Stories told in January, 2012

The New Politics Convention (2)

This story takes place in 1967. It was told on January 20th, 2012 by Frank.  1 Comment

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.

Selma

This story takes place in 1965. It was told on January 2nd, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Studs Terkel called me and asked me to escort Alvin Albright, Clinton King and some other Chicago artists down to Selma. “These guys need somebody to take care of them,” Studs told me. Chad and the group were already there; they had come down on the bus with Belafonte. So we all flew together and got a hotel and went to Selma and marched.

It was a big, impressive march, but it was the wrong type of performance altogether. You had a crowd of mostly rural southern blacks, trying to listen to Peter, Paul & Mary and the Mitchell Trio. (At least there was Sammy Davis.) It all had an air of incongruity to it. But that didn’t take away from the value of their presence. What was important was that all these people showed up, and these southerners who had just taken their battle to a new level could feel that, at least for a moment, they weren’t alone.

After the march, Clinton King, Chad and I drove to Atlanta together. Everybody had dispersed. That was scary. Suddenly, released from the solidity of the mass, we realized we were in enemy country. Later on we found out about what had happened to Viola Lucey.

Those kids went through all the problems related to developing a movement in the 60s: feminism, racism, and whether they solved them or not, they were the early soldiers in the civil rights movement, and most of them were casualties. If anybody should get pensions, they should. In the beginning they played totally by the rules, did everything the way they were supposed to, and white society, instead of acknowledging the justice of their demands, all they did was terrorize and kill people.

The types they developed were the ones you see when a movement is at its high point. It makes people better than they are. Even I could see that in SNCC, even though I was a spectator and a voyeur.