7.3.4 Southwest (1900-1930): Responding to Political and Religious Diversity

Free Speech and the Specter of Syndicalism

Ex parte McDermott – California, 1919 (183 P. 437); People v. Steelik – California, 1921 (203 P. 78); State v. Diamond – New Mexico, 1921 (202 P. 988); In re Campbell – California, 1923 (221 P. 952)
  • With the growth of mining, factories and maritime shipping in the western United States came labor strife.  Unions aggressively attempted to recruit Southwestern workers in these sectors, including most famously, and notoriously, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  Unlike most unions, the “Wobblies” sought far-reaching social reform as well as material gain for workers, and they did not shy away from occasional violence. 
  • Employers were equally aggressive in trying to keep unions out of their facilities.  Strike-related violence was particularly acute in California:  in 1910, the office of the anti-union Los Angeles Times was bombed after a prolonged and largely successful effort by local employers to thwart unionism in southern California.  The Times bombing trials attracted national attention.  California ports also underwent a series of often-violent strikes in the early 1920s, with heavy IWW involvement. 
  • World War I stirred up the ambivalence many Americans felt toward modernization.  During the war this fear manifested itself in a series of laws aimed at German-American immigrants suspected of disloyalty.  (The atmosphere the movement created in California is memorably described in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.)  Immediately after the war many states, fearful that the left wing of the labor movement would try to replicate the Russian Revolution in the United States, enacted anti-syndicalism laws.  Law enforcement officials freely applied the laws to left-wing unionists as well as political radicals.
  • The most conservative of the anti-sedition laws targeted only direct violence and incitement to violence, but some laws extended wartime restrictions of a broad variety of activities deemed disloyal.  California’s law was confined in the main to violent acts or advocacy of the same, and in Steelik, Taylor and Campbell, California’s supreme court made clear that it would not broaden the law beyond that.  The court also reversed several convictions of unionists where it felt they had not received a fair trial. 
“While it is true that … [the IWW] stood for a paradoxical and singularly drastic notion of what a system for the government of the peoples of the earth should be – a notion which there is every reason to believe is far beyond any hope of practical attainment – we cannot say that the mere teaching or advocacy of that system is beyond the pale of the constitutional right … guaranteed to all citizens … to advocate any change in our system of government or any principles antagonistic to our present system of government by peaceable methods.”  - Justice _, in Campbell
A Christian State 

Church v. Bullock – Texas, 1908 (109 S.W. 115)

  • Beginning in the mid-19th century, conflicts arose in many states between early settlers (often of old American stock), who created public schools and made education a constitutional right in order to assimilate immigrant children and inculcate old-stock values in them, and immigrant parents who wished to preserve their religious and cultural traditions.  Most old-stock Americans supported daily readings from the King James version of the Bible (the leading Protestant translation) in the public schools, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s this practice was challenged by a number of immigrant Catholic and Jewish parents. 
  • Most courts that addressed the issue held that , “sectarian” portions of the Bible could not be taught because that would violate constitutional restrictions on establishment of religion, but that portions of the Bible reflecting universal truths could be used in schools (see §§ __).  But Texas’s supreme court did not trouble itself with such distinctions:  in Bullock it rejected a challenge to King James Bible readings.  The court viewed the Bible as a basic part of the state’s culture and concluded that the spiritual danger of eliminating Bible readings far outweighed any interest in avoiding offense to immigrants’ religious sensibilities.
“Christianity is so interwoven with the web and woof of the state government that to sustain the contention that the Constitution prohibits reading the Bible, offering prayers, or singing songs of a religious character in any public building of the government would produce a condition bordering upon moral anarchy    It does not follow that one or more individuals have the right to have the courts deny the people the privilege of having their children instructed in the moral truths of the Bible because such objectors do not desire that their own children shall be participants therein. This would be to starve the moral and spiritual natures of the many out of deference to the few.” – Justice _, in Church
File:Los Angeles Times building, after the bombing disaster on October 1, 1910 (CHS-5728).jpg

Los Angeles Times building after bombing (1910) - courtesy University of Southern California and Wikimedia Commons

“The right of free speech does not include the right to advocate the destruction or overthrow of the government or the criminal destruction of prop.”  “The Legislature has power to punish propaganda which has for its purpose the destruction of government or the rights of prop which the government was formed to preserve.” – Justice _, in Steelik


“[New Mexico’s syndicalism law] was designed to close the mouths and the hands of people who were dissatisfied with the government as at present constituted, and who advocated by any means, peaceful or otherwise, change in the form of government, or the abandonment of organized government entirely.” – Justice _, in Diamond 



First Baptist Church, Houston, Texas (ca. 1920) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons