Tag Archives: demonstrations

Brownies and Legionnaires, by Alyson Ross

10 Aug

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When Alyson Ross was in her 20s and 30s, she wrote short stories for confession magazines and others of that ilk. For a 10,000-word story, she would receive three cents a word ($300). She jokes that as a Catholic she had to go to confession so she thought she should write confession stories. Alyson taught English and ESL for 27 years at East Los Angeles Community College. She has been retired over 20 years and is still writing, including working on a long, fictionalized family saga. She has traveled to 35 countries so far.

                       

Of the dozen or so Civil Rights marches in the San Gabriel Valley [Los Angeles metro area] that I went on, the most memorable was the first. In the early 60s, many suburban cities had unwritten covenants preventing people of color from buying or renting a house or an apartment. We were marching to persuade people to end this practice.

A week before one of the demonstrations, the local American Legion post presented my daughter’s newly formed Brownie troop, of which I was a parent leader, with an American flag. As the legionnaire marched up the aisle, I noticed that he was so tipsy that he almost dropped the flag. After presenting the flag and leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance, he spoke a few words, some of them slightly slurred, about how proud we should be as Americans.

On the morning of the Civil Rights march, the leader told us to avoid eye contact with people who would heckle us and under no circumstances to shout anything back at them. As the march proceeded, several bystanders joined us. And as we were warned, so did the hecklers, running along beside us and repeatedly shouting things like ”Are you walking with them or sleeping with them?” After hearing this taunt dozens of times, I could no longer restrain myself. I turned to the heckler next to me and shouted “Both!” To my amazement I found myself looking straight into the eyes of the legionnaire who a week earlier had presented my daughter’s Brownie troop with the American flag.

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                                                    Alyson (right) and her writing group

When we lived in Douglas, Arizona in first grade, there were only two non-Mexican students, a girl named Donna and myself, who were white. The other school kids lived in poor houses. Since my name was French—Balliot—the teacher thought I was a minority too, so she would talk louder to me. I was able to observe the cruelty of the teachers towards the students.

*****

In fourth grade history class in Los Angeles we read that slaves were well-treated, spent their time singing and dancing, etc. I told the teacher that wasn’t true but she replied, “The textbook says so.”

*****

One afternoon our neighbor, Mrs. Jones, came crying to our house. She had seen a black woman with two daughters on the streetcar and told the woman that her girls were the cutest pickaninnies she’d ever seen.  The woman had then said “something very cruel” to Mrs. Jones, causing her tears. My mother sympathized with Mrs. Jones. They both wondered why the black woman had been offended.

Even as a nine-year-old, I knew that word was an insult.

*****

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Alyson’s 80th birthday party                      Birthday present for Alyson

 *****

When I taught vocabulary-building at East Los Angeles College in the ’70s, my students and I marched and rallied against the administration. We were teaching in old, decrepit World War II bungalows while the administration had suites. Every Tuesday at noon there was a vigil at the administration building protesting the war.

*******

My daughter, who was attending Pomona College, got sick on the day of a peace march and couldn’t participate. She gave her sandals to a friend to wear so she could say her sandals had “walked the course.”

             

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Working Single Mother: Maintaining Her Sanity, by Ruth Persky

9 Aug

Ruth Persky was born in the Bronx N.Y. in 1934 to a somewhat observant Jewish family, which had immigrated to the U.S. in 1920 from Russian-occupied Poland. In 1943 the family moved to L.A. by train. Ruth attended after-school Hebrew School; joined a religious Zionist youth organization at 12; and spent a year in Israel from 1951-52.  Married twice, she reared two sons and her cousin’s two daughters.

In late 1965 I separated and was adjusting to single motherhood. Because of financial needs, I also had to find part-time work.  At that time I wasn’t focused on politics. Instead, I was maintaining my sanity, between work and single parenthood, through international folk dancing, dating, and occasional college classes.

The only political activity I did at the time was when Women Strike for Peace* had a demonstration. (I found out about it through my cousin-in-law.) A very large  middle-class contingent of women gathered at City Hall in a peaceful protest. WSF later opened a store-front office near my home.

Vietnam.Women Strike for Peace           Vietnam.Women Strike for Peace Anti-war demo

I participated occasionally in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that I heard about through friends. The Peace and Freedom Party** was starting at that time, and I hosted a meeting at my home. But soon enough one of the children had a serious problem, and I realized I needed to focus on the kids, not on political activities.

Still, I did listen to the news but didn’t pay much attention. One morning, however, as I was driving the kids to school, I heard the news that  Martin Luther King, Jr. was going to lead the sanitary public-works employees in a march. All of  a sudden I had the thought, “Gee, it would be terrible if something happened to him.”  I don’t know what made me have that thought; very likely, even without focusing, I had picked up the tenor of the times. As we know, tragedy struck and he was assassinated that day. I remember being very sad and near tears when I picked up my kids after work. As soon as I arrived home, I went next door to the home of a black family to express my sorrow to them for their loss. Of course, it was a loss for us all, but especially so for African-Americans.

Notes:

* Women Strike for Peace was founded by Bella Abzug and Dagmar Wilson in 1961. It was initially part of the movement for a ban on nuclear testing and to end the Vietnam War. They used many tactics that were different forms of legal pressure that include petitions, demonstrations, letter writing, mass lobbies, lawsuits and lobbying of individual Congressmen. They also had a few forms of illegal, nonviolent direct action activities that included sit-ins in congressional offices, and statements of complicity with draft resisters aimed at tying up the courts.

Vietnam.Women Strike for Peace.Bella Abzug           Vietnam.Women Strike for Peace logo

They played a crucial role, perhaps the crucial role (according to Eric Bentley), in bringing down the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), promoted the adoption of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963 and 1964), and were among the first Americans to oppose the Vietnam War. On November 1, 1961, at the height of the Cold War, about 50,000 women brought together by Women Strike for Peace marched in 60 cities in the United States to demonstrate against nuclear weapons. It was the largest national women’s peace protest of the 20th century.   [Source: Wikipedia

** The Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) is a nationally organized left-wing political party. The California branch was founded on June 23, 1967, after the riot in the wealthy Century City section of Los Angeles. The Peace and Freedom Party went national in 1968 as a left-wing organization opposed to the Vietnam War. It nominated Leonard Peltier for President in the 2004 U.S. Presidential election;  Ralph Nader for President in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election; andRoseanne Barr for President and Cindy Sheehan for Vice President in the 2012 presidential election. According to its main website, PFP “is committed to socialism, democracy, ecology, feminism and racial equality” and tries “to build a mass based socialist party throughout the country.”  It is a strong advocate of environmentalism, aboriginal rights, rights to sexuality, health care, abortion, education, housing, employment and a socialist-run economy. [Source: Wikipedia]

 

Chile: The First 9-11, Part I, by Isabel Rojas-Williams

3 Aug

Isabel Rojas-Williams has served as Mural Conservancy LA’s Executive Director since 2011. A native of Chile and resident of Los Isabel Rojas-WilliamsAngeles since 1973, she became an immediate and passionate fan of the mural movement here. Isabel pursued a business career ranging from retail sales to wholesale and import/export. She is a longtime civic activist who has served as the Mayor’s liaison to the Latino, the Asian, and the African American Heritage Committees.  Isabel earned her graduate degree in art history from Cal State Los Angeles, and joined the faculty there in 2007.  Among her numerous research works are “Los Angeles Street Mural Movement, 1930-2009,” her master’s thesis, and a video on David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Siqueiros: A Muralist in Exile,” which led to her participation on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretative Center project that was completed in 2012.

