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             “The power of the people got me out, and I am deeply grateful”- Wesley Robert Wells

       Although, the American Justice system is to protect the rights of the people, now and again there occurs a case in which "justice clearly miscarries". This can be specifically seen in the issue-surrounding inmate Wesley Robert Wells who was imprisoned for his entire life. Though Wells was set free in1979, the legal fight for his life was long and arduous as it took him fifty-six years until his release. However, the success of his freedom was not fought alone and primarily due to the large support of the Civil Rights Congress. Thus, through illuminating the nation wide protest for Wells’s freedom, one can illuminate how the Civil Rights Congress utilized specific tools and strategies that ultimately led to Wells’s release.

       In 1946, three groups, the International Labor Defense, the National Negro Congress and the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties grouped together and formed the Civil Rights Congress in Detroit, Michigan. Their mission focused on creating a legal defense team in order to fight for the civil rights and liberties for African Americans. In doing so, they defended many cases that included “publicizing lynching’s” and “pressing authorities for prosecution of African American murderers”[1]. The tactics and tools in which were utilized were similar to those that were used during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1950s and 1960s; mass political action through public media, protests, and legal strategies were all applied as a way of combating racism in the criminal justice system[2]. Ultimately, the Civil Rights Congress sought to expose American racism in the United States, something that was new to the public and government officials.

       The Civil Rights Congress targeted “red cases” that focused mainly on victims whom had been suppressed by various legislative efforts, including the case of Wesley Robert Wells, a prisoner in Los Angeles who was unjustly given the death penalty for a minor offense. The Civil Rights Congress originally became involved in Wells’s case in 1947, after Wells was given the death penalty for throwing a cuspidor at a prison guard in which violated Section 45000 of the California Penal Code that stated that a “life-termer guilty of assault could be executed”[3]. Originally, Charles Garry, who would eventually become the future chief counsel of the Black Panthers, along with the Civil Right Congress, took Wells’s case in 1948 by arguing that Wells’s sentence should have never been considered a “life termer” to begin with. Additionally in 1950, Garry also filed a lawsuit against Governor Earl Warren and the California Department of Correction with “discrimination against black prisoners at Folsom and San Quentin”[4]. In this lawsuit, Garry illuminated severe discriminatory acts at the prisons, such as segregation where African Americans were forced to eat separately and that blacks were treated more harshly than any other prisoners.

       Although Garry and the Civil Right Congress made strong arguments for Wells’s, in 1953 the U.S. Supreme Court denied Wells’s appeal. Wells’s unsuccessful appeal was so shocking, that the Civil Right Congress utilized its strong organizational skills and contacted the mass media in order to launch a widespread protest for Wesley Robert Wells’s justice. In doing so, the publicity efforts turned into a call for help to the larger issue of racial inequality in the United States, specifically in the judicial legal system. The Civil Right Congress made key points to the public by stating that Wells was “not a hardened, vicious criminal” and that “Wesley Wells was a victim of a government policy that enforces second class citizenship on the Negro people” bringing the issue of racial discrimination to a new level that the American public had never scene before[5]. The Civil Right Congress proved itself successful as the public campaign for Wells’s justice became so widespread that in March of 1954, the Civil Right Congress had received over 50,000 signatures on a petition for Wesley Robert Well’s freedom[6]. Additionally, numerous of civilians wrote letters along with the Civil Right Congress to the warden and the governor, arguing and demanding for Wells’s release.

       After the Civil Right Congress legal team was able to receive a stay of execution, the Civil Right Congress went on another publicity campaign by inviting newspapers, such as the California Eagle, to showcase Wesley Robert Wells’s case. Newspapers began to become key supporters in Wells’s case whereas they were giving Wells’s case full coverage. The California Eagle, Los Angeles Herald, and the Los Angeles Tribune were only a few of the newspapers that participated in a widespread attempt to illuminate Wells’s story.  With many articles being written in the California Eagle, a mass public movement was led by Civil Right Congress director, IDA Rothstein, who led an entire protest to California Governor Earl Warren in October of 1950, and demanded Wells to be released as well as arguing for prison reform at Folsom and San Quentin prison. While Governor Warren refused to listen, the Civil Right Congress in February of 1951 began to collect all letters that Wesley Robert Wells had written to them and published a pamphlet titled “My Name is Wesley Robert Wells” in which illuminated Wells’s story of injustice through his own eyes[7]. After the success of the pamphlet, Wells continued to explicate and reveal the issues from his cell in letters to the Civil Right Congress describing his situation and the racial discrimination he would receive. The Civil Right Congress again published this in 1953, as a book titled Letters from the Death House[8].

