|Special Collections Division
the University of Texas
at Arlington Libraries
Vol. XI * No. 1 * Spring 1997
Carl Brannin in front of his Dallas home. 1976.
He was in many ways a very plain person--homely, bespectacled, tall, and so thin that he was granted a 4-F deferment from the Army in World War I. He even had a rather colorless name. But Carl Brannin was no ordinary man. He was a rebel with a cause, and the cause was social justice: relief for the unemployed, desegregation, the single tax, public ownership of railroads, low-cost housing for the poor, anti-war protests. Carl Brannin was actively involved in all these causes as well as many others.
The story of Carl Brannin's life that is recounted below was gleaned from sources in the Special Collections Division of The University of Texas at Arlington Libraries. These sources include archival collections AR82 (Texas Civil Liberties Union), AR91 (Carl Brannin Papers), AR285 (Carl Brannin Papers); five oral history interviews; and microfilm of The Vanguard and The Unemployed Citizen.
Life for this remarkable man began on September 22, 1888. Along with four brothers and two sisters, he grew up in Cisco, Texas, but spent much of his time at a small ranch outside of town, where his father operated a horse and cattle business and also acted as an agent for Eastern landowners. Working at odd jobs--selling magazine subscriptions, delivering The Dallas Morning News, peddling fruit at the railroad station--Carl was able to save $300, which enabled him to enroll at The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, now Texas A&M, in the fall of 1905. Although his grades were average, he developed traits that were to continue throughout his life: a flair for writing and a penchant for protesting. At The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, he worked on the staff of the student newspaper, serving as editor in his senior year, and he participated in a student strike of several weeks duration against the policies of the college president. In 1909 he graduated with a B.S. in Textile Engineering.
While he was in college, Brannin's family moved to Dallas, and in order to be near his family, he accepted an apprenticeship at the Dallas Cotton Mills--$l.75 for an 11-hour day, six days a week. Weary of the noise, dust and tedium, he quit after 12 months, just before he was to have been promoted to assistant superintendent at a handsome (for then) salary of $125 a month.
For a while he drifted from one odd job to another. He tried selling life insurance and selling real estate on commission, but despite his amiable personality, he was unable to do well at either job. For a time he made small repairs to houses managed by his father's real estate company. During this period, Brannin, who had always been a voracious reader, checked out a book from the Dallas Public Library that, in his words, "gave me a new and startling outlook on life . . . it was like getting converted. Decided I wanted to do some type of work that would be helpful to humanity." The book was Progress and Poverty by Henry George. It outlined George's single tax thesis, which stated that any increase in the value of land was due to population growth and was an "unearned increment" that should be returned to the community through taxation. Improvements to the property would be tax-exempt, thereby encouraging productive enterprise and discouraging land speculation.
As a result of his "conversion," Brannin applied for and was hired as a desk secretary at the Dallas YMCA in 1912. At his suggestion, the "Y" established an employment service to help the many young men looking for work who had come to Dallas from the rural areas. Brannin was put in charge of this operation as well as of the night school classes, where he promoted courses in English for foreigners and classes in business, salesmanship, and first-aid. During his two years at the Dallas "Y," Brannin's religious philosophy began to change from a fundamentalist theology to a more liberal, social gospel, or what today might be called "liberation theology." It was fortuitous that, at this time (1914), he was invited to serve as assistant to Herbert Bigelow, pastor of the People's Church in Cincinnati. The church was a liberal one with no creed, that equated religion with social activism. Bigelow, like Brannin,was an ardent proponent of the single tax and a strong advocate of public ownership of utilities, old age pensions, unemployment insurance, and civil liberties. Many of these views were promulgated through the People's Bulletin, a weekly publication of the church edited by Carl Brannin.
A letter to the East Dallas Christian Church, severing his connections with that group, officially marked the end of Brannin's connection with orthodox Christianity. He wrote, "The gospel I believe in and am trying to practice is a gospel of the head as well as the heart . . . To the extent that I am able to live this gospel fully am I able to be the Christian I would like to be, and. . . I am upheld and led onward by my trust in the Spirit of Truth and Justice, which must ultimately be every man's God."
The following year Brannin was busy serving as an anti-war delegate to the People's Council convention, participating in a Socialist Party protest against Pershing's expedition against Mexican revolutionaries, supporting Allan Beason as Socialist Party candidate for president and managing a campaign for public ownership of a light plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Laura and Carl Brannin, 1961.
Without a doubt the most important event to take place during Brannin's residence in Cincinnati was his encounter with Laura Haeckl, later to become Mrs. Brannin. It would be hard to imagine two more kindred souls. An active member of the People's Church, Ms. Haeckl shared completely Brannin's radical (for that day and time) views on religion, economics, and social activism. They were to spend nearly fifty years together in a dedicated crusade against social injustice.
