Camera Rolls: 314:36-39
Sound Rolls: 314:20-21
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Wendell Miller , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 8, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Tell me about being in Harbor City in 1932, what conditions were like?
I was a minister in 1932 in a little community called Harbor City, no harbor no city, but it was a convenient shoe-string strip between L.A. and the L.A. harbor, by way of Harbor City towards San Pedro. It was a little community church, and I found there the majority of my people were stevedores or working round the docks, all of which had been shut down, practically, and nearly every person in my church was out of work. And it came to the point where I was so disturbed by it that I got a group of men together and said, "Let's make a survey, and find out what are the real conditions not only among our own church people but as a community church." We were responsible, I felt, for the community. And they went from house to house, and very frankly said, "What do you have to eat?" And we found folk without food, literally without food. One family had flour and that was all, and they were making a gravy out of flour and water and salt and they even were trying to feed it to the youngster less than a year old. We found another family that had nothing but coffee in their house. So I got a hold of my district superintendent and said, "I know what I'm supposed to do as a minister, but we have here an emergency that simply requires that we drop some of the things that ordinarily are supposedly a part of the church program. These people are hungry." And we first began by going over to the YMCA in San Pedro, and I got acquainted with the chaplin of the western fleet of the Navy. It was a, they called it the naval YMCA, and I told him what the problem was. And I said, "I want to go to the high school and get the use of their auditorium, and I want you to provide me talent and we'll put on a regular orpheum type show. And the requirement to come is to bring food of some kind or another." Well, this began and it was very popularly received because it was a high-class program, it was no worse, and if anything better than what you might pay for at the actual orpheum. But that was not enough. So I got the same group of men together, some in the church and some out of the church, and we sat down and I said, "We've got to have cooperation, whether we organize or not is not important because we don't need a chairman, we don't need a secretary, and certainly we don't need a treasurer." So we organized it, an unemployed co-op, I think probably the first one in the Los Angeles County, and we went up to the Japanese farmers who had most of the property in Palos Verde Hills, aside from what Vanderlip had on the far side. And they were big truck farms, and we said to them, "Look, when it comes to harvest time, let us harvest your crops. You keep the saleable stuff, give us the culls. They're a misshape in the light, but they're edible, and they're nutritious." And we began, in that simple fashion, and we acquired a lot of vegetables. Then we went over to the fisheries in San Pedro, and we said the same thing to them but they didn't need our help, but they were very gracious, they gave us extra fish that they had, we went to the bakeries, they gave us the day old bakeries, baked goods, that they had. And then I got ahold of the Red Cross and very graciously they stepped in and said, "We'll make you the flour center of this area." And I had flour stacked up to the ceiling. And the word got out that the Harbor City Community Church has food. We never ask anybody, "Are you religious? Do you belong to a church?" These things weren't important, these were hungry people. And we ask how many people there were in the family? We simply accepted their word for things, we never tried to check on them at all. And this was the beginning, and for the rest of the remainder of my time there we held services on Sunday, as we were supposed to do, but the main activity of the church was trying to feed hungry people.
Then how it affected you.
All right. In 1934, there was a Call To Action Conference in Evanston, Illinois by a group of concerned ministers. It was ecumenical, it wasn't any one particular group. But those who felt that when Jesus said, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth," that's precisely where he meant it to be. That, religion wasn't sort of a reward after life, but it had something to do, it had everything to do with how you live now. And they sent out invitations to those who were interested and concerned equally in that sort of interpretation for this particular meaning. And we attended what was a week or more where we discussed, what is the responsibility of the church in today's world? We had come through a deep depression, the results of which were still very obvious, and we began to realize that we were not supposed to get people into heaven, but heaven into people. So that we related to each other in a responsible way, and that when Jesus said, "You don't live by bread alone," he didn't say you don't live by bread, he never left that out. It's an integral part where it's a holistic religion, it meets the need of the total person. And because of the economic depression and the incompetent results, we were faced with problems that the church hadn't faced for a long time, and that is the accountable unrest that people, not knowing for sure whether they had a job, not knowing for sure whether there would be money enough to feed the family. And this was sort of a new birth as far as a great many of us were concerned. I was introduced to it to be sure in my experience with the unemployed in the Harbor City Community Church and area. But this was one where, it was lifted up and pointed to specifically. And we began to work out a basic philosophy, "What does your religion really mean in relationship, not simply to a spiritual sort of existence, but what does it mean in community, which involves economics, and politics, and race, and all of the relations, international relations, all of the relationships that people have?"
