Stories that feature ‘Sidney Lens’

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.

On the plane

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on March 18th, 2011 by Frank.  1 Comment

About a week before the Sinatra comeback date, I called Peter Epstein one last time to make sure we were doing everything that was expected of us. Epstein said, “Say, Harold Gibbons and I are taking the four o’clock flight over to Cleveland Thursday to catch the show there. Why don’t you come with us?” I’d been planning to go up there anyway, to get a first-hand look at how this organization wanted their shows done, but this was even better. On the plane for an hour and a half with these guys, I figured, I would get to hear some of the inside scoop. I might get a peek at the real balance of forces in the entourage, and even at the widely-rumored role of the mob in all this.

“Great idea,” I agreed, trying hard to match his enthusiasm. “I’ll get a ticket and go up with you. Pick me up at my office, will you?” Two days later I was sitting with Epstein in the back seat of his enormous black Pontiac. As the Chicago tenements flashed by, Epstein told me he had sold his home and was selling his business. “We’re moving into a house in Palm Springs, right near where Frank Iives,” he said, wide—eyed. “So that’s your next move, huh?” I said.

“You ought to come along next time Frank takes a trip to Palm Springs,” he said. “You could maybe get on the plane, even. Bring your wife.” That might be fun, I agreed.

It was in fact a very dangerous move Epstein was making, because he was not quite in the inner circle in Sinatra’s throne room. He was still only in the second tier, and the contours of the court changed all the time. I stared at him as he chattered on. This man was living his whole life in the shadow of somebody else’s fantasy.

We boarded the plane with Harold Gibbons and a third man I don’t remember well, a groupie-in-training from the oilfield supply business. This was his first invitation into the inner circle and he was patently thrilled to be included. He wasn’t saying much, just grinning and nodding.

To my disappointment, the only two subjects discussed on the plane were status and women. As the flight wore on, I heard nothing about Sinatra’s people or any other questionable characters. Epstein and Gibbons went on at length about who was going to be at the concert, who was traveling with Frank on his plane, who had got in to see him, who would get to go back with him to California, where in the pecking order they fit, and where they might end up.

There were people who just got to the ramp of Sinatra’s airplane, and there were those who got to go aboard. On the plane itself, there was an even finer set of distinctions. No women were allowed, except those currently being used by one of the men in the inner circle. There were some men who got to ride in the plane but sat in the front. Then there were those who evidently had unlimited entree. There was no question that Gibbons, the former radical labor leader from St. Louis, had that.

They carried on about women until I was just embarrassed for them. I was neither a prude nor an emancipated man, by today’s standards, but the way these men went after the stewardess would have been enough to make a Bob Packwood flinch. I said nothing. I just wanted to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.

Grasping for a way to get them to shut up, I turned to Gibbons. “So, Harold,” I broke in. “Heard from our mutual friend Sid Lens lately?” Gibbons turned so white I thought for a moment he was airsick. He didn’t ask what that meant, and he never did find out — not from me, at least. Old leftist connections were no small embarrassment to Gibbons. He was running the St. Louis joint board, he was Jimmy Hoffa’s number two man, he was beginning to play a national role in “liberal-labor” glamour politics, and he was part of the Sinatra entourage; all these interlocking things made him a far cry from the Harold Gibbons who founded one of the more dynamic warehouse unions in the country. I sat there quietly for the rest of the flight, enjoying his shaken expression.

James Hickman

This story takes place in 1947. It was told on April 14th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

James Hickman was a Black sharecropper who‘d come up north in 1944 with his wife and six children to get a job in a steel mill. He managed to find a one-room apartment in a falling-down tenement building, but soon after the family moved in the landlord began trying to evict them. The landlord wanted to subdivide the building even further, to take advantage of the high rents brought on by the critically tight housing supply.

After repeated threats to burn them out, the landlord set fire to the place while Hickman was at work. Three of the children escaped by jumping out a window. The other three were killed.

There was a big outcry in the city, but the landlord (who was Black himself) had the support of the real estate industry, and therefore of the Democratic machine. Nothing happened. Six months later to the day, the enraged Hickman claimed he had a vision, went to the landlord’s house and shot him.

Milt Zaslow, who did his political work under the name Mike Bartell, was the SWP’s top organizer in Chicago. Bartell had been working for years, and with some success, to organize tenants in the neighborhood where Hickman’s tragedy had happened. He had led fights to keep rents down and beef up inspection, and to keep landlords from discriminating against Black tenants.

Mike‘s work had earned him, and the SWP by extension, a solid reputation in the area. lt was Mike that Hickman’s neighbors immediately called on to help rescue Hickman from a murder rap. I had just got out of the Navy and had no job. Military unemployment insurance paid me a few bucks a month, and I was staying at my mother’s house while I looked for a better situation. When Mike Bartell asked me to work with him, I didn’t think twice about it.

