Camera Rolls: 314:06-08
Sound Rolls: 314:04-05
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Katherine Burton , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 30, 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.*
The impact of the Depression on my life was two-fold. I was twenty years old, just turned twenty, in October of 1929. That's the date when the Depression started. That's in the history books. OK. I was working my way through college. I had spent two years at UCLA. And when the Depression hit, I had to ask myself, "What am I studying for? What's going to happen to what my personal views are about myself?" I was concerned about my family, since my family had far from been rich. I think, for us, the Depression had been going on for a number of years already. My parents couldn't support me. I was going to college with the help of an older sister who was very generous in funding me as much as she could. She was a bank employee. She joined with the rest of my family in wanting to have one college graduate among us, and I was in that role. OK. I had always thought I would like to go out and explore the world as an archaeologist or paleontologist or something which in, as the Depression wore on, that was esoteric and made no sense. Because there was a second impact on me, and that was that the social order that we had grown up in, that my family was used to, and all the neighbors and all the country, had crumbled. And what was going to happen from here on? And I felt each of us had a role to play in helping us restructure our society. That was a very strong feeling in me, and it gave me a certain direction in my life. And that was a path I took that led me into many struggles.
You had mentioned to me also that, how it affected your family, that your family lost their home and, and your father, you had...actually, it's a very sad story. They say you felt that your father may have, that he died of a broken heart after.
Yes. My father and mother had a small business. My mother worked with him. He wasn't a good business man to begin with. She was better than him at it. And when the economic times were better and they had more customers, they would sell new furniture. During the Depression, that switched to used furniture. It brought very little income. When they had purchased our home, which was near Central Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard, in those days a blue-collar worker area which was already becoming mixed, black and white, and they had to have not only a first mortgage but a second mortgage. That amounted to two hundred, two thousand dollars. When the Depression hit, and people stopped buying from my parents' store, there was no money to pay that mortgage. So after a couple of years, they made the last payment that they could. The mortgage was two thousand dollars. The second mortgage was held by a woman who pleaded with them to not default on it, that she wouldn't, that she would have to lose the property anyway because she didn't have the two thousand dollars either. But there was nothing they could do, and so our home was gone. My father was nearing his 60s and becoming ill. He had a very hard life. And I had been, as the years wore on, I was in Los Angeles. Towards the end of 1934, I decided at that time to go to Los Angeles and go to New York, where there was a lot of social activity going on that I wanted to be part of. So I said goodbye to my parents and left. And the following year my father died. And I always felt that he had been defeated by the Depression, and that the loss of our home was the last straw for him.
Tell me about when you first—
—heard about the EPIC movement and Upton Sinclair. Was it exciting for you when, when you heard about it? What did it mean to you?
When I heard about the, that Upton Sinclair was going to run for governor on the campaign—
OK, so remembering when you first heard about EPIC and Upton Sinclair running for governor?
It was like a revelation. The thought of ending poverty in California had never, certainly never occurred to me, and I thought this was something I help bring about. And so I got into the campaign at the very first opportunity.
And can you tell me this one more time, but saying that, what you, what the campaign was, saying that, when you first heard about EPIC or you first heard about Upton Sinclair it was like a revelation?
You want me to start with that?
I want you to start again, yes.
It, it was like a revelation to me to hear that Upton Sinclair was going to run for governor of California, and his platform would be "End Poverty in California." And I felt this was some place I could fit in and play a role in ending poverty.
We needed a voice. We needed a somebody who would rally the people. And he did present a program.
** And I didn't bother to think, is it something that could be enacted or not? It's something that we should fight for, that we should put up a struggle for. Because the economy had gone down so completely it was not serving the needs of the, of the American people, and certainly not of the people of California, and, even closer to home, wasn't serving me or my friends or my family. And so I decided this is something I'm going to be a part of.
Great. Can you tell me, do you remember at all what his platform was, what any major points would have been?
Well, the most important to me was that jobs would be created by using the empty factories and that the farms that had, were no longer being, were no longer viable, and put people to work on them. And the money they earned would then go into circulation and revive the economy. Those were the two major points that I remember, and it seemed reasonable to me. I was believing in socialism. I had come to that belief because I thought it was reasonable that production should be for use and not for profit.