Did it change your life, do you feel?
Oh, my life was changed drastically at that point, because now I reworked my own philosophy as to why are you a minister, "What are you supposed to be doing?", and I began to reread our scriptures in a totally different perspective. I had had it as the transferral beyond life, and now I begin to read it from the frame of reference, "Well, what does this say to me now, and what does it require of me now, and surely what does it require of the church now? What should the message of the church be now in relationship to people, here and now, and not in some far future that is dim and misty?" So my life was very definitely changed at that point.
Or a magic kingdom.
So, soon after that conference you went back to California and you heard about Upton Sinclair. Tell me about what that meant?
Well, I found out for the first time that politics was really a very serious and sober part of one's religious philosophy, or ought to be, I mean, and I had never encountered it as such before. Heretofore to me it was...
I'm sorry. Can you start that again? Can you start again about how politics was part of religion?
Oh yes. Before I had gone to the Call To Action Conference, politics was sort of a side issue. We voted and we went to elections, we felt it was necessary to do, but it didn't have the real impact on my thinking as after I had been to that conference, wherein I began to realize that politics was involved in how people live. Laws were made that restricted or gave freedom, gave privilege or took away privilege from people. And I began to realize how important that was as far as my own personal religion was concerned, and as a minister I felt, therefore, I had to share that thinking in my preaching, and I began to do that. And I began to realize that as I looked, the parties over there wasn't too much that I could wholeheartedly endorse, because
I saw class distinctions, I saw racial distinctions,
** I saw the privileged people getting more privileges, the poorer getting poorer.
** It was at that time, not far from our church, there was a Hoovertown that was built out of old packing crates and the like, we knew what people were going through.
And I said to myself, "The time has come, you've got to take a stand on your political stance."
"Where do you stand and what do you stand for. And that's..."
We're gonna go back to what you were saying about the taking a political stand.
Oh, yes. My politics changed. I had not been an ardent party member of any party. But I voted because I felt that was the right thing to do as a good citizen. But I had never applied it because I had never analyzed it. And I began to realize that politics had so much to do with the duty of life. It told some people where they could work or if they could work, it told other people what categories they had to stay in, it meant jobs for some and privilege for others and unemployment for others. And it concerned me to the point because I realized that I had not incorporated that into my total philosophy, and... See, mine isn't simply a religious philosophy, it's philosophy of life and that includes everything. So I began to think in terms of, "What political party speaks to all the problems of life that relates to the things that I say are important?" And that's when I became first interested in what socialism was trying to say. Well, I began not labeling it as such, but I began talking and preaching about the sanctity of human life, that every person was a sacred person. And on the basis of that I began to draw new people into the church. Among them was a Walter Thomas Mills, one of the early American old-time socialists, and he was very intrigued by what I saying, because he said, "What you're saying is what our party has been saying." And then another man showed up, an old-time, he was anything but a religious man, and certainly not a church man, but he heard the minister was saying things over there that he might agree with and he came over. He was another old-time socialist. And, interestingly enough, he asked me if he could join my church. So I began to surround myself with people who believed as I did, the Kingdom of Heaven was meant to be on earth, and that included the whole of life, the way he lived, the way he worked, his paycheck, what was involved in family relations and the like. And in the midst of that came the announcement that Upton Sinclair was gonna run for governor. And right off the bat I began to read his literature. Some of it was delightfully shocking. His , was one because of the way he spelled it. He spelled it the biblical way, prophet, but the inference, of course, being very clear [sic - the book's title uses the word "Profit", not "Prophet". The church all too often and all too long and, sadly enough, still too many are related to the profit side, p-r-o-f-i-t side, and seemingly were more interested in that than they were in people. Well, when Sinclair came out with his EPIC program, End Poverty in California, I said, "That sounds what I believe in." And we began to inquire and Walter Thomas Mills, who was a warm person...
