Convention speech — Debra Deane Olson and Dr. Craig Wilkinson: Culbert Olson, a freethinking governor
This is an edited version of the speech given by Debra Deanne Olson and Dr. Craig Wilkinson on Nov. 2, 2018, at FFRF’s national convention in San Francisco. They were introduced by FFRF Board Member Stef Moritz:
Our next speakers have co-authored a book about the Honorable Culbert Levy Olson, who served as the 29th governor of California.
Debra Deanne Olson is uniquely qualified to write this biography, since she is Gov. Olson’s granddaughter. She inherited her love of politics from her grandfather and has worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. She is the founder of Peace Solutions, an organization dedicated to building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century.
Dr. Craig Wilkinson, an ex-Mormon, has been a vascular surgeon for 30 years. He combines his interest in science with humanitarian ideals. He is involved with Citizens Climate Lobby, working on the pressing problem of climate change. After Mormonism’s recent aggressive stance against the LGBT community, he sent in his letter of resignation.
The title of the biography written by Olson and Dr. Wilkinson is The Honorable Culbert Levy Olson: Governor of California 1939 to 1943, Humanitaria, Ex-Mormon, Atheist.
We have an award that we are presenting to these two that reads: “Courage to Tell the Truth Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation 2018.”
Debra Deanne Olson: Craig and I would like to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for presenting us with this amazing award.
We’d like to start by asking the question: Does truth really matter anymore? In fact, wisdom can only be found in the truth. Here is a man who told the truth — my darling grandfather. He never compromised. He always, despite all his adversaries, was never afraid to stand up for what he believed was best for all Americans. He was a great humanitarian, an atheist and a visionary 80 years ago. He told the truth about politics and religion every time he spoke. His life story is a good example of how we can all be good without having God in our lives.
Craig Wilkinson: Because I’m an ex-Mormon, Debra and I thought I should present the Mormon side of his heritage.
Culbert was born to Mormon parents in the frontier town of Fillmore, Utah, in 1876. The Mormons had come to Utah to practice their religion in private. All the children in Fillmore were taught the Mormon origination story, which has to do with seeing visions.
Culbert listened to this story, like all the kids did, and here’s what he said later in life: “I didn’t share in the emotionalism of the other children when they heard these amazing stories of visions and angels. I must have been born a skeptic because at a young age I had doubts.”
Not seeing angels
Here’s a story that caught my interest about Culbert. He attended a little one-room schoolhouse in Fillmore. All eight grades were in this school, so you had 6-year-olds to 14-year-olds. One day, a Miss Crane recounted the Mormon story of Joseph Smith’s vision of the angel Moroni and the gold plates. She did it in such an intense and emotional way that several of the school children reported seeing angels. The teacher noticed that Culbert seemed disinterested. He was 10 years old, so he was in fourth grade. She asked him: “Culbert, did you see any angels?” Culbert knew he was at the gallows now, because if he said “yes,” he was off scot-free. If he said “no,” it might be a real problem. But he didn’t want to lie. He calmly said he didn’t see any angels and didn’t think the other children did, either. We can only imagine the long silent pause that must have befallen that schoolroom.
Well, anyone who knows about Mormons knows that all the young men are obligated to go on a mission for the church. There are some who don’t go on missions, but back then, when you turned 19, you went. Despite this obligation, Culbert refused to go on a mission and he soon became a social outlier in the community.
So, he left town, went to college and graduated with a degree in journalism. And then he moved to Ogden, Utah. He got a job as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Ogden Standard Examiner, and quickly advanced to associate editor.
In 1895, Ogden was a major junction town for the Transcontinental Railroad, so it attracted a diversity of people from all over America, thus becoming the least Mormon city in Utah. Then, in 1890, the Mormons in Utah gave up, or were forced to stop, polygamy. This allowed Utah to apply for statehood, and it was admitted to the union in 1896. William King was elected as Utah’s first representative in the U.S. Congress in 1897. Culbert’s mother, Delilah King Olson, was William King’s aunt. So, William King and Culbert Olson were both from Fillmore, Utah. King asked his cousin Culbert to be his personal secretary in Washington, D.C.
