Frank Wilkinson, a Los Angeles housing official who lost his job in the Red Scare of the early 1950’s and later became one of the last two people jailed for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether he was a Communist, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 91.
Mr. Wilkinson consistently refused to testify about his political beliefs. He had, in fact, joined the Communist Party in 1942, according to “First Amendment Felon,” a 2005 biography by Robert Sherrill. He left the party in 1975.
Mr. Wilkinson continued his antipoverty activities and, in 1955, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which wanted to know whether he was a Communist. This time, Mr. Wilkinson used what he believed was a novel approach. Instead of claiming his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination, he refused to answer on First Amendment grounds, saying the committee had no right to ask him.
The committee requested that Congress cite Mr. Wilkinson for contempt, but it was not until 1958 that he and a co-worker, Carl Braden, became the last men ordered to prison at the committee’s behest. Mr. Wilkinson fought the contempt citation in the courts, but the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, affirmed it.
At a press conference after the decision, Mr. Wilkinson said: “We will not save free speech if we are not prepared to go to jail in its defense. I am prepared to pay that price.”