Bang, Bang Goes The Beat Of My Drum
What’s In a Memoir
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
J. D. Salinger
A memoir recounts events, explicates a life, explores history, and draws lessons. A memoir should excite, tell truth, affront, and reveal. No preaching allowed. A memoir should be an honest novel.
My father, Melvin Albert, advised, cajoled, defended, and supported. He was a liberal corporate lawyer. Alzheimer’s killed him before he died.
My mother, Pearl Fleischman, taught kindergarten and fourth grade and labored over house, home, and health. Mom was appreciated by all. A few weeks before her 91st birthday she died. Relentless cancer was her Armageddon. The ocean became her cemetery.
I was told my early family lived in the same building as the great comedian Milton Berle. Uncle Miltie reputedly said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” Did I get my door-building predilections from Miltie?
My sister is nine years my senior. When I was five Anita was fourteen. She was a girl, then a woman. I was a boy, then whatever. Young, we barely crossed paths. Anita went to Cornell, in Ithaca, New York. I saw Cornell while visiting Anita and liked Ithaca’s natural gorges. As a high school junior, I summered at Cornell in a science program for budding Stephen Hawkings.
Anita married Jack Karasu, from Turkey, whom she met at Cornell. Jack’s business took Anita to Spain. When Anita returned to the U.S., an artist and teacher, she and I lived far apart. Years later, Anita moved nearer and we are now sister and brother sharing life’s circumstances.
Anita’s son, my nephew Marc, works in New York City in advertising. At Marc’s Bar Mitzvah I gave him a copy of Che’s writings. For his last fifteen years, Seymour Melman was Anita’s partner. Seymour was a teacher/activist who spent his life fighting for peace and against military economy.
To assess family influences is perhaps a fool’s errand. My brother Eddie and I had the same parents and sister, lived in the same places, and had similar mental faculties. But rather than becoming two peas in a pod, we became an apple and an kumquat or a tuna and a turtle.
Eddie was eight years my senior. We both liked sports, TV, and boy things. As a preteen I always sought Eddie’s company. This annoyed him and I remember Eddie would make me say uncle while I held out against submission. Did lopsided familial fighting produce insecurities? Or did withstanding big brother’s bullying produce a strong will?
Eddie was smart and congenial but his life pirouetted from a typical suburban trajectory into callous, near-suicidal gambling. Contingent choices of whom to befriend steered Eddie’s options. With a little twist, perhaps Eddie would have had radical social concerns. Perhaps I would have suffered consumptive addictions.
As a young kid I watched Eddie’s continuous heated conflicts with my parents. Did a soap-opera youth make me too timid or did it make me properly cautious? Either way, I decided in ninth grade that whatever I would do in life, I would reject subservience to parents, teachers, and siblings. I would respect reason, but not take orders. I became my own person. No big catharsis. No tumultuous introspection. I just found my own drum and started banging. Bang, bang, here is a memoir.
Me as Memoirist
Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.
My writing a memoir is like a sumo wrestler ballet dancing. First, my recollection of the past is not eidetic. Cramming high school facts was torture. Names, places, and dates eluded me. Asked to cough up sequence and pattern, I reconstructed them from foundations as if doing mathematical deductions. Experiences implant in the sinews of my mind as they do for everyone else, but I have a defective playback mechanism.
My dad was older than the average father. He had me at 43. My mom was older than average too. She had me at 32. Mom got sick in her fourth month post-conception. Vacationing away from home, she was advised by a friend’s doctor that I was dead. Flush me out, he urged. Mother instead went home to check with her own specialist. I was doing just fine, he reported. Ping, ping. Mom’s stubbornness started my little drum.
I had a childhood disease, Celiac. Eating nearly anything wrenched my stomach. My staying-alive diet was bananas, chopped hamburger, and cottage cheese. Family lore says I often begged food from strangers and looted garbage cans. Did youthful scrounging affect my maturity? Today, I can’t eat bananas. I can beg and steal. Did my early days template my later life?