A difference in priorities between Bigelow and Brannin (the former committed to a campaign for old-age pensions and Brannin still pushing for the single tax as a remedy for economic inequities) finally led to an amicable parting of the two in 1917. Brannin moved on briefly to Kansas City, Missouri, where his campaign for the single tax was submerged by activities related to World War I, in which the United States was now actively engaged. As a pacifist, Brannin participated in an anti-war protest organized by the Socialist Party. As a patriot, he registered "under protest" for the draft. A 4-F classification and the intervention of a friend, who helped him to obtain a job with the War Labor Board in Washington, D. C., as an investigator of labor-management disputes, saved him from active participation in the war.
World War I came to an end eight months after Carl Brannin and Laura Haeckl were married, and this meant the dissolution of the War Labor Board. Laura found work with the Red Cross, and Carl toiled at a variety of jobs. Finally, in the fall of 1919, Brannin was appointed organizer of the Plumb Plan League, whose purpose was to promote public ownership of the railroads.
The young couple, however, yearned to visit Seattle, which at that time was one of the most progressive cities in the nation. The League agreed to send them there. And so in the spring of 1920, the Brannins found themselves in the city that would be their home for most of the next thirteen years.
They immediately involved themselves with the Farmer Labor Party, but after the party's unsuccessful political campaign, were once again without work. Seattle was in the midst of a depression due to the closing of many of the shipyards after the war, so Brannin had to scratch for a living by taking whatever work was available--weaver in a woolen mill, laborer on a goat ranch. Later, unemployed again, the Brannins moved to a deserted shack in what had once been an anarchist cooperative colony.
In 1922, Brannin received news that would dramatically change his life and the life of his family. Oil had been discovered on a West Texas farm that had been willed to him by an aunt ten years earlier. The revenues from this discovery were sufficient to enable the Brannins to travel and to devote most of their time and energies to causes to which they were committed. Later that same year, the Brannins took the first of many trips outside of the country. They spent four months in Mexico, travelling throughout most of the country by train. Brannin wrote stories along the way for a labor news service, the Federated Press.
The following year, they lived briefly in Berkeley,California, where Brannin worked as assistant editor of Labor Unity, a left-wing labor weekly. As with the Federated Press, Brannin donated his services. After a fire destroyed their home and car, the Brannins hitch-hiked back to Dallas, but in 1924 they took off again for a year-long tour of Europe, including three months spent in the Soviet Union. They were, in fact, one of the first Americans to visit Russia in a non-official capacity after World War I. Brannin resumed his duties as a correspondent for the Federated Press, sending back human interest stories and very favorable accounts of their sojourn in the Soviet Union.
In the fall of 1925, the Brannins returned to Seattle, where they built a house overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, adopted a son, and settled down for the long term. Hulet Wells, a friend and neighbor who had been a political prisoner in Leavenworth, said of Brannin, "Carl is a prince of a fellow, who by good luck has never had to work very hard to get a living, and consequently works like a slave all the time at some socially significant job in order to ease his conscience." The "socially significant" enterprise that attracted Brannin's attention was the Seattle Labor College, which had been founded in 1922 by two of Seattle's leading radicals. At the college, Brannin gave lectures on current events, taught a workers' correspondence course, and served as director of the school's Open Forum, and later as director of the college itself.
In addition to his activities at the college, Brannin continued to write articles for the Federated Press and for Labor, a railway workers weekly. In January 1930, he also founded and edited The Vanguard, a radical monthly. The tenets of the paper were clearly stated in its first issue: industrial unionism, an independent political party of farmers and workers, improved working conditions, recognition of the USSR, international solidarity against imperialism and militarism, militant rather than business unionism, public ownership of utilities, and worker education.
The following year Brannin was instrumental in helping to establish a Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and was also active in the Seattle chapter of the Friends of the Soviet Union.
Perhaps his most important contribution during this period (when the entire nation was struggling through the Great Depression) was the formation with his friend Hulet Wells of the Unemployed Citizens' League of Seattle. The league was founded to foster self-help among the unemployed and to encourage political representation of the unemployed in city and county government. The league became so powerful that it was able to elect a U.S. Senator, a U.S. Congressman, several members of the state legislature, and one city council member. But political dissension soon led to rivalry between the communists and the socialists in the league. Weary of the endless bickering, Brannin finally resigned as executive secretary in July 1932, although his paper The Vanguard, which was now published weekly, continued as the voice for the League. In fact, the publication changed its name briefly to The Unemployed Citizen.