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Could you stop for a second? It's better if you don't mention Mills' name in reference.
Because then it's harder for us to...
[production discussion][cut] [slate marker visible on screen]
OK, so back to hearing about EPIC, End Poverty in California.
The word had gotten out that Upton Sinclair was going to run for governor, which was a shocking thing for a lot of the elected, and there was a total [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] to begin with against him, particularly led by the , and in order to bolster their side they began to quote from his many writings and appealing to the church people among others.
OK. I'm going to ask you now to start again on this. Just because, instead of using the...
You use the word "they", so who is "they"? You're saying "in order to bolster their cause."
So can you tell me who you're referring to?
Upton Sinclair announced that he was running for governor in California, which disturbed a great many of people, the privileged group, the capitalist group and such, because they believed that his particular policies would probably end their rule, and if carried out might have done it. But he came in with, what to me, was a very realistic program, which he called EPIC, End Poverty in California. It was so logical nobody should have disagreed with that particular goal, ending poverty in California, but he came out with it very specifically and began to name items which would have to occur and things which would have to be done, which was most disturbing. And among other things, in the opposition, they went back to some of his writings. And
the particular book on profits of religion was one in which they quoted out of context to be sure, saying, "Look what he would do to religion. Look what would happen to the church" and
** such. Well, to be sure, that frightens a lot of people. There were a lot of people who were not ready for that and I was an iconoclast by that time and I realized that, "Stand up and be counted." We had a church on Florence Avenue,
** which at that particular time was the busiest street in L.A. County, and we had two
** large electric signs
** enclosed on the front of the church, one where we would put the church announcements and the hours and days. The others we would put up little statements. And they had been calling, the opposition had been calling Sinclair an atheist because, having taking things out of context, they could make him say anything. And, I was fed up. I saw the placards that were going out and the like, so I put up an electric light it during the night, it was there 24 hours a day, "I would rather vote for an atheist who acts like a Christian than a Christian who acts like an atheist." Well, [laughs] we got a lot of reaction against that you can be sure,
** but I've never been known to back down when I'm taking a stand which I believe to be right and I thoroughly believed, then and now, that I was right. And the fortunate part was, you see, I had been building up a group of people in the church whose philosophy was basically the same as mine, that the bread of life included the daily bread, and in their prayers when they said, "Give us this day our daily bread," they meant a daily loaf of bread, whole wheat or wheat or whatever, they meant that. And so there was nothing inconsistent with the sign as far as they were concerned. And they backed me, I don't think I lost a single person out of that church because of it, but we got a lot of newspaper letters to the editor criticisms and such. But it stood, and we stood on that ground and kept it at that point. Upton Sinclair's philosophy was not only in ending poverty, but it was consistent with the other point of view which we held, and that was that conflict between nations, handled in the way that we were, was destructive to the total pattern of life, including the economy. And so we put up a sign hung across the front of the church that would be a good eight feet long and 18 inches wide, "Truth is the first casualty of war." And then we constructed another bench stop, I mean a bench for the bus stop at that corner, in which we put on there, "Billions for war, how much for peace?" And we had a box there where we would put in literature for EPIC, and for peace, and every Sunday in the bulletin we had a peace insert, every Sunday we put that in also. All of this was a part of the total revolution of my thinking of what was included in religion. And I give not only the Call To Action Conference the credit for my stimulation, but certainly Upton Sinclair. Unfortunately I never met him. Later on I called Norman Thomas my friend, which he was, he spoke in my church and such, but it was Upton Sinclair who gave me the real stimulus going into the direction of the political side of what the Kingdom of Heaven, earth, should be like.
Great. Was the church really divided on these kinds of issues? Why was the church so threatened by it?