Culbert had heard that the “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll would speak in D.C. Ingersoll gave over a thousand speeches in the late 1800s on topics like the myth of Moses, the devil and an agnostic’s view of Christmas. Anyway, he was considered by many to be an evil man. And I think it took some courage for Culbert, especially with his Uncle William, who stayed active in the church, to just tell his uncle, “Hey, I’m going to see this guy speak.”
After that speech, Culbert said, “As I listened to the bold fearless public declaration of this great agnostic’s honest convictions, so clearly based upon reason and so clearly supported by historical and scientific facts, the last cloud of doubt was removed from my mind. I became a confirmed freethinker.”
Culbert attended and graduated from Columbia Law School and then moved to Salt Lake City. He met and married Mary-Kate Jeremy and they had three children. Mary-Kate happened to be a bit of a freethinker. They were kind of like two agnostic birds in a flock of devout Mormons. Culbert was then elected and served as a Utah state senator from 1916 to 1920. He was a very progressive Democrat and he actually wrote and passed the first child labor laws in Utah. But then he lost an election to Milton Welling, a devout Mormon.
Debra Deanne Olson: When we decided to write this book, Craig found me because I had spoken at the California state Capitol. I was invited there by the historians and librarians because they knew nothing about my grandfather. Afterwards, Craig called me and said, “Oh my god, your grandfather is my hero. I’ve been studying him and I’m an atheist and, hey, would you like to write a book together?”
So, we spent two years doing research and making sure that all the facts were correct. It’s a really cool book, and it’s about 400 pages with 80 photos. When you don’t know about your family and you have all these pictures in your garage, every picture tells a thousand words.
Now, let me tell you about his political life. Culbert didn’t really participate in California politics until the catastrophe of the 1929 stock market crash. The unfairness of the Great Depression was so disturbing to him that he re-entered politics with a vengeance. The previous 40 years, California politics had been controlled by the Republicans. In 1934, there were three Republicans to every Democrat in California. Progressive politics began with socialist-turned-Democrat Upton Sinclair and his End Poverty in California campaign. My grandfather was a strong supporter of Upton Sinclair and helped run his campaign for governor in 1934 as chairman of the California Democratic Party.
In 1938, Culbert entered the race for governor of California. He was featured on the front cover of Life magazine. The article reported, “Culbert Levy Olson advances the progressive agenda in California and is known as the ‘people’s candidate.’ Mr. Olson is well dressed, urbane, an elderly idol of Western politics, and he looks like a movie star’s projection of a governor.”
He’s been called the godfather of progressive politics. He had a very strong opinion on income inequality, which he felt was the underlying cause of the Great Depression. He said in his inauguration speech: “Social problems are created by economic maladjustments, continued concentration of the wealth, and control of the national economy in the hands of a small percentage of the population.” Does that sound familiar? Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks the same language.
Olson was the first political figure in California’s history to include Latinos in his campaign. Dolores Huerta, who’s very involved in the women’s movement, ran into me on a bus. We were doing something for Sen. John Kerry and she saw me. She said, “Oh my god, you’re Gov. Olson’s granddaughter. Whenever I speak about Latino politics around universities, I always talk about him. He was totally there for us.” It’s great to hear that stuff. I’m proud of him.
On Nov. 8, 1938, Democrat Culbert Olson defeated Republican Frank Miriam with 54 percent of the vote. Gov. Olson was the first Democratic governor in California for over 40 years.
Now this takes courage: Gov. Olson was sworn in with his hand in his pocket [not on a bible] and said, “I affirm” instead of “so help me God.” Needless to say, for three or four days, everybody went insane in Sacramento. When asked why he did this, he replied, “Because God can’t help me. And anyway, there is no such person.” It’s important to note that no other high government official in America before or since has had the courage to do the same thing during their inauguration.