A letter appearing in the paper on March 17, 1933, heralded yet another change in the life of the Brannins. Financial and family concerns compelled them to return to Dallas. "I feel a keen sense of regret," Brannin wrote, "for I have had some satisfaction in the growth of the radical movement in the Northwest and in participating in its development . . . In my new location I shall endeavor to have a share in the movement for human progress. History is being made everywhere . . . Wherever one is, there is work to do. I am not leaving the fight."
Brannin lost little time after returning to Texas in taking up the battle once again for the unemployed, 11,000 of whom were on the relief rolls in Dallas. He was elected chairman of the Central Council of Unemployed Leagues and shortly thereafter helped to organize a demonstration--perhaps one of the first "sit-ins"--to protest the cuts in relief. Six or seven hundred of the unemployed, black and white alike, took possession of the city hall auditorium and occupied it for eleven days and nights. The sit-in ended when the city cut off electricity in the building and arrested people for sleeping in the auditorium. The event was widely publicized in the four Dallas newspapers. Although the protesters were severely criticized for their actions, the press never mentioned that the demonstrators were an interracial group,a collaboration practically unheard of in 1934.
The following year Brannin participated in a strike of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which resulted in his one and only arrest for walking a picket line. He was released from jail after a few hours, and the charges were dropped.
Brannin entered politics in 1936, running as an independent candidate for a seat in the state legislature that had been vacated by Sarah T. Hughes, when she received a district judgeship. Brannin admitted that he received so few votes he could not re-member how many there were. Undaunted, he entered the race for governor later in the year, running on the Socialist ticket. Out of a total of 842,215 votes cast, James V. Allred, the Democratic candidate, received 782,083, and Carl Brannin received 962. Brannin at this point decided he should devote his energies to other pursuits.
In 1937, Brannin and his wife became involved with the League for Industrial Democracy and were active principally in securing nationally prominent speakers for their open forum meetings, which were held every Sunday evening. Brannin at this time was also serving as state secretary of the Socialist Party. In this capacity he invited Herbert Harris to Dallas to speak and to show a racially integrated film on the subject of industrial unionism. When Harris, Brannin, Socialist Party organizer George Lambert and others appeared at a city park, they were attacked by a band of thugs from the Ford Motor Company. The hoodlums attempted to burn their truck, smashed the movie projection equipment, slugged Lambert, and kidnapped Harris, whom they subsequently tarred and feathered. While Harris recuperated at the Brannin home, meetings of Dallas socialists to protest the event were disrupted by hooligans from Ford. Peace did not return until the governor sent in the Texas Rangers to restore order.
Acting on behalf of the Socialist Party, Brannin travelled to Kansas City, Kansas, in the dead of winter in 1938 to hand out leaflets at a meat packing plant in an attempt to organize the workers. His efforts were unsuccessful but perhaps paved the way for the United Packinghouse Workers, which later developed a strong union there.
Later that year Brannin resigned as state secretary of the Socialist Party, and in fact, the Dallas branch of the party was dissolved the following year. The Brannins had found the few remaining members to be too dogmatic in their views, and although the Brannins believed that railroads and utilities should be publicly owned, they did not agree with the socialist agenda for nationalizing all industry.
During this period Brannin was also actively involved with the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. The Spanish Civil War was in progress at the time, and the group was principally concerned with working to abolish the arms embargo so that the Spanish Republican movement could purchase weapons from the United States.
With revenue from his west Texas oil well diminishing, Brannin was forced to turn his attention to securing a living for his family. He busied himself managing rental property acquired earlier. He also bought tracts of land, which he then divided into one-half to two-acre lots and sold for a dollar down and a dollar a week on "contract for deed." Later he would expand this operation to include the construction of small homes, which could be purchased for $l00 down and modest monthly payments. Often, to keep costs low, the homes were left unfinished so that the buyer could complete the work on the house himself. In effect, Brannin operated a privately owned, low-cost housing project, which provided housing for the poor and at the same time provided income for himself.
During the early 1940s Brannin also worked as a housing inspector for the Office of Price Administration. He asked to be assigned to the West Dallas district, which was a slum area occupied predominantly by African Americans, who were charged exorbitant rents by their landlords. He was able to correct this situation for the most part by the time rent control ended in 1949.
Throughout most of the 1940s Brannin was purchasing tracts of land just north and east of the Dallas city limits. He later sold some of this property at a profit and held the remainder for further appreciation. Brannin stated that he "accepted the benefits, but did not defend or rationalize his participation."
Late in the 1940s the Brannins joined the Unitarian Church, where they helped to organize the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice. During this same period they also became charter members of the Dallas Chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, which Brannin served as chairman and later vice chairman.
