were fully accepted in the open-minded San Francisco discourse that was prevalent. Instead, HUAC was suspicious about which Bay Area educational institutions were recipients of my dad’s GI bill money.

I have the full recordings of his testimony, which my nephew found at the Library of Congress. I keep them on my phone for those times where I need strength, or just miss my dad’s mischievous voice and tone.

With a large presence of police, water cannons and protesters outside, he largely built a defense based upon the superseding rights guaranteed by the Constitution, quoting specific amendments at every turn, conferring with his attorney, and asking what relevance a particular question had to the task at hand.

The proceedings had a merry-go-round quality, with the committee asking the same questions in different ways, and getting the same answers. My dad was prepared. In his own, very familiar way, he utilized his time to defend, disarm and educate, flustering and flummoxing his interrogator before finally being excused.

My mom worked for the Red Cross, and managed to fly under the radar even though she also refused to sign the oath while employed there. Any organization that could be conscripted for “civil defense,” including the Red Cross, was not immune from the Levering Act.

She always held a special place in her heart for the organization, and the supervisor who had her back. She had been fired as a social worker with S.F. Health and Human Services, as a non-signer. Her indignant response and protest to that act (in the form of a letter) carried a familiar lifelong warrior’s tone. So it was not surprising — given my parents’ actions — that they were subject to wire taps, threats, even a swastika scrawled on their new home soon after my father’s testimony was broadcast.

The conflict nearly tore my parents apart even though they agreed politically in the cause.

Raising a family and putting food on the table while being tailed by G-men in trench coats — and suffering unfounded, untrue accusations of communist sympathies — made for tough sailing in a more intellectual pursuit of justice and Constitutional clarity. My dad once said they were the frogs who knew they were slowly being boiled to death, which I always thought was funny.

Both had a deep dislike and fear of the communist witch-hunts, spreading like lava across the country, ruining lives in its cold-war path.

Not signing the oath, based upon their understanding of the first and 14th Amendments, was an earlier, more dangerous version of “taking a knee.” The outcome could eventually lead people to jail, the poorhouse, even suicide (an outcome that befell a friend of my father, but that’s another story).

It’s impossible here to reveal the very real suffering the many years of McCarthyism foisted upon its victims. Many books and media have addressed the subject. One that I take great pride in is a dog-eared copy of Frank Rowe’s “The Enemy Among Us: A Story of Witch-hunting in the McCarthy Era.” I found it in my parents’ large collection of material from that era, and was gratified to see their names mentioned in the reflections and experiences of the author, himself a decorated war hero fired by San Francisco State University for refusing to sign the loyalty oath.

The Levering Act finally was declared unconstitutional in 1967, and my father went back to school, entering UC Berkeley for a master’s in social work. He went on to work for the city of Berkeley and Contra Costa County. Mom had a long career as a psychiatric social worker in private practice and at the Oakland Jewish Community Center. They also ran a travel store in Berkeley called Easy Going for several decades.

My parents stayed surrounded by the people who emerged scarred but alive from their political battles. They knew what to do when Vietnam and Berkeley met on Telegraph Avenue, marching with their kids down the street lined by the California National Guard.

They continued to fight other battles as they came up, whack-a-mole style. Even while she had cancer and was suffering from macular degeneration, my mother organized and fought for the rights of low-vision sufferers. This included founding a low-vision support group that met at her house, and has continued throughout the years with monthly meetings at Ashby Village in Berkeley.

Dad died in 1997, and my mom in 2017. While visiting KQED recently to record my reflections for a radio segment called “Letter to my California Dreamer,” I bumped into a senior editor at the station, who told me that, while discussing my story with her own mother over dinner, was surprised to learn that her mom also refused to sign the Levering oath back in the day.

At that moment, I could not help but think how happy my folks would be to know that their struggle could still be discovered, remembered and shared — not only for historical purposes, but also as a warning that the unthinkable is always possible.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Matt Elkins
Matt Elkins

Matt Elkins is a Novato resident with a career not related to his journalism degree. This piece would make his mom very happy.