Check Isabel’s work at MCLA on the following links: https://www.facebook.com/muralconservancy

and  http://muralconservancy.org

I was born in Santiago, Chile in 1949. In the 1960s and early 1970s I was involved in the global student uprisings for civil rights. In high school I was involved in the struggle for democracy, By the time I got to college, I was fighting for the right to elect Allende in his fourth (1952, 1958, 1964, and 1970) and ultimately successful campaign to become president and then to keep his government in power in face of the pending 1973 coup by dictator Augusto Pinochet.

My father was a socialist, a political activist, and a poet who went from town to town to unionize railroad workers. He died of tuberculosis when I was two. He hadn’t even realized that he was sick; that was at the time when they just discovered penicillin, and even though mass production of penicillin began in 1948, by the time penicillin reached Chile, it was too late for my father. My mother figured out later from his symptoms what he had died of.

My mother was from an upper middle-class family. She met my father in a small town where he was organizing. He was a charming man and she fell in love. She also believed in his cause. However, my mother’s father was deadly opposed to their marriage and disinherited her. When Dad died at 33, my mother, who was only 22, was heartbroken. My parents already had two children, my sister and me, and she was pregnant with her third baby. I learned a lot of this through love letters from Dad to Mom; Mom keeps a stack of them near to her, tied with a ribbon, and won’t let us read them, but she tells us what’s in them.

After my dad’s death, my grandfather gave my mom a job as a blue-collar worker in the national dairy distribution company, which he directed. My mom had no babysitter so she’d take me with her to work, leaving the other children with neighbors. As I grew up, I watched my mother’s struggle to survive. After working all day in the dairy company, she took in piecework at home at night. We lived only four doors from my grandparents, but my mom had to rent a room for the four of us from a neighbor. To escape the poverty she remarried at 27 and had three more kids, but my stepfather was not a good man for her. She continued to struggle.

We siblings were very close, like a fist. We all aspired to education in order to escape our poverty and to help our mother.

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Isabel’s Mother: Isabel Canales Espinoza

From the time we were 12 or 13, in order to save money for our schooling, my sisters and I knit sweaters, which we sold to members of our family; made our own clothes; and helped our mother iron garments she made for garment factories. Because of all this, I was familiar with the struggles of poor people.

My mother is my hero. She is amazing. She struggled to help feed her kids and to give them an education. She is my daily inspiration.

As a child I was very sick with pneumonia. My grandmother took me to live with her part of the time so she could take me to the hospital daily for shots—she feared TB. I went from one world to another. While at my grandparents’ house, I saw how they lived—they had a chauffeur, housekeeper, cook, and personal caretaker for me. I became aware of the disparities between the rich and the poor. I identified with the latter.

My grandmother was not a cold woman. She had sympathy for the workers; she understood their struggle, and she suffered because of not being able to help my mother. But my grandfather was physically intimidating and arrogant. He thought that he was “entitled.”

I have always been an avid reader, but once in high school I immersed myself in books. I became aware of Fredrick Engels and of Marx’s Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto.

CommunistManifesto

I became a firm believer that capitalism was the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” and was run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit. I felt that the only way to blur the lines between the “haves” and the “have-nots” was socialism. Raised in a country at a time when education was extremely Euro-centric, I was aware of the European student movement of the 1960s.  This phenomenon caused political activism among students all over the globe, including in the Americas. I was one of those political activists. As I approached the end of high school, I became involved with students who attended La Universidad Técnica del Estado. This was the college where most of my left-leaning friends attended and where I studied for one year. We thought of ourselves as Bohemian intellectuals who wanted to make a difference. Growing up in Chile during the 1960s and early 1970s, I was—like many of my generation in countries around the world—politically and culturally aware. We championed labor organization, land reform, anti-imperialism, and anti-Vietnam War causes. These were the sentiments that guided Chileans to elect socialist president Salvador Allende in 1970.

Salvador Allende

Salvador Allende

[Note by editor: “Salvador Allende known as the first Marxist to become president of a Latin American country through open elections. As president, Allende adopted a policy of nationalization of industries and collectivization. On 11 September 1973 the military moved to oust Allende in a coup d’état. As troops surrounded La Moneda Palace, Allende gave his last speech vowing not to resign, and then committed suicide.” (Source: Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Allende)]

However, Allende was not allowed to govern freely. The right-wing opposition and the Catholic Church were displeased at having a socialist for president; tensions grew with foreign corporations. The Chilean economy suffered as a result of a U.S. campaign against the Allende government. It was widely known then about the U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, following orders from President Nixon to do whatever was necessary in order “to get rid of him [Allende].” (The now declassified documents can be read here: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm.)

[Note by editor: “The violent overthrow of the democratically-elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende changed the course of the country that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described as “a long petal of sea, wine and snow”; because of CIA covert intervention in Chile, and the repressive character of General Pinochet’s rule, the coup became the most notorious military takeover in the annals of Latin American history.   (Source: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm)]

Pablo Neruda and Allende

Pablo Neruda and Allende

So to keep our dignity and our voice while our rights were denied, a cultural resistance was born. Mural brigades expressed political views on Chilean walls (“…podrán cortar las flores pero no podrán evitar la primavera…,” which means “they can cut the flowers, but they can’t keep spring from coming.” Other slogans were: “Another Chile is possible,” “Let’s build a new Chile,” “Children are born to be happy”). Pablo Neruda’s poetry was circulated underground from hand to hand, and we reveled in Victor Jara’s songs of love, peace, and social justice. This was the environment in which Chileans like me lived.

