Frank Wilkinson

Outfoxing the FBI

Frank Wilkinson, a longtime civil liberties activist, was a public housing official and social worker who became active in the movement to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was sentenced to a year in prison for refusing to answer questions before HUAC in 1958. He wrote this piece in January 2001. 

In 1962, on completion of our one-year prison sentence for contempt of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, we were thrilled to receive word that we were to be welcomed out to a Pete Seeger concert in New York, for Carl Braden and me.

The prison authorities, in lockstep with the FBI, knew of the plan, probably before we did, and made plans to prevent us from arriving on time! Although they knew we were heading for New York, they bought Greyhound tickets for us at taxpayers’ expense, to send us to our homes in Louisville and Los Angeles.

We did not learn of their ruse until two days before our date of release. The whole scheme was uncovered by the “inmate grapevine,” which also told us the name of an inmate to be released the next day. We met with him immediately and asked for his help. He was a Black Jew from Brooklyn whose practice was to remain isolated in his cell at all times reading the Torah. He agreed! We knew of a phone number he could call and get word through to Pete and those arranging our welcome-out. As the prison guards do not allow an inmate to take anything in writing, he had to memorize the number and relay our problem. The “grapevine” also learned that while those to be released get out at 8 A.M. (plenty of time for us to make the five-to six-hour drive to Manhattan), in our case we were to be held until the west bound Greyhound departed at 5 P.M. So our message was: “Have a car ready at the back of the bus at 5 P.M.; and, we’d get there as quickly as possible.”

While waiting around that day, five inmates came up to us in the prison yard, asking what seemed under the circumstances an almost unbelievable question: “Do you know Mr. Hiss?”

I replied, “Alger Hiss?”

And they insisted in their formality: “Yes, Mr. Hiss!”

When we acknowledged that we did know Alger, they told a most heartrending story that I shall never forget. These men were in their seventies and serving life sentences. They had been in Lewisburg both before and during Alger’s five-year sentence and faced the balance of their lives there. They asked individually and collectively to “please tell Mr. Hiss how much we miss him here at Lewisburg!” And when I asked them what about Alger made them so greatful, they replied in several voices: “At night he read to us.” “He told us stories.” “He read poetry to us.” “He wrote letters home to our families!” I can hear them even now!

Two hours or so later we were driven to the Greyhound bus station, handed our tickets to Louisville and Los Angeles, and put on the bus. Our freedom occurred at the moment the bus door closed. We asked the driver to reopen the door, jumped off and ran to the back of the bus: two cars were awaiting us, for the speedy drive to New York. If only we could have caught a picture of the look of consternation on those prison guards’ faces. They and others like them will never understand the spirit of solidarity that binds inmates together!

On arriving in New York it was after 10:30 P.M. Pete was still singing and Willard Uphaus, who had just completed his own year-long sentence for similar contempt for a “little HUAC” in New Hampshire, was still speaking. The large auditorium was still filled.

When I walked out on stage and met the so-appreciated applause, my mouth went dry. It had been a long time since one could speak out loud. On the way to New York I had learned that I was to leave early in the morning; to fly to Montgomery to see Aubrey Williams, one of our founders who was fighting a losing battle against cancer; then to Chicago for another welcoming at the University of Chicago arranged by Dick Criley, his nephew John Williams, and the Chicago committee to defend the Bill of Rights.

I began by saying, “If any of you see Alger Hiss, please give him this message from his old inmate friends at Lewisburg”… somehow I got it out! Then the most amazing coincidence occurred: Alger stood up in the middle of the auditorium! The audience went wild, cheering him all the way to the stage, and we embraced.

From what we now know, a sizeable number of FBI agents were undoubtedly present! However I have yet to find a report on the event in NCARL’s [National Committee Against Repressive Legislation] 130,000-page FBI File. I presume there are some moments in our lives they find it best not to report!!!