In grade school I was a math whiz, but horrible in spelling, penmanship, and writing. I received extra math books to keep me busy from first grade through high school, where, in addition to accelerated classes, my friend Irwin Gaines and I left school twice a week to travel about a mile to a local college, Iona. There we took a course in differential equations with college upperclassmen. Irwin and I were the two best differentiators. Irwin went to Harvard when I went to MIT. Irwin became a physicist, following a path Vietnam pushed me off.
In ninth grade, I suffered through Latin. It was incredibly shaming. Our octogenarian teacher would spend most classes making students read out loud, one after another. The text was in Latin and when called on you had to translate and recite the appropriate English. I failed every time. I looked a fool, but never walked out of class. This type submissive obedience later wore off.
What did my classmates look like? How did my teacher dress? What did I say when shamed? Some memoirists include in their books descriptions of decades-old dress, dialogue, weather, and feelings. They fill up pages with “then I blushed and said ‘what’s up with that.’” They remember details, get them from journals, or just make them up like books about writing memoirs advocate. Not me. What I can’t remember generally includes who said what to whom, when, wearing what clothes, in what mood, with what facial expression, during what weather pattern. And I kept no journals.
But it isn’t just bad memory that makes me an odd memoirist. I also don’t introspect. Corralling inner motivations, much less inner demons, doesn’t excite me. Looking inward would preclude looking outward, even if just for a minute. My visiting a psychiatrist would generate a cacophony of silence.
Another memoir obstructing trait of mine is that though I am intellectually pugnacious, I have little interest in revisiting combats. What benefit could that bring? I avoid ad hominem history. I don’t remember my father coming home from work and my rushing to greet him, jumping into his arms from the porch outside our house, and accidentally blasting him in the head with a rock I had cradled in my hand. Did forgetting this teach me to censor my memories? Did trauma from this shape my whole life? Does it matter? I can’t see how.
I do remember the big house I inhabited through the sixth grade. But did the house’s large size, varied rooms, great comforts, and intriguing crannies help shape me? Why should anyone care?
Were there politically relevant events at a young age? Maybe, but how could anyone decide what qualifies? I remember getting in a fight in fifth grade with a bully over his picking on someone else. Did that make me a lifelong defender of the oppressed? Suppose he had beat me up. Would that have soured me to defending the oppressed? Do I owe my life path to the bully’s weakness?
I also remember getting in a fight with my then-best friend, Donald Pearlman. We were in third grade and I chipped his front tooth. Donald was back playing after a couple of hours. I was depressed for days. Did this give me savage solidarity for others? Maybe. Maybe not.
Donald and I lived next door to one another all through primary school. When we were ten, or thereabouts, a large house across the street was sold to Liberia’s U.S. ambassador. Though I never met or even saw the ambassador himself, not long after his family moved in, and not long before his family moved out, Donald and I played one day with the ambassador’s super prissy son. The three of us were on the ambassador’s front lawn, across the street from my and Donald’s neighboring houses, playing a game called “let’s see who can hit the softest.” The Liberian lad, I can’t remember his name for the life of me, hit Donald in the accepted target in this game, his arm. Liberia did it very softly. Donald then hit my arm softer still, as per the logic of the game. I hauled off and blasted his Liberian Lordship’s arm as hard as I could and said, “Whoops, I lose.” It was cruel, and he ran off crying. Was it that I didn’t like him? Was it a turf war? Was it racism? Since I remember the event, and since I still feel guilty over it, I have to assume the worst. Bang, bang, it was a bad beat.
Another damning deed from that time happened when Donald and I were sitting by the roadside, and saw a big nail there, almost a spike. I picked it up and carefully balanced it in the roadway on its flat hammer-hitting zone with the point facing upward. Before long a multiaxle truck plowed down our street, leaving behind no nail. It had to have been the only such truck to ever get so lost as to mistakenly go through our leafy suburb. Five minutes later a human mountain comes marching down the street asking if we saw anyone put something in the road. He had a destroyed tire and he waved about our missing nail. We said “no.” I later suffered unsettling guilt and it didn’t take Aristotle to realize this condition was better avoided. Perhaps my undying inclination to avoid guilt-inducing acts was part innate and part early experience. Perhaps different early experiences could have undone rather than enhanced the innateness. Life is largely unfathomable. It is better to focus on the occasional simple parts we can learn from than to drown in the complicated minutiae beyond our ken.