Chile.Victor Jara.Santiago.ifsa-butler.org

Victor Jara

[Note by editor: Victor Jara (September 28, 1932 – September 16, 1973) was a Chilean teacher, theater director, poet, singer-songwriter, political activist and member of the Communist Party of Chile. Shortly after the Chilean coup of 11 September 1973, he was arrested, tortured and ultimately shot dead with 44 machine-gun bullets. His body was later thrown out into the street of a shanty town in Santiago. The contrast between the themes of his songs, on love, peace and social justice, and the brutal way in which he was murdered transformed Jara into a symbol of struggle for human rights and justice worldwide. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%ADctor_Jara)]

One of my professors in college offered me my first “real” job, as a secretary in the Registro Nacional de Comerciantes (National Register for Businessmen). The purpose of this organization was to pull together under one umbrella all the smaller business organizations such as the Chambers of Commerce around the country. One of the directors of the Registro was the president of the Santiago Chamber of Commerce; many years later he was to become my husband. At the time we became friends because he, unlike many of the other businessmen, gave money to charity and was more middle-of-the-road than the others. He would speak up on behalf of poor people. I felt I could trust him and a few of the others. My future husband did not know about my political sympathies and activities; neither did my family.

My job was to take shorthand at the directors’ meetings, and I was the secretary of the organization’s legal department. I met the ministers of various government agencies and three presidents (Jorge Alessandri, Eduardo Frei, and Salvador Allende). I was 19 and got to travel throughout Chile. From all this I learned what was happening within the power structure. At the same time I was still demonstrating in the streets, living a double life; I worked with the right-wing businessmen during the day and I was a left-wing political activist at night. After work and school, I would join my political activist friends. The more artistic ones would design slogans that were mimeographed in multiple paper copies. Some of us would mix “engrudo” (wheat paste made of water and flour) and then go to paste political affiches [posters] on the walls. Soon mural brigades were formed and youth began to paint political slogans empowering the people and striving for social justice; this is how The Ramona Parra Mural Brigade was born (BRP). At the same time, along with my activist friends I took part in the frequent student demonstrations to support Allende’s government and to oppose foreign interference (“Yankees go home,” “Este es un gobierno de mierda, pero es mi gobierno” (“This is a shitty government, but it’s my government”).

Chile.Demo for Allende

Most high school and college students, as well as the great majority of Chilean intellectuals, were socialists and communists. By now I was attending classes at the Faculty of Law, Universidad de Chile, where two of the lawyers whom I worked for taught. We suspected that the CIA was involved in Chile. US president Nixon did not keep it a secret that he feared Chile could become “another Cuba.” This knowledge was learned from the foreign press. The U.S. cut off most of its foreign aid to Chile and supported Allende’s opponents in Chile during his presidency.

[Note by editor: “Revelations that President Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA to ‘make the economy scream’ in Chile to ‘prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him,’  prompted a major scandal in the mid-1970s, and a major investigation by the U.S. Senate. Since the coup, however, few U.S. documents relating to Chile have been actually declassified—until recently. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, and other avenues of declassification, the National Security Archive has been able to compile a collection of declassified records that shed light on events in Chile between 1970 and 1976.”  (Source: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm)]

After Allende won the election in 1970, the U.S. and others began an embargo against Chile. There was nothing to eat whether you had money or not. I was lucky; because of my job with the business organization I worked for, we were able to have access to the basics—beans, rice, flour, and sugar—through their connections, which they shared with me for my family. The upper class, who owned businesses and who were the ones opposing Allende’s government, were hoarding food, which forced people to stand in long lines to get the little food available. I became disgusted and stopped accepting food from the connections at my job.

My friends and I increasingly rebelled. We wanted to keep Allende in power and we fought against the intrusion of the CIA. As the situation became more tense, many of us were at risk of being exiled, disappeared, or even killed. At this time many wealthy right-wingers were leaving the country out of fear of the people. Meanwhile, intellectuals and left-wingers were leaving for safety in order to organize the resistance from abroad. I was terrified about my family’s future and—as a committed political activist working towards a world free of violence and poverty—about my own chances to survive the violence affecting my country of birth.

To protect each other, none of us activists talked about our political work. I wasn’t even aware that my brother, who is seven years younger than I, was involved in the resistance that opposed Pinochet.

Augusto Pinochet

Augusto Pinochet

Years later and during Pinochet’s dictatorship, my sister found pamphlets in our brother’s briefcase. I learned through my sister that they were terrified about our brother’s participation in politics. People who opposed Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship were tortured, disappeared, or killed. I, as well as my family, were happy to see my brother immigrate to Switzerland in 1981; he was able to return to Chile in 1989.

My last memories of Chile, the country that I left in a rush in 1973, are chaotic. Two months before the violent September 11, 1973 coup d’état that killed democratically chosen President Salvador Allende, I narrowly escaped being killed by a shotgun pointed at my neck. I was 22 and a college student. I was terrified for my family’s future and—as a committed political activist working towards a world free of violence and poverty—about my own chances to survive the violence affecting my country of birth. Five long years passed before I was able to see my family again!

[To be continued in Part 2 of 2 about Isabel’s life after she came to the United States, including pictures of some of the murals in Los Angeles.]

“Are You Now or Have You Ever…” : HUAC Hearing in Los Angeles, Part 2, by Lenny Potash

29 Jul

This is the second part of Lenny’s story about HUAC in Los Angeles. The first part appeared a week ago.

The SmiLennyPotash - Copyth Act of the early ‘40s had made it illegal to advocate the forceful and violent overthrow of the government. This act was employed mainly against Trotskyists. Then it became dormant for a while. After World War II the Act started to be used again, beginning with the arrest of national Communist Party leaders (including my uncle in New York). As the Cold War developed, Joe McCarthy became a senator and began pointing to hidden communists everywhere, including in the Eisenhower Administration and the U.S. Army. The hysteria ballooned and investigative committees sprang up in both houses of Congress and in a number of state legislatures. During the ‘50s it seemed like the national favorite pastime became listing suspected reds in various industries such as entertainment and in almost all walks of American life, and then trying to purge or blackball them.

By the time of my subpoena, HUAC was becoming increasingly unpopular. For most it no longer evoked the fear it had five or ten years earlier. We felt that its current shotgun approach was a dying gasp, not a meaningful attack. The San Francisco demonstration in 1960 against HUAC, which was brutally attacked by the police, had educated more people about its attack on the Bill of Rights and democratic participation. In addition, the political climate of the country was changing. The Civil Rights Movement had begun and a new youth and student movement was arising. We felt there was an ascendancy of activism and progressive thought that was beginning to change the political climate. At the same time, we were beginning to think that HUAC was running out of juice.

