As we enter on 2019, I am struck by the divergence in expectations for the year. On Saturday, the board chair of a leading non-profit Black arts organization began by stating her optimism and hope for the year 2019. That same day, another dedicated colleague whose been a leader in our MTI work for criminal justice reform asked “who is not having darker visions these days?”
Whatever the year holds in store, it’s a sure bet that we must learn from the past, or be doomed to repeat our worst errors and excesses. Fortunately, the Jewish Museum Milwaukee has an excellent exhibit to help us learn about, and from, our recent past. Called BLACKLIST: The Hollywood Red Scare, this exhibit’s been accompanied by many excellent programs, including “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government,” on Thursday, January 17th, at 7pm. and Feb. 21, 7pm, Conversation Starter: Black, Jewish & Red, How did Communists and Socialists understand the problems of racism in the U.S.? How did they understand anti-Semitism in Europe?
As the exhibit makes clear, the impact of the “red scare,” was not just to intimidate present or former members of the Communist Party, USA, but to impose political censorship to bar any mainstream presentation of serious social issues or criticism. The exhibit includes clips of Oscar winning writers and directors being hauled off to prison because of their thoughts and associations – not for violating any law except challenging this witch-hunt. Any criticism of anti-Semitism, racial discrimination against Black Americans, exploitation of workers and even lack of government support for returning veterans from WWII -- was a basis for suspicion, if not worse. E.g. the President of the Motion Picture Association of America, proclaimed: “We’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath, no more Tobacco Road, we’ll have no more films that deal with the seamy side of American life. We’ll have no more films that treat the banker as the villain.”
The “silent 50's” followed, until the modern civil rights movement of Rosa Parks and Dr. King broke through this pervasive ban on social criticism and change.
The Turners have long stood for freedom of expression, including “tolerance against all fanaticism” and “reason against all superstition.” Despite serious lapses in practice and the need to enforce these protections by vigilance and struggle, our nation is in the forefront in asserting freedom of speech rights. This is not so true in combating and outlawing discrimination.
I recall vividly the emphatic comments in 2011 of the late Nate Zelazo, a philanthropist who was the very successful founder of Astronautics Corp. of America, a major military contractor here. He sharply criticized a speaker whom he felt failed to sufficiently emphasize the anti-Semitic nature of McCarthyism, and he described with great emotion the terror that he and his government co-workers felt when put under investigation in the early 1950's, including suicide among his colleagues.
We must be vigilant and learn from our own history, and this exhibit is a very good place to start.
The exhibit -- just extended through March 10th -- is at 1360 N. Prospect, and features free admission on Mondays in January. See JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.