OK, very good. You, you met Sinclair.
And can you tell me a little bit about your impressions of the man? You know what, what, whether he appeared to you as a person, and then also how he appeared to you as a candidate.
Before the EPIC campaign started, to me Upton Sinclair was a great fighter for civil liberties. He had played that role in Southern California. It's written in the history books. The, and he had been under attack constantly as a socialist, and as a very outspoken person. As an individual, I thought of him as an ascetic person. He was, I was in situations where food was served. He was very careful about what he ate. I think he was largely vegetarian. Nowadays we speak of that approach as "eating health foods." And he was kind of a cool person. I never thought of him as a rabble-rouser, somebody who would stand in front of crowds and wave a banner. But in effect that's the role he did play once the EPIC campaign started.
And did you hear him speak in public? Was he able to, with, with that kind of manner, was he able to draw a crowd? Was he able to keep people's attention?
Well, the interesting, this was, even though I always felt he was a cool person, with whom you might expect to have a, a conversation on the basis of reasoning, that he attracted enormous crowds and wild cheers and real devotion from those crowds, because they believed everything he said. They believed it when he said the economy had to be started again and how he would go about starting it.
Do you remember being in any of those meetings, the atmosphere? Tell me about.
Yes. I was in a number of those meetings. Some of them were with students. Of course, with students, they were smaller.
OK. Bring me back in 1934 in an EPIC meeting. What was it like?
To go to an EPIC meeting was really very exciting because there were enormous crowds and all kinds of people. And
one of the things that I hadn't expected was to see how many older people were there. And they were like everyone else looking for something better. Of course in those days
** people, older people, had no safety net.
** So they were there. And I wondered, "What is it this man has, who's really a very cool personality, that's bringing these people out?" And the only thing, it seemed to me, that answered that was his message: End Poverty in California. And that's what I wanted. And that's why I went. And I went to a great many of these meetings. Some of them were student meetings, and he spoke at some of those. And at some of those student meetings, a lot of us who were students carried the meeting and with great enthusiasm, because we believed in the program.
I mean, were there more people, can you, was it, was it like a situation where there were people all around you? Were there like, did it feel like every place you looked there were, there was crowds of people around? Or was it...?
Those of us in the EPIC campaign, whether we were young and inexperienced or old and seasoned in politics, felt that he was going to win, because there was so much enthusiasm. There was so much wanting to believe. There were all kinds of people. There were not people that I'd ever seen before or after in a political campaign. A lot of them would've ordinarily been passive people, but people were suffering and they thought this was the way out. And they came.
OK, good. At the meetings, do you remember was there music? Was there political, was it more like a serious political meetings? Was it more like a celebration? Can you give me a sense?
Well, I remember more as rallies, because the times were very tense then. Upton Sinclair was running for governor in a time when the social system had broken down. And the attempts to uphold it were being done by, by vigilantes, American Legionnaires, police. And there was always fear that the National Guard would be called in and violence would be provoked. And so, no, the atmosphere was not one of partying or celebration, such as you might get in political gatherings now, no. It was very serious.
OK. So can you tell me just the very ending of it, without referring to what it's like today? Just say that the atmosphere was very serious.
The atmosphere was very, very serious.
OK. Do you think that, can you tell me some of the other activities you were involved in for EPIC? Did you do leafleting? Did you sell newspapers? Did you...?
I was editor of Student EPIC, and I was part of an organization of students that existed on nine campuses in Southern California, and my activities was through, I worked through that group mainly. And we were mainly either young socialists who belonged to the Student League for Industrial Democracy or young people from the Protestant churches.
Now, we always hear about Sinclair that one of the main reasons, one of the big problems was that he had alienated, the churches were against him. But there was church support?
Yes, there was. An interesting thing about Southern California history is that there always, to my knowledge, has been a strain of Christian socialism. And that showed itself in the Sinclair campaign. Those church people came out.