HUAC.LennyPotash. SoCalHearings.Cover

The hearings were held at the old federal building at 300 South Spring Street. Demonstrators encircled the square block around the building. All kinds of people turned out. Many hundreds joined in: students, supporters, civil libertarians, political activists, including many who had been reticent to stand up in the preceding years during the height of McCarthyism. The demonstrators bolstered those of us who had to appear and testify. Even the media presence was decent. Witnesses went in and out, out and in, and then joined the line. Members of the committee were apparently too intimidated to pass through our picket line; a picture captured them as they entered by freight elevator.

I was somewhat nervous and intimidated at the hearing but not seriously frightened. In fact, I felt somewhat confident as I invoked the Fifth Amendment, with my ACLU attorney beside me. I even found mild ways to “play” with the committee, asking them about the relevance of their questions. At one point I interrupted the proceedings to ask them to introduce themselves to me. My lawyer kicked my shin.

HUAC. LennyPotash.SoCalHearings.P.125

[Note: This is the first page of Lenny’s testimony (or lack thereof). The complete transcript is at the end of this article.]

They asked me if I was carrying out the popular front policy of the party and whether I was on its youth commission. One question that particularly irked me concerned a demonstration by the Women’s Strike for Peace. They asked me to identify a photo of myself at that demonstration. “Is this you?” they asked as they showed me a snapshot with one of my kids next to me and another in a baby carriage. In fact, I had been doing childcare while my wife Ida took part in the demonstration. Their questions implied that I was the communist male behind the scene pulling the strings.

Some of their questions mixed me up with my cousin in New York, whose name I share. Of course, the committee knew the answers—or thought they did—to all their questions. But if they could get a witness to answer a question, then they could force him or her to testify against others. No longer could the Fifth Amendment be invoked because you had already admitted you were a member or a participant of an organization or event. After that, if you refused answer their questions and rat on others in that group, i.e. “name names” of whom else may have been present, you could be held in contempt and risk imprisonment. Despite the stated purpose of these hearings—to consider legislation—no legislation was ever introduced. The real purpose of the HUAC hearings was to intimidate, to create a climate of fear and suspicion.

The hearing lasted 20-30 minutes for me and it took a number of days to get through all 60 witnesses.

I was probably less worried than others about the impact of the HUAC appearance because I couldn’t be blacklisted or lose my job. I was a part-time student and “self-employed” as a guitar teacher. Mostly I received support from those I relied on to earn a living and from my social circle.

The drama of the HUAC subpoenas and hearings along with the flurry of activity was memorable and in a number of ways presaged the progressive and activist era of the ‘60s, the dynamic civil rights movement, farm worker organizing efforts, the beginning of the women’s movement, and the growing awareness and ending of the Vietnam War.  We didn’t know it then, but that was the last time HUAC came to Los Angeles. [End of text. Following are the remaining pages of the transcript of Lenny’s interrogation by HUAC.]

HUAC. LennyPotash.SoCalHearings.P.126-127              HUAC. LennyPotash.SoCalHearings.P.128-9

“Are You Now or Have You Ever…” : HUAC Hearing in Los Angeles, Part 1, by Lenny Potash

22 Jul

Lenny Potash is retired labor activist who currently spends much of his time and effort educating and organizing labor support for a publicly funded healthcare system that guarantees everyone a high standard of care without the private insurance industry. He is a New York transplant that has lived in Los Angeles since 1948. In his spare time he makes traditional, labor and political music with others, or can be seen peddling his bike around Atwater, Glendale, Silverlake, and adjoining neighborhoods.

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Part 1.

In early April of 1962, I was awakened around 6 a.m. by a banging on the front door. We lived in a small Echo Park house on a hill about 35 or 40 steps up from the street to the door. I went to the door and was confronted by two “suits.” When they asked for “Leonard Potash” I said that was me. They handed me a subpoena and retreated down the steps. OMG, it was a subpoena from Congress. I was required to appear in a couple of weeks at a hearing of the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) in Los Angeles. By then my wife Ida and our three young children, Robin, almost 5, Arnie, a little over 2, and Cory, 10 months, were all awake.

In a way, I wasn’t surprised.  Long before I joined the Communist Party in the late 1950s, I was a serious political and left activist. As a teenager, I had protested Jim Crow bowling alleys, the lynching of Negroes in the South, the war in Korea, the bombing of a Negro family moving into a West Adams white neighborhood, the death penalty, anti-Semitism, the prosecution of the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobel, and the blacklisting of teachers who refused to sign a loyalty oath, to name a few. I had joined a number of politically left youth organizations including the Jewish Young Fraternalists and the Labor Youth League.

Lenny ca. 1958 with his mother

Lenny ca. 1958 with his mother

But then I thought, Why have they chosen me? They must be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Although I’d been a political activist since puberty, I still didn’t think I had reached the threshold to warrant congressional attention.

Despite all my political activism, the ‘50s was a pretty unstable time for me. I felt isolated and intimidated by the hostile political climate. At times we were attacked on picket lines. I and most of the activist community felt we were being surveilled (which I obviously was). I had personal issues too. In 1952-53 I dropped out of high school. Although I later took classes at Los Angeles Community College, it was difficult for me because I lacked study habits and discipline. That was also true when it came to holding down a job without much experience and work habits. I got married, and not too long after, Ida and I had three kids in fairly quick succession.

In this round of interrogations, HUAC had subpoenaed 60 people in all. The Committee had taken a “shotgun” approach—that is, cast a wide net over people from all different communities, ages, organizations and interests. I was 26 and one of four or five “youths” in the catch. There were also groups of Latinos, labor activists, professional, and other activists in the group. In the past, these “investigations” by HUAC had tended to target activists involved in a particular area (labor, medical, students, civil rights, etc.)

The subpoena sparked all kinds of activity in the progressive community. A flurry of meetings called by the (possibly ad hoc) Committee to Preserve American Freedoms and led by Frank Wilkinson, was held over the next two weeks at a suite of rather run-down offices located at 555 North Western Avenue. [Note by ed.: A lifelong progressive political activist, Frank Wilkinson was caught up in the McCarthy style redbaiting when he defended a major public housing project, Elysian Park Heights, for the Chávez Ravine section of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Dodger Stadium eventually occupied the site.]  There was coordination between a variety of groups: civil liberties, student groups, some churches, and other progressive organizations. What was hoped to be a large demonstration against HUAC was planned for the days the Committee would be holding hearings. A media campaign was prepared. The American Civil Liberties Union offered free legal counsel for all subpoenaed. This was a first for them. A student subcommittee was formed to “welcome” HUAC to Los Angeles. We felt energized. We believed we could turn out supporters. And we did!  [To be continued in Part 2.]

