Jack B. Tenney (1898 – November 4, 1970) was an American politician who was noted for leading anti-communist investigations in California in the 1940s and early 1950s. Tenney was also the composer of several well-known songs, most notably "Mexicali Rose".
Tenney was born in 1898 in St. Louis, Missouri, but moved to California in 1909. After serving in the Army during World War I, he returned home and worked his way through law school. While a young attorney, he turned to songwriting and wrote such songs as "Mexicali Rose" and "On the Banks of the Old Merced".
Tenney ran for the California State Assembly as a Democrat in 1936 and won. In 1940, he also served as one of California's electors, casting his vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1942, Tenney ran for the State Senate as a Republican, and served three four-year terms there.
The Tenney Committee
Tenney made his name in the State Senate as a foe of communism, and was chair of the California Committee on Un-American Activities from 1941 to 1949. He stated, "You can no more coexist with communism than you can coexist with a nest of rattlesnakes." As the chairman of the California Senate Factfinding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities, which investigated alleged communists in California, Tenney "vigorously attacked everyone he believed to be a Communist or to have Communist sympathies". Those investigated by Tenney's committee included:
- singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson
- writer Carey McWilliams and other members of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee
- housing expert Catherine Bauer Wurster, who successfully defended herself and her husband William Wurster
- Guatemalan-born labor organizer Luisa Moreno.
- actor Edward G. Robinson, who Tenney denounced in 1949 as being "frequently involved in Communist fronts and causes"
Tenney was instrumental in forcing the University of California to implement loyalty oaths on its faculty when he introduced legislation requiring such oaths. In 1949, as the head of the Un-American Activities, Tenney drafted legislation that would introduce a constitutional amendment to be placed on the state ballot that would give the state legislature authority over the university in matters of loyalty. Tenney's Senate Bill 130 would have forbidden the teaching of un-American subjects in the public schools of California, which would require to teach "Americanism."
The University's representative at the legislature, Controller James H. Corley, who served as the University's chief lobbyist, was alarmed as he felt that Tenney represented a political movement that was bound to succeed. After Corley consulted with Tenney, the loyalty oath program was implemented without recourse to the ballot, apparently without consulting with University chancellor Robert Gordon Sproul. Ironically, Corley overestimated Tenney's power. He was ousted as the chair of the Un-American Activities Committee that year.
Other political activity
Tenney ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1944 and in 1949, the year he was removed from the chairmanship of his committee in 1949, he ran for mayor of Los Angeles, placing fifth. The conduct of the hearings, by a later account, "egregiously violated due process" and of the hundreds of people subpoenaed and interrogated in its eight years, not a single one had been indicted, much less convicted, of any sort of subversion.
In 1952, Tenney sought to move to the United States House of Representatives, accepting the help of anti-Semite Gerald L. K. Smith. He lost to Joseph F. Holt, who won the general election. Tenney also produced a number of anti-semitic books, one called Anti-Gentile Activity in America, another called Zionist Network from 1953.
Tenney ran for Vice President on the 1952 Christian National Party ticket headed by Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur had been "drafted" by the CNP (as well as the America First Party without his consent. The CNP ticket gained few votes. In 1954, the head of the state Republican committee pointed to this race as a reason to oppose Tenney for renomination.
In an April 1954 debate with Mildred Younger, who was challenging him for the Republican nomination for th 38th Senate District (which comprised Los Angeles County), Tenney denied under direct questioning from Younger that he had any knowledge of Gerald L.K. Smith, despite his having run as Vice President for Smith's party and for having appeared on the cover of Smith's The Cross and the Flag the month before the debate. Younger beat Tenney but lost the general election to the Democratic candidate. The New York Times saw his defeat as part of the ending for McCarthyism.
Tenney moved to Banning, California in 1959, and worked as a part-time city attorney in nearby Cabazon, California. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1962. He died in 1970, survived by his wife and two children.
- West, Richard (1970-11-06), "Jack B. Tenney ex-state sen., foe of communism, dies at 72", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2009-08-20 (fee for article)
- Griswold del Castillo, Richard; Carlos M. Larralde (Summer 1997), "Luisa Moreno and the Beginnings of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement in San Diego", Journal of San Diego History (San Diego Historical Society) 43 (3), retrieved 2009-11-30.
- Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, pg 307.
- Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics: Hispanic Americans and ... By Jeffrey D. Schultz page 518
- Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer By H. Peter Oberlander, Eva Newbrun page 257
- City of nets: a portrait of Hollywood in 1940s By Otto Friedrich, page 380
- "The Loyalty Oath at the University of California: A Report on Events, 1949-1958". Free Speech Movement Archives. Retrieved 4 September 2011.
- Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 By Kevin Starr, page 307
- American prophet: the life & work of Carey McWilliams By Peter Richardson page 131
- Catalog of Copyright Entries. Third Series: 1953: July–December By Library of Congress. Copyright Office, page 632
- "POLITICAL NOTES: A Chat with Millie". Time Magazine (Time-Life). 1954-04-12. Retrieved 4 September 2011.
- "End in sight", The New York Times, 1954-06-13, retrieved 2009-08-20 (fee for article)