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Freedom Songs -
my Journey through 1964
part X - SDS
My first memory of Ann Arbor is arriving at night, sitting inside with two women in the movement who didn't seem happy to see me and who weren't eager to talk to me. Uncomfortable, insecure feeling - like a stray dog looking for someone to take it in. A guy came down the stairs, introduced himself as Rennie Davis. It was Rennie whom Charlie Smith had called. He was friendly. Relief. We sat there on the steps and talked and then played music.
Next day after breakfast in the office he got me going on a printing device. What was it? A mimeograph? I think it was mechanical, not electric. Was I turning a handle? I spent days churning out propaganda for PREP and ERAP which were the Peace Research Education Project and the Education Research Action Project which Rennie headed. On breaks I'd read the finished products. It was not interesting to read. I could not get far into anything I started. It read like the people there talked, impressive words and jargon that was new to me. But it was more interesting to listen to them talk. I'd hear about participatory democracy, non violent civil disobedience, mobilizing and uniting the poor and unemployed of all races and ethnicities, policy papers, the military industrial complex, paradigms, shibboleths. Would hear references to Marx and McLuhan, Gandhi and Sartre. The general idea was to organize students and workers to bring about a government in America that truly reflected the will of the people and was for the benefit of all the people, not just of the rich and powerful. That all sounded good, but I could only listen. I had nothing to offer but operating that machine.
As in Mississippi and in Ohio, some interesting characters came through there - policy wonks and hippy precursors, pacifists and anarchists, students and dropouts, the stern who'd make me tiptoe and the friendly who'd relate more charitably. Tom Hayden was working in an office. He was a founder of the whole national group, serious, dedicated, no time for screwing around. He articulated the cause, was on the phone a lot, came up with money that bought the paper and ink, paid the rent and fed us. He said hello to me while on his way to the airport to fly East for meetings.
I'd get out and walk around. Naturally, being an organization with the word students in the name, we were located near the University of Michigan. Now only a student of SDS, I ate in the student union building and joined in on a bridge game. I was standing on a corner downtown in the afternoon my third day there and thought for a second I saw the face of my Ohio cousin Cathy looking straight at me from the side window of a large car as it zoomed by a half block away. That was weird.
I was being transferred to the field - to Chicago where actual student worker activity was being instigated. The last night I stayed with a guy in his late twenties who told me he was getting fed up with all the pacifist goody goody talk from those high brow college kids. We drank beer and he told about getting in a fist fight with his ex girl friend's new lover and told me about the sex they had. I never liked talking to guys about details like that. He looked at me like there was something wrong with me when I said I was a virgin and I'd never been in a physical fight. He said I should hang out with him for a few days before going to Chicago. He took me to a party in Detroit that was all black except for us. At some point we had to get out of there because the guy whose apartment it was was drunk, yelling, and going to beat me up. I had no idea why. Bet I said something wrong but it might be he had something against Fort Worth.
My host did some pottery. That night back in his apartment we worked with clay. I did a bunch of little crude pieces of people quickly, one in which I used up the thin rolls of clay that were leftover from making limbs, created a swirling pile with the last person sitting on top. Then I noted it sort of looked like he was sitting on a pile of poop. The guy was so freaked out by that that he went to his room and took me to the highway as soon as he got up the next morning. Said something wrong again.
A few days before I left Ann Arbor there was a call. The station wagon Schwerner, Chaney, and their co-worker Andrew Goodman had used was found all burned up hidden in some woods in Mississippi. The next day there was picture of it in the paper. No sign of them though. It was disturbing.
Later that day there was a call for me in the office. Hmm?. Who knew I was there? It was my mother. She didn't even know I hadn't gone to Mississippi. I might not have contacted her once since I left. She was most relieved to find me and hear I was well north of the South. She'd made a lot of calls to track me down. She had something most interesting to say. The first she heard of my whereabouts was from my cousin Cathy who swore she'd seen my while passing through Ann Arbor on a road trip with her family. She'd cried and cried that it was me stop! stop! but Uncle Walt said that I was in Mississippi and kept on going.
The search for the missing civil rights workers was most prominently in the news day after day and also in our office talk and thoughts. Don't remember when I learned their bodies were found. It was so sad. I was so sad. I didn't mention I knew two of them. I couldn't talk about it, not for years.
Hitching to Chicago got picked up by a black fellow driving a Volkswagen. He was a student at the Chicago Art Institute. He told me what art museums to go to, what paintings and sculpture to be sure to see, and he showed me a long knife he kept above the driver's side window in case he picked up the wrong person.
SDS had two apartments for us field workers on the north side near lake Michigan. One was for the males and one for the females. Maybe there were about six of each. We had dinner together. Todd Gitlin was one person whose name I remember. He was the president of SDS. Toni Rabinowitz as I recall and Candice cousins were two others. Toni's father was head of the meat packer's union I think and Candice's was the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature which I had subscribed to in high school. As I washed dishes she told me about recently joining her father in a trip to Russia and swimming in Nikita Khrushchev's summer villa swimming pool. She said he and her father were good friends. There was a young woman there whose father was a chemist who'd put the foam in Ajax, "the foaming cleanser." She said it was the result of a mistake he'd made mixing chemicals in some giant batch. He'd suggested the foaming might be to their advantage and Colgate-Palmolive decided to go with it much to their financial benefit. Another woman I got along well with but memory fades. Oh yeah, her father was big in the UAW or some union.
Our project had a name with an acronym: JOIN - Jobs or Income Now. It was an ERAP project that was just getting off the ground. Our goal was to organize the unemployed in Chicago. We met and talked about it daily. Once again my input was on the nil side. We broke up into groups during the day. I started off leafleting an unemployment office on the South Side, the famous black ghetto on the other side of town. There was excellent mass transit to get there - trains above and below and busses.
