By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
More than four decades after Joel Dvorman's tragic death, once-sealed FBI files obtained by the Weekly reveal an indisputable truth: The former Magnolia School District trustee and liberal martyr was the victim of an unwarranted witch-hunt.
Dvorman was hounded by accusations he was a communist after hosting a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union at his house in the summer of 1960 (see "Class Warfare: A History," April 11). Opponents argued it was a subversive organization and charged Dvorman had engaged in traitorous causes going as far back as college, even claiming the bright-red front door to Dvorman's Anaheim tract home signified his Red leanings. Dvorman refused to renounce the ACLU, so parents resoundingly recalled him in 1961—and in the process, spurred Orange County toward its unique brand of conservatism. Dvorman was demoted by his employers at Fullerton Union High School after the recall; he later died of a heart attack many attribute to stress.
And while Dvorman, his supporters and their opponents fought, J. Edgar Hoover's boys were watching.
The FBI's files on Dvorman total more than 200 pages, many redacted to the point of incomprehensibility. But a close reading reveals a fascinating OC chronology of paranoia, espionage, but ultimately redemption.
A log dated July 31, 1960, is the first entry. An Anaheim resident appeared at the FBI's Santa Ana resident agency and claimed Dvorman planted ACLU members at Magnolia School District meetings to argue against the distribution of Bibles in classrooms. The unidentified Anaheimer also stated the trustee "spends much of his time in activity with or in [sic] behalf of the Calif. Teacher's Association. He is more than willing to volunteer for any assignment and [name redacted] feels that Dvorman is too willing." The snitch admitted he had "no specific proof that Dvorman is other than a good American," but that he was "highly suspicious and is seeking proof."
Four days later, an Anaheim teacher called the FBI's field office in Los Angeles to complain about Dvorman's ACLU klatsch. "[Name redacted] feels that inasmuch as [Dvorman] is a teacher and in a posit[ion] to pass on some of his political ideas to the members of his classes," the report states, "he would like to know if this man is a communist before calling his activities to the attention of the school authorities."
This teacher also sent a letter to FBI director Hoover. The busybody wanted Hoover to investigate whether the ACLU was a subversive organization; Hoover responded on Aug. 5, 1960, that "the FBI does not prepare or maintain a list of organizations such as you desire." An attachment to Hoover's letter disclosed that the bureau hadn't investigated the ACLU up to that time.
After this, Hoover sicced his G-men and their informants—at least 13, according to their own documents—on Dvorman. One gathered pamphlets Dvorman and other ACLU members distributed during meetings and protests; another snapped clandestine shots of Dvorman chatting with constituents. And the FBI had workers keep hundreds of clippings from Orange County newspapers covering the escalating Dvorman affair, including Garden Grove Daily News, Santa Ana Register, People's World, Anaheim Bulletin, Los Angeles Times and Orange Daily News.
On Dec. 29, 1960, the unidentified FBI agent in charge of investigating Dvorman wrote a report for Hoover. "The Los Angeles Office is not in possession of any information that Dvorman is or has been a member of a basic revolutionary group or a recognized front group, other than the AYD [American Youth for Democracy, a college organization Dvorman said he joined to combat racism while attending Wayne State University in Detroit]," the report stated. It also revealed that the Orange County district attorney's office was investigating the trustee for subversive ties and "has volunteered information concerning Dvorman." Nevertheless, according to the agent, "[Dvorman's] situation does not appear to meet the criteria for security investigation of individuals," so "no active investigation will be conducted."
Three weeks later, his superiors responded: They wanted more information.
More snooping ensued. An informant reported he attended a meeting of the Orange County chapter of the Communist Party in which a member stated Dvorman belonged to a study group in "another organization" that "favored study of the Communist Manifesto." Another infiltrated the Orange County ACLU and gathered a list of members (all the names are blacked out in the FBI's document save for Dvorman's). But the most subversive activity they could pin on the group was their organizing around "a Mexican American in Orange County who was refused a home on account of his being Mexican."
Ultimately, the feds gave up. A March 15, 1961, memorandum to Hoover recommends the bureau shut their Dvorman folder. "In view of the fact Dvorman has never been known to be a member of a basic revolutionary group," the memo states, "he is not being recommended for the Security Index or Section A or B of the Reserve Index." These last points are crucial, as the Security and Reserve indices were lists of people Hoover thought were "in a position to influence others against the national interest or are likely to furnish material financial aid to subversive elements due to their subversive associations and ideology"; prominent people on this list included Martin Luther King Jr. and Norman Mailer. If the FBI had really thought Dvorman was a danger to students, as his opponents insisted, he would've been on these lists.
The same report said "confidential informants" would continue to monitor the situation, but only two other files were included: news of Dvorman's April 19, 1961, recall and his obituary.