Well, when you say the church you speak of it as the whole, not my individual church.
No, not your...
And there were a lot of other individual ministers whom I knew, unfortunately they're all gone now, I'm the only one left, but there were others who voted and took a stand, maybe not as auspiciously as I had because I was in the proper place with a good lighted sign and many other things in my favor, but there were churches, but the majority of them, no, the majority of them supported the incumbent governor. And they fell for the line that he was an atheist and his struck home too close at some places. And you can rationalize anything you want to, if you want to, by the Bible, you can rationalize anything you want to. And very earnestly and sincerely...
...they would rationalize and say, "No, he's an atheist, we can't support him," and they didn't. And I'm sure that militated against, in the total result of the voting.
OK, tell me about your experience with the .
Well, the was noted for its conservative, if not ultra-reactive, reactionary attitude about social problems. And we read the . That was the popular paper to read. But I was so involved in the whole situation, including the political side of it, that my emotions got involved and I came down with bleeding ulcers. I had to go to, first to a specialist in Chicago, and then came back here to Los Angeles. And my doctor who cared for me here, who didn't believe in what I was standing for, we argued a good deal. And I kept quoting the to him on it, and finally he said to me, "If you don't quit reading the you're not going to get well." And he actually took the away from me and said, "You can't read it. If you're my patient you can't read it until you get over this." [laughs] And so, there was a period when we didn't read the because of it. Fortunately, that's past history because the is only got, either they have changed or I have, and I think [laughs] they have changed a good deal.
Can you tell me about, were EPIC meetings held at your church?
Yes. We had, there weren't, it wasn't a popular sort of thing at that time and there weren't many meetings of that kind, but those of us who were involved, yes we did. We met there and we talked the situation over and what could we do, and that's where we would take bumper stickers or automobile stickers because you could use them on the windows as well as the bumper.
I'm sorry. There was a little bit of noise with that car leaving. Can you start again about when you met at the church, the use of [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
All right. When we met at the church, those of us who were interested in the EPIC movement, and believed in it, and wanted to do something about it, we would talk things over, what can you do, how can you influence people? And then we passed out bumper stickers, yellow and black, which if you know the psychology of colors supposed to be the two most attractive colors for attention. And we would put them on bumper stickers or put them on windows or anywhere. It wasn't really a large political meeting like we think in terms of political meetings, but it was a small working group that were dedicated to EPIC, trying to do something specifically to end poverty in California.
OK great. Can you tell me again, we just want to get again describing the sign that you put, the lit sign in front of your church and what it says.
Oh yes. Our church was located on Florence Avenue, which in the mid-'30s was the most traveled street in the L.A. County. And so it drew a lot of attention. We had two large lighted windows, enclosed, against the wall. I would presume they would be...
Our Florence Avenue church was on Florence Avenue, the most traveled street in the L.A. County at that particular time, and we had two large electrically lighted signs on the front of the church, enclosed behind glass, probably four feet by five feet in dimension. On the one we would put the church order, when they met and the hours and such, but the other we used for sermonettes, if you would call them and, because of the opposition to Sinclair, and to me, the unprincipled way that he was attacked, by taking sentences out of his books and making them completely unrelated to what he had said, completely out of text, they put together that he was an atheist, and they could find plenty of verses there in his writings to confirm it if you take it out of context. Well, I couldn't stand it, when I saw some of the printed signs they put up about him, so I simply put in this one lighted area which was lighted all through the dark hours, and of course it was there all day long, "I would rather vote for an atheist who acts like a Christian than for a Christian who acts like an atheist." Well we got [laughs], we got reaction from that, but fortunately not from my own people.
OK, great. We've got the rest of it from before. You said that one time the Klan—you were threatened by the Klan.