I ran for student body president of the ninth grade and lost. In high school I ran for treasurer of the school and won. In high school, too, I had my first love, Nancy Shapiro. My interest in physics grew. I met Bob Dylan’s music—and Dylan rebuilt me with a little help from the Beatles, the Stones, and all the rest. My high school years were idyllic. They had no personal pain to rebel against or escape. Saturdays I went to Columbia University for a morning class with Irwin Gaines, Linda Lurie, and a few other aspiring Isaac Newtons, including Larry Seidman. Larry, a year ahead of me in high school, became my closest friend and raised the bar for maturity and integrity in my life. There was a lot of softball, touch football, and tennis. Good friends are a blessing. Everyone knows that.
I remember sitting in a car, in a train station parking lot, waiting for my father who each day commuted from New Rochelle to New York City and back. It was January 1959. I was twelve. On the radio was a story about Cuba. It mentioned a guy named Castro. It mentioned a guy called Che. Dad arrived. Off went the radio. He was tired from work. I guess I turned it on again, metaphorically, years later.
My high school yearbook proclaimed I would be a physicist. No one would have guessed I would write piles of books about revolution. But while I wasn’t remotely literary, nonetheless, in high school music lyrics conquered my mind. I dissected songs for hours with Larry Seidman. I remember “Johnnie’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government” and I especially remember the second verse: “Ah get born, keep warm Short pants, romance Learn to dance, get dressed, get blessed Try to be a success Please her, please him, Don’t steal, don’t lift Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift”
I got born. I kept warm. I wore short pants. I romanced. I barely danced. Few would emulate my dress. My blessings ran perpendicular to those Dylan’s Subterranean lyric rejected. My successes inverted those Dylan rhymed. I pleased some people. I stole. I lifted. I got the 20 years. I work days, but nights too.
Emulating My Muse
Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.
So what’s the point of a memoir from someone with a poor memory, without introspection, who rejects personal fireworks, and who avoids personal revelation? Moving from draft one of Remembering Tomorrow through draft two and on toward draft 37, I found that pressures mounted from readers for greater personal revelation.
“It isn’t just the political experiences, thoughts, books, institutions, and movements that matter,” people advised me. “You have to include life lived by real people in real times. Use personal context to familiarize and humanize broader stories.” Okay, I let these critics bang on my drum one time. I inserted some personal stuff.
As I began writing Remembering Tomorrow, I devoured a couple of books on writing memoirs. They urged revelation, novelist style, and pugnacity. I examined memoirs to emulate. Tom Hayden’s Rebel told about the New Left. Dave Dellinger’s incredibly inspiring From Yale to Jail, Bill Ayers’s ultimately overwritten Fugitive Years, and Jane Fonda’s very personal My Life So Far, all covered parts of those times.
Bertrand Russell’s, Simone de Beauvoir’s, Malcolm X’s, and Gandhi’s autobiographies provided examples of style and content. I read some less memorable shorter works, too, and finally, I also read the first volume of Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles. Despite its being socially detached, Chronicles most affected my plans. Chronicles jumps all over Dylan’s timeline. Thematic flow facilitates comprehension despite chronological chaos. Emotional, intuitive, and musical links, not sequential causality, connect paragraphs.
I assumed Chronicles’ disorganization reflected Dylan’s artistic genius. I guessed Dylan wrote a chronologically ordered draft and found nonlinear ways to reorganize it. I figured he had future volumes finished, awaiting their release date. But however Dylan did his Chronicles, I learned from reading him that writing meanderingly respected that a memoir should circle the narrator, the narrator’s life, and even the narrator’s experiences, but should be about perceptions, insights, and lessons that the narrator happened to be positioned to relay.