We organized as broad a defense committee as we could pull together, meaning that most of the people involved owed nothing to the SWP, but simply knew a case of racial injustice when they saw one. Willoughby Abner, a vice president of the Chicago CIO Council and a very militant black leader, was a left-leaning social democrat who was friendly to the SWP. Charlie Chiakulas was president of the United Auto Workers local at Revere Copper and Brass, and a natural leader. Sidney Lens was a gifted mediator and writer, a Trotskyist in his youth, who had made a brilliant career of organizing tough industrial union locals. Henry McGee was president of the Chicago NAACP.

Mike Myer, one of our lawyers, had defended the Minneapolis Trotskyists in the original Smith Act case; William Temple was Joe Louis’s lawyer; and Leon DesPres was a prominent civil rights lawyer on Chicago‘s South Side. I got to be the committee’s secretary, in charge of keeping everything going day to day.

Our immediate line of defense was based on class: in essence, Hickman had a right to shoot the landlord. The landlord had murdered his children, and he had got no justice. It was an unorthodox way to make a legal argument, but then the case itself was pretty unprecedented.

So was the public response. Tallulah Bankhead spoke for us at a rally that drew twelve hundred people to a Black church on the South Side. in the midst of a magnificent reading of a speech Sid Lens had written for her, she came to a part about the Negro race. She stopped and remarked, “I love the Negro race,“ and brought the house down.

I toured the Midwest and the East Coast, speaking to small groups of union members and churchgoers, raising money and support. Several labor unions came to our aid, and not just on paper. My connections in the American Veterans’ Committee paid off when I got the AVC to send us a message of support.

We knew that the only way to free Hickman was to win a political struggle in the black community and in labor around the housing question, which was the reason he had done the shooting. You couldn’t narrow the defense.
Before long, we could tell the social heat was building in the city. We knew we had a hung jury — one of the jurors was a member of Chiakulas’ local, which had adopted a resolution in support of the Hickman defense committee, and had given money. This was a time when a union resolution meant something to most members. There was no way that juror was going to vote to convict.

The State’s Attorney knew everything we knew, and as soon as it became clear that we had the social backing we needed, he began to back off. The case was causing a big international stir, and it was just not worth the bad press.
Finally the verdict came down. It was a hung jury. After about a month of negotiating over the retrial, the state offered a deal: Hickman could plead guilty to manslaughter and serve no time.
The Chicago Tribune was hysterically opposed, and the Chicago Board of Realtors tried to scuttle the deal at the last minute. They didn’t want it written into case law that tenants could shoot their landlords.
Until the last gavel fell, nobody knew whether the deal was going to go through. But it did, and Hickman never served any more time in prison.
Hickman‘s wife became friendly to the SWP, but Hickman himself really believed that just as God had directed him to do the killing, it was God who had freed him. That was all right with us. We had accomplished what we set out to do. Besides redressing an injustice, I think we had also alerted some people to their rights and put the landlords a little on the defensive about what they could and couldn’t do.

Strike at Montgomery Ward

This story takes place in 1943. It was told on January 8th, 2010 by The editor.  Be the first to comment

I guess the Montgomery Ward strike was my introduction to the radical movement. lt was one of those struggles that turn people bigger than life, when the radicals’ dreams fuse with the workers’ own aspirations and things get really heady.

The Montgomery Ward workers had done everything right: they had gone through the long process of getting the War Labor Board to certify their complaints, they had spent time working without a contract, they had followed every government order. Now it had come to a showdown: these workers’ right to decent wages and conditions, against the labor bureaucracy’s pledge not to strike while the war was on. The national labor leaders (with the help of the Communist Party, which had switched sides on this one) were doing everything they could to quiet things down and break this union.

I found myself in a group of about thirty students, just about all the anti-Stalinists on campus, from the liberals to the Trotskyists. A group of us went downtown to the strike office and said, “We’re the University of Chicago Labor Rights Society. How can we help?” The organizers told us we could help raise money, we could help picket — it was one of those wide-open situations in which you just do what you can. We went to work getting University of Chicago students to give money to the strike fund, and we shivered with the picketers in the cold outside Montgomery Ward. Nobody seemed to mind that we were students.

Sidney Lens was a radical labor organizer and writer, and an SWP veteran. Harold Gibbons had built a militant warehousemen’s local years before in St. Louis. Lens and Gibbons made a pilgrimage up to the Communist Party‘s labor stronghold in Minneapolis to try to get the Party to change its line and support the Montgomery Ward workers. Without the support of the unions the Party led, there was no hope of winning this strike. (Keep an eye on Gibbons. He shows up again later in the story.)

Gibbons and Lens came back two days later and told us it was no go. After that the Montgomery Ward workers finally lost hope. The union was broken.

I was awfully disappointed that those people had to go back in without a contract. I was angry at Roosevelt, who I’d admired greatly for his New Deal reforms. I was angry at the whole system — the contrast between what our democracy professes to be and what it really is. Young as I was, I knew hypocrisy when I saw it and I yearned for a way to attack it. l decided I was a radical, maybe a socialist.