Op Images: Sharing stories of state’s atheist, pacifist governor

Culbert Olson, an atheist, is sworn in as governor in 1939 with a hand in his pocket rather than on a Bible.
Culbert Olson, an atheist, is sworn in as governor in 1939 with a hand in his pocket rather than on a Bible.

Culbert Olson is one of the men whose framed portraits occupy the Capitol walls, a largely forgotten though significant figure in California history.

Olson was a different sort of governor, as his granddaughter, Debra Deanne Olson, is endeavoring to show. She is a Los Angeles political activist and friend of Hillary Clinton’s, a liberal like the old man.

In an event sponsored by the California State Library and California Archives, she came to town this week to give a slide show to an audience of a few dozen people, and tell a few tales about her grandfather, who died in 1962.

Olson was part of Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty In California movement, a New Deal Democrat and the first Democrat elected governor in the 20th century.

The photo helps make Debra Olson’s point. It shows Olson being sworn in back in January 1939. You’ll notice that his left hand, the one that’s supposed to be placed on a Bible, is planted firmly in his pocket.

That’s because he was an atheist, and not just any sort. He was an open and defiant nonbeliever. A few days later, one of his aides persuaded him to touch a Bible. That photo shows him obliging with one hand, but holding up crossed fingers with the other while grinning mischievously.

On the day after his election in 1938, The Sacramento Bee said in an editorial: “The attempt to smear Senator Olson with charges of radicalism failed to arouse the desired unfavorable reaction. His record, both in public and private life, refuted such charges.”

“And the majority of the people resented this unfair and below the belt type of political attack. They knew the cry of ‘Red’ was as insincere as it was untruthful.”

Olson was, his granddaughter said, a pacifist, but when World War II broke out, he presided over the internment of Japanese Americans. He pushed for legislation that sought to ensure health care for all. Olson Care, they called it. It didn’t get through the Legislature.

She has pictures of him with Mae West and Bing Crosby. Politicians love glitterati. He appointed the first Latino and first African American judges in California, and placed a woman on a state Court of Appeal, another first.

Earl Warren defeated Olson after one term in 1942. Debra Olson ascribed the defeat in part to a backlash from religious people, and opposition by oil companies. Standard Oil, it seems, was upset that he tried to ban oil drilling along the Santa Barbara coast.

It’s not as if Olson’s legacy has disappeared. His granddaughter spoke in the state courthouse across from the Capitol. It’s named for California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk, who had been Olson’s executive secretary.