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[To be continued. Watch for Part 2]

“Could She Be a Communist?” The San Francisco HUAC Hearings, by Kitty Kroger

18 Jul

Kitty Kroger is the editor of this blog. She is also the author of a novel, Dancing with Mao and Miguel, about the seventies, and lives in Los Angeles.

In 1961 I was a senior at Riverside Polytechnic High School in southern California. I had a first-year speech teacher, not much older than her students, named Miss Singler, who seemed very “radical” to me (whatever that meant). As far as I could tell, she and my chemistry teacher were the only teachers in the whole school who were concerned about the political and social events of the day.

In San Francisco in 1960, Miss Singler had in some way been involved in the HUAC  (1) hearings and the police attack on the steps of City Hall  (2). The whole thing fascinated me. It was the first time I’d ever heard about McCarthyism or demonstrations.

HUAC San Francisco2

I’d led a very sheltered small-town life in Kalispell, Montana until I was 13, and then we moved to a suburban community in California. My parents voted conservatively but rarely discussed politics. I didn’t read the newspaper and had no familiarity with or interest in current events. My thoughts were full of philosophical questions such as Does God exist? and What is the meaning of life? My aspirations and my attention in those days lay in attending a liberal arts college, getting a grounding in the Classics and philosophy, and becoming an “intellectual.”

Miss Singler showed us a film of the police attacks and we all discussed it. (3) We students were indignant and ready to take some action. Miss Singler organized us for an event: the PTA had invited parents to a showing of that same film in the auditorium, with the purpose of revealing how student radicals—most likely communist-infiltrated—were a threat to our innocent children and our democracy.

Finally the day arrived. As I recall, students from our class sat in the very back row. When it came time for questions, we were to speak up. Which we did. I don’t remember the discussion or the outcome. What I do remember is feeling confused. Miss Singler brought out incipient feelings of rebellion and indignation in me at the injustice of the hearings and the police attacks. But I didn’t fully comprehend the issue. And I felt uneasy, mistrustful, of someone who was so critical of society as I had always “known” it. Although I don’t recall hearing anything about communism or McCarthyism in my childhood, somehow I must have absorbed the paranoia of the time. At some point, I finally decided to ask my father about it.

“Dad, do you think Miss Singler might be a communist?”

I find it quite remarkable that, given his conservative background, my father seemed completely indifferent to exploring the politics of Miss Singler. What he said I will never forget:

”Don’t ever say that about anybody!” (4)

Notes:

1.  The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, investigated allegations of communist activity in the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War (1945-91). Established in 1938, the committee wielded its subpoena power as a weapon and called citizens to testify in high-profile hearings before Congress. This intimidating atmosphere often produced dramatic but questionable revelations about Communists infiltrating American institutions and subversive actions by well-known citizens. HUAC’s controversial tactics contributed to the fear, distrust and repression that existed during the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, HUAC’s influence was in decline, and in 1969 it was renamed the Committee on Internal Security. Although it ceased issuing subpoenas that year, its operations continued until 1975.  [Source: http://www.history.com/]

2.  Radio reporter Fred Haines describes those events [of May 13, 1960] below:

The “Friends of the Committee” gathered just to the right of this line (the line of students who had been waiting for several hours) . . . . As I watched, (Police Inspector Michael) McGuire opened a way through the center barricade and began to admit the white card holders one at a time; for a moment the waiting crowd paused, and then an angry roar went up. Those in the rear, who were halfway down the stairs and couldn’t see what was going on began to edge forward and in the resulting crush began to press the flimsy saw-horse barricade toward me and the police officers who leaped forward to hold it. Angry cries of “Hold it! Stop pushing!” came from those in front; the barricade held and the police pushed it back to its original position . . . .

The Barricade back and the crowd quiet, McGuire suddenly noticed that the white card holders, who were still filing through, included in their number some students–he lunged forward and grabbed one of them roughly. The student wrenched himself free, shouting angrily, “I’ve got a white card!” McGuire taken aback, let go and seized another by the lapels of his jacket–the young man thrust a 35mm camera in McGuire’s face and tripped the shutter. Again McGuire let go, and several students managed to slip into the Chambers.

. . . Already the singing was beginning again . . . There was only one last move; the picket monitors and others began passing the word to sit down on the floor . . . .

Four or five minutes had passed since the doors were closed on the expectant crowd, and the crisis was safely over. I supposed that the police might begin wholesale arrests shortly, but the possible eruption of violence had been neatly averted, with the vast majority of the crowd safely self-immobilized on the floor . . . .

Moments later, an attorney who was representing two of the witnesses made his way across the rotunda and arrived behind the barricades just in time to see McGuire opening one of the hydrants. He ran over to the officer shouting, “You can’t do this to these kids.” McGuire shrugged him off. An officer behind the center barricade picked up the nozzle of one of the fire hoses which had been unrolled from the floor and pointed it at several students sitting just beyond the barricade. “You want some of this?” he shouted. “Well you’re going to get it.” One of the young men waved at him and kept on singing. A trickle dripped from the nozzle, a spurt, bubbly with air–and then the hose stiffened with the full pressure of the water, which blasted into the group of seated demonstrators.

The rotunda seemed to erupt. The singing broke up into one gigantic horrified scream. People fled past me as I ran forward, trying to see what was going on; a huge sheet of spray, glancing off one granite pillar, flashed through the air in front of me, and I retreated . . . .

For the first time I had a moment to think, to take stock of the situation . . . . during the past few minutes they’d dumped thousands of gallons of water inside a public building, causing several thousand dollars worth of damage (not counting whatever human injury there had been). And they had accomplished nothing. Perhaps 50 people of the 200 had fled . . .  . now they had 150 people wet, angry, and injured, most of whom were rooted to the spot and determined to make as much noise as ever before. (Free Speech Movement Archives. http://www.fsm-a.org/stacks/AP_files/APHUAC60.html)

Police violence during the “riot”… resulted in the arrest of 68 persons. [Source:  Alice Huberman and  Jim Prickett (Free Speech Movement Archives. http://www.fsm-a.org/stacks/AP_files/APHUAC60.html)

3.  Operation Abolition. The House Committee on Un-American Activities labeled the demonstrations “Communist inspired” and proceeded to produce the now famed film, Operation Abolition, which purported to give the facts about the events in San Francisco. This film was shown throughout the country during 1960 and 1961, and actually turned into the opposite of what the makers intended; the student movement used it quite successfully to educate people about repression. The Northern California ACLU produced a film called Operation Correction, which discussed falsehoods in the first film. Scenes from the hearings and protest were later featured in the award-winning 1990 documentary Berkeley in the Sixties. [Source:  Alice Huberman and  Jim Prickett (http://www.fsm-a.org); Wikipedia]

4.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who is certainly in a better position than anyone else to know the truth about all Communist Party operations in this country, has prepared an official report on the riots entitled “Communist Targets— Youth.” The report was released by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in July 1960. Five pages of this 10-page report are devoted to factual material on exactly how the Communist Party planned and carried out the San Francisco demonstrations and riots, including the dates and places of party meetings, decisions made at them, subsequent actions taken, and the names of Communist Party members and officials involved. This factual data is preceded by this statement:

It is vitally important to set the record straight on the extent to which Communists were responsible for the disgraceful and riotous conditions which prevailed during the HCUA hearings.

