Camera Rolls: 314:55-57
Sound Rolls: 314:28-29
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Robert Clifton , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on July 13, 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.*
OK. Let's start by having you tell me how you first got involved with Sinclair. What attracted you to him?
Well, at that time, of course, that was I believe '34. I was probably about thirty-one, a young lawyer practicing law in a small law office in Hollywood. We were on Hollywood Boulevard. It was an elderly attorney and myself and another lawyer there, but anyhow it was in Hollywood. Roosevelt had been elected president, but I hadn't been in politics, didn't know too much about it although I voted for Roosevelt. But then Sinclair came along and I read about him and there was a meeting of the Hollywood Bar Association in Hollywood and Sinclair came and spoke to us. I was impressed by what he had to say about his EPIC plan. Also, he told a very interesting joke about the Supreme Court, which I didn't agree with, but anyhow was attracted. So I decided to get in the campaign, get active, and so I looked up the headquarters and walked into headquarters and said, "I want to work in the campaign." So they said, "Where do you live?" Well, I said, "In Hollywood." They looked up and they said, "Oh, that's the 59th Assembly District." And I said, "Well, all right." I found out that the 59th Assembly District was from Vine Street in Rossmoor, to and including all of Beverly Hills, and it ran from Pico to and including Mulholland Drive. The whole of Hollywood, you know. So they said, "You're the Executive Secretary of the 59th Assembly District. You'll run the campaign there." And they gave three cards with names of people who were supposed to live in the district who were interested in it. Well I got in touch with them; they had no interest. But they said, "Go out and organize EPIC Clubs." End Poverty in California, so they called it EPIC Clubs. And they said, "You can use the school houses. Get a permit to use the school house and form an EPIC club. So I went down to the Board of Education and I applied for a permit to use the school, and then I published, oh, maybe 300, 400 handbills: "Learn about Upton Sinclair and his Plan for California." I think I adopted the headline on this thing "Little Man, What Now?" because there was a very popular book at that, and so forth. So I took these handbills and put them all over the neighborhood, door to door.
Did it start—let's just start again about the handbills. Tell me about, how did you make up the handbills?
I just wrote them up myself...well, on these handbills, I just wrote them myself. As I remember, the catchy word one was, "Little Man, What Now?" "Attend a meeting and find out about the EPIC movement in California and Upton Sinclair, candidate for so forth, at the Laurel Day Avenue School at certain time in room so-and-so." And so I took these handbills and put them out around the neighborhood, tacked them on the telephone poles. I got in touch with a few local newspapers and told them about it. My father-in-law and I, he was unemployed at the time, we put them out from door to door. My wife and so forth. And low and behold two weeks later we had a meeting and probably fifty people showed up at the meeting in the school house. And so I explained what little I knew about the plan, but I had his book and I explained about it and lambasted the , which was at that time very, very reactionary, and suggested that we should organize an EPIC Club in that neighborhood to carry on the campaign. And so I asked for volunteers: someone to be president and finance chairman and secretary, and we got volunteers and then we scheduled a meeting there, and I turned it over to them.
Why did people get so interested? Why were you so interested, and what were people so interested in about Upton Sinclair's plan?
Well, of course, it was front page news, of course. He was a candidate for governor, and his plan, of course, was to forge jobs, to put people at work doing various things to earn a living and so forth, and the big problem was unemployment. Now that was before Roosevelt had gotten started on a lot of his big programs, you know, the Wagner Act and the Rural Electrification Act and the CWA and programs like that. So this was at the very beginning of the Roosevelt term and our big problem, or one of the big problems, was unemployment, and that's what Sinclair was aiming at: putting unemployed to work. Well, that's why we were interested and everybody else was. Not that we were all out of work, not at all. Most of these people attending were not out of work, but they knew it as a problem, as we know now, that one of the big problems is unemployment. So they were intelligent people. Not all unemployed, they weren't looking for jobs. Some of them may have been, and so forth, but anyhow that's the people that attended.
Were they young people? Were they old people?
All sorts, all ages, but by and large I would say twenty-five, thirty and so forth. What now might be termed the "Yuppie" type, but then there was a lot of older ones, you know, a cross section...by the time of the election, of course, we were very anxious to get people to the polls, ringing doorbells and calling them and stuff like that, yes. But as far as registration, no.
OK. Can you tell me, was it an exciting movement to be part of? Did you feel like you were part of something that was really gonna bring about change?