It was while leafleting that I met a most interesting man in his forties named Ian. He hung out with me and when I was through, took me to a coffee shop with beatniks, people playing chess, having discussions and invoking Nietzsche, Kant, Dostoevsky. He was president of the local flying saucer club, a subject I was well versed in. He came back another day just to take me to the I Am building. Ian said I Am had been a pretty good size religious movement in the thirties. "I Am" is one of god's names, he said, and goes back not only to the Bible but to Hinduism's "I am that I am." The building had light bulbs lined around from a curving overhang which he said emanated spiritual vibrations on one who walked under before entering the building. He took me to a Theosophical Society meeting on an evening, a spiritual organization founded in 1875 with a message drawn from Eastern and Western traditions. The speaker said that everything in the universe was alive, that scientists had learned that age old wisdom in their research. I raised my hand and asked if bones were alive. The speaker was puzzled and said he guessed not. I'd been raised on stuff like that. I said nothing more but thought he did not have a deep understanding of his subject.
I'd get into some great discussions at the line outside the unemployment office. Some about local politics I didn't understand so well but was learning a little. White guy telling black guy that the answer to racial problems was Jesus' message of love, Martin Luther Kings' message of love, brotherly sisterly love, that we must learn to love each other and so forth. The black man said he didn't care if anyone loved him and he didn't want to have to love anyone. He wanted tolerance, justice, equal rights. He said, "Live and let live is good enough for me."
I visited Stanley on the South Side a few times, my dear friend from Oxford, Ohio, who'd been there to take photos, not to go where the kids were going. He showed me examples of his work - a lot of black and white photos of people, people working, demonstrating, struggling for freedom, hoping for a better life. We dined and drank and talked till late. It was a little scary walking in the South Side to take the Elevated back to the North side.
I went back to the South Side on a couple of other evenings too. There'd been a meeting with people from various movement groups at our apartment. Toward the end I'd played guitar while we all sang movement songs. Because of that I was invited to a CORE meeting. CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. I'd be the only white person there. I'd also be a little nervous walking with my guitar to and from the train and meeting, but nothing happened except some people calling out asking where I was going. They approved of my answer. I was honored to play at those meetings. I wasn't singing to them, I'd just do songs they knew and we'd sing together.
I did sing some songs no one knew and some I'd written at the apartment after dinner. Mainly with the women. They had me sing Come Let Us Build a New World Together many times. I got the title from a SNCC poster. And one night I played it in Old Town at the most famous folk song venue, a place where Dylan had played. I used to remember the name. Did it just once to a good response that surprised. Never pursued that sort of thing.
Walked along the lake. Visited with a friend's father way up in one of the Chicago Towers. We looked down on the winding river. They were landmark buildings back then. They're gone now. I even sent information about Chicago Chadwicks to the Mrs. Chadwick in Natchez who wanted to get into the DAR. Went to the Art Institute and met with the guy who'd given me the ride into the city. He took me to a party - wine, more art students, les politics. More aesthetics, feelings, and sensuous vibes.
One thing we did to earn some money for our expenses was to join union picket lines. I did that a few times. Didn't see the money which I didn't expect. One day I was in charge of a picket line of ILGWU workers at a famous men's clothing outlet. I had to make sure people were spaced evenly and didn't obstruct the flow of pedestrians or entrance to the store. Spent some of the time talking with a big tall cop who was watching over us.
I can't remember the name of the guy who was the head of the whole JOIN thing. He was good to me. He gave me that ILGWU gig which was fun. And he'd send me to leaflet the unemployed because I liked that. I'd complained in a meeting that I was being treated like a mongoose in a box no one wanted to open (just repeating my analogy from back then), wasn't given any responsibility. He said baloney, that I didn't follow up on suggestions he'd made. Called me on my unearned 19 year old stab at being important. But he stuck with me. He'd have me tag along with him on errands. Went with him to the Meatpackers Union hall.
He met with the president, Toni's father, while I waited in the lobby. That night Mr. Rabinowitz had dinner with us and spoke to us afterwards. People asked him questions about organizing and integrating. I asked a question - What did he think the minimum wage should be? He told me an amount that would surely seem ridiculously low to us now. I said that while I was waiting in the lobby of their union headquarters that I'd talked with their black janitor and he didn't get anywhere near that much and said it wasn't enough to support his family. People were not please with me that night, said I was rude to an important guest. Got into an argument with Todd Gitlin and he knocked me down. I remember women calling out No! No violence! Be non violent! I said it was OK, I'd asked for it. No hard feelings.
SDS was a better fit for me than SNCC, looser, more tolerant, less at war, certainly less scary. Still I was not much help and often in the way, not focused on their goals the way a young field worker should be, too involved in my own evolving dream world. But like SNCC it was an important communal experience full of lessons about how to work with and be with others. I'd give myself a failing grade in SNCC and SDS but I'd give them gold stars for certain people's tolerance and patience and for educating me as much as they could so that eventually I wouldn't be totally useless.
Summer's end. Time came for me to go. I was meeting my mother at the airport to fly on to New York for a family reunion. The nice guy who was in charge of JOIN drove me to the airport. I got my guitar and bag. Toni came along. I thanked them for everything and wished them good luck and they me. Then Toni said something I'd never heard before and which would have been literally impossible and definitely undesirable. But it was a touching thought. "Don't change," she said.
To see what was really happening with JOIN in Chicago back then:
next - part XI - New Orleans - not yet
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