Wednesday Oct 04

BACKSTORY 53.2 - Hard Times Déjà vu All Over Again

            I realize that what I’m about to share is going to sound a little, woo-woo, hippy-dippy, magical mystery tour, which, quite honestly, is likely the last thing readers expect from me and, frankly, I’m a little surprised myself.  Nonetheless, I read a fair amount, especially related to my work and the fields it overlaps.  Recently, for whatever reason, I’ve felt like there was almost an invisible force connecting the books I read and listen to not only to each other, but to my life experience.  Weird, huh?  You were warned.

            Bear with me.  Thanks to my darling daughter, over the last year or so, before I make a long drive whether to Texas, Arkansas, or Georgia, I make sure I’ve got some audio books handy.  There’s Audible, the Amazon product, and then there’s Libby, the free site from our public library.  I was pretty desperate, as I scrolled through the nonfiction offerings on Libby before I traveled for Arkansas recently.  I stumbled on a book about Anne Braden as a Southern subversive.  Ok, I thought.  I had some glancing contact with SCEF over ACORN’s early years.  I had either gotten or made a call to Anne at some point.  Why not? 

            The book presents her, as she presented herself in oral histories, as something of a small-town Southern bell.  The more I listened, the more her story reminded me of my mother, raised in an even smaller southern town, Drew, Mississippi, in Sunflower County, that she was aching to leave, just as Braden wanted out of Anniston, Alabama.  Once I started feeling like there were some intersections between their life stories, I realized they were about the same age, hardly six months difference.  Her times were also my mother’s times in the South.  Suddenly, the book had my attention. 

`           Then when the book talked about the police raid on SCEF, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, in New Orleans, where Anne and Carl Braden worked for quite a time.  They mentioned that the headquarters office in New Orleans was ransacked and two lawyers were arrested in 1964, without naming them.  In another twist of fate, I immediately knew that one of the lawyers for SCEF had to have been Benjamin Smith.  Could it be?  I was in high school in the city then, and without knowing anything about SCEF or whatever, I knew Smith was arrested for something that had to with the civil rights, and even if I mainly followed the comics and the sports pages then, few in the city didn’t know that Jim Garrison, the district attorney, was a rabid commie hunter.  I checked after hearing this, and, confirmed that Ben Smith was arrested along with his associate, Bruce C. Waltzer.  

                        I knew this would have been wrong almost sixty years ago.  Smith had been one of the scout masters in our troop.  On my way to Eagle, I had gotten two merit badges where he was the counselor, including Citizenship in the Country.  I knew it was a raw deal, but didn’t know the details then.  I found myself on Google trying to piece together the memories.  Smith’s practice collapsed.  His obit in the Times noted he died a dozen years later at only 48 in New York City, where he headed the National Lawyers Guild, also seen by Senator Eastland, McCarthy, and the rest as a commie front.  Along with William Kunstler and Arthur Kinoy, he had been one of the lawyers for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party in their challenge to the Mississippi delegation in that historic contest led by Sunflower County’s own Fannie Lou Hamer.  There’s an annual Benjamin E. Smith Award given by the Louisiana ACLU since his death in 1976.,

            Is this just another case of “small world” syndrome?  Jim Dombrowski was the director of SCEF for years and earlier co-founder of the Highlander Center and central in civil rights and civil liberties fight.  He was the Braden’s boss and friend.  I remember being invited to a meeting at his house on Barracks Street in the French Quarter in 1976, when I was making the rounds of potential allies in order to open ACORN’s office in the city. 

            I decide to read something lighter on my Kindle, like Lucinda Williams new memoir.  Her song “East Side of Town” opens up my weekly radio show.  Talking about her family, she mentions their support of H. L. Mitchell and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.  I knew Mitch – and his son in Ottawa – well.  We housed the H. L. Mitchell Scholarship Fund.  I can remember my mother talking about having met her father, Miller Williams, and what a great poet he was.  Her stories about busking and trying to make it in Houston aligned with old tales from my colleague and friend Orell Fitzsimmons who remembers having paid her $50 back in the day to play at a party. 

            I’m talking to Ernie Dumas, a former editorial writer for the Arkansas Gazette, at a coffeehouse in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood.  A woman overhears us, disappears, and comes back and gives each of us a book of interviews she had done with ten African-American women in the Delta towns of Gould and Marvell, Arkansas.  I read the book, having promised to interview her for my show, and find stories of the SNCC bombings there, which I had heard before from Bobbie Cox, one of the early ACORN organizers, because it was her grandmother’s house, where she had housed the SNCC organizers.  Another story talked about the life changing experience in the 1970s of working in a sewing factory in the area where the ILGWU was the union, and Art Martin, a friend and comrade, was business manager at the time.

            It goes on and on like this.  One connection after another that pops up unexpectantly.  Maybe it’s not mystical or fate at all?  Maybe it’s just the theory of “weak links” or the “six degrees of separation” getting fewer and fewer, as I get older and older. Maybe this is what a form of wisdom is, the ability to link the past with the present to find deeper meanings?

            Maybe it’s also about perspective and a sense of the continuity that runs straight through struggles for social change that breeds these deep connections?  Recently, the head organizer of ACORN in the United Kingdom reached out for me for advice on an upcoming staff meeting where he wanted to start inoculating the organizers about the inevitability of attempts to repress their work as they continued to grow rapidly. 

            Reading a new book about the the extra-legal, brutal attacks on the Wobblies, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, prior to World War I, was a good reminder of how much worse it come be.  Reading about the red-baiting and race-baiting that hounded SCEF, Dombrowski, Highlander, Miles Horton, Virginia Durr, and others, or pacifists, labor and civil rights organizers and leaders both locally and nationally like Evers, King, and more, forced to revisit.  Obstacles to change and resistance to organizations involved in change and social movements is the rule, not the exception.  I remember talking to a political science professor at Williams College around 2010-11 after the ACORN attacks.  I expressed some sorrow to see the US organization hounded until it closed its doors and reorganized.  She looked at me as we talked after my presentation and said, “Wade, you know better.  How many social change organizations even make it to 38 years in the United States?  What are complaining about?”  She had a great point. 

            It turns out I knew too many of these cases too well and even intimately, and we might have learned too little from the history.  Liberals always run.  Funders always disappear.  Politicians in the main look for the safest road.  The attacks may be short and misinformed, but they are still painful and often permanent.  Maybe I should stick with a belief in magical realism, rather the real facts, because it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there will always come a reaction to our actions, and we will always have to be get even stronger to face them together, because alone, they simply tear the people apart, who thought someone would stand beside them.  

WADE RATHKE is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).