May 14, 1960: Firehoses Confront Free Speech in S.F. City Hall

The central staircase at San Francisco City Hall, with seated anti-HUAC protesters visible at top, others being "escorted" down wet steps by police officers.

The central staircase at San Francisco City Hall, with seated anti-HUAC protesters visible at top, others being “escorted” down wet steps by police officers.

When the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings in San Francisco, May 12-14, 1960, to investigate alleged “communist subversion,” they encountered a reception unlike any they had ever seen. The previous year HUAC had subpoenaed San Francisco Bay Area journalists, college professors, and 110 public school teachers, then leaked their names to the local press, but cancelled after public outcry. Now they were greeted by hundreds of peaceful protesters, mostly college students, who formed a picket-line around San Francisco City Hall.

The first day, many waited in line hoping to gain admission to the hearing, but discovered that most seats had been given to known HUAC supporters. Protesters inside the City Hall rotunda chanted, “Let us in! Let us in!” while those in the hearing room sang the national qnthem.

The next day the protest grew in size, but even fewer gained admission. This time, a police riot squad turned fire hoses on protesters in the rotunda without warning. Inspired by the recent lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement, they sat down and sang, “We shall not, we shall not be moved….” Some were washed down the marble staircase; others were dragged by their feet, bumping their heads on every step.

Local and national news media called it a “riot” and blamed it on the protesters. In response, 5,000 people turned out for the final day’s protest.

HUAC later released a propaganda film about the protests that was shown at military bases and college campuses around the country. Ironically, it inspired many young people to come to UC Berkeley, which became a national center of student protest, notably with the Free Speech Movement in 1964.

Learn more about this protest from these resources:

Here are resources listed on the Zinn Education Project website for teaching outside the textbook about HUAC and McCarthyism.

Story prepared by Craig Gingold.

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