Oh, yes. It was in this same church—and you see this all links together, this whole thing links together. War, peace, economics, racial injustice, all of this links together. And this is a part of the basic philosophy of the socialist party and certainly that of Upton Sinclair. The secretary of the Urban League and I got together, and we got together a group of young people of both races, we called it the Interracial Group: A Quest for Understanding, and we were studying problems that were akin to both races. But we didn't just want to sit and study. We were young people, and so we organized a drama group and we actually put on plays in a rented theater on Central Avenue. We got a vocal group, out of which came Kenneth Spencer who became a noted bass. I met him again in Europe when he was on a concert tour there. And then once a week we did square dancing in our church. Well, of course that raised the hackles of a great many people. And one Sunday morning we woke up and on the church lawn and, our parsonage is right next to it, were two crosses that were being burned. They had been burned, the residue was there, I still have the base of that cross. And I also have the sign they nailed on the church door, "The Ku Klux Klan rides again," and it was a warning. Well [laughs], I guess I'm just foolish enough, these things don't frighten me, I've been frightened by other people, other places and the like, but things like that don't frighten me. When I believe that I'm right, "I shall not be moved," as our colored, black friends sing, "I shall not be moved." And all it did was to reinforce our belief that what we were doing was right. It is true that the Sheriff's Department in the Florence Avenue area called me in and said they had received an anonymous tip that I was going to be tarred and feathered and rode out on a rail, and they said that we want to deputize you and you'd carry a gun. I said, "I refuse, I don't carry guns." They said, "We insist on deputizing you." While it happened, I did have a special deputy status for 32 years, which I never used. They were more frightened about what was going to happen than I was.
Do you feel it was mostly for your interracial work or also your support of Sinclair?
The whole thing. You see, this all happened at the same time. This was all going on at the same time. And, as I say, it was the result of, now my new discovered, or reworked, revamped philosophy of religion, which included every aspect of life.
And you say they called you a communist as well?
Oh, goodness gracious, yes, I've been called communist so many times. A booklet was put out, allegedly by the John Birch Society, it was put out precisely in the Blue Book fashion, and a member of the Birch Society came to me and warned me, "We're gathering material on you and we're going to expose you." So they called me a communist and they put this booklet out, it went all over Southern California. I was a lecturer, I had a travel agent, a lecture agent...
What do you think attracted people so much to Sinclair? Was it his message? Was it the person? Was it the man, or the message, or the...
Oh, I think it was the message that disturbed them so much. Upton Sinclair, you see, was a brilliant writer, and he had to be a brilliant thinker to do it. And his assessment of religion, economics, and politics was so crystal clear that it disturbed people. There's a statement in the Bible that said, "He shall know the truth and the truth will make you free." I turned that around and preached on, "He shall know the truth and the truth will make you mad," and that's what happened to them, they heard the truth and it made them angry. It was a self-protection, reaction to it because they couldn't believe what he said would be true because they were among the privileged people. But it was the basic philosophy because it would alter the basic basis of their living, and they just didn't want it, they couldn't take it.
And this was the religious leaders speaking on behalf of what they thought their congregations would feel, or was there a different...
Well, it would be both. There were some very vocal lay people, and there were vocal ministers, as there are today, so it would be both.
And the people that were attracted to Sinclair, they, like Sinclair, were they attracted...
...by the same message or was it...
Oh I think so, basically.
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Now is what attracted people to EPIC program and Sinclair and why did people get really, the kind of excitement and kind of numbers that it generated?
Well, I think the economic situation, the actual poverty that was in California and in our area, which was the Southeast area of Los Angeles, there was tremendous unemployment. And, we organized there an unemployed co-op also, and it was basically something that was trying to answer what their problems were economically. I never met Mr. Sinclair personally and I'm sorry that I didn't, I would've loved to. His message was attractive as far as I was concerned. If I had never seen a picture of him, if I'd never heard him, but only read what he had stood for, I would have supported him enthusiastically.
OK, great. You had said to me at one point that some of your philosophy was, and I forget what you said, rather than keeping people from going to hell that you keep hell out of people's lives.
Oh,[laughs] that's just half of what I used to put it. The business of the church is not to get people into heaven, but heaven into people, not to keep people out of hell, but to keep hell out of people. And you see, so heaven and hell are not places, it's states of mind, and I think if the church were a little more active, and had been a little more active in that, we might not have some of the problems we have today.
