Jerry P. Shinley Archive:Banister, Eastland and the '56 SISS Hearings
Guy Banister, Senator James Eastland and the '56 SISS Hearings
Warren Commission Document 794 deals with certain statements made by a "citizen of American origin who is presently a member of the Communist Party [CP]." This person expressed concern about "press references to [Lee Harvey] OSWALD's activities in New Orleans, Louisiana, before he went to Russia" which would link Oswald to the Communist Party. The FBI's investigation focused on the brief time Oswald was in New Orleans in September of 1959, before sailing for Europe. However, I suspect it would have been more logical to examine the time between January, 1954, and July, 1956, when the teenaged Oswald and his mother lived in New Orleans. (Warren Commission Report, GPO Edition, pp 679-681)
One New Orleans acquaintance of Oswald's, Palmer McBride, reported that "Oswald praised Khrushchev and suggested that he and McBride join the Communist Party 'to take advantage of their social functions.'" (WCR, p. 384) Viewed out of context, Oswald's interest in joining the CP may seem a juvenile fantasy, but, in the light of the intense public interest in Communist activity in New Orleans during the early part of 1956, Oswald's desire to contact the CP could have been realized through a number of avenues.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune (NOTP) for January 11, 1956, featured a front-page story from Baton Rouge reporting that Baton Rouge District Attorney J. St. Clair Favrot and the FBI were "checking on Communist literature mailed here [Baton Rouge] attacking segregation in the South." The article included the address of the Southern Regional Committee of the Communist Party, "P. O. Box 464, St. Louis, Mo." A similar mailing in March, a leaflet urging support for the Montgomery bus boycott and signed by the Louisiana Communist party, was also reported. (NOTP, March 28, 1956, p. 2)
The next incident to draw attention to alleged Communist activities in New Orleans occurred in March of 1956. The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), chaired by Mississippi Senator James Eastland, questioned Herman Liveright, the program director of New Orleans television station, WDSU, in Washington, D. C. Liveright, without invoking the fifth amendment, refused to answer a number of question dealing with his alleged involvement with the CP in New York and New Orleans. (NOTP, March 20, 1956, p. 1) WDSU promptly fired Liveright. (NOTP, March 21, 1956, p. 1)
The Liveright incident spurred New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Story "Chep" Morrison to order a probe of "subversive activities in New Orleans." Morrsion stated that he had contacted SISS chairman Eastland and asked for any information the subcommittee had. Morrison selected Assistant Police Superintendent Guy Banister to head the investigation. (NOTP, March 21, 1956, p. 1) Banister later was a figure of interest in the Garrison probe and has been alleged to have been personally acquainted with Oswald.
Morrison and Banister traveled to Greenwood, Mississippi, to confer personally with Senator Eastland for more than three hours. "Describing the conference as completely 'satisfactory,' Morrsion said, 'Mr. Banister has complete liason with the committee's staff which was the main object of our trip.'" (NOTP, March 23, 1956, p. 1) Less than a week later, plans to hold SISS hearings in New Orleans were announced. (NOTP, March 28, 1956, p. 1) The subcommittee issued subpenas for ten witnesses. Efforts to locate one witness, Hunter Pitts O'Dell, resulted in the seizure of books and documents from a rented room which O'Dell had vacated. Banister termed the library "the finest collection of Communist literature in the South that I have ever seen or heard of." (NOTP, March 23, 1956, p. 1; March 31, 1956, p. 1) Hunter Pitts O'Dell is a figure of some importance because of his later association with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. O'Dell's alleged Communist ties were used to discredit Dr. King. (Garrow, David J. The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Penguin Books, 1981) Interestingly, Louisiana political boss and notorious segregationist Leander Perez publicly linked King and O'Dell in March of 1960. (NOTP, March 12, 1960, section 3, p. 2)
The SISS held public hearings on April 5 and 6. The NOTP devoted extensive space to coverage of the hearings, including detailed summaries of the testimony of each of the witnessess. (NOTP, April 6, 1956; April 7, 1956). At follow-up hearings in Washington, three additional witnesses, including O'Dell were heard. (NOTP, April 12, 1956, p.1; April 13, 1956, p. 1) The Orleans Parish District Attorney's office announced it was considering prosecuting O'Dell and other SISS witnesses under Louisiana anti-subversion laws. Charges were finally filed in 1957. (NOTP, May 9, 1956, p. 1; March 26, 1957, p. 1; April 4, 1957, p. 8)
Given Oswald's stated interest in joining the CP, he conceivably could have used information provided in the New Orleans press to make contact either through the mail or personally. The FBI and Baton Rouge District Attorney records concerning the January, 1956 literature mailing should be obtained. Any FBI mail-cover of the St. Louis address should be examined for evidence of a letter from Oswald. FBI, SISS, Orleans Parish District Attorney, and New Orleans Police department records on all phases of Communist Party activity in New Orleans in 1954-1956 should be checked for any information related to Oswald. Any surviving person who testified at the SISS hearings should be asked if they recall any contact with Oswald.
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