HUAC.J.Edgar

Toward the end of his report, Mr. Hoover summarized the Communists’ role in the riots in these words:

The Communists demonstrated in San Francisco just how powerful a weapon Communist infiltration is. They revealed how it is possible for only a few Communist agitators, using mob psychology, to turn peaceful demonstrations into riots.

Months later, after certain sources had given nationwide circulation to the claim that the riots were not Communist-inspired, Mr. Hoover addressed the American Legion convention in Miami (October 18, 1960) and reiterated his statement concerning Communist responsibility for the riots:

The diabolical influence of Communism on youth was manifested in the anti-American student demonstrations in Tokyo. It further was in evidence this year in Communist-inspired riots in San Francisco, where students were duped into disgraceful demonstrations against a Congressional committee.

These students were stooges of a sinister technique stimulated by clever Communist propagandists who remained quietly concealed in the background. These master technicians of conspiracy had planned for some time to use California college students as a “front” for their nefarious operations. This outburst was typical of these cunning conspirators who constantly play active, behind-the-scenes roles in fomenting civic unrest in every conceivable area of our society.

Still later, in his year-end report to the Attorney General of the United States, submitted on December 22, 1960, Mr. Hoover stated that in the future:

the Communists hope to repeat the success which they achieved on the West Coast last May in spearheading mob demonstrations by college students and other young people against a Committee of Congress.

Finally, on March 6, 1961, in an appearance before a House Appropriations Subcommittee, Mr. Hoover testified as follows concerning the San Francisco riots:

A most significant single factor surrounding the mob demonstration was the Communist infiltration of student and youth groups engaged in protest demonstrations against this congressional committee. Through this infiltration, Communists revealed how it is possible for only a few Communist agitators, using mob psychology, to convert peaceful demonstrations into riots.

The success of the party’s strategy was vividly demonstrated by the violence which erupted at the San Francisco City Hall where the committee hearings were held. The San Francisco debacle was not an accident. It was the result of minute and skillful planning, direction, and exploitation by a handful of dedicated, fanatical, hardcore members of the Communist Party, U.S.A.

One of the targets of the Communist Party is to step up its infiltration of youth organizations and the demonstration at San Francisco which occurred last year was typical of their efforts.

[Source: California Digital Library (http://www.cdlib.org)]

Rallying of the Blinks in a (Short-) Sighted City, by F. Joseph Spieler

22 Jun

Village Voice Logo

The following article is from a 1969 or 1970 issue of the Village Voice and concerns the Blind Power Movement reported on in the prior post written by Lynne Koral. She is the “Lynne” in this article. The article was reprinted in the 1970 issue of the Braille Monitor, the Voice of the National Federation of the Blind. It was digitized by the Internet Archive in 2010 with funding from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). http://www.archive.org/details/braillemonitorju1970nati

Rallying of the Blinks in a (Short-) Sighted City
F. Joseph Spieler

A rainy day can be a drag for the blind, for the sound of tapping umbrellas is the sound of tapping canes.

“Hey, someone’s coming,” called Pat Logan, as a rapping sound came down the stairs of the elevated subway at 90th Street and Elmhurst Avenue in Queens. “No, it’s just an umbrella.”

“Darn,” she said, and continued her wait with others for more blind people whom she would escort to her home for a meeting of the Blind Power Movement.

A movement of mainly high school and college students, it wants to stimulate and serve–at first–the youth of a blind population that numbers 40,000 in the city. Somewhat to the left in individual persuasion, though non-partisan in its goals, it sees itself in confrontation with the stereotype of the blind as sub-human or super-human (“Oh, look at that blind man, how sad and empty his life must be”–“I know this blind girl, it’s fantastic, she plays the piano and 12-string guitar, and she’s only 16!”), with an industrial society that assumes it has less use for the blind than did Homer’s Greece, and with New York’s state and private service organizations, which, after standing pat on their pioneering efforts years ago, have become top-heavy and self-serving bureaucracies that bind the blind to a system that rewards conformity and punishes dissent, but whose greater evil is to effectively segregate its clients from sighted society.

Walking from the subway to the apartment that 20-year-old Pat, a student at New York University, shares with her mother, seven blinks (“that’s our own sub-culture word for ourselves”) talked about President Nixon, the Moratorium, drugs, rock records, and various goings-on at the institutions for the blind. Jerry, a black high school student, talked with a sighted (their word for you) about being blind.

“Maybe I was kind of up tight with you before, but you have to understand that sighted people have so many preconceptions about us that it can get to be a pain in the —.” In addition to being blind, we’re supposed to be emotionally disturbed, too loud, picky, helpless. It always messes them up to find that we’re like them, that we’re involved in the same things they are, have the same bags and hangups–except that we have no vision.”

The last is important, for the lack of vision in the blind does not imply the inability to “see.” Pierre Villey, a blind psychologist, once wrote: “Sight is long-distance touch, with the sensation of color added. Touch is near sight, minus the sensation of color, and with the sense of rugosity added. The two senses give us knowledge of the same order.”

Soon gathered in Pat’s room–any young woman’s room, with the addition of two tape recorders, a television set (“I like to watch Johnny Carson”), and other sound equipment–were sixteen persons involved in pre-meeting pleasantries. After a few minutes, Lynne [Note: See the prior two posts on this blog by the same Lynne Koral. Ed.], a diminutive seventeen-year-old high-schooler, began axing private conversation by calling it “irrelevant,” and the movement’s third meeting began.

Fitfully chaired by Jerry, the gathering sifted legitimate from personal grievances, split into contentious factions, and then unified itself and put a series of goals on Braille.

