When Anti-Left and Anti-Right Repression Combine
The case of the Buchanan Committee
David Beito and Marcus Witcher begin their paper in the latest Independent Review with a familiar-sounding story about a witch-hunting 1950s congressional committee demanding that a witness name names:
Nobody was quite sure what Edward A. Rumely would say in testimony before the U.S House Select Committee on Lobbying in 1950. Would he name names, plead the Fifth Amendment, or defy the committee and thus risk possible jail time? Rumely chose defiance, declaring, "I will not give you the names of people who have bought our books. You are invading our constitutional rights." Instead of the Fifth, he pleaded the First Amendment. Even before this encounter, the chairman of the House committee, Frank Buchanan, had warned that the unfriendly witness risked a contempt resolution. He vowed not to "permit Mr. Rumely or his organization to divert this hearing into an argument over constitutional rights."
It may sound like a Hollywood reenactment of the McCarthy era, but the Buchanan Committee wasn't hunting reds—not yet, anyway. Rumely was the co-founder of the Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, a group that had been launched to stop Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing scheme and had gone on to oppose much of Roosevelt and Truman's policy agendas. The people Rumely was refusing to identify were the people who had purchased his group's books in bulk. The Buchanan Committee was investigating "lobbies," and it wanted to know who was buying the books on the grounds that this would reveal who Rumely's financial backers were.
Beito and Witcher frame the Buchanan Committee's probe as the last act of the first Brown Scare, Leo Ribuffo's term for the '30s/'40s hunt for subversives on the right. But by the end of the story, they note, the congressmen were red-baiting as well as brown-baiting. Eager to prove its balance, the committee decided to investigate the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a clash that culminated with the committee demanding that the group reveal the donors who had contributed to the CRC's defense of a black man facing execution in Jim Crow Mississippi. Along the way, one Georgia congressman denounced CRC witness William Patterson as a "black son of a bitch" and a "chocolate covered Communist."
Transpartisan alliances formed. When Congress considered a resolution to hold Rumely in contempt, the opposition came from conservatives—and from Vito Marcantonio, the most left-wing man in the House. When Patterson was the one facing a contempt resolution, several southern Democrats switched sides and supported the measure, but the opposition that remained was still a radical/conservative coalition. Both resolutions passed, but the Supreme Court eventually ruled in Rumely's favor, a precedent that proved useful to people in other parts of the spectrum. "Joseph McCarthy's leftist targets cited United States v. Rumely when refusing to name names," Beito and Witcher note. And "in NAACP v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court cited United States v. Rumely when it upheld the NAACP's right to deny the state of Alabama the names of its members."
It's a largely forgotten chapter in the history of civil liberties, and it should be especially engrossing to anyone interested in how anti-left and anti-right repression can feed on each other. I've barely scratched the surface of the story; to read the whole thing, go here.