10 November 2013

Michael James : Going Off Campus, 1965

Sam and Theophilius at sunset in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photos by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James' Pictures from the Long Haul.
Pictures from the Long Haul:
Going off campus:
Idaho, Wyoming, and Connecticut, 1965
I proceeded to quote Tom Paine: “Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils were I to make a whore of my soul.”
By Michael James / The Rag Blog / November 11, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about -- and inspired by -- those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James' Pictures from the Long Haul.]

At UC Berkeley in the winter and spring of 1965 the Free Speech Movement battles continued. The court proceedings for the Sproul Hall arrests continued, as did rallies and negotiations. My sentence gave me a choice: 25 days in jail, a year’s probation, or a $250 fine. Believing that a year’s probation would limit my political activities, I took the fine, and said to the judge; “A lot of people across the land are coming to feel as I do,” and proceeded to quote Tom Paine: “Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils were I to make a whore of my soul.”

Eventually the University agreed to permit tables and discussion in Sproul Hall Plaza, and reversed their edict on no political activity. And political activity there was. The U.S. war on the people of Vietnam was in the forefront. I got involved with the Vietnam Day Committee initiated by Jerry Rubin, Stew Alpert, and others. In May we held a two-day teach-in, which thousands attended. Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska was a featured speaker. He and Oregon’s Wayne Morse were the first Senators to stand in opposition to U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.

Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters showed up in a wildly painted school bus; Allan Ginsberg, Wavy Gravy, and others were on the scene. Protest singer Phil Ochs came to perform. Before he took to the stage I was fortunate to hang out with him at the home of Neil Blumenthal, a Berkeley psychologist and the Free Speech Movement’s resident shrink.

Man on Harley, Route 53, Connecticut.
For the teach-in I helped compile a pamphlet with articles on Vietnam and the war. While laying it out at the Berkeley Free Press, I leaned on the light table and fell through the glass (no injuries, luckily, and the shop owner took it in stride). When the pamphlet made it to press, I remember the brass bell on the Multilith offset that gave a constant ding-ding at the tempo of the press’s speed. The pressman was David Goines, who became a well-known poster artist.

Students for a Democratic Society was the organization that caught my attention, and then my love and devotion. Back when we surrounded the police car with Jack Weinberg in it -- the event that really set the Free Speech Movement in motion -- I had found a leaflet put out by SDS calling to “build the interracial movement of the poor.” SDS “traveler” (field organizer) Mike Davis, now a noted author, came through town and signed me up into the ranks of SDS. At an SDS party I talked and drank wine with Michael Harrington, who I had heard speak in 1962 at the University of Chicago, along with the old socialist Norman Thomas. Harrington’s ’62 book The Other America exposed the dramatic extent of poverty in the U.S.

The summer of ’65, while the anti-war movement was building at Berkeley and across the land, some of us were making plans to move into West Oakland. We would be among SDS members involved in the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), which had begun organizing in 13 cities, trying to build an interracial movement of the poor. Paul Booth, an SDS leader, came to California to help with what would be called the West Oakland Community Project (WOCP). We were idealistic. We said, “Let the people decide.” An SDS button proclaimed Sam Cook’s lyric “A change is gonna come.”

Twelve of us --11 white, one black -- were involved in the WOCP that summer. We had a house at 320 Henry Street near the Southern Pacific Railroad yards. People in the community wondered who we were and what was going on. A ragtag group of men who lived at the Catholic Worker’s Peter Maurin House came by to check us out. [Peter Maurin was a Catholic activist who along with Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement]. They’d been drinking wine and their spokesman was challenging, but mellowed out when we shared our hopes and intentions.

Lots of people were working for change in Oakland. There were freedom schools, summer work projects, and labor projects. The issue that got traction in our efforts was beautification. It may not seem radical, but responding to the way the city was tearing down fences and ruining people’s gardens at Peralta Villa Public Housing without notice or community input, was about letting the people decide, a major SDS principle. The Peralta Villa folks were pissed off, and they let the city know about it. The fence removal was halted, a small but significant victory.

A mostly white group of Berkeley students organizing in a poor black community did not bring us far on the road to a revolution. Perhaps the biggest deterrent to sustained work by WOCP was the exploding growth of opposition to the Vietnam War. There was considerable anti-war activity on campus and energies were pulled in that direction.

To top it off, there were the troop trains, and the efforts by hundreds to stop them. During August there was a demonstration at the railroad tracks in Berkeley. My clearest memory of that day is a soldier’s face, probably a conscript, who was on the Union Pacific train from Fort Riley in Kansas, heading to the Oakland Army Terminal to be shipped off to Nam. He was at the window with a shaved head. His face was laughing yet somehow also fearful as he watched me take the picket sign I held and slap it against the window. “U.S. Out of Viet Nam!” I hope he made it back.

Sam and Theophilus in Wyoming or Nebraska.

