Stories about events in 1967

The New Politics Convention (2)

This story takes place in 1967. It was told on January 20th, 2012 by Frank.  2 Comments

I walked up to the theater that day in an enthusiastic mood. But as soon as I got inside and took up my observer’s seat in the balcony, I could feel a sour atmosphere developing. The first sign that the inmates were taking over the asylum came when a caucus of 200 black people demanded an automatic 50 percent of the vote. Later we found out that the caucus was put together by an FBI agent provocateur. Of all the old-line radicals there, Sidney Lens was the only one with the guts to stand up to it. It was, I think, his finest hour. Sid loved being a leader, loved the roar of the crowd, and he distinguished himself. When the question was finally called, he got 35 or 40 percent of the vote.
By Sunday, however, the Communist Party delegation decided they were not going to be outflanked on the left. After that, a lot of other people decided they were not going to be outflanked either. It was less a conspiracy than a stampede.
Irv Beinin and Jesse Prostin, two old friends of mine who were prominent in the left, stood with me in a stairwell Sunday afternoon trying to explain. “This is part of the black consciousness dimension of the movement,” Jesse said. Irv added, “In its own way, it’s really kind of revolutionary.” I turned away in disgust.
“Oh, you’re not going to go downstairs by yourself, are you Frank?” Jesse called. “Be careful. You’ll probably get rolled down there.” I turned back to him. “Ten seconds ago you were trying to convince me this was a revolutionary development, and now you’re telling me people are getting rolled,” I shouted. “This is bullshit.” If white radicals feIt guilty enough to go through with this charade, I reasoned, the way to express that guilt was to organize the white community. I was only repeating what I’d been told at any number of SNCC supporters’ meetings, and it seemed reasonable.
What had happened was that the street gangs found out this was going on, and had moved in for an easy kill. What could be easier than a collection of guilt-stricken white liberals afraid to speak up for fear of being baited for racism? The papers the next day reported with glee a series of robberies and instances of sexual harassment on the Convention floor. Nothing ever came of that: the people who were victimized were part of the movement and did not want to create a scandal, so the political lessons of the charade were never really drawn. By the end of the day, everybody just wanted to get the hell out of there and forget all about it.

The New Politics Convention

This story takes place in 1967. It was told on December 12th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

There was a growing tone of frustration in the antiwar movement. We were going through a transition. The war would not be settled for at least five more years. It was obvious that the political leadership of the country was cynically willing to destroy a third-world country and the lives of thousands of young Americans to satisfy their own political ambitions, to prolong the fighting when they acknowledged to themselves that they had already lost the war politically, they had been beaten by the Vietnamese people, and anyway there had never been a strategic reason for them to be in it in the first place.
With Nixon’s election and the end of the draft, mass pressure would diminish and the movements would turn ugly and crazy, in reaction to the insanity of the war. By 67 or 68 this hopeful movement had taken on an irrational tinge because it had not connected with a mass movement and had not put forward a program that could unite the majority. It had not developed the socialist vision that could unite a majority section of the society. Any movement that doesn’t have a majoritarian perspective for social change is not going to win in America. The only way for a minority to play a decisive role is to project a program that the majority can support.
I thought such a thing might be emerging when a group of antiwar groups called for a New Politics conference in late 1967. An assortment of white liberals, including some establishment politicians, had lent their names to the thing. All sorts of well-meaning and independent radicals were involved too. Dr. King had said he would address the convention, and there were faint hopes out there that he would use the occasion to declare an independent candidacy for president, with the antiwar children’s doctor Benjamin Spock as his running mate.
There was also a large contingent of stool pigeons and street hustlers there, to take advantage of the white guiIt that was all over the floor. Their presence reflected the disintegration and the disheartenment that was overtaking the black community. And its alienation from white society, including white radicalism.
The antiwar movement was officially not there. SDS was boycotting it, either because they were against electoral activity, or because their own agenda required supporting an antiwar democrat, or both. Nobody ever claimed SDS was internally consistent. The SWP chose to boycott because it did not fit with what they thought was the real antiwar movement. And they were running a candidate of their own. Either way, in the end, they were lucky they weren’t there.

In the arena

This story takes place in 1967. It was told on June 2nd, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

One afternoon in 1967, I was sitting alone at a table for four at the Hilton, scanning the lunchtime crowd. Business types dashed in and out, their starched shirts flashing bright white in the faux marble tabletops. I played with my fork and waited, chewing the corner off one of the paper napkins.

A familiar voice had come over the phone on my desk that morning. “Frank? This is Martin.” He told me he was in town again for a few days and wanted to meet over lunch. “Good. Let‘s try the Hilton at one,” I said. It was about ten minutes after one when the headwaiter stiffly entered the room leading two black men, one about my size wearing a brown coat and the other a tall, thin, gray-haired figure in a lawyer’s delicately striped three- piece suit. King caught sight of me and waved his hat, then handed it with his coat to the man and strode over. “This is Chauncey Eskridge, Frank,” he said as he shook my hand. He draped his suit jacket over the back of a chair and sat down. Eskridge and I shook hands and he sat down next to King, but did not take off his jacket.

If Eskridge remembered meeting me, he gave no sign of it. He was visible around town as the attorney for Alderman Claude Holman of the fourth ward, one of the more odious machine characters I knew. He had a reputation as a first-class lawyer who, if he’d been white, might have been a major player in corporate law. Lately I’d seen him around in the company of the local SCLC leaders.

