This tribute originally appeared in the January 03, 2011 issue of The Berkeley Daily Planet.
Jean Benson Wilkinson, a longtime defender of civil liberties and beloved teacher, passed away at the age of 96 in Berkeley, California, on December 28 surrounded by her loving family. Jean was a California native with deep Bay Area roots whose life embodied almost a century of the state’s history. She was a pioneering teacher who believed in allowing high school students to grapple with controversial issues and a civil liberties advocate who, with her husband, stood up for their belief in the constitutional protection of free speech in the face of the McCarthy-era HUAC and the State Committee on Un-American Activities – and paid a high cost. Jean was an active member of the teachers union, an advocate for academic freedom, women’s history and multi-cultural education.
Born in Monterey, California, she spent her early childhood in and around the East Bay. Jean’s father Marvin Benson was a one time Superintendent of the Hayward School District, and her mother Lydia Miner Benson, was a schoolteacher. Her sister Doris was born in 1917, also in Monterey. Jean’s family moved to Los Angeles and she graduated from Fairfax High School in 1932. Jean then attended UCLA to study English and History, where she became student body president in 1936, and graduated with a B.A in History. Jean returned briefly to the Bay Area to obtain her teaching credential and her first teaching job was in Winters, California. From there, Jean returned to Los Angeles where she married her college boyfriend, Frank Wilkinson, in 1939. Frank went on to become the Director of the Los Angeles Federal Housing Authority, while Jean taught high school in rural Canoga Park. While there, Jean began to understand the importance of academic freedom. Many of her students were children of farmers, and the landowners of the surrounding farms made up a powerful conservative farming elite which tried to influence what was being taught.
In 1940, Jean wrote a paper entitled "Controversial Issues in the Schools." Jean asserted that it is the right of the student to hear both sides of a controversial issue in order to learn to distinguish between fact and opinion. And that it is also the right and responsibility of the teacher to express her own opinion. Jean believed the classroom should be a place for debate and discussion. Jean wrote:
"The child is the first to realize when the issues which are so important to him are being avoided and neglected…As school becomes less helpful and meaningful to him, the farther away he draws from any influence it tries to wield over him. Education as an important force in a democratic society loses its purpose. If education continues to follow its mistaken policy of ‘impartiality’ which in reality is consent to the status of the moment, then it fails in at least one function which is vital to the continuance of democratic society."
In 1952 during the McCarthy Era, Jean and Frank Wilkinson were both called before the State Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to answer questions based on the protections of the First and Fifth Amendments to the US Constitution. As a result, Frank was fired from the Housing Authority. Jean became one of the first public school teachers to be fired by the Los Angeles Board of Education for refusing to cooperate with the Committee. Jean took her case to the State Superior Court and lost, with one judge saying Jean had "sowed the dragon seeds of treason in the classroom."
Jean went to work as a private tutor and taught in private schools, while Frank became an organizer in the struggle to abolish the House Un-American Committee (HUAC). Their three children, Jeffry (born 1942), Tony (born 1945) and Jo (born 1947), quickly learned that their family was different from the neighbors. The Wilkinson family was under constant FBI surveillance, the phones were tapped, and there were death threats against Frank. In 1960 the house was fire bombed forcing the family to move. On May 1, 1961, Frank went to prison for taking the First Amendment when called to testify before HUAC in Atlanta, Georgia. Jean was left to raise the kids, pay the bills, as well as hold speaking engagements about Frank’s case. Jean traveled to Washington, D.C., to appeal to President Kennedy with a petition for clemency which was denied.
In 1965, Frank and Jean divorced, and Jean moved back to Berkeley where she was rehired in the public school system after years of being black-listed. She was the one of the first history teachers to teach Women’s Studies in a secondary school in Berkeley. She went back to school for her Masters Degree in Eduction at UC Berkeley in 1970, and retired from teaching in 1977. In 1980, Jean was a unit developer under a grant from the U.S. Education Department for "In Search of Our Past: Units in Women’s History." Once retired, Jean began working on an anthology of women writers, collecting stories about girls coming of age from around the world. She, Lyn Reese and Phillis Koppelman, fellow educators, published I’m On My Way Running in 1983. In 1987 under a second US Education Department grant she co-edited "Women in the World: Annotated History Resources for the Secondary Student."
Jean was a long time fighter for peace and social justice. One of the proudest moments of Jean’s very long life was on June 22, 1982, when at the age of 68, Jean was arrested during an anti-nuclear demonstration involving 1,300 nonviolent protesters at Lawrence Livermore Lab in the East Bay. In Jean’s later life, one of her greatest joys was frequently traveling internationally. She also loved music – Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger & The Weavers, Edith Piaf and Three Tenors. Jean is survived by her three children, Jeffry, Tony and Jo; her 12 grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; nephews Richard Evans and Don Evans, and nieces Pamela Wilkinson, Barbara Harrington, and Elinor Reed; and scores of friends and admirers. No memorial service is planned at this time. Jean was a founding member of the International Museum of Women (IMOW) and contributions to IMOW may be made in her name. Online contributions can be made at www.imow.org and checks sent to IMOW, PO Box 190038, San Francisco, CA 94119-0038.