The agencies for the blind received the heaviest specific criticism. These institutions, of which the largest in this city are the Jewish Guild for the Blind, The Industrial Home for the Blind, and the Lighthouse (the New York Association for the Blind), provide, in part, mobility lessons (how to travel), evaluation programs for students, Braille, typing, sensory training, manual dexterity instruction, home economics, and reader services. Some run “sheltered workshops”–where blind workers make simple handicrafts for varying rates of pay. Some receive money from state agencies–mainly the Rehabilitation and Counseling Service–for mobility lessons and evaluation testing.

The meeting was unanimous in its anger over what it felt is the arbitrariness shown by the agencies in their dealings with clients (the agencies’ word), their closed mouthedness about information (Wesley D. Sprague, executive director of the Lighthouse, when asked recently how many blind workers were employed by his agency, replied with a long and windy discourse on the meaninglessness of statistics), and the narrowness of their job training programs (the Lighthouse, for example, will train people, regardless of talent, for only three jobs–piano tuning, transcription typing, and newstand vending).

The young people made a special point of telling a visitor how they felt about being talked down to, and being “tested, tested, and re-tested.” They said that the agencies’ subtle, invidious message was that the social and vocational freedom of the blind was severely limited and that they were not to forget how dependent they were on agency support.

“Of course,” said Jerry, “they’ll deny everything and call us paranoid when we say that.”

In fact, a sighted executive near the top of one agency’s hierarchy came close to labeling the movement’s sentiments in just that fashion.–“Sure, they think they’re being given a raw deal,” he said, “but they’re just youngsters. Why I remember I rebelled as a kid myself, and in a way it’s good for them.”

Yet a recent study of the blind, “The Making of Blind Men” by Robert A, Scott, discussions with sympathetic professional workers in the agencies, and a talk with William Underwood, an educational specialist for the American Foundation for the Blind, a national consultative agency that carries Helen Keller’s legacy, indicate that Jerry and others in the movement–who, like many blind clients and agency workers, are fearful that full identification will lose them their services and jobs–are neither paranoid nor juvenile.

Scott’s work, published this year by the Russell Sage Foundation, says that self-conceptions of the blind contrast sharply with those held by workers for the blind, who regard blindness as “one of the most severe of all handicaps,” “Socialization” of the agency’s client, a process that Scott describes as learning “the disability of blindness (as a) social role,” depends on “changing his views about his problem. In order to do this, the client’s views about the problem of blindness must be discredited.” The client “is listened to attentively and sympathetically. However, when concrete plans are formulated, the client learns that his personal views are largely ignored.” A blind person who simply asks for help with reading can wind up facing a battery of psychological tests. If he asks for medical aid, he may be asked to involve himself in a long, complex series of tests, training classes, and re-tests.

Blind persons acceptable to the agency, Scott says, “will often find that the intake worker listens attentively to their views but then dismisses them as superficial or inaccurate.” The result of such treatment, Scott says, is that the client’s ability to act and think independently is severely diminished. Because “the workers have a virtual monopoly on the rewards and punishments in the system,” he continues, the client ends up by conforming to the worker’s conception of what a blind person should be.

Underwood agrees. “To get the services of the blind agencies, the blind individual must conform to the system, and let’s face it, blind kids entering high school and college need their services.”

One woman who holds a responsible position at the Lighthouse, afraid that the use of even her first name would lead to her detection and firing, confirmed Scott’s description in detail. “The thing I absolutely can’t stand is the way they pretend to like blind people–the hypocrisy is sad, it’s sickening.” She recalled an incident in which some blinks, after meeting at the Lighthouse with a psychologist, asked the doctor out for a drink at a nearby bar. Some staff people heard about it and, horrified at the possibilities, rounded up the imbibers into cabs and sent them home.

But beyond the textbook understanding and occasional good intentions of agency staff lies the fact that a small, intelligent, energetic, and growing Blind Power Movement has entered what social scientists anesthetizingly refer to as “the revolution of rising expectations.” The foremost of their goals is “the education of the public to break down stereotypes about the blind, with particular emphasis on the consideration of individual intelligence and talent by educators, employers, and blind agencies.

Second is “increased and diversified job placement, with research into new areas where blind people can find challenging and stimulating work.” (Perhaps nothing gives the young blind the sense of paternalistic manipulation as much as the agencies’ vocational training classes, such as those run by the Lighthouse.)

The Blind Power Movement makes several other demands:

–A large increase in the number of blind staff workers in the agencies. (The movement members and their staff sympathizers speak of agencies’ systematic placing in middle-management jobs of blind Uncle Tom workers who dead-end any innovative and experimental impulses among the clients. One revealing figure is that only one blind person sits on the Lighthouse’s thirty-eight-man board of directors. Imagine all but one of the board of directors of the NAACP in 1969 being white.)

–“Expansion of self-help programs tied to public schooling to eliminate the need for special schools for the blind, which tend to reinforce the segregation of the blind.”

–The creation of “instruction groups in which blind instructors would teach parents how to provide their blind offspring with more mobility–and hence independence–at an earlier age.”

–Tutoring in such special areas as science and math so they may achieve competitive status with sighted students.

The movement is not heady. As well as taking on the agencies–which in the public image have halos around their offices–there is the problem of what Richard Adcock, a seventeen-year-old who attends Grover Cleveland High, calls the “unorganized blind”–those frightened of losing their agency’s services if they join the movement, those who are unaware of the movement (publicity and meetings pose special problems for the blind), and those who feel they can do it on their own.

Joseph Ciccone is one who would like to do it alone. Though he earned a B.A. degree in economics from City College in 1967, he has, at twenty-five, been trained as a piano tuner. He has also taught himself electronics, holds a general-class ham license, and is attempting to start a business as a free-lance recording technician, using his own impressive equipment. “It’s not easy, you always have to fight against the same thing–‘a blind recording technician?'” Though his own experience with blind agencies would have enabled him to write much of Scott’s criticism, Ciccone feels that energy on behalf of the blind should be directed at prying open the job market. Unable to get a job in his academic field, he qualified himself for work as a radio announcer and studio technician–but not one station in this city’s progressive media consented to offer him even a tryout. “It was always ‘we can’t hire blind people’ or ‘we’ll put you on our list and get back to you before not too long,’ but they never did.”

He wishes the movement well but is pessimistic. “Numbers,” he says, “that’s the whole thing about organizing the blind–the numbers aren’t there.”

But the movement doesn’t think so. Its activists say the meetings–which are open to sighted people–are drawing a growing membership, and that they are earning sympathy and tacit support from progressive agency workers. “What we need now,” said Pat Logan, “is publicity, publicity, publicity.”

*************

Editor’s note:  If you are interested in the response of the president of the National Federation of the Blind to this Voice article, then read on. The Village Voice article was reprinted the same year, 1970, in the Braille Monitor, the organ of the NFB, as part of an article by its president, Kenneth Jernigan.