Oh yes. It was very exhilarating. We were doing something on a low level, we weren't on the upper levels and so forth. Ours was door to door and meetings and stuff like that. But we were all very, very excited and we thought we were going to, not change the world but help California and help people, yes. We were very dedicated people and of course nobody was paid, my goodness gracious no. We were all volunteers. I worked, of course, for years in politics and my wife did too, always as volunteers. We always thought that the Republicans paid people for precinct worker and so forth and we looked down upon them. But as far as our group was concerned, purely volunteers, purely for our belief in it and helping people. We were sort of "do-gooders" if you will.
Did you feel that, did it change the time period for you? The times were very difficult, right, during the Depression? But when you were part of trying to change things did that change your view at all about, you know—was it a good time for you then?
Oh yes. We were working for other people, not in a religious sense or anything like that, but in a humanistic sense. It was on a very idealistic, upper-level plane, and we felt we were doing good and helping people. We've always felt that in politics.
OK, great. 1934, do you remember, was this a time of change for the whole country? Do you remember hearing about other movements besides Sinclair, about Long and others, or were you mostly just focused—
About Long and whomever?
Well, of course somewhere along the line I knew about Huey Long and his machine and stuff like that, but there was in California there were so-called "Townsend Movements" started by a Dr. Townsend. The theory there was that every person over a certain age would get so many dollars a month to live on because it was aimed at elderly persons. Then they called it the "Ham and Eggs Plan." "I want my ham and eggs" was their slogan. So they had Townsend Clubs all over the place and they had, I believe, an initiative on the ballot for the Townsend Plan, and so that went along with, that was a big movement but was nothing, had nothing to do with governors and things like that. It was purely aimed at this one thing, and if you want to know more about it, of course, Sinclair, I can tell you, he lost the election because he wouldn't favor it. In other words, they asked Sinclair if he would favor the Townsend Plan. He said no because the basis of that was a sales tax, and he said a sales tax is a tax on the poor. So he said he was against it. If he had kept his mouth shut and said, "No comment" or something like that, or "I'm just running for governor," he would have gotten a lot of those Townsend votes, he would have been elected. But he wasn't a politician. No, he should have kept his mouth shut as I said...but you haven't finished with what I want to talk about: more EPIC clubs.
No, I will. I was going to get back to that.
What our EPIC Club did, and the members, 'cause that's what I presume you're interested in.
We're interested in a number of these issues, but when we come back—
Whatever. But as I say we got off the track after getting one club started...when I was an assistant cameraman they took thousands of movies over at New Hall, where I-5 goes through now. There was a ranch owned by a Frenchman. They called it French's Ranch, and—
After I organized one club, I went down to the Board of Education, got a permit to use the next school over and got out handbills and information roughly the same way I did for the first and then had a second meeting, and I kept on doing it over and over until, in the end, I had thirteen EPIC clubs in the 59th Assembly District. And all operating with the same name were all independent of course, but they would get speakers from downtown or from wherever and they would get literature and then they would put the stuff out door to door and stuff like that. Then later on they—
You want me to continue with EPIC news?
Yeah, let's start with the EPIC news again.
Somewhere along the line they started publishing the EPIC News, a county-wide or city-wide publication. But they also published a flier or a one-page, one for each assembly district, so that if we had any special news about our district or some meetings and so forth we could insert that in the EPIC News. Well, ours was a big assembly district and I don't know how many issues we got out but they would come out in our own district. We'd put out 25,000 copies. That was for door-to-door, ourselves. We didn't hire newsboys or anything. We didn't have any money. But anyhow that was one of the things we did to spread the news about the EPIC campaign.
Were you surprised that you were able to get that much support? Were you pleased that you could distribute that many? That's a lot.
No, no. They told us to do it and we just went ahead and did it. We had willing volunteers just like us. We'd get out in the car, a dozen of us or a couple of cars and so forth and take a neighborhood and go from door to door just like newsboys and so forth. There were all types of people working in the campaign, not all unemployed by a long sight.
That's a lot of newspapers to get out. Did you have any idea of how big of a task that you were undertaking at the time?
Oh, no. Of course, we had thirteen clubs and I didn't, no. They told us to do it and I said, "Go ahead and do it." And we did it, and it went along very well. My wife was in it, of course, attending the meetings with me and distributing literature and stuff like that. Some meetings, they'd call a meeting and she'd hold the meeting down until I could get there 'cause I was late or something like that. But anyhow it filled up our lives, besides of course earning a living because I was still practicing law.
