Tag Archives: segregation

White Owl Cigars and Racial Tension: Hauler on a Tobacco Farm, by Marty Bernstein

2 Oct

Marty today
Marty Bernstein worked in the New York state court system as a civil servant. He was like a round peg in a square hole—a left-wing court officer and clerk. Two years after retiring in 2007, he worked part time at a non-profit for the developmentally disabled. In 2013 he completely retired and now spends vacations in a coope
rative community in upstate New York called Spring Glen Meadows, the home of burned-out sixties radicals. He has two adult children and has been married to the same woman for 38 wonderful years. Her name is Patricia Ruggiero Bernstein. He says it has been a great Jewish-Italian combination.

In the summer of 1965 when I was fourteen and in junior high school, my family moved to Springfield, MassacWhite Owl Cigars with Owlhusetts from Long Island, New York. In the summer I got a job on a tobacco farm in the Connecticut Valley. It was called a shade tobacco industry. They made tobacco for the outside of White Owl cigars. The farm was owned by the Hathaway-Stene Tobacco Company.

Young boys and girls woulMarty Circa 1965d be hired to work there every summer. There was a hierarchy by height that determined what work one would do. Shorter boys were pickers because it was a handicap to be tall when picking. (Harder to stoop.) The foreman was my gym teacher, Mr. Gallucci, whom I liked. He would take us on a school bus out to the field.tobacco shed.little girls

I wasn’t a picker but a hauler. I would pull a metal framed canvas bin, about the size of a drawer in a chest of drawers with a loop in one end, down the rows to pick up the leaves. I would take them to a large shed, where all the girls worked “sewing” the leaves and hanging them to dry and age.

I had come from a lily-white, middle-class suburb on Long Island. When I got to the fields, there were both black and white boys, many of them working class. I had never been around black kids before. There was a lot of hostility and racism towards them. Although I never heard the white boys use the n-word, they called the black kids “Cottonbolls.” One time it came to blows between the two groups, and I assisted in stopping the fight. I hung out more frequently with the black kids than with the white ones.

White Owl Cigars ad with father reading to 2 kids                                                  White Owl Cigars ad with father and kid in car

All the kids came from Springfield. They went to fairly segregated schools but ironically they all played ball together at the ball park, where they seemed to get along fine. At that time the schools were de facto segregated but not by law. The junior high schools were neighborhood schools. When I attended junior high school there were no Jews in the area. The principal told me that I wasn’t allowed to be in the academic program, although I loved school and had always gotten good grades. My dad thought that the principal was an anti-Semite.White Owl Cigars ad with Jesse Owens

The four senior high schools were not neighborhood schools. They were arranged by type and were segregated by placing kids in the school deemed appropriate. The top school that was overwhelmingly white was called Classical High School. Its focus was the liberal arts. Timothy Leary had graduated from there.

The next one was the Technical High School. It had a mixture of white and Black and Puerto Rican. The third was Commerce High School, which was mainly black and Puerto Rican. The Trade High School was overwhelmingly Black and Latino. The next year I went into the Classical High School, where all the classes were academic anyway. In high school I attended weekly silent vigils against the war in Vietnam. I believe it was organized by a church group like the Quakers or Unitariatobacco drying in shedns. Also the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

At the tobacco field we earned $1.10 per hour, less than minimum wage. I remember I made $44 a week. There were poor sanitary conditions in the fields. Wooden barrels on little trailers would come around bringing us drinking water. (Apparently the barrels had formerly held wine. We could smell the residue.) We had to relieve ourselves in the fieldfield workers in tobacco farms. There were two groups: day and migrant. The migrant workers—Puerto Ricans—were kept separate from us.

 

I was glad to have this job. First of all, it gave me some spending money. Also, it was my first significant experience with racism. And I got the chance to understand manual labor and appreciate the manual laborers.

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How the War in Vietnam Politicized Me, by Paul Krehbiel

29 Jun

Paul Krehbiel is the author of Shades of Justice, a coming-of-age memoir set in the 1960s. It is available at autumnleafpress.com. Paul lives in Pasadena, California, and has been a labor activist and organizer most of his life.

In the early 1960s I was in junior and senior high school in a suburb of Buffalo, populated by a mixture of white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers.  Our community was virtually all white. I played sports, did art, hung out with my friends, went to parties, and spent time with my girlfriend. My neighborhood had a bully, who was a couple of years older, and who tormented my peers and me. I was aware of the civil rights movement, especially the sit-ins and marches in the south, and was sympathetic. The disparities in wealth in Buffalo were very clear, with the Black community depressed, and many white communities – but not all — living comfortably.  I wondered why bad people existed, why we had racism, and why there were rich and poor people.