“Chauncey is doing legal work with the Chicago office of the SCLC,” King explained. “We‘d like to suggest an idea to you and see if you think it might work.” I told him I was all ears, although I wasn’t much of an expert on the kinds of things the SCLC did.

“That’s just it, Frank,” King said. “The fund-raising event at the Chicago Amphitheatre was a big success, and we‘d like to try it again – on a bigger scale. We don‘t have the know-how ourselves; we thought you might be willing to supervise again.” He laid out a plan for six benefit concerts in major towns, each with a lineup of big stars and a celebrity as the honorary producer.

“Of course, running six events is a job of much greater magnitude than just the one, so we’d insist on paying you the customary fee,” Eskridge put in.

I thought quickly. True, if l did this it was going to eat up a lot of time and energy. But actual direct expenses would be minimal: some airplane flights, some long-distance phone calls. “How about you set me up with a WATS line, and leave it at that?” I proposed. Agreed.

lt took Eskridge a half hour or so to fill us in on where the project stood. The first show was to be at the Oakland Coliseum, with Aretha Franklin headlining and Harry Belafonte as producer. Once again, showtime was six weeks away.

“How’d you like to spend a couple of weeks on the coast?” I asked Dick Gassen when I got back to the office.

Dick hadn’t been gone a week before his reports began to turn sour. A few days before the show was to go on, I picked up the phone and I knew from his voice that he’d rather be home.

“The good news is that the Longshoremen are pushing this all the way,” he said. “They seem to be putting everything they have into it. The bad news is that they’re not doing it because they love us. They’re doing it because they’ll do anything they can to make things difficult for the Panthers. These people do not get along real well, Frank.”

It was the end of 1966 now, and the aura of a movement that could do no wrong had evaporated in front of us. Dr. King and his movement had been able to transform a broad section of society, but now the movement was beginning to tear at the edges.

With one thing and another, King was not the figure of universal respect he had been months before. The Black Panthers were not at all convinced that King’s faith in nonviolence was going to bring fundamental change. And in fairness, its limitations were becoming clearer by the day. How far could you trust the establishment to play by the rules when Oakland police were shooting black kids with impunity? Meanwhile, King’s right flank — the relatively conservative businessmen and ministers who had been his early core supporters — was getting anxious. King had come out firmly against the war in Vietnam, something that was way beyond the mandate they thought they had given him.

I tried to describe things to King on the phone that afternoon. “This Oakland show is a mess, Doc,” I said. (I’d started to call him “Doc” — it felt more comfortable than “Martin.”) “We have competing factions pulling every which direction, and they’re giving us ultimatums when they don‘t get their way. This could be a real disaster.” The coalition in Houston, the next location, was tearing into pieces as well.

“Well, I don‘t know if this show is going to be a lot of use to you politically,” I said. “And I know it isn’t likely to make much money. I’d recommend that we cancel the rest of them and spend some time rethinking this idea.”  There was a pause.

“Can’t do that,” he answered. “There’s too much tied up in this. We have to go forward, one way or another.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do, then?” I asked, exasperated. “Telephone calls you can make?”

“Don’t worry, Frank, things will work out,” he said. “The ministers have been rock-solid before, and they won’t let me down this time. Let‘s see it through.”

“All right,” I said. “But just to be on the safe side, I’m going to go out to Oakland myself and see if I can give Dick a hand the day of the show.”

“I’ll see you there, then,” he agreed.


This story takes place in 1967. It was told on April 2nd, 2010 by Frank.  1 Comment

If you had told me then that Chicago would remember me as the man who brought the Beatles, I would have laughed at you. It was August 1966. A week earlier, John Lennon had set off an uproar with his offhand observation about art and life. It was all over the papers in this country: “We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n roll or Christianity.”

Maybe he was right, but some people were saying Lennon had put his foot fatally in his mouth this time. The Beatles’ very career was threatened. The press was in a tizzy. A movement was taking shape in the South to ban Beatles records from stores.

Lennon had refused to say anything more in England. But the group had promised a press conference in Chicago to kick off their fifteen-city tour of the United States, and now hundreds of press types were pouring in from all over the world to see if there would be an apology. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, was flying over to handle the onslaught himself. And there I was at the ramp at O’Hare Airport, waiting for Brian Epstein.

Jack Mabley, in his column for the Chicago Herald-American that day, was thundering that the Beatles should take their money and go home. I had brought in Mabley to introduce the Beatles form the stage at the last concert they did for me, but he had apparently changed his mind about them since then. Len O’Connor, a commentator for the big WGN radio station, added a loud attack on the air. I guessed that if even these guys had had such a profound change of heart, it meant proper society must be pretty thoroughly shocked. Epstein was sure the reporters would have his boys’ heads for it.

They could have them, for all I cared. My main concern at this point was to get this over with and get home. I didn’t have much to say to Epstein about anything. I was much more interested in Vladimir Lenin’s views than in John Lennon’s. I guess I was in the minority on both those matters, but I was used to that.

In any case, I was just the promoter. My job was to put the asses in the seats, and if I did it well, I expected to be left alone.

Norman Weiss, the Beatles’ booking agent at General Artists, had called at the last minute and asked me to meet Epstein myself with a limousine. In my eight years in the business I had occasionally been forced to hire limos for artists, but I had drawn the line at attending them personally. This time I reluctantly agreed, sure that this was the final step in my progress as a sellout.