I liked temporal chaos and have tried to modestly mimic Dylan’s method. The last memoir I read was very short, Kurt Vonnegut’s, while rewriting this one. Kurt’s the master. His words are depressing, every time he writes. Yet the damn thing made me laugh, tear up, and inspired me. That’s a hell of a talent. Chomsky does that too, differently. With these guys I cry, I laugh, the message is a real downer in so many ways, but I am inspired. I can’t do what they do. To inspire I will have to include hopeful content.
Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel| is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Remembering Tomorrow is about the sixties, activism, institutions, and ideas.
Part One has nine chapters, largely about attending a peculiar college located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It introduces the civil rights movement and the New Left, recounts fraternity rush through tumultuous expulsion, includes science, sniffing glue, designing corridors, chutzpah, burning draft cards, creating sanctuaries, attending finishing schools, career planning, elections, and riots.
We meet Marxism, Abbie Hoffman, the Living Theater, drugs, Hubert Humphrey, the Grateful Dead, Muhammad Ali, and Mr. Basketball, Bill Bradley, and we consider tennis, intellectual chasms, mathematician’s proofs, and human capacities.
We meet Noam Chomsky and consider torching libraries, provost propositions, corporate seduction, paths bypassed, Dow Chemical, academic channeling, the calculus of dissent, and the contours of cynicism.
I get elected, stand eyeball to gun barrel, and begin considering tomorrows.
Part Two has ten chapters about organizing. Dreams of bombs lead from grassroots media to street rioting. Washington warfare leads from the Pentagon through CIA illogic and Mayday mayhem to Polish lessons. Dirty stories segue into Bread and Roses. Women and revolution fire up. We visit gender from the sadomasochistic to the masochistic-sadistic. I find sexism damaging, learn love, meet Lydia for life, assess marriage, examine women’s intuition, and consider aging. Socializing or not—that is the question.
Seattle Liberation macho, Weather storms, and planned mayhem. The Black Panthers rise, fall, and shine a light. I get mugged on Halloween. Lydia gets mugged on our steps. Between Labor and Capital highlights Ehrenreich, antagonizes Aronowitz, and inspires Albert and Hahnel. No Nukes illuminates class. Sixties books highlight Dellinger and Hayden.
I learn fishing on Golden Pond. The ringing of revolution grows quiet.
Part Three has four chapters about higher education and teaching. MIT and Harvard reveal educational inadequacy. Is economics astrology? Odd byways illuminate academia. Cheating disciplines life. I test well but obey poorly. I teach with Chomsky, but get fired from U. Mass Boston. I avoid a slippery slope, and learn from prison. Walking butterflies convey a key life lesson.
Part Four has six chapters about alternative media. South End Press is born, foreshadows participatory economics, survives capitalism, endures ambition, and succeeds. We visit books from sexual revolution through friendly fascism. Herman and Chomsky uplift us. Toffler surprises us. We pass on fat. Small is our bugaboo. Seas aren’t friendly.
South End Press biases persist and what the hell is going on in a Left less diverse than the mainstream? We entice money from a clothing entrepreneur, a Rockefeller, and Hunter the headliner. House sales resuscitate us. Investment packages preserve us. Printer profusion and staring down the IRS protect us. Z Magazine spins off and beats bad odds. An NFL owner provides plenty of pain and no gain.
Z Papers is prescient but disastrous for Albert and Hahnel. ZMI rocks. LBBS drains life and just misses generating big bucks becoming Left On Line, which morphs into Shareworld, which just misses generating even bigger bucks and morphs into ZNet, which makes okay bucks and becomes an international phenomenon.
The megaphone problem leads to what makes alternative media alternative, keeping on keeping on, media and democracy, donor delusions, funding fiascos, and media politics writ larger.
Part Five, basically about ideas, has six chapters. Ideas transcend postmodernism. Kayaking teaches persistence. Marxism morphs into liberating theory with a major in economics that detours into class or multitude.
Vision overcomes resistance via pop culture. Parecon leads through The Award of The President of the Italian Republic toward a participatory society. Sammy Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer beget strategy. Strategy traverses Egypt, addresses stickiness and class, unfolds the umbrella problem, revisits lifestyle, visits Australia, Turkey, and India, and considers elections.