VietnamWarGIsInWater

The war in Vietnam was heating up by 1966, the year I turned 18 and graduated from high school. I registered for the draft, as required by law, but started thinking, wasn’t there some way to resolve disputes without going to war. These thoughts deepened when a guy I knew in high school, who was a year older, came back from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair for life. Suddenly, wars weren’t just some event in my history book from the past. I realized that I could be drafted and sent to Vietnam whether I wanted it or not, and be forced to kill people I didn’t know and had nothing against, or be killed or injured myself. I had to find out more about the war so I could decide what to do if I was drafted.

I grew up in what seemed like a typical family. My dad worked in a small surveying business started by his dad, and my mom worked in our home taking care of my two younger brothers and me. When I raised these social justice questions with my parents, they didn’t know the answers, or the responses they gave seemed unsatisfactory. My dad said that the government knew more about these things, and if called to serve in war, we had to do it. He had served in WWII, and I knew the Nazis had to be stopped. But, Vietnam seemed different. How was a small, poor country on the other side of the globe a threat to us or anyone else?

I went to a community college in Clearwater, Florida to major in art, and to get out of Buffalo’s cold winters. There I saw the starkness of racism. Blacks were segregated in poor housing and neighborhoods, and I saw a shantytown in a nearby rural area of collapsing shacks and mud roads. At the first dance of the semester, I danced with a Black student, and the white students near us stopped dancing, formed a circle around us, and glared. One angry white student asked me if I wanted to start a race riot. It was tense.

I saw scenes on the TV news or in magazines of dead Vietnamese women and babies on the ground lying in pools of blood, and turned strongly against the war. I saw the war as a crime of murder against both Vietnamese and the young American men forced to fight.  In 1967 I made a pen and ink drawing for an art class to protest the war. I drew an ornately carved coffin with a flag draped over it, next to an Army recruiting sign. The sign read: “Join the Army, a Proud Future Could be Yours.” I put a line through “Proud” and wrote “Dead.”

Vietnam-JoinTheArmy

I knew that I would not go to Vietnam, and decided to go to Canada.  Some people said that if I refused to be drafted I should accept the punishment of breaking the law and go to prison. But, why should I go to prison, I responded. I had done nothing wrong. The government leaders who launched the war in Vietnam should go to prison.

I applied and was accepted at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and began there in the fall of 1967. I hadn’t been drafted yet and hadn’t broken any laws, so I came back to Buffalo on weekends to see my girlfriend, and to work in the summers. I had one job in an auto parts factory where the working conditions were bad. I got active in the union, which was the beginning of my lifelong involvement in the labor movement. In 1968, I supported two war resisters who took sanctuary in the Buffalo Unitarian Church, and I went to Chicago in August to protest the war outside the Democratic National Convention.

 

DraftEvasionTorontoI spent a year and a half in Canada. In the fall of 1968, I was working in a metal fabricating plant making furniture. While operating a punch press machine, I lost two fingers in an industrial accident. The machine had jammed and the safety guard was defective. It was difficult studying sculpture with missing fingers, so I returned to the US and contacted my draft board. I was classified medically unfit for military duty.

I had friends who were students at the University of Buffalo, so I began sitting in on classes. There was a very active anti-war movement on campus, along with other social justice causes. In January 1969, I attended night school and became heavily involved in the Buffalo Draft Resistance Union, and later in Students for a Democratic Society. I attended and helped plan anti-war demonstrations and other political activities on campus, and switched my major to Philosophy. The Philosophy Department was a home for left-wing students, teaching assistants, and some full-time faculty. I started reading Marx in my classes.  By the end of the spring semester, I was a socialist.

Freedom Rider: My Heroic Older Brother Bob, by Michael Kaufman

30 May

Michael Kaufman is a grandfather doing child care for two twin eight year old boys and a computer programmer for the last 40 years. He’s also a part time activist on numerous issues including, health care for all, defending the 99% from the ravages of the 0.01% (400 families who control over half the wealth and almost all of the power), and fighting against the fossil fuel energy companies who are destroying our ecological niche on this earth.

 

When I was very young, 17 or 18, I aspired to follow my older brother (six years my senior) into politics. I was a member of a youth contingent of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) and wanted to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement.