At the end of the summer I headed back east. My Staples High School pal, football lineman Sam Whiteside, was on the West Coast. He and I, along with two women from the Oakland Project and a young black SNCC activist named Theopholis Smith, headed east in Sam’s Chevy wagon. Theo had been on a break from his work in the South and was heading back to the voter registration battlefield in Alabama.

I was back on the road, heading east from Berkeley by car for the first time. Sam, like me, was up for a circuitous route, and I had a camera with me. We drove through Nevada, then Idaho, and on to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where at sunset I caught a picture of Sam and Theo climbing a over a fence. Later that night we spotted Indians swaying and staggering along the road. We were riding through a Crow reservation as we neared Dubois, Wyoming. In Dubois we ate at a bar while a piano player tickled the keys. We joined him in song before driving off into the night.

By morning we were in my ancestral homeland of Nebraska. Near Valentine we decided to stop and take a jump into the Niabrara River. Sam cut his foot, and got stitches from a doctor in Valentine. I talked to the doc about the war, which he supported. As my family will attest, this was the beginning of a lifetime of bringing up politics with folks anywhere I am -- in an elevator, at a gas station, attending a wedding, on the phone with an operator at a credit card company in wherever. “And what state are you taking this call in? Hope you guys are going to vote out so-and-so!”

In Chicago we went to the Uptown neighborhood, where the JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) Community Union office was located on Argyle. There I met Sandra Cason, aka Casey Hayden, who had just left her work with SNCC in Mississippi after Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) had booted the white members out. Sam and the others left me there.

Cross, cowboy, Conoco, and Wonder Bread truck in Idaho.
Casey and I visited Old Town, a pioneer hip neighborhood and happening place. The night heat was close to unbearable, and the sidewalks were packed with people. A guy on a motorcycle, his squeeze on the back, was jumpy and jittery as he revved his bike, moving through the crowds crossing the street. I suggested to Casey, “Let’s get out of here!” We took the Chicago Northwestern RR to Lake Forest, 30 miles north. It was cooler there, where we stayed at the home of my anthropology Prof Gerry Gerasimo.

The next morning we said goodbye to Gerry and his wife Dottie, who had been a classmate of mine. Casey and I grabbed our stuff and hitchhiked east, stopping for a night at an SDS ERAP project in Cleveland, located in a mostly poor white neighborhood near the Great Lake Erie. The next day, thumbs out, we hitched rides and made it to Connecticut.

We linked up with fellow Berkeley sociology student Nigel Young and his wife Antonia, serious peace activists from England. Nigel told me about writing “U.S. out of Guatemala” on a wall in London in 1956, when he got arrested while trying to figure out how to spell Guatemala. They were quite a couple, he in mod all black: turtleneck, black pants, short black jacket, and pointy-toe black shoes. Antonia wore a big long fur coat. (This was before there was much talk of animal rights.)

All four of us headed west in a gray 1957 Plymouth station wagon “drive-away” that needed to be delivered to California. We stopped at the Custer Battlefield and Museum in Montana, where the park ranger-guide kept referring to “the hostiles” coming over this hill, and doing this or that. With Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull already heroes in my consciousness, I found his rap to be offensive. In Billings we stopped to eat at a place with an adjacent bar that had a dirt floor and a sign “Check guns at door.” That made sense.

We cruised through Yellowstone National Park, took in the geysers, and had our progress momentarily halted while a bull buffalo decided to mosey along the middle of the road. In Idaho we crossed over a mountain and stopped to eat early in the morning. On the jukebox I noticed Johnny Cash covers of Dylan tunes, and thought: “Wow, something is happening here, the times indeed are a-changing.”

A ranch in Idaho.
On a back road we stopped at an abandoned ranch where I found a branding iron. Down the road we had to stop for a herd of sheep. The shepherd was Basque, didn’t speak English, and wore a jean jacket and pants and engineer boots. Later Nigel enlightened us about the struggles of the Basque people in Spain.

Back at school in Berkeley, I was a graduate teaching assistant. Casey was bereft, missing her comrades in Mississippi, and returned to her family’s home in Victoria, Texas. I tried to restart the Oakland Project along with Vivian Rothstein. From 12 of us, we were down to two. We moved into a different house where neighborhood kids ripped us off. Honest talk led to the goods being returned.

Barry and Betty, both of whom had worked in the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP), soon joined Vivien and me in our efforts. We took a trip to a commune near Big Sur. As we approached we heard beating drums, apparently a sunset ritual to help the sun to go down over the Pacific. A number of longhairs came running at us with clubs, but backed off when Barry yelled he was there to see his sister.

It quickly became clear that the Oakland Project had run out of steam. Though my heart was still with the interracial movement of the poor, I needed to figure out the best place for me to help work toward that vision. Knowing now that I wanted to leave Berkeley, to go off campus and organize, I began contemplating my next moves.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago's Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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