Their faces stare at you from the past. Row upon row of 88-year-old black-and-white mug shots of newly arrived immigrants.
Martin Wehinger, born in Austria, convicted in Montana for speaking out against World War I. Ben Kahn, a farmer born in eastern Poland, arrested in Montana for sedition, calling the war a "rich man's war." Janet Smith, arrested for sedition in Montana after declaring the Red Cross was a "fake." Fred Rodewald, born in Hanover, Germany, charged with sedition in Montana for suggesting that Americans "would have hard times" if Germany's kaiser "didn't get over here and rule this country."
In all, 75 men and three women were convicted in 1918 and 1919 in Montana. About 40 of them collectively served 65 years in prison because they criticized the government of their newly adopted country, the United States of America.
"They should not have served a day," is the opinion of students at the University of Montana who took it upon themselves to seek posthumous pardons for Montanans convicted under their state's anti-sedition law that was considered among the harshest in the country at the time. Photos and case histories are posted on the school's "Montana Sedition Project" Web site.
Today Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a descendant of German-Russian immigrants who migrated here in 1909, undid the convictions by granting pardons for the 78 "felons" in a ceremony in Helena, Mont.
Before a packed crowd at the state capitol, Schweitzer signed the pardons and told relatives, "Across the country it was a time in which we had lost our minds. So today in Montana, we will say to an entire generation of people, we are sorry. And we challenge the rest of the country to do the same."
Schweitzer called those who were convicted of sedition during World War I "patriots." He added, "It's not the American way for neighbor to spy on neighbors. And today we ask that we never forget the mistakes that we've made so that we don't make them again."
For families of the "seditionists," the pardons brought at least some measure of redemption. Steve Milch, great-grandson of immigrants from Bavaria who had been convicted of sedition told reporters, "The Milch clan appreciates the governor making things right."
Milch said at the time there were mobs of people demanding that German-Americans kiss the U.S. flag. "My great-grandfather told them he didn't kiss anybody's flag, whether it was American or German," Milch told the New York Times.
Schweitzer told the assembled relatives that what he had to say is what Gov. Sam Stewart should have said when he signed Montana's Sedition Act into law in 1918. "I'm sorry, forgive me, and God bless America, because we can now criticize our government," Schweitzer said.
Montana got tough a year after the United States declared war against Germany. The United States believed its national interests were threatened when a German plan, revealed in the so-called Zimmerman telegram, stated Germany wanted to cede territory in Texas and Arizona to Mexico if Mexico would declare war on the United States.
President Woodrow Wilson was concerned about the large number of people in the country who had been born in Germany and Austria, and tried to avoid going to war. But once the United States declared war in April 1917, it was open season on German and Austrian Americans. No less than 27 states enacted sedition laws. In some states, it was even against the law to speak German.