OK, great. Can you tell me, is there any story that you can tell me about somebody you met during campaigning, or something that strikes you as, as being a memorable experience during, during the EPIC campaign?
Let me see. To me, the most interesting thing about that campaign was that it drew in so many people that wanted to change society, and in some very different ways like nobody else wanted. But they did come together. Now, there was a strong utopian strain in Southern California. In fact, there had been a utopian society, and some of those people were in the Sinclair movement. There had been a technology organization, and they were in that movement. Then there were the people who had left Iowa and other Middle Western states and had come to live out a more peaceful old age in what they felt would be a warmer climate. A lot of them were centered in Long Beach, where Doctor Francis Townsend had organized the Townsend Movement. They participated in the campaign. And in addition to that, we had the direct End Poverty in California clubs.
OK, great. Can you stop for a second?
OK, if you could tell me very briefly about the, the fact that you were, worked with Sinclair in the ACLU and were the student representative of the ACLU.
There were two of us who were student representatives on the Los Angeles board of the ACLU. The other person was Al Hamilton.
Actually, I'm going to ask you to start again by saying that you knew Sinclair personally because you were one of the student representatives.
Yeah, OK. Yes, I knew Upton Sinclair personally. I was one of two student representatives.
I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Instead of starting with "Yes," just start with "I".
Yeah, oh, I was one of two students on the board of the Los Angeles ACLU. The other person was Al Hamilton. And the two of us attended all the board meetings and took part in various activities. And there were many activities, because of the tense atmosphere in Southern California which prevailed for many reasons. But one of them was the role of the . And there were many struggles around civil liberties issues.
Yeah, OK. Can you tell me that you met Sinclair because of this?
Some of the times I met Sinclair was not necessarily at meetings, but at his home. He and his wife would entertain us, and once in a while would bring in a, a speaker who was travelling through the area. And some of the people who came were not all board members but other people. And so in that way I had a wonderful opportunity to meet some of the great people from around Southern California who had the same aims. And mostly we were all socialist in our thinking.
So you, so you had an opportunity to both know Upton Sinclair personally as well as experience him as a political leader?
Yes. I have a picture of the board of the ACLU of Los Angeles and Upton Sinclair is in that. And then I had my camera at one time at a picnic which was held in Van Nuys, incidentally. There was a, that was rural then and there was a picnic grove—
I'm actually going to stop you right now, just because we're going to show the picture with him. You don't need to describe it. So you can say that you, that, that you, if you could just tell me just that you were at, because of the ACLU, you were at events with Sinclair and knew him that way.
I was at a number of events with Upton Sinclair. And that's how I knew him, because I had already in high school been involved in some of these activities.
Great. Good. Do you remember any of the anti-Sinclair materials, the , the billboards, the literature? Did you, did, were you...?
Well, the main thing, type of propaganda against Sinclair was, I would divide it into two categories. One was that he was an agent of Russia. He was a communist, someone who would overthrow the system in the United States, that his politics were absolutely crazy. He was dishonest coming out as a Democrat when everybody knew he had stood for the Socialist Party, and he was leading a revolutionary movement to completely turn the United States topsy-turvy. That was reflected in the and the leaflets that we got around Southern California. And the speakers who were speaking at anti-Sinclair campaigns, speaking for Governor, the man who became Governor Merriam.
What did you think about that?
Well, of course, to me it was a bunch of lies. He was nothing like that. He was actually, in his social philosophy, a very gentle person, I would say, that things should take their course in sort of an evolutionary way, and the people who believed as he did would sort of play the role of preachers. That this is the way society could be improved.
Did it make you angry? Were you frustrated by seeing all of this? Did it, did it make you want to do more? I mean, how did you react to it?
Well, I never reacted fearfully to any of the anti-Sinclair campaigns. This was an old story to me in the United States. It happened before.
That was a struggle, to make that [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . [laughs] We ready? OK. Let's go back to the Sinclair campaign.
I'm looking that way.
You're looking at me. OK. When you were, I asked you, did you ever feel like there was a low point during the campaign?
For me, there was never a low point in the
** Sinclair campaign. I was on a high the whole time, and everybody I knew in it was on a high. We were convinced we were going to win.