The Organization to Liberate Society and We Stand try to extend the lessons of the past into the future. I rant about Left defeatism, assess Life After Capitalism, seek serious intellectual engagement, visit Venezuela, and address my generation.
In today’s world social structures saddle us. Freedom flaunts us. Information inebriates us. Water wastes us. Climate crashes us. Images insulate us. Prisons parole us. Complacency constrains us. Doubt deadens us. Stomachs staunch us. Backs break us. Eyes blind us. Bombs burst us. Repression, inequality, and corpses curse us. False graveyards gnaw us. Should we revolt? To get where? How? Accomplishing what? Remember Tomorrow.
The Old Folks’ Home At MIT
I went to college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While I entered MIT all eyes, ears, and interest, within three years I called the place “Dachau on the Charles.” MIT’s victims burned in the fields of Vietnam but MIT’s administration and faculty didn’t like my nickname for their institution, and even most MIT students thought it excessive. Still, my calling MIT “Dachau on the Charles” said volumes about my college days. I’d certainly have lit a match, if I thought it would have done any good.
Too Young to Notice
Civil Rights and the New Left
The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.
From September 1962 when I was fifteen to June 1965 when I was eighteen, the struggling civil rights movement and emerging New Left were born in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, New York, California, and New Jersey. I was playing tennis and touch football and learning modest night moves. It’s February 1960. Four black students seek service at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refuse to leave without a meal. SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, are soon born, quickly becoming organizational beachheads for making America better. SNCC and SDS said society must honor its description of itself as free, equal, and democratic. They confronted white Southern racism. They rejected recalcitrant bureaucratic politics. They had little to say about underlying social organization. They had a lot to say about its most egregious surface manifestations. Mainly, they pumped the blood that sustained subsequent activism—and that determined my future.
The 1962 Port Huron Statement was the proximate work of Tom Hayden though it derived from the practices of many mentors and students alike. The Statement birthed the New Left. It called the American experience “contentment amidst prosperity” and “a glaze above deeply felt anxieties.” Port Huron argued that people wanted to see how to “change circumstances in the schools, the workplaces, the bureaucracies, the government.”
SDS and SNCC directed their appeals to this yearning, calling it “the spark and engine of change.” The Port Huron Statement supported a “search for truly democratic alternatives.” This search moved early radicals, who offered their document “as an effort in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity” and devoted themselves to its realization.
Some SNCC and early SDS members were more radical, which tended to mean they were more militant and more skeptical of the federal government and the racist sheriffs and judges of the South. Many members identified with Albert Camus saying that on this earth, where there are pestilences and there are victims, “it is up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” The battle for civil rights was waged largely in the South. The summer of 1964 saw over a thousand civil rights arrests. Thirty buildings were bombed and thirty-six churches burned down by the KKK. The guiding recipe was to root out old, moribund features of society. It was to elevate humane officials. It was to demand better outcomes. Bad officials were the problem, not bad institutions. Early SNCC and SDS thought that virtually all social ills were rooted in anachronisms that could be extirpated without fundamental institutional change. After JFK was murdered, the key SDS slogan was “Part of the way with LBJ,” and many SDS members expected much more than partial gains from Democrats. But the early belief that individual office holders could be corrupt but the structures were okay began to unravel when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was denied seating at the 1964 Democratic presidential convention. Naive hope devolved further when the federal government dragged its heels on protecting dissent in the South. It collapsed completely with the deaths of Malcolm X (1965), the Watts rebellion (1965), the Newark and Detroit rebellions (1967), and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), and most of all, with the lessons of Vietnam. Advanced thinking transcended bemoaning bad leaders. We began to realize that it wasn’t just bad people. It was bad institutions.
