This article is adapted from Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between (published this year by PublicAffairs).
The evening of March 4, 1964, Frank Wilkinson drove to a private home in Los Angeles to address a local meeting of the ACLU. This was the kind of thing Frank did all the time. He was a full-time, professional activist. Los Angeles was his home, but he gave speeches like this all around the country in big halls and on campuses and even in living rooms. Frank would talk to anybody who would listen. He would talk and talk and talk. His cause was free speech—specifically the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
It was a cause Frank believed in so deeply that he had even gone to federal prison a couple years earlier in an effort to prove that HUAC, by its very nature, violated the First Amendment. Frank had taken his case all the way to the Supreme Court—and he had lost. But losing made him a martyr and he was built for martyrdom. He walked out of prison and back into the life of activism he had left behind.
That particular night in 1964, the people Frank was to speak to were friends. The house belonged to an attorney named Allen Neiman—vice president of the ACLU’s Southern California chapter. Frank was not aware when he arrived at the Neiman residence that there were two men sitting in a parked car out in front of the house watching the ACLU members file in.
Nor was Frank aware of the fact that these men were federal agents.
And Frank was certainly not aware that that very day, the Los Angeles office of the FBI had reported to J. Edgar Hoover himself that the bureau had been “contacted by an undisclosed source to assist in an assassination attempt on Frank Wilkinson…March four… at 8 p.m. while Wilkinson addresses a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union.”
Frank had a way of steeling himself up for speeches. He would dress as if arming himself for battle, his shirt and tie a part of the image he wanted to project: one of purpose and effectiveness. Normally Frank was a silly, social man, but before speeches he would become serious and introspective. That night he likely would have driven over to the Neiman household in silence, going over the speech in his head as he descended into the San Fernando Valley, parked on the quiet residential street, walked obliviously past the two agents, and knocked on the door.
By that point, Frank’s life had been destroyed already. It had happened a dozen years earlier. We know the date, in fact: August 29, 1952. Frank Wilkinson began that day a leading light in Los Angeles’ housing authority, a man on the verge of the greatest triumph of his career: the construction of 10,000 new units of public housing in Los Angeles, the crown jewel of which was to be called Elysian Park Heights, located in the hills that currently cradle Dodger Stadium. He would end the day a pariah, the target of an expensive, elaborate, and ruthless campaign of red-baiting that would also bring down his dream of public housing in Los Angeles.