A Teacher's 22-Year Exile Ends
ACLU's Eason Monroe, Fired on Loyalty Oath, to Return to S.F. State
BY AL MARTINEZ, Times Staff Writer
(reprinted from the L.A. Times, Tuesday, May 30, 1972)
Eason Monroe, a man with a deep commitment to personal freedom has begun to tidy up the
details of his life for the trip home again.
It will not be a long journey, an hour by jet, and the details are not overwhelming.
They will involve ending a 20-year stewardship with the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles and flying north.
What makes the trip difficult is the psychological strain, overcoming the pain and the regret that going home entails.
For home is San Francisco State College, where he was fired 22 years ago on a question of conscience-when he refused to sign a loyalty oath.
Returning vindicated to the scene of his battle completes a circle. The same California law that struck him down in the fall of 1950, when his career was in its ascendancy, was itself struck down, and the court has ordered his rehiring by the college.
But not all victory is sweet, for with final triumph comes a troubled reassessment of all that might have been had the oath and the firing never occurred.
Would his career have continued to rise? Would his wife have lived? Would there be money in the bank, a home paid for, a comfortable easing into retirement?
Would Have Preferred Teaching
Monroe, now 62, ponders the probabilities as he prepares for an August departure from his job as executive director of the Southern California ACLU to return to San Francisco State.
"There is no question," he says in a resonant voice, "that I would rather have spent the past 20 years teaching. There is an overwhelming regret. "
The eyes bright under shaggy brows glaze over, focused on a middle distance. The fingertips of his hands press together The thin face is momentarily blank.
"But then" -- snapping back --"how many men win the opportunity to round out their lives this way, to walk back into a place that once told them to get the hell out?
"Picture your life in pieces, torn up Then picture it all falling back into place. There is satisfaction."
A third-generation Californian, a Ph.D. from Stanford, a Navy veteran of World War II, Monroe was one day short of 40 when the state's Levering Act was passed requiring all public employees to sign a loyalty oath.
It was a time of crisis in America. The public feared Communist subversion and responded to the fear with strident demands for official confirmation of loyalty. It was the dawn of the McCarthy Era.
Monroe had been teaching for a year at Pennsylvania State University when he was recruited by President J. Paul Leonard to be chairman of the language arts division at San Francisco State.
The job at Penn State was his first on a university level and he had been tempted to refuse the call from California. But he knew Leonard as an exciting educational innovator, so he went to San Francisco.
"For three years it was good. I was fully engaged in building a program at State. That summer (1950) I had done well at UCLA in a workshop on junior college education. I think I might have been invited to join the UCLA faculty.
"I was the language arts consultant for three county school systems in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"I had never been politically involved. My parents had been Hoover Republicans. My career was on the rise. And then the ax fell."
The Levering Act, named for its author, the late Republican Assemblyman Harold K. Levering of Santa Monica, required public employees to affirm that they did not advocate overthrow of the government "by force or violence or other unlawful means."
Eight teachers at San Francisco State College refused to sign it. Monroe was one.
"You bet there was the agony of indecision." His voice trails off. "My wife Helen and I, and others on the teaching staff, talked about it for a month.
"I already had taken a positive oath to support the Constitution. It was still in effect. I had no objection to that, because I do support the Constitution.
"Then I was told to sign something that questioned my right to advocate. That was the key word. I had never advocated overthrow of the government, but I didn't like the idea of anyone limiting my right to advocate whatever I damn well pleased."
"I felt the two oaths were in utter contradiction. How can you swear to uphold the Constitution and thereafter sign away your rights under the Constitution?"
Monroe and the seven others were given a month to make up their minds--whether or not to sign the loyalty oath. It torments him now. He lives it over and over again.
Felt Compulsion to Resist
"It was an attack on education, on everything I believed. It had to be fought. We were naive, Helen and I. We felt that even if I refused to sign the oath. it would swiftly be declared unconstitutional. We were wrong.
"On Nov. 4, we were notified by President Leonard that my employment had been terminated. One day everything. The next day nothing."
The Monroes, married since 1936, had two children. Mrs. Monroe had a small inheritance that carried them through for a while. Then a federation to repeal the loyalty oath was organized in the state, and Monroe was hired at $400 a month to head the drive.
His salary had plummeted from $12,000 to $4,800 a year.
A suit was filed and efforts were undertaken through the Legislature to repeal the Levering Act. Both failed. The anti-Communist mood of the nation swept them aside.
The loyalty oath was upheld by the state Supreme Court in October 1952, and a month later the same court refused to review its decision.
The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court similarly dismissed a challenge to the Levering Act, ruling there was no substantial federal question.
The antioath federation meanwhile, had collapsed under a tidal wave of public sentiment, and in July 1952 capitalizing on previous contacts, Monroe had become executive director of the Southern California ACLU
"I still felt the loyalty oath could be overturned and that by taking this job I could continue the fight and perhaps someday return to teaching. I never gave that up.
"I'm not sure if at the time, I could have gotten a teaching job elsewhere. They were generally unavailable to those of us stigmatized by refusing to sign the oath.
"The hysteria was irrational and my reputation had been damaged severely beyond California. When a nation goes paranoid there is nothing you can do."
He lights a cigaret and blows the smoke out hard. "A colleague called me a traitor I was discovering things about people I never would have imagined.
"Many on state's staff. said they were signing so they could stay on the inside and fight. But, on the inside, they couldn't fight. And, of course, they didn't fight. "For them, life went on as usual."