I was particularly affected, I remember, by reading a path breaking speech SDS president Carl Oglesby gave at a 1965 Washington antiwar rally. What Oglesby said then, which I read a couple of years later, was at the heart of my political emergence and that of the New Left more widely. Picture this young fellow speaking from the Capitol Building in Washington DC, to thousands of angry young people. Envision him offering views his audience had never heard before. “The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal.” Oglesby asked us to “think of the men who now engineer that war—those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the president himself.” He highlighted the obvious. “They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.” Oglesby told us that the U.S. aim in Vietnam was …to safeguard what they take to be American interests around the world against revolution or revolutionary change…never mind that for two-thirds of the world’s people the twentieth century might as well be the Stone Age; never mind the melting poverty and hopelessness that are the basic facts of life for most modern men; and never mind that for these millions there is now an increasingly perceptible relationship between their sorrow and our contentment.
Making linkages that fueled a turn from dissent to revolution, Oglesby asked, “Can we understand why the Negroes of Watts rebelled? Then why do we need a devil theory to explain the rebellion of the South Vietnamese?” Oglesby got gritty. “We have become a nation of young, bright-eyed, hard-hearted, slim-waisted, bullet-headed, make-out artists. A nation—may I say it?—of beardless liberals.” The contrast was to Castro and Guevara. I loved the image. After a bit, Oglesby offered a run of paragraphs that bent my mind:
In 1953 our Central Intelligence Agency managed to overthrow Mossadegh in Iran, the complaint being his neutralism in the Cold War and his plans to nationalize the country’s oil resources to improve his}sneers, ‘}poppycock,’ and we Americans believe it. Comes 1961 and the invasion. Comes with it the awful realization that the United States Government had lied.
Comes 1962 and the missile crisis, and our administration stands prepared to fight global atomic war on the curious principle that another state does not have the right to its own foreign policy.
Comes 1963 and British Guiana where Cheddi Jagan wants independence from England and a labor law modeled on the Wagner Act. And Jay Lovestone, the AFL-CIO foreign policy chief, acting, as always, quite independently of labor’s rank and file, arranges with our government to finance an 11-week dock strike that brings Jagan down, ensuring that the state will remain British Guiana, and that any workingman who wants a wage better than 50 cents a day is a dupe of communism.
Comes 1964. Two weeks after undersecretary Thomas Mann announces that we have abandoned the Alianza’s principle of no aid to tyrants, Brazil’s Goulart is overthrown by the vicious right-winger, Ademar Barros, supported by a show of American gunboats at Rio de Janeiro. Within twenty-four hours, the new head of state, Mazzilli, receives a congratulatory wire from our president.
Comes 1965. The Dominican Republic. Rebellion in the streets. We scurry to the spot with twenty thousand neutral Marines and our neutral peacemakers— like Ellsworth Bunker Jr., Ambassador to the Organization of American States. Most of us know that our neutral Marines fought openly on the side of the junta, a fact that the Administration still denies. But how many also know that what was at stake was our new Caribbean Sugar Bowl? That this same neutral peacemaking Bunker is a board member and stock owner of the National Sugar Refining Company, a firm his father founded in the good old days, and one which has a major interest in maintaining the status quo in the Dominican Republic? Or that the President’s close personal friend and advisor, our new Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, has sat for the past 19 years on the board of the Sucrest Company, which imports blackstrap molasses from the Dominican Republic? Or that the rhetorician of corporate liberalism and the late President Kennedy’s close friend Adolf Berle, was chairman of that same board? Or that our roving ambassador Averill Harriman’s brother Roland is on the board of National Sugar? Or that our former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Joseph Farland, is a board member of the South Puerto Rico Sugar Co., which owns two hundred and seventy-five thousand acres of rich land in the Dominican Republic and is the largest employer on the island–at about one dollar a day?
Oglesby was outraged. Me too. “Neutralists!” he bellowed:
God save the hungry people of the world from such neutralists! We do not say these men are evil. We say, rather, that good men can be divided from their compassion by the institutional system that inherits us all. …Generals do not hear the screams of the bombed; sugar executives do not see the misery of the cane cutters: for to do so is to be that much less the general, that much less the executive.
Stage Three, Please
Woe betide those who seek to save themselves the pain of mental building by inhabiting dead men’s minds.