** We felt sure he was going to be the next governor, and he would end poverty in California. And that was something that was very, very exciting.
Do you remember election night, what you felt when, when you found out he, that he was losing? Was that a shock to you?
Well, the people that I was involved with most closely were mostly the young people. And we were sure that the election was, had been stolen from him.
We were sure that the—
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Wait. I'm talking while you...start again.
Oh. On election night, I was with other young people who had worked in the campaign, students. And we were sure that he was going, going to win when the count came in. And when the count came in and he had lost, we couldn't believe it. We couldn't accept it, and for years everybody I knew who had been in that came [sic - accidental syncope of "campaign"] believed that the election had been stolen.
I'm actually going to ask you to start one more time. When you say "he," can you say "Sinclair" instead of "he"? And, and don't refer to the future. Just stay in the past. Don't say "for years afterwards". Just, you have to remember what you remembered at that moment.
OK. So back to election night.
On election night, I was with a group of other young people who had worked in the campaign, and we sat there waiting for the results, feeling sure that Upton Sinclair had won and that he would be the next governor and end poverty in California. And we just couldn't believe that there had been an honest count. We felt the election had been stolen.
OK, great. Did you feel that, before the election night, when you thought Sinclair would win, did you feel that there would be a change in your life afterwards? You know, the idea that the poverty, did you feel like it would be election night, and then there would be like a new world? Or, or, or do you remember what you felt?
The thing I felt, that if Sinclair were to win that there would be a lot of opportunity for the ordinary people of this country, and it would help Southern California especially turn around.
OK, great. Do you just want to go back to one point that we talked about earlier about being on the ACLU board, because of another little camera problem at that point? Can you tell me again very simply that you were the student representative on the ACLU board with Upton Sinclair? OK.
Do you want me to mention the other student?
You can...not really. You say you were with another one of two student representatives.
I was one of two student representatives on the ACLU board of Los Angeles. And, he was, Upton Sinclair was on that board, and—
I was one of two students on the board of the ACLU of Los Angeles. Upton Sinclair was a member of that board.
Great. OK. Do you—put yourself in for a moment in the shoes of the people who were in the anti-Sinclair forces. Did they have reason to be afraid of Upton Sinclair and EPIC? Which, which—if you were on that side, would you have felt or acted the way they did?
The people who were opposing the Upton Sinclair campaign were people who wanted to continue the political hold they had on California, Southern California, and Los Angeles especially.
Do you think their fears were justified, that their would, that their control would be gone?
I think their fears were entirely unjustified. I thought then, and I think now that they were simply interested in retaining control of the whole political system of California, which enabled tremendous corporate growth, but in agriculture and industry and in the development of land and all the rest of it.
Do you remember the fake newsreels that, that, that were shown in theaters? Did you ever see them at the time?
I don't remember any of the fake newsreels that were shown. I'm sure, I know that they were there.
Let me take one, one, one more question, and go back to actually the very beginning when we were talking. When I asked you the, how the Depression affected you personally, you gave a nice long answer but you also were not always looking at me. Can you tell me a very short answer and look at me and tell me how the Depression affected you personally?
The Depression affected me personally in two ways. It made me question my future. Here I was going to college. Would I even have a job when I got through? And then my family was suffering, and of course that affected me greatly. My parents lost our home.
OK. Can we stop for a second?
OK, just back again. When you said, you talked about one of the points in the Depression that you were, you didn't know what your future would be like. Can you repeat that because there was horns in the background? OK.
The Depression made me think, "What would my future be?" because I was a student. I was preparing to go out into the world and earn a living, and it seemed as if there was no way of going out into the world to earn a living. Go out to the world to be unemployed and scrounging.
Good, good. Did you go to the movies at that time? Do you remember, what did, what did movies mean to you in the '30s?
The movies in the '30s were really a great escape. Everybody that I knew went to the movies, and we went to all kinds of movies and enjoyed every bit of it.
Do you remember any titles in particular of kind of big escape films that you liked? [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Well, I don't really, because in order to do that I'd have to know the dates and...
That's fine. OK, great. I think that we're done.