“BLIND POWER”–DIALOGUE AT A DISTANCE
by Kenneth Jernigan, President, National Federation of the Blind

Recently Mike Ewart of Maryland sent me an article from “The Village Voice,” an underground newspaper published in Greenwich Village, New York. Not only did I find the article interesting but I wondered whether these people were part of our movement and what they were really doing to improve the condition of the blind.

Then follows the Village Voice article printed above. Following the article Mr. Jernigan informs the readers of the Braille Monitor what he did next:

After reading this article I wrote to Bill Dwyer, President of our New York affiliate, The Empire State Association of the Blind, and to Sam Wolff, President of the Triboro Chapter of the Empire State Association of the Blind:

April 3, 1970

Mr. William Dwyer
94 Third Avenue
Rensselaer, New York 12144

Dear Bill:

I am sending the enclosed article to you and Sam Wolff to ask whether you know anything about this “Blind Power” group. If they are any good, we ought to get hold of them and bring them into the movement. Maybe they are in the movement. If so, I have never heard of them.

Sam, do you know these people? Can you get in touch with them and see what they are like?

Cordially,

Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind

Then Mr. Jernigan writes:

Almost immediately I received a response from Sam Wolff, who said in part:

“This is in response to yours of April 3rd regarding the blind power movement; I have just gotten off the telephone with the party I believe is their leader. She is intelligent, young, and one of the people who I have placed two years ago; she called to tell me of a job opening for another blind person in the hospital where she works. The young lady and her group have little liking for “talk” or organizations. It is unfortunate that their opinion of the Triboro Chapter is one of “all talk and no action,” and this group feels similarly to the ESAB Inc. and the New York State Commission for the Blind as well. The blind power movement is a revolt against apathy and inactivity.

“I happen to have good dialogue with some of the people in the blind power movement, but they want no part of the … much talk and no accomplishment.”

Mr. Jernigan continues: 

I replied as follows:

April 13, 1970

Mr. Sam Wolff, President
Triboro Chapter of the ESAB
11 Park Place
New York, New York 10007

Dear Sam:

If the members of the blind power movement, as they call themselves, are really interested in action, then they should join the Triboro Chapter and, thereby, the Empire State Association and the NFB. Otherwise, regardless of their protestations, they will do more talking than acting, or they will waste their effort in an isolated, fragmentary demonstration, which will end up by doing more harm than good.

One of the most tiresome aspects of the so called “power” movements (whether black, blind, student, or something else) is their seeming arrogance, apparently based on lack of historical knowledge. As Roy Wilkins of the NAACP put it, there were people working to achieve civil rights (and with some effectiveness) before 1954. Otherwise, the first desegregation decisions of the Supreme Court would not have occurred in that year. These things did not happen by accident.

Likewise, the difference between the condition of the blind now and in 1940 when the National Federation of the Blind came into being is profound. Such rehabilitation as now exists (and it is considerable); Aid payments and exempt earnings; and the whole range of improved public attitudes, can all in substantial measure, be traced to the “action” of the organized blind movement, including the “action” of the Empire State Association of the Blind. Even so, many of the agencies for the blind have made real contributions, and some of them are working as constructively and progressively as could be hoped. While we are on the subject, Robert Scott is not a complete paragon of virtue but has some of the grossest misconceptions I have ever met. Things are just not as simple as the “blind power” group would apparently like to have them. However that may be, the real hope for the future of the blind lies in the organized blind movement–the National Federation of the Blind.

It is true that organizations often flounder, that we very often bicker, that local chapters some times do not even have enough talent among their membership to carry on a meaningful or worthwhile meeting. It is true that, despite all of our efforts, more blind people are rehabilitated than employed and that more of the unemployed are living on starvation welfare checks than adequate grants. It is true that most of the comparatively few blind persons who have been successful still think they are superior to the rest of the blind and feel that they made it on their own and that they want to identify and associate with the sighted–except, of course, when they deign to do something “to be of help to other blind persons since I don’t really need anything myself and there is nothing the organization can do for me.” In fact, if all of these things were not true, we would not have the pressing need which we have to build and strengthen our organization. The very fact that so many blind persons are inactive and apparently more interested in recreation and talking than in political action, that they submit to custodialism with seeming gratitude, that they want the emphasis to be on coffee and cake (very often provided by somebody else) at their local meetings—-this fact illustrates and emphasizes the need.

All of the idealism, brains, courage, objection to hypocrisy, and just plain guts do not reside in that segment of the population under thirty. No age group has a corner on these virtues, and it constitutes arrogance and hypocrisy to delude oneself into believing that such is the case. The so called “power” movements often emphasize “rights” to the exclusion of responsibility and, in childlike innocence, blandly ignore long-range consequences, thus doing more to damage than help the cause they profess to support.

Yes, we need action and not just talk, and the NFB is where the action is. If the disability bill passes (with 180 million dollars in the pockets of blind persons the first year) it will be the organized blind who bring it about–the sheltered shopworkers, the welfare recipients, the unemployed, the uneducated–the people who, despite all odds, had the courage and the sense to stick together and work for a goal. If (and it will come) the climate of public opinion changes so that the average blind person can be judged on his individual merit, can be accepted for what he is instead of being victimized by prejudice and discrimination, it will be the organized blind (with all their shortcomings) who bring it about. It will not be the individual “successful” blind person, who thinks he is too good to associate with the rest of us; it will not be the agency for the blind; and it will not be the small, snobbish, elite groups, who think they are too good to associate with their intellectual inferiors, who think they are above going to a routine chapter meeting and helping to plan a Christmas party or talk about the humdrum details of here and now.

We need the members of this “blind power” group in New York City, as we need all blind persons in our movement–the old and the young, the stupid and the wise, the employed and the unemployed, the rich and the poor; but we need them with some humility. They should realize that they (all of them) have benefited tremendously by the efforts of the organized blind movement, even if they have never heard of it. The job opportunities and the social climate are better today than they were a generation ago because of what has already been done, and the blind of our day have some responsibility and obligation to make it still better for themselves and the coming generation. However, they also have the obligation to be grateful for what they have already received from those who have been on the firing line before them.

I hope you will contact your friend who is in the blind power movement and read her this letter. She may not like it, but perhaps it will cause her to do some thinking. The NFB is on the move, and we need all active blind persons of good will to join in the battle. Tell her that if the organization (whether at local, state, or national level) is not what she would have it be, she should join and make it better, not simply gripe about it from the outside.

Cordially,

Kenneth Jernigan, President
National Federation of the Blind