The Story Behind Malvina Reynolds' Rare Song About an OC School Teacher

As I wrote last week, legendary folk singer Malvina Reynolds wrote over 400 songs in her day. Buried deep in the musician's “songs not in use” files is a rare tune about Ruth Bishop, a Los Alamitos Elementary kindergarten teacher she befriended while living in Long Beach. With Reynolds' signature wit, “Ruth Bishop's Broom” recounts the little-known story about how the teacher shooed a Long Beach policeman away from her home in 1959 after having been served with a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  

On the morning of June 5, 1959, officer Grant Lewis knocked on the door of Bishop's Long Beach home. The 54-year-old schoolteacher had been one of 110 educators in the state called to testify before HUAC. Bishop's opposition to the Korean War aroused the Committee's suspicions of communist sympathies. Officer Grant served HUAC's subpoena, but not without the schoolteacher grabbing her porch broom and giving him a piece of her mind. 

Bishop taught kindergarten later that morning at Los Alamitos Elementary in Orange County when two other Long Beach police officers arrested her in an empty classroom. She posted a $500 bond after being booked at the city jail for battery, disorderly conduct, and resisting a police officer. The Long Beach Independent ran an article the following morning where officer Lewis claimed Bishop threw the summons back and ran him off with a “barrage of blows” to his shoulders and legs from her broom handle.  

In her own defense, Bishop provided a statement to the Independent where she hammered away at HUAC. “This committee destroys people's reputations by merely making such charges,” Bishop stated. “I fully agree with Harry Truman's recent statement that 'the Un-American Activities Committee is the most un-American thing in America.'” 

The Independent  neglected to pull quotes from Bishop's statement about her version of the police encounter that morning.  The schoolteacher wrote about being disgusted by the whole Un-American Activities ordeal, telling officer Lewis to take his subpoena back to the Committee. When the cop threatened to summon her at Los Alamitos Elementary, she grabbed a broom by the door warning that if he came to her school, she'd strike him with anything handy. Officer Lewis served the summons next. 

“I threw both the subpoena and the broom down on the porch, and went into the house,” Bishop wrote. “At no time did the broom handle touch the officer, nor did I use profanity.” 

Reynolds carried a copy of Bishop's full statement to the Independent with her alongside a United Press International newspaper clipping about the incident. “Ruth and her husband George visited back and forth with my parents while her son and I climbed fences, roofs and trees,” says Reynolds' daughter Nancy Schimmel who unearthed the song. “They were a tall family, and I can well imagine her chasing a policeman with a broom!”

Having moved back to Berkeley from Long Beach long ago, Reynolds still felt inspired to take a stand for her friend in the form of a song. Bishop had been by Reynolds's side, after all, when the teacher spoke out at Long Beach City Council in September 1950 against the adoption of communist registration ordinance, calling it, “thought control.” Reynolds hilariously idolized her friend's infamous broom:

Ruth Bishop has a fine old broom,
I'll love it all my days,
Ruth Bishop has a darling broom,
I'll always sing its praise.
She uses it to sweep the house
And keep the kitchen clean
But the way she used it the other day
Was the best I've ever seen

HUAC's probe of California teachers with suspected Communist sympathies had been scheduled to take place a few weeks after the “Bishop Broom” incident, but got cancelled instead. Bishop still had the trouble of three misdemeanor criminal charges that even her storied broom couldn't sweep away. Her defense attorney attempted to turn the tables requesting a delay in the trial so that he could subpoena HUAC members themselves. 

The trial finally began in early October 1959 and lasted a few short days. Officer Lewis testified that Bishop struck him in the shoulders and arms with her broom when he served the subpoena. The jury believed him and convicted Bishop of battery, disorderly conduct and resisting an officer. A judge handed down a $500 fine. 

But by that time, HUAC's act had grown old, even in conservative OC. The Los Alamitos School District backed up Bishop, conviction and all. The school board unanimously adopted a motion following the trial that shored up its “confidence in her professional ability and conduct.” She returned to the classroom and her career, finally retiring in 1969 after 42 years of teaching. 

Much like Reynolds, her old Long Beach friend, Bishop lived a long life of social justice. When she died in 1999 at the age of 95, the Los Angeles Times ran an obituary calling her a “teacher” and “antiwar activist.” The newspaper recounted the HUAC ordeal and the broom trial but noted Bishop “was also a social activist, and in later years was involved in protests against the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Nicaragua.” 

“I guess there were no other witnesses and the jury believed the cop, so I think my mother never used the song,” says Schimmel. “That's show biz.”

Had Reynolds sang “Ruth Bishop's Broom” at concerts, audiences might have taken up the song's suggestion how to immortalize her friend's broom:

Ruth Bishop's broom, it's story I will tell
And after we'll hang it in Freedom Hall, along with the Liberty Bell.

One Reply to “The Story Behind Malvina Reynolds' Rare Song About an OC School Teacher”

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