Sammie Abbott had been in the Washington area since 1940 but he was still on the outside. By all rights, though, Abbott should have been disqualified as a 1960s DC leader on at least three grounds: he was too white, he was too old, and he lived in the suburbs. Instead, this short man with a nail-file voice became the nemesis of public officials for years. Abbott, the grandson of Arab Christians who fled Turkish persecution in Syria, had been a labor organizer, a bricklayer and a World War II veteran with a Bronze Star. He had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was arrested about 40 times for his labor, peace, civil rights, and anti-freeway protests. His wife’s father had introduced him to her while the both men were in jail.
Abbott worked high in an office building on Connecticut Avenue as a commercial artist. Between dabs of rubber cement, he kept on the phone tracking down witnesses for the next freeway hearing, plotting strategy against the Highway Department, always mad as hell about something. Occasionally his eyes would break into an elfish twinkle, but most of the time Abbott was an angry middle-aged man showing angry young men and women how to be angry. The Post once described him as “strident, confrontational, acerbic, cantankerous, even abusive.” Abbott himself said,, “I’m perpetually mad person. I hate injustice. As far as I’m concerned, I’m living to fight injustice. I’m living to fight the goddamned thing. I’m too mad to sleep.” Once he got so mad that he threw a bottle of India ink out of the window ruining the clothes of a passer-by below.
One of Sammie’s advantages was his voice. His hoarse fury roared through a room like coal crashing down a chute “The people of the District,” he told a group at the proposed site of the Three Sisters Bridge, “are fighting not only the highway department, the Congress of the U.S., but the media — particularly the Star and the Post — which are not only the handmaidens [of the highway interests] but the prostitutes.” And Abbott said he was prepared to die in the fight. The Post reported :
Abbott seemed to warm to the crowd as the crowd warmed to him. A physically small man, he seemed to grow as he almost yelled, “Before another inch of these damn freeways gets laid down in the District there’s gonna be flames, there’s gonna be fighting, there’s gonna be rebellion! And I for one–” He was drowned out by cheers and clapping, raised his fist in salute to the crowd.
Sammie never stopped his agitation, in his seventies serving as mayor of a nearby suburb affectionately known as the People’s Republic of Takoma Park. After five years in office he lost by seven votes to a lawyer more in tune with the young, non-political professionals moving into a town that had been once been among the first to refuse to do business with companies making nuclear weapons.
By the middle of the sixties I was fast approaching the age of thirty which — according to contemporary mythology — was about to render me totally untrustworthy. Having only recently signed up for social change, I found the prospect of such early forced retirement from righteousness annoying and depressing. Then I noticed a curious thing. In the peace, civil rights and anti-freeway movements, some of the people who were making the most sense — and the most difference — were even older than I. People like Abe Bloom, David and Selma Rein, Julius Hobson and Sammie Abbott.
These were the sort of people who, to a degree not widely recognized, held things together in the sixties, often old leftists who actually knew how to organize marches and rallies and fight in court and keep offices going even when overfilled with people who were just passing through or trying out a new direction for a little while or using that moment in history as a crash pad for their souls.
CITY COUNCIL HEARING ON THE FREEWAYS
As a product of the fifties in which cynicism and disengagement were the highest forms of political activity, I had found myself unable to identify with the Aquarian optimism of those just a few years younger than myself. Aquarius was not an age, I thought, but brief happy fireworks in the long night before human understanding. I came to believe that Bobby Seale’s appeal to “seize the time” best summarized the transitory nature of the success that social and political change were then enjoying. In a literal sense, narrow in focus, I was not off the mark. But because I came to know a few people like Sammie Abbott — it came not to matter.
Sammie, after all, had been a union organizer before I had even been born. He had been protesting against the bomb while I was still in elementary school. He had been black-listed while I was in high school. That he had remained so committed, creative and indefatigable for so long was a truly remarkable discovery. That he had done so during times not only without the support of mass demonstrations, mass media, and the cheers of a whole generation, but in times when such activities were considered akin to treason was inspiring. Above all, the constancy of it, the steadfastness, made me comprehend for the first time the existential concept of personal witness that had eluded me even during my years of Quaker education.
Of course I could not have thus described Sammie’s effect on me back then. Nor, I regret, did I ever mention it to him. There was about Sammie the compelling aura of a job to be done as soon as possible and the day to sit back and reflect on it all never came. In fact, I wondered what Sammie would have said about his memorial service, at which hundreds of activists gathered for two and a half hours of eulogy, music and anecdotes. Looking at the energy, talent and faith in the room, I suspect he might have been annoyed that at a time so hostage to puerile apocalyptic visions, we were wasting the afternoon with mere memories instead of action. I would not have been surprised if he had arisen in mist from the middle of the room and in that voice and with that pointing finger so reminiscent of an old testament prophet interrupted our proceedings and demanded that we get back to business.
For my part on the program, I remembered for my friends that voice and that finger pointing at Thomas Airis, director of highways, or Gilbert Hahn, chair of the city council. Through that voice flowed the aggregated anger of a city abused, of justice ignored, of dreams dismantled.
But I also remembered that the anger was only the beginning. Always there was a plan, an idea, a way of doing it. Drive down U Street, through Brookland or up the Potomac River by the islands of the Three Sisters and you will find no freeway there, in part because Sammie knew how to move from anger to productive action.
Like the time someone discovered an internal DC government map showing a proposed freeway right through the heart of center city black Shaw. Sammie immediately sat down and created a 3 by 4 foot poster with a blow-up of the section in question, with the freeway overlaid in red and identifying exactly which buildings — such as Pride headquarters and the Howard Theatre — would be torn down. The headline: “White Man’s Roads Through Black Man’s Homes.” The posters were tacked up all over Shaw and within a few days the DC government was disingenuously denying it had even thought of a freeway there. It may have been the first and only freeway stopped after less than a month of protest.
Sammie built his entire life around truth and justice. A cause was not a career move, not on option purchased on a political future, nor a flirtation of conscience. It was simply the just life’s work of a just human.