During his inaugural speech, he showed us his sense of fair play and defense for the average American citizen. He stated, “There must be measures calculated to eliminate every form of special privilege or class control in our economic system.”
In the back of our book, we have the entire inaugural speech and his speech as the first president of secularist Americans. They’re long, but they’re brilliant. He was just so smart. I think you’d enjoy reading them.
Olson’s grand vision for California became known as “Olson’s New Deal for California.” President Roosevelt and Gov. Olson shared the same political ideals. They were personal friends and did a lot of correspondence. When I wanted to find out how deep his relationship was with FDR, I talked with the Hyde Museum in New York. They sent me 180 documents of conversations and policies they discussed over the years.
In 1940, President Roosevelt had Gov. Olson on his short list to become vice president, but then he went with somebody else because they needed the rural farmers’ votes.
Gov. Olson fought for public ownership of public utilities. He was the first governor west of the Mississippi to appoint an African-American, a woman and a Latino to the California judiciary. It’s amazing. This also took tremendous courage and foresight in 1940 because all three appointments shook up the racist and sexist sentiments of the times, naturally.
Tom Mooney was a major political activist and labor leader. The nation was deeply divided over Mooney’s guilt or innocence concerning the bombing at the July 22, 1916, Preparedness Day Parade in San Francisco.
Gov. Olson knew that Mooney was not guilty and this guy spent 22 years in San Quentin. Gov. Olson reviewed all the records and one of his campaign promises was that he would pardon him, which he did. And there were 25,000 people standing in San Francisco to honor him when he came out of prison. It was a big deal.
During “Race Relations Day” at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, Gov. Olson spoke loud and clear about racism. “Anyone who generates racial hatred and social misunderstanding is a demagogue of the most subversive type. He becomes an enemy of society, just as truly as a tax evader, an embezzler or even a murderer. In fact, he does infinitely more harm.”
He always stood up for the rights of the working people and the underserved. They returned the favor by labeling him the “people’s governor.” He was really loved.
Craig Wilkinson: After Olson lost the 1942 election to Earl Warren, he never sought public office again. He turned his attention and energy to one of his lifelong passions, which was bringing public awareness to secular humanism, the idea of living a meaningful life without depending on religious superstition. He wrote numerous letters to the editor defending separation of church and state.
In 1945, the United Nations was formed. It was a big deal. Olson was a pacifist, an advocate of human rights, so he felt kind of a duty to be present at the formation of such a great international peace idea. He demonstrates a spirit of the United Nations with this statement, which he repeated a lot: “We should be concerned with the brotherhood of man, not the fatherhood of God.”
In 1952, the first secular society of America was formed in the United States. It was called the United Secularists of America, and Culbert Olson was elected president in 1952. He contributed his time and a lot of money to the organization. The Progressive World Magazine was the principal publication of the United Secularists of America and Olson wrote many articles for it, consistently opposing religion.
Referring to the recently ended World War II, he wrote: “People’s prayers to God for protection against the evils of this world have always been in vain.” Olson didn’t believe that God existed somewhere in space. He thought God was only in the human mind. “I believe all gods man has fanatically worshipped in fear, for his own creation, born of his imagination.”
Later in life, he was once again asked about his religion. He couldn’t put it in any more candid language. He said: “The emancipation of the mind from religious superstition is as essential to the progress of civilization as is the emancipation of the body from physical slavery.”
One year before his death, when he was 84, he was interviewed on television, which was a new thing at that time. He was asked again about his religion, and he said, “I’m an atheist.” The next obvious question was: “Are you afraid of death?” Culbert replied calmly, “I’m not.” Culbert Olson died on April 13, 1962.
Debra Deanne Olson: California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk was my grandfather’s personal secretary before Olson appointed him to the California Supreme Court. Mosk told me that he thought my grandfather was the most honest person he had ever known. And that’s actually also in his oral dissertation.
In conclusion, I think we should quote Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “There is no higher god than truth.”