Tell me about the newsreels that you... what you expected newsreels to be like in a movie theater and what happened when you went to the movie theater.
Well, at that time on every program they would have a newsreel, starting with Pathe and then later on other ones, a segment of 10 or 15 minutes about the current news, abroad and things like that. It was part of a regular program, and we'd also have a cartoon, and then the feature. But a newsreel was part of the thing. Well, somewhere along the line someone in the Merriam campaign, the Republican campaign, concocted a newsreel against Sinclair. And the one that I remember, of course, most was one showing freight trains coming into a freight yard and bums getting off the freight trains. Someone would go up there and say, "What are you coming here for?" "Well, I'm coming here to work and live in California" and stuff like that. An influx, in other words, of bums or unemployed people. Well, it was pure propaganda and so forth. Well, my wife and I, she, I believe, was pregnant at the time. We were at the Mains Theatre in Westwood. Believe it or not...
OK. I want you to start again telling me about, you said your wife was pregnant, you went to the movie theater—
Well, this was the main show in Westwood, still there, believe it or not. It's the same one and it's one of the big movie theaters—
Can you just start again by telling me that you went—just start the story from the beginning.
Well, as I said, my wife and I went just to see a movie at the Westwood Theatre, as the [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] or , whatever its name was, and here we were, sitting here in regular seats and along came the newsreel and then they ran this segment showing these bums getting off the train and making statements or answering questions. They were coming to work for Upton Sinclair. Well, that enraged me, so I got up in the middle of the performance. It was dark of course, and I yelled, "I like my movies without propaganda!" That's something I'd never heard of before in a movie, but everybody looked around, of course. The ushers came up and down looking to throw some bum out or something like that, but anyhow it just shows my reaction to the damned thing, because it was propaganda and it had no place in a newsreel. You asked about it, and I did it.
Did you go to the movies very often in those days?
Oh, yeah, yeah. About every week, yeah. Movies were very inexpensive, you know, 25, 35...very inexpensive. So we went quite frequently.
This is an important story, so I'd actually like it, if possible, if you could tell it to me again.
About the show?
Yes, about going to the movie. You don't have to tell me what the name of the theater was. You can just tell me that you went to a movie theatre.
Well, my wife and I went to the best show in Westwood, very big show with regular features and so forth, and along with the other program they had a newsreel but the one that they ran, the—
You started to talk very fast. Can you slow down a little?
As I say, we went to this movie, and sitting there, regular seats in the audience, and they ran the newsreel. Then low and behold came this segment of a newsreel showing bums getting off of the freight trains in freight yards in California, and someone asked them what they were doing, and they said, "Well, we came here to California to work in the Sinclair campaign," or "to vote", or "to go work" and so forth like that." I was enraged because I recognized it for what it was. So I just stood up in the dark and yelled, "I like my movies without propaganda!" and sat down. Well, everyone looked around, "Who was it?" and so forth. The ushers came down to throw the bum out or something like that, and my wife, of course, was horribly embarrassed by the thing, but anyhow that was my reaction to this propaganda and I would do it again, even though at that time I was only thirty-one.
Tell me just the beginning of that story again. You don't have to tell the whole story, and then I'm going ask another question.
Well, you were asking me about this episode in the theater. My wife and I attended the theater, very lovely theater. She was about eight and a half months pregnant, and she sat in the loges because it was more comfortable there. And we were sitting there in the dark watching and along came the newsreel and they ran this segment showing these bums getting off the freight train and saying that they were coming there because of Upton Sinclair's campaign and to get jobs or whatever or not to work and stuff like that. This enraged me, so I stood up in the dark and yelled, "I like my movies without propaganda!" and sat down. Well, I think they turned the lights on and they looked out to see who this guy was who was causing a commotion and so forth. My wife, of course, was very embarrassed but anyhow I was thirty-one and I would do it again, though, because it had no place in the newsreel. It was propaganda.
OK, one more time, sorry.