SNCC and SDS leapt into action in the Southern countryside and Northern inner cities a half-decade before my time. Their goal was to make the American dream universal. By the time I followed their lead American dreaming was over. I saw only nightmares from Watts to Wall Street, from Birmingham to Boise, and from the White House to Seattle. Early New Left idealism recapitulated cornfield college homecomings. That was SNCC’s time. Later New Left idealism recapitulated smoldering cities. That was my time. Early activists looked back. Later activists looked forward. Early anger passionately rejected the worst of America. Later anger passionately added the best of America to the reject pile.
Stage one of the New Left was fueled by commitment to current American society. It was in some ways the most courageous moment of the Sixties. I missed stage one. I was born a day too late. But stage one didn’t miss me. Political and social events often meanderingly affect people. My life was incubated in the early New Left, even as I was playing high school tennis and touch football. My formative years occurred before I knew politics at all, and before politics knew me. The New Left’s inception was a roadmap to my future. Its explorers were my tutors.
Michael Schwerner was born in New York City but lived for a time in my home town, New Rochelle, a suburb of New York. Schwerner’s online web biography tells us that at twenty-four, Schwerner went to Mississippi. That was January 1964. Schwerner was seven years my senior, more my brother’s and sister’s age than mine. He hired on as a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field worker. In his application to CORE, Schwerner wrote, “I have an emotional need to offer my services in the South.” He hoped to spend “the rest of his life” working for an “integrated society.” He did.
On January 15, 1964, Schwerner and his wife Rita went to Mississippi. Schwerner met the well-known and highly admired civil rights leader Bob Moses in Jackson and from there went to Meridian to organize a community center. Schwerner received $9.80 a week working for CORE. Once in Meridian, Schwerner organized a boycott of a variety store, forcing it to hire its first African American. He wrote “Mississippi is the decisive battleground for America. Nowhere in the world is the idea of white supremacy more firmly entrenched, or more cancerous, than in Mississippi.” The KKK raised their crosshairs.
On Memorial Day 1964, Schwerner and his equally young, black friend James Chaney went to Longdale in Neshoba County, where Schwerner asked a black congregation at Mount Zion Church if CORE could use their church as the site for a new “freedom school.” On June 16, while Schwerner was north in Ohio attending a training session for Freedom Summer volunteers, Mount Zion was burned to the ground by the Mississippi KKK. The first thing Schwerner did when he returned a week later from Ohio with Chaney and Andrew Goodman was to go back to Longdale and meet with those who had lost their church. After visiting Longdale, while driving back to Meridian, Schwerner was pulled over in his blue CORE station wagon by Deputy Cecil Price, and the three civil rights workers fell into the Klan’s fatal trap.
Schwerner was the second of two sons. His father operated a wig manufacturing plant. His mother taught high-school biology. Schwerner was described as friendly, good-natured, gentle, mischievous, and “full of life and ideas.” He believed people were essentially good. He named his cocker spaniel Gandhi. Schwerner enrolled at Michigan State and transferred after a year to Cornell, where he campaigned successfully to have a black student accepted to his fraternity. Following graduation, Schwerner enrolled in Columbia’s graduate sociology department, but later dropped out to take a job as social worker on New York’s Lower East Side. Schwerner’s commitment to civil rights was deepened by watching the Birmingham riots of 1963 and so Schwerner applied to CORE, seeking to devote his life to attaining an “integrated society.” I don’t remember any discussion of Michael Schwerner in my hometown, New Rochelle, but there must have been some—and somehow, some way, it probably helped to make me who I am.
Stage two of the New Left, 1966–1975, was fueled by steadfast hatred for the inherent structural inadequacies of society. It retained only threadbare sympathy for the devils that inhabited the details. It had all kinds of courageous and cowardly, caring and callous, exceptionally smart and also incredibly dumb moments. I became who I am in the midst of stage two. Its glory days inspired my future. Its crashing but sometimes meaningless blows set my life agenda.
Stage three of the New Left is still being born. I am trying to contribute to stage three, including by writing this memoir. Stage three pays tribute to, and derives from, early SNCC and SDS. The future will later be present.