       Additionally, in 1951, the Civil Rights Congress published a book, We Charge Genocide, in which specifically petitions for the idea of black genocide. The book argues that genocide, as defined by the United Nations, is the “killing members of the group” and also includes “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”[9]. African Americans during this time were subjected to segregation, discriminated against and the “target of violence” and therefore, according to the Civil Rights Congress, are suffering from genocide[10]. The book calls for attention to this crucial issue and cites specific cases as evidence towards black genocide in America. Wesley Robert Wells was mentioned in the sense that he was a victim of “institutionalized murder” through the judicial system and the prison system of California. Although Wells had not been killed yet, Wells fell into that “pattern of genocide” that resulted from segregation in the prison, and was not only apart of a conspiracy to commit genocide, but as well as an attempt to publicly commit genocide[11]. His mental state being was severely harmed in his stay at Folsom and San Quentin Prison, as seen in his psychiatric reports, and therefore directly falls under the definition of genocide in the United States. The Civil Rights Congress’s book, We Charge Genocide, served as a huge contributor in Wells’s case, whereas Wells himself was not only a petitioner in the book, but also provided evidence towards Wells being apart of the concept of black genocide.

       Moreover, after the success of the book, the Civil Right Congress began receiving support from more organizations. Black churches now became involved where they would distribute handouts on Wells’s case and under the Civil Right Congress, letter-writing campaigns were initiated all over the United States where thousands of citizens wrote letters to the supreme court arguing for Wells’s freedom[12]. With the now large support from organizations all over the United States, the Civil Right Congress along with the Wells Defense Committee started to release weekly newsletters called The Wesley Wells Defender, that consisted of four to five pages of updates, future protests, and other crucial details about the case in order to gain more support along with ways in which people could become active participants in fighting for Wells’s life[13]. The number of organizations now involved with the Civil Right Congress to fight for Wells became long and extensive as there became a “grassroots effort” to fight for his rights[14].

       After endless efforts and years of campaigning and protesting, Wells was officially set free on July 1st, 1974. His freedom was primarily due to the involvement that the Civil Rights Congress had not only in creating a legal defense team for him, but also due to the mass political attention they brought to the case. Through having a various groups, newspapers, book publishers, and overall complete media attention, Wells’s freedom was done through “the power of the people” and the Civil Rights Congress.



[1] "Civil Rights Congress Seeks Anti-Lynch Bill", Chicago Defender, 27 September 1947

[2] Gerald Horne, Communist Front The Civil Rights Congress, 1946-1956 (Rutherford:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987), 4


[3] Court Documents

[4] Hamm, Theodore. "Wesley Robert Wells and the Civil Rights Congress Campaign." Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 2, no. 1 (2009): 22-33.

[5] Hamm, Theodore. "Wesley Robert Wells and the Civil Rights Congress Campaign." Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 2, no. 1 (2009): 22-33.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] Wells, Wesley Robert. My Name Is Wesley Robert Wells. California: State Defense Committee for Wesley Robert Wells, 1951.


[8] Wells, Wesley Robert. Letters from the Death House. Los Angeles: [Civil Rights Congress], 1953.

[9] Congress, Civil Rights. We Charge Genocide; the Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government against the Negro People. [New ed. New York: International Publishers, 1970.

[10] Ibid., xi.

[11] Ibid., 10.

[12] Hamm, Theodore. "Wesley Robert Wells and the Civil Rights Congress Campaign." Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 2, no. 1 (2009): 22-33.

[13] Ibid., 25.

[14] Ibid., 27.

CRC Involvment