CORE emblem

At the time, police brutality in a Los Angeles suburb called Torrance was a hot issue. I very badly wanted to be arrested (for reasons indicated below) so I went down to the picket line in front of the Torrance police building. Those were the days before the hippy rebellion, so we were on our best behavior; I dressed up in a suit and tie. I must have looked ridiculous, a callow youth dressed up despite the southern California hot weather. Anyway, as it turned out, I was not arrested that day, much to my regret.

Why did I want to be arrested? Because of my brother and mother. You see, the call had gone out for Freedom Riders from Los Angeles to go South. I wanted to go along with my brother Bob Kaufman and his fellow Riders very badly. But I was only seventeen, while the group was made up of people in their twenties and thirties.

I was all ready to stow away on the train, but my mother and my brother forbade me to go. So, resigned, my mom and I saw my brother and the other fifteen Riders off from Union Station in Los Angeles. We were very worried for them. Finally, two days later, we got a call from the Houston NAACP lawyer telling us that the Riders had been arrested while trying to integrate a restaurant in the Houston Train Station.

CORE2

Naturally the men and women were separated in jail, and the black and white Riders were also separated. Bob and the three other white men from the group had been thrown into a tank with racist prisoners, who were egged on by racist jailers. Bob was repeatedly attacked throughout the afternoon and evening and late into the night. It took until 2 am before the NAACP could bail him out and take him to a hospital in the black community, where his severe scalp wound, heavy bleeding and concussion were treated.

He finally got back to L.A. three weeks later, and after several months was fully recovered. Ever since, I’ve been trying to emulate my heroic older brother Bob.

I went on to play a role in the L.A. chapter of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], a support group that mostly raised money. I helped organize a SNCC singers concert tour, where the precursor to “Sweet Honey in the Rock” performed at the Ash Grove, a world-famous folk venue in Los Angeles.

But that kind of support work never satisfied my longing to be on the “front lines” like my brother, even though he almost lost his life.

“What Were the Sixties Like?” by W. Roger Scott, Part I

28 Apr

W. Roger Scott was born and raised in the Wyoming Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania and is today an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He is the author of a memoir about his Polish-American mother’s family, a history of his primarily Pennsylvania Dutch father’s family (which keeps on expanding), and other short historical monographs. He is most at peace milling through dusty archives.

 

Not long ago, a girl in her early twenties asked me, “What were the Sixties like?”  I had to think about that.  How do you describe the Sixties in twenty-five words or less?  I concluded that, from my perspective, growing up in ethnic, working class Northeastern Pennsylvania, the television program All In The Family would best communicate to that girl what the Sixties were like for me.

Today, the expression “the N-Word” is used to convey a term not to be spoken.  I know what that “N” stands for and I heard that word uttered many times in the North.  I also engaged in or observed many arguments over race and politics as occurred between Mike Stivic and Archie Bunker over race and the war in Viet Nam.  (For the record, my parents never used the N-Word.) As for the South, my father had to explain to me why there were signs for “Colored Rest Room” on our first visit to Virginia when I was ten in 1961.

Vietnam War Helicopter Crash

When the war in Viet Nam escalated in 1965, I was fourteen.  I believed what our government and most of the media told us.  I remember a disc jockey on the rock and roll radio station in Scranton, WARM, stating, “If we don’t stop them in Viet Nam, we’ll be fighting them in Hawaii.”  At that time it was believed that Communism was a monolithic movement intent on taking over the world.  There was a commercial on television, showing a map of the world with a red tide enveloping country after country.  (At least it would have been red if we had a color television.)  In reality, as soon as the Viet Nam war ended, Viet Nam became involved in a war with communist China (or “Red China” as it was called in the Sixties), and communist Viet Nam overthrew Pol Pot, causing the Reagan Administration to give aid to the Khmer Rouge.

It was not reading left-wing literature that turned me against the Viet Nam War; it was the minister at the First Methodist Church of Kingston, Pennsylvania, Robert Lukens.  Reverend Lukens had long preached fervently about Civil Rights.  He was a 1960s liberal, uninfected with the cynicism that I saw develop in the 1970s.  He often quoted in his sermons The Arrogance of Power, a book written by a conservative Arkansas senator, J. William Fulbright.  Reverend Lukens often decried the morality of the killing in Viet Nam.  However, what first got me thinking was Reverend Lukens noting Senator Fulbright’s observation that Mexico was very anti-American during the Mexican Revolution, but that ardor cooled and there were now peaceful relations between our countries.  I began to believe that the Viet Cong would not always be intrinsically anti-American and would some day no more want to take over America than did Mexico in 1967.

