“The spirit at that particular time”Neil McCarthy
“This is a rather startling document for an American citizen to receive,” the renowned film director and beloved radio broadcaster Cecil B. DeMille wrote to his longtime attorney, business partner, and friend Neil McCarthy. It was August 1944 and DeMille was outraged. He had just received a letter from his union, the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA), telling him that all union members had to pay one dollar or face suspension. The dollar assessment was levied to fund AFRA’s campaign against Proposition 12, a measure on the California ballot that would amend the state constitution to ban closed shops. AFRA had a number of closed-shop contracts, including one covering DeMille’s popular Lux Radio Theater program. As a member of Hollywood’s right wing and a conservative Republican, DeMille opposed the closed shop and supported Proposition 12. “I am not in favor,” he wrote, “of any free man being forced to join a union in order to work.” He did not want to pay even a dollar of his considerable fortune to support the closed shop. Yet if DeMille refused to pay the dollar and AFRA suspended him, he would lose his radio program. By threatening to deny him “the right of earning my livelihood” if he failed to pay the fee, DeMille fulminated, the union “is in direct violation of my Constitutional rights.”
Known among his employees for his temper and outsize ego, DeMille was used to getting his way. But the U.S. Constitution was not like one of the assistants whom he could bully into taking the position he desired. To win recognition of a conservative workplace Constitution, DeMille had to explain why AFRA’s threat violated his constitutional rights. In the process, he created legal, rhetorical, and tactical links between his cause and that of African American workers. Like them, DeMille faced arduous doctrinal hurdles. Also like them, he turned initially to the pre–New Deal past, then gradually added more modern minority-rights claims to his repertoire. In another similarity, DeMille turned to forums other than courts to make his case. Unlike those fighting for a liberal workplace Constitution, however, DeMille was a multimillionaire with political connections, access to the ears and wallets of the wealthiest Americans, and national platforms at his disposal. For DeMille, low-stakes constitutional litigation served high-stakes constitutional politics.