'A better place because of this good man'

William Robbins

During the 1930s, Oregon Governor Charles Martin sent undercover agents to attend meetings of a new workers’ organization, the Oregon Commonwealth Federation. Martin referred to the group as a “gang . . . of young Jew[s] . . . Communists, C.I.O’s and crackpots!”

Oregon-born activist Monroe Sweetland was executive director of the group.

“The communist charge was pure fiction,” said historian William Robbins. “Sweetland fought assiduously to keep the Oregon Commonwealth Federation free of communist influences. In a telephone conversation in 1998, the deliberative and soft-spoken Sweetland told Martin’s biographer that he still thought Martin was a ‘son-of-a-bitch.’”

A distinguished professor emeritus of history at OSU, Robbins is in residence at the Center for winter and spring terms as an Honorary Fellow while working on a biography of Sweetland. Sweetland’s papers are archived with the Oregon Historical Society Research Library n Portland, and in a rare and generous move, the library agreed to ship fifty boxes of the papers for temporary housing in the OSU Archives so that Robbins can have easy access to them during his residency at the Center.

Reading through the materials is like having a ringside seat at some of the most significant events of a turbulent century.

“Sweetland lived through the cultural revolution of the 1920s, the crisis of the Great Depression, the unparalleled violence of a world at war, and the push and pull of politics in the American state as it moved through hot- and cold-war crises and contended with domestic unrest at home,” said Robbins.

Born in Salem in 1910, Sweetland moved with his family in 1916 to Constantine, Michigan. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and communication, he studied law briefly, married Lillie Megrath, and the two left school for politics in New York, Lillie as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Sweetland to the League for Industrial Democracy.

In 1935, the couple returned west where Sweetland went to work for the new Oregon Commonwealth Federation. With war looming over Europe and Asia, he served as a liaison between labor families and their sons in the military, and helped move labor away from narrow economic interests to broader community-based issues.

“With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and the February 12 executive order directing all persons of Japanese ancestry to report to relocation centers, Sweetland took a courageous stand with a few other people opposing the internment of Japanese-Americans.”

A pacifist, Sweetland joined the American Red Cross Wartime Organization and served in combat zones in the South Pacific. Back in Oregon after the war, he became a force in the Democratic Party, and published and edited newspapers in Molalla, Milwaukie, and Newport.

“Elected in the statewide primary to the Democratic Party National Committee in 1948, Sweetland slowly moved Oregon’s conservative and largely moribund Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.”

He served in both the Oregon House and Senate, guiding legislation that helped transform fledgling Portland State College from a small urban campus of extension programs into a metropolitan university, and he led an unsuccessful legislative effort to reduce the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen.

He also tried twice to become secretary of state, and lost a close election to Mark Hatfield for the job. His success as a Democratic campaigner, said Robbins, “is reflected in the 1957 legislative session where Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature, the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats, and three of the four congressional districts. Contemporaries also credited him with convincing the brilliant, acerbic Sen. Wayne Morse to switch from the Republican Party to independent status and then to the Democratic Party in 1956.”

In 1965, Sweetland moved to California to work for the National Education Association as political director for the thirteen western states, representing the region in the U.S. Congress until 1975. Here he was instrumental in pushing through pioneering legislation to establish educational programs for students who were primarily Spanish speakers; this became the Bilingual Education Act, which remained in effect for thirty years.

“That law,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the occasion of Sweetland’s ninety-fourth birthday, “opened the doors of education and opportunity to young people in the West and other parts of the country who are native speakers of Spanish. Oregon and our entire country are a better place because of this good man.”

After retiring from the NEA, Sweetland returned to an early interest in botany. For the last twenty years of his active life, he founded and ran the company Western Wilderness Products, which supplied pine cones, tumbleweed, mosses and other such materials to shops in Chicago and New York.

He combed the West by car with a driver who later recounted: “And all along the way Monroe spread his own seeds, engaging every person we encountered, always checking the pulse of every community—and the nation—through which we passed.”

William Robbins has written and edited eleven books, including: Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000 (2004); Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940 (1997) ; and Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transforma