When Monroe joined the ACLU two decades ago at $6,000 a year, there were 10,000 members across the nation. 800 of them in the 10-county southern California area. On his staff was a secretary and a part-time attorney. The organization's budget here was $19,000 a year.
Over the 20 years, the size and prestige of the ACLU, bolstered by a rising campaign for individual freedom, have increased steadily.
There now are more than 200,000 members throughout the country, 15,000 of them in Southern California. The budget here has risen from $19,000 to $400,000.
Monroe's staff has increased from three to 15, including three full-time attorneys, plus another 300 who are volunteers.
"The organization back then disliked being involved at the trial level," Monroe recalls. "It preferred an Olympian stance, a lofty and detached approach."
"But it became obvious that this was an ineffective way to protect individual freedom."
"You can't sit up there on Olympus and choose your fights. You must get down on the level of the battle and engage yourself."
Monroe's philosophy, forged in the fire of bitter personal experience, was that any organization dedicated to defending a person's rights and liberties must defend them every time they were jeopardized.
He imposed that belief on the ACLU at. a volatile juncture in history.
The organization became critically involved in questions of patriotism, school integration and religious freedom, at a time when mere mention of them could trigger a disturbance.
He was arrested once, at a youth rally protesting curfews on Sunset Strip (a charge of interfering with a policeman was dropped), and was criticized many times--in person, on the telephone and through the mail.
Los Angeles Police Chief Edward Davis told Monroe in effect to mind his own business and Sheriff Peter Pitches suggested he resign or be fired.
He smiles now at the invectives hurled across the years. "I can't recall the number of times I have been told to 'go back where you came from' -- meaning, one assumes, Russia. If they only knew I came from a little Sierra sawmill town called Loyalton. Go back to Loyalton?" But even as he believed in involvement on the gritty level of life, Monroe maintained a psychological distance from the issue and the people that the ACLU dealt with.
"When I came here, the organization was regarded as being composed of a tiny bunch of crackpots--subversive and possibly dangerous.
"But we tried to steer a straight course, and to keep from going off the deep end one way or the other. We kept that psychological distance to avoid having the organization pulled out of line.
"We read the First Amendment literally. It doesn't say freedom of speech for this kind of person but not for that one. It says freedom of speech for everyone."
Over the turbulent years, however, his attitude did little to allay criticism toward the ACLU. Many considered, and consider, the organization to be at least "pinko," possibly communistic.
The attitude persists in some sectors that the ACLU at best is dedicated to the cause of the liberal, often to the detriment of the conservative.
Monroe responds now as he has so often responded in the past:
"Whenever the authorities have hassled the American Nazi Party, we have been there to defend their rights. When the authorities hassled the Communists, we were there to defend their rights, too.
"If we allow government in one instance to deny any man the right to speak, then we have allowed government in every instance to deny all men the right to speak.
"This has been a difficult job." He says it slowly, the deep voice tired. "You get a view of society from this desk that you don't get elsewhere.
"It isn't so much the victories you win as the defeats you suffer; the march of people with problems you can't solve. One gets a sense of how rare and limited justice is."
Monroe's wife died in 1959. "I don't know if you can say that the years of our fight for vindication and the trauma they encompassed, had anything to do with her death. I don't know that. "But I have a private theory on cancer that it can be emotionally induced. And those were hard years for Helen."
Even through his successful tenure as executive director of the ACLU, Monroe never abandoned the hope that vindication would eventually come, and that he would return to teaching.
In the mid-60s it began to appear that the loyalty oath trend in America was being reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down oaths in Arizona, New York, Maryland, Florida and Washington.
Monroe observed the irony of Earl Warren, who he believes, as governor, had accepted the loyalty oaths for political expediency, later presiding as U.S. chief justice over their national demise.
The ACLU filed against the state oath, and in 1967 the California Supreme Court ruled the oath invalid. Monroe moved immediately for reinstatement at San Francisco State.
"I don't know that I actually wanted to return to State," he says. "But I wanted to test whether or not there was redress for any of us who had refused to sign the oath."
Last December, the state Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 that Monroe should be rehired by the college.
"Suddenly," he says in a tone more weary than victorious, "there it was. Vindication. Reinstatement, sure, but what's that? A moral victory? You can't eat moral victories."
The suit had asked for $79,000 from the state, representing the difference between what he earned with the ACLU and what he felt he would have earned in education. He got none of it.
"It was good to win the decision--to be told yes, you were right and they were wrong to have asked you to sign an oath and to fire you for not signing. But I needed something a little more substantial.
"I find myself at age 62 having to be careful I don't overdraw my bank account. There is nothing. And the court decision in that sense was empty."
Does he consider himself a martyr to the cause of civil rights?
"No. I don't. But perhaps my experience can serve to remind that careers must sometimes be risked for principles of value, and that the risk involves regret."
After the court's reinstatement decision, Monroe then had to decide whether he actually wanted to return to state.
"There was the lingering apprehension that when I got back to the classroom and into a smaller environment I would suffer something akin to the bends. But then, last March, I decided it was worth it. I would return.
"I expect to teach for two years, and you can ride almost any horse for two years, even if it turns out to be a wild horse. Possibly I will even be able to teach as many as five more years. Sometimes they'll let you go past age 65 on a year-to-year basis. But in any event, there is not a long professional career ahead of me."
Al Martinez is a Los Angeles Times columnist, a Pulitzer prize-winning writer, and the author of books, videos, and television movies. Eason Monroe was his English teacher at San Francisco State College. Eason Monroe died three years after returning to his career as Professor of English on the SF State faculty.