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LEADER RESOURCE 1: What Was It Like? A First-hand Account of HUAC

Edited excerpt from a letter by the Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam of the United Methodist Church, who testified before the committee on July 21, 1953.

My dear, dear friends,

... I thought you might be interested in just what happened at the hearing of the House Committee on Un-American Activities...

(We) went over to the House building about half past one... The room had been filled before lunch and there was a line extending down the stairs and out into the street... We had to push our way through the crowd... There was the customary battery of cameras, including the television apparatus... I said to the reporters at the close of the day, which really was early in the morning of the next day, that I thought the individual members of the Committee had sought to be courteous... I did say to reporters, however, that the procedures were of such a nature that the reputation of any one could be ruined.

You may be interested in the physical set-up that a witness faces... (I) was confronted by 49 exhibits, I think, that were presented one after another by the Counsel. These exhibits were in the nature of letterheads or statements upon which my name appeared, newspaper clippings, and the like, and the question would be in each case, "Did you sign this? Were you a member of this particular organization? Is this the correct account in the newspaper?" Then the Counsel would immediately... read into the record page after page of material that had nothing whatsoever to do with me. When I stated that I did not belong to an organization, instead of recording that answer and calling it a day, the Counsel would then insist upon reading into the record all that the Committee had upon that organization even though I had never belonged to it. It was clear the attempt was to build up a cumulative document which would have so much material concerning Communist Front organizations and the Communist Party that it would appear that I must have had some relationship somewhere to these agencies. At least, so it seemed to me... I am... dealing with a procedure wherein a man is damned publicly before he is heard.

... Mr. Parlin (Oxnam's counsel) and I sat at a table. There were perhaps half a dozen microphones in front of me, so placed that it was impossible for me to have my papers before me in any way that gave easy access to the documents... In addition to that, the bright lights necessary for television were directly behind the Committee and therefore were shining in my eyes during all the time they were on throughout that long day. It meant that when I lifted my eyes to look toward Committee members, I was almost blinded by the lights which again made it difficult when I sought to read from documents... There are nine members of the Committee seated on the bench. Before you is the Committee Counsel with his assistant and, in turn, another assistant. That means twelve. Then, the investigators of the Committee were sitting there, how many I do not know. I was alone, except for Counsel. If Mr. Parlin, with his brilliant legal equipment, had been able to interpose objections or to make suggestions, he could have been most helpful. But the rules of the Committee denied to the Counsel the right to say a single word. All he was permitted to do publicly was to state his name, his address, and that he was a member of the New York Bar. In a word, an individual is placed before a Committee possessing all the powers the Congress had granted it. He must strike a balance all day between answers that will convince and answers that may antagonize. A group with power that is antagonized can become very, very difficult...

I sat through nearly ten hours of grueling before I could even get to the matter that had brought me here...

In these hearings, there is no real attempt to understand an individual's life or his contribution to a church or to his country... Of course they say they are not a court, but an investigating body... The Committee members can lecture you from the bench. They can state that you were "a sucker". You can't answer back...

There is a severe physical strain upon an individual. Ten hours of talking is difficult from the standpoint of voice. Sitting in bright lights, having to move from one file to another—all of this is something that needs to be thought out if we are interested in an investigation that really gets to the truth...

However, after a long day, upon the motion of Mr. Clyde Doyle of California... the Committee voted unanimously, as follows: "I move that the record in these hearings show that this Committee has no record of any Communist Party affiliation or membership by Bishop Oxnam."

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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