I started to read up on Viet Nam and discovered that Ho Chi Minh wanted to be allied with the United States against the French and that our government knew he would have won the promised elections in 1956 so it caused them to be cancelled.  (I confronted a nervous young Foreign Service officer who was giving a talk in Wilkes-Barre with this latter fact.  He said it was not an election against South Vietnamese president Diem that Ho Chi Minh would have won, but an election against Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai.)

1967 was the Summer of Love in San Francisco.  It might as well have been on another planet.  (As also was Mainland China.  China seemed more exotic and I was more curious about it when President Nixon visited it in 1971, as it had been shrouded in mystery all of my life of twenty years, than the moon.  I was more fascinated with what China was like than I was with the moon when Neil Armstrong walked on it.)  Marijuana was something I read about, except for hushed voices about the class radical, Jeff. I hear he smokes marijuana! I also remember the proud tone in Jeff’s voice when a photograph of two African-American (or Black as we would have said then) Cornell students with automatic weapons held above their heads was published in a national magazine. Pointing to one of the students, Jeff gushed, “He went to school here!”   Today, National Rifle Association members argue we should have the right to automatic weapons to protect ourselves against government tyranny.  The Black students felt the same way; although I don’t think the government tyranny they feared is the same tyranny the white NRA members now fear.

“My God, we’re just like the ‘good’ Germans” by Margery Prickett

25 Apr

I attended my first demonstration, picketing the downtown San Diego branch of the Bank of America in 1962, the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I was in high school, watching the news with my parents; police and firemen in Florida were spraying black people on the beach with huge fire hoses.

In those days in the South there were still black beaches and white beaches, black drinking fountains and white ones. Buses were integrated, but black people still sat in the back. Segregation existed throughout the South and de facto segregation existed in the North. I was seventeen and had never seen a black person up close. We lived in El Cajon, an all-white suburb of San Diego, and I had never visited the urban neighborhoods where other ethnic groups lived.

My dad got angry and said, “My God, we’re just like the ‘good’ Germans, sitting here doing nothing. Let’s go to a CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] meeting.” There for the first time, I met people who were involved in political action. They were registering voters, working on ending de facto segregation in housing, and pressuring the Bank of America to hire black people.

I became involved in the Bank of America project. We picketed the main branch in downtown San Diego and gave out leaflets to passers-by. People’s responses were as varied as are people themselves. Some threw old vegetables at us and called us communists and worse. Others asked questions and read the leaflets. Some joined us on the picket line.

We were a small group in a military town—where conformity was rewarded and dissenters were dismissed as “weirdos”—but there arose increasingly more small groups like ours in other cities and small towns. Then in 1963 Martin Luther King led the historic March on Washington. Laws were finally passed ending Jim Crow.

The summer after my graduation from high school, I joined a community organizing project in West Oakland. We lived in an old house in a black neighborhood, registering people to vote, and talking to them about the Vietnam War. It was quite humbling to meet sons and daughters of slaves and hear about their struggles. What they taught me was never to judge others because you never know what they have endured.

Despite its good intentions, our project was not well organized or defined. My main contribution was listening to the heart-wrenching and inspiring stories of the residents, who appreciated an empathetic audience.

Demonstrating against the war was very immediate for us. It wasn’t just to help the Vietnamese. (I’d never even heard of Vietnam before the war, which reminds me of a sign I saw at a demonstration: “WAR—How Americans Learn Geography”). Boys my age—friends—were in danger of being drafted into a war they didn’t believe in. One boy I knew shot off his toe so he wouldn’t be called on to shoot others. It was a horrible time. Like now, the government had the attitude, If you don’t support our troops, then you are against us. You are Other. You are the enemy.

Many were arrested just for demonstrating. Police came on college campuses. They even shot into crowds at Kent State in Ohio, killing several students. Democracy was threatened once again—the Bill of Rights, the right to assemble, the right to free speech and the press.

It was a sad time, seeing the wounded boys return—some lost their sanity. Some didn’t return. Others formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It was moving to see them “marching” in their wheelchairs and on crutches—their bodies hurt, but their spirits high.

Spirit. Maybe that’s what it’s about. Why do people gather together in churches? There seems to be a renewal of the spirit when people have a common goal. When people come together to show their concern, their love of peace, their anger at being manipulated and lied to. They no longer feel helpless, isolated.

People’s spirits are renewed and then they have the courage and optimism to return to their everyday lives, whatever they may be, with more consciousness, more heart, and more soul—and more energy to make a difference—whether they build houses with Habitat for Humanity or with a church group, or teach literacy, or just live more peacefully in their everyday interactions.