OK. You said that you were the first church to come out in support of Sinclair.
Yes, we were the first church in the county that came out in support, and I think I shall have to credit also the fact that we had these two confirmed socialist people there, one who was a personal friend of Upton Sinclair. I suspect that that nudged me in that direction a little more rapidly than it might have had they not been there, but yes we were, we were the first church to publicly announce our support to Upton Sinclair.
Do you remember what you felt when he didn't get elected? Were you disappointed?
Well, of course I was disappointed, but I never expected him to be, unfortunately, because I knew the powers of evil.
So can you start again? You never expected him to be what?
Start the sentence again.
Yes, of course I was disappointed, deeply disappointed, but not so much because I didn't expect him to be elected, with the kind of opposition that he had. The money interests that were against him, it would have been no less than a biblical miracle if he came within shouting distance of being elected. I have said this many, many times. People say to me "Look you're wasting your vote," and I say, "I'd rather vote for what I want and not get it than vote for what I don't want and get lots of it." And so I never lose my vote, I never lose my vote, and I certainly never lost it when I voted for him.
OK, I'm going to ask you to say this one more time. Instead of saying "him" or "he", can you say Sinclair?
Tell me about what you felt when he lost.
When Upton Sinclair lost, of course I was disappointed, but
it would have been no less than a biblical miracle had he been elected
** because of the opposition that were arrayed against him. All of the money interests, all the forth of states, everything was against him as far as that was concerned. And people have said to me, "You're wasting your vote, you're foolish," and I've always said "I'd rather vote for what I want and not get it than vote for what I don't want and get lots of it." So I never lost my vote when I voted for Upton Sinclair, I won.
Great. Is there anything you feel that we haven't talked about in terms of what you want to say about him or the time period or beliefs?
No, except I want to live at least another 10 years to see what's going to happen. [laughs]
Well actually, I just remembered one last question because I said I'd ask you later, but you said you had at one point a communist, a socialist, and [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] -
Oh yes, I have believed in airing all sides, that's also basic in my philosophy. If you have something that you believe in, if it's true, let them stand up, if it can be knocked down then there's something wrong with it. So I say let them throw whatever spears they have at it. So to satisfy what some people probably would approve of, I asked, or our church asked, the vice-president of the Bank of [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] to come out on a Sunday night, we were doing a series on economics, to tell us what capitalism really stood for. And one of our young men went to get him in his car and he said that he laughed, I mean the young man did, because of his dilapidated old Ford and he said he thought it would be good for a vice-president of Bank of [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] to ride in. But he came, and one of his [laughs] principle statements was, "Yes, I lost several million dollars in the Depression, but I didn't sit on the curb and cry." And I said, "How much did you have left?" And see, [laughs] that deflated his arguments from the very beginning because our people were mostly unemployed. Then the next Sunday night we had a socialist, and he came and gave the basic principles of socialism and how it relates to every aspect of one's life, and there are no differentiations in categories of people. And the next Sunday night, we had arranged to have a communist, but unfortunately he was in jail. But we went up and found out that he was to get out before Sunday night, and so we picked him up and got him to church—we got him to the church on time—and he spoke on communism. Well, I'll be very frank to say that he never impressed anybody because our people knew the difference between socialism and communism, and there are many people even to this day who try to relate the one as the same as the other, which is not true in the least. But we believed in everybody having a hearing, so the church did it, they just took it in stride. It wasn't anything outstanding, this is just what they expected us to do and that's what we did.
Good. Were you afraid when Upton Sinclair lost and you had another term of Frank Merriam and the same old kind of politics, were you concerned about what the future would be like for your congregation?
No, oh goodness no. They were dedicated people, and they believed, we all believed together, we were a group. We believed, stand for the truth, and let the chips fall where they will no matter what happens. And no there was no concern whatsoever as far as I was concerned. And we thrived, even after that, we thrived.
OK good. Great well, I think we're done, and that's a wrap. Thank you.