Well, you were asking me about this episode in the movie theater. Well, my wife and I went to the movies quite often and we were there in the middle of Westwood, very lovely theater, sitting in the loges. My wife, I believe, was eight and a half months pregnant. We were sitting there in the dark, and they ran the thing and along came a newsreel and in it this segment about bums getting off of freight trains in the freight yards and someone asking them why they were coming here, and they said they were coming here to live in California because of Upton Sinclair and his plan and so forth. Well, this enraged me, so I stood up and yelled, "I like my movies without propaganda!" and sat down. Well, the lights went on and everybody starting looking for who was making all this noise and my wife was embarrassed and so forth, but anyhow it was just an episode, but it was my reaction to this bit of propaganda. As I said, I was only 31, but I'd do it again. Maybe I should tell you another. You can leave it out. After, I was with a group of our men, EPIC club members, distributing these papers from door to door. None of us were paid and we were tired and on our way back and so forth. And of course the other side, the Republicans, had all the money, and they had paid precinct workers to do stuff like that, but we were doing it, and so forth. Of course, we had to paint signs ourselves, things like that, because our program was strictly from poverty years ago. As we were going down Fairfax Avenue there was a big banner "Merriam for Governor." It looked like it was made out of silk with fringes on it. And I looked at it, thinking of the contrast between ours and so forth, I said, "If someone were to give me two cents I would cut that down." Someone gave me two cents and believe it or not, lawyer and all that, climbed up this damn telephone and sliced the thing down. Because as I say, it was just an impulse... We did feel that we were underdogs and the other people had the money bags, you know, to run the campaign.
So what did you think about Sinclair being a socialist turned Democrat?
Oh, I guess we knew he had been a socialist and to some extent the EPIC Plan was socialist. It was a program run by the government to put people in employment...well, socialism of course, as you probably know, is government ownership of the means of production and so forth. So this was a little socialist in itself and so forth. But he ran as a Democrat and we just accepted him as being a Democrat, and so there wasn't too much to do about him being a socialist, although maybe there was a little tinge of anti-Communism there, but not too much at the time, although there was an anti-communist movement at the time, and I believe we had on the police department a "Red Squad" who attended meetings and so forth and actually were looking for communists who were supposed to be criminals. And I believe at one of my meetings there were a couple of policemen there from the Red Squad looking to see what happened. But anyhow nothing came of it and so forth.
Were you ever concerned, what did you feel when the opposition called him a socialist and used that as a way to discredit him?
As part of the campaign strategy, the Sinclair campaign was interested in electing members of the legislature, the state senate, and the members of the Assembly to support the EPIC plan. So in every Assembly district they had so-called "EPIC Candidates" who ran on the EPIC platform for Assemblyman in each district. In our district, we had a man, he ran a music publishing—you know, he sold music, Ed McLarty. We selected him to run for Assembly, and he ran for Assembly, got the necessary things to get him on the ballot, and so in every district we had Assembly candidates, and at the final luncheon out of the some eighty members of the Assembly in California, twenty-seven were EPIC members. In our county, Culbert Olson ran for state senate and he ran as an EPIC candidate, only he had been in politics before, as a Democrat, and he was elected, Olson was. We only had one state senator for each county at that time. Now they have it different, but anyhow he was elected as a state senator, and as I said we had these twenty-seven EPIC legislators, mostly people who had never been in politics before. So there was an infusion of new people into the political scene and of course into the Democratic Party.
So even though that was a defeat for Sinclair there was a victory of sorts?
Well, a victory—we had 27 new Democrats in the state legislature, and I don't know how many in the state senate. So to some extent there was a victory there. You were asking again about some of the work we did. Now there was a big meeting for Sinclair, a mass meeting, at the Los Angeles High School. Three thousand people attended and Sinclair was the main speaker, and I was the chairman at the meeting, brought it to order and introduced the presiding officer and so forth. So we had, it wasn't just the 59th Assembly District, it was some other district, but we had out of our movement we had three thousand at least and filled that auditorium at Los Angeles High School. McLarty was there, and he spoke as our Assembly candidate and so forth, and I remember a dirty trick that good 'ol Upton Sinclair pulled on McLarty. McLarty, as part of his speech, would bring out a whole stack of newspapers like this of sales for taxes in California. He said, "Look at what has happened to our county and so forth. These are the taxes sales." He would throw it down, it would bounce on the floor and stuff like that and that was a good old part of McLarty's speech. Before that meeting at Los Angeles High School he told it to Sinclair and Sinclair stole his speech, [laughs] which was a dirty trick. Everyone realized that, but anyhow... I remember that as part of the big mass meeting at Los Angeles High School.
Were you excited that that many people came out to the meeting?
Oh yeah, you know. I'd never spoken before a dozen people before, and here presiding with three thousand people or something. I was probably very high.
Great. I think that's it.