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Tue, Apr 23


Columbus Hall

The Great Sacramento Conspiracy Trial of 1935

In 1935, one of the most important trials in the history of the state began in Sacramento. The press called it the "Great Sacramento Conspiracy Trial."

The Great Sacramento Conspiracy Trial of 1935
The Great Sacramento Conspiracy Trial of 1935

Time & Location

Apr 23, 2024, 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM

Columbus Hall, 5961 Newman Ct, Sacramento, CA 95819

About the Event

In 1935, one of the most important trials in the history of the state began in Sacramento. The press called it the "great Sacramento Conspiracy Trial." Seventeen union organizers were accused of conspiring to commit "criminal syndicalism." In effect, they were put on trial for being communists. These unionists had recently led the largest farmworker strike in American history, involving 18,000 cotton pickers in the Central Valley. The union had won the strike, but now its leaders faced prison time. The trial featured three months of testimony by communists and growers, sheriffs and strikers, stool pigeons and vigilantes. Both sides believed that California was the victim of a conspiracy: either a “vicious, reactionary conspiracy to smash unionism,” in the opinion of the defendants; or a vicious, revolutionary conspiracy against America, in the view of the prosecutor.

This talk will tell the story of the trial and explain its implications for our own time. The story is filled with fascinating characters, some well-known and others less so. Among the defendants were Pat Chambers, a communist labor organizer with a surprising penchant for compromise, and Caroline Decker, a beautiful union leader who delivered passionate speeches to thousands of strikers and to the jury in her trial.

Hollywood stars and Western artists and writers tried to help the unions and support their radical organizers. The aging muckraker Lincoln Steffens, his energetic young wife, Ella Winter, screen gangster Jimmy Cagney, and the celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, all took up the cause of the workers. The poverty of the farm laborers contrasted so sharply with the artists’ idealized vision of California – a land that should be filled with sunshine and happiness – that they felt compelled to act. John Steinbeck, the novelist who explained the Great Depression to Americans, would play the most important role in publicizing the troubles of the farm workers to the rest of the nation – and he would also help construct some of the most pervasive myths about the time.

During the trial, both the defendants and the business interests who opposed them learned some important lessons. The union organizers learned that leading a strike in California's fields could cost them their freedom. Some business leaders, meanwhile, discovered that they could turn the public against unions if they associated them with communists, and especially with the communists' radical views on family and religion. These conservatives hired political consultants to create a Depression Era-version of what we now call the culture wars. The seeds of America's future were sown in California fields in the 1930s.

A professor of history at UC Davis, Kathryn Olmsted has written five books and many articles on the history of the United States from World War I to the present. Her most recent books include Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy; Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism; and The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler.

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  • Columbus Hall

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