In 1956 Brannin and his wife worked on the committee that organized the All Texas Roosevelt Day Dinner at which Mrs. Roosevelt was the featured speaker. The real significance of this event, however, was not the speaker but the fact that it was the first interracial social affair to be held in Dallas.
The Brannins for years had been interested in civil rights. Both were long-term members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in the l950s Carl Brannin was elected to its executive committee. The couple had also been active during this period in the Friends Committee for Employment on Merit, and in 1960 both picketed the H. L. Green stores in Dallas in a successful effort to desegregate the store's lunchrooms. They also actively, but unsuccessfully, supported black candidates for the school board and the city council.
In 1961 they departed on a bus tour of Scandinavia, Switzerland, and parts of western Europe. The following year they helped to organize a Dallas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (both were charter members of the ACLU when it was founded in 1920), worked to distribute a film that corrected distortions in another film--Operation Abolition--that was widely disseminated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and signed the documents necessary to will their eyes to the Dallas Eye Bank and their bodies to the Southwestern Medical School.
In 1963 Brannin helped to establish the Dallas Committee for Full Citizenship (to encourage voting by African Americans) and to form the Thursday Luncheon Club, a discussion group of Dallas liberals who met weekly at the YMCA. In March, the Brannins were honored at a reception given by friends and admirers. A scroll presented to them read, in part, "To our friends Laura and Carl Brannin, selfless, dedicated, and effective workers for every good cause." In the fall of 1963, the Brannins took a rail and boat trip to Alaska. On November 22, after he had returned from the trip, Carl Brannin was attending a luncheon to honor President John F. Kennedy and therefore missed the fateful Dallas parade and assassination of the president. It was Brannin who insisted that an ACLU committee visit Lee Harvey Oswald in jail to be sure his civil rights had not been violated.
The spring of 1964 found the Brannins off on another trip, this time to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. When they returned to Dallas, they resumed their work for the civil rights movement by distributing handbills in the downtown area calling for desegregation of all facilities. Later they picketed the Picadilly Restaurant and succeeded in integrating the facility. In the fall, the Brannins toured the east coast from Virginia to Maine, stopping principally at places of significance in the early history of the Unitarian Church.
The following spring the Brannins took part in the Freedom March, where 3,000 Dallas citizens turned out in support of civil rights. This was their last joint effort on behalf of social justice. In June, Laura Brannin became ill. Two months later she was dead. "I could do nothing," Brannin said, "but stand by and see a person I had loved and worked with on family and community problems pass out of my life."
Brannin valiantly tried to carry on alone. He volunteered as a driver with Head Start and served as a poll tax deputy. After recovering from two surgeries, he embarked on a tour (sponsored by the Americans for Democratic Action) of Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Labor Day of that year he participated in a march of striking farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley.
As might be expected, Carl Brannin was strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam, which began to escalate in the late 1960s. He was actively involved with Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam and its subsidiary organization, the Dallas Peace Committee, and supported other anti-war groups. "This tragic waste should be ended," he wrote. "Stop the bombing. Get the issues to the conference table . . . and let's get really busy on our own serious domestic problems."
During the latter part of the 1960s and the early 1970s, as he passed his 80th birthday, Brannin travelled extensively, almost as if he were in a race against time: 1967, a 3,000-mile bus tour through Russia and eastern Europe; 1968, Hong Kong, Japan and Israel; 1969, Spain and Cuba; 1970, England; 1972, Cuba.
Increasing frailty and diminished hearing now slowed Brannin's activities, although he participated in an anti-nuclear rally at the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, showed up to vote at age 90, continued to attend meetings of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Armadillo Coalition, and other groups, and at age 93 rode in a rally to protest U. S. involvement in El Salvador.
From his early years until late in life, Carl Brannin was an inveterate writer, and he is remembered well for his many "Letters to the Editor," written between 1933 and the late 1970s. So many of his letters were published, in fact, that he sometimes had to rely on a pseudonym. These letters are a distillation of his thoughts on economics, taxes, war, race relations, politics, free speech, and other topics. Because he read extensively, Brannin had informed views on many subjects, and because he was independent financially he was free to say what he wished. For certain, he was never afraid to speak out in defense of unpopular causes.
Carl Brannin died on June 16, 1985, after a long illness. He was 96. His voice and pen were silenced forever. Biographer Miriam Allen DeFord wrote, "The Brannins gave their lives to the advancement of understanding between people, the betterment of the human race wherever and whenever possible. Popularity was never a concern. Justice was their passion." Brannin himself wrote simply, "What would I like people to say about me? He did the best he could. He was public-spirited.'"
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