Shortly before I left the Coast Guard, the Spar’s crewmembers were presented the Defense Service ribbon in delayed recognition of the fact that at some point whatever had been going on in Vietnam had turned into a war. We were now officially — although the actual phrase had yet to be born — Vietnam era veterans.
What I knew about the war for which I had been given a ribbon was slight. I knew my friend Lou Walling had been one of the first forty Americans killed in it. He died when the CIA helicopter in which he was flying was shot down. But in Bristol, RI, it did not feel like a war and it did not feel, whatever it was, that it was about me.
Besides, I was leaving the military behind me. I had seriously thought about making a career of it, especially when the sun bounced off the wavelets as far off the bow as one could see, but when I seriously thought about it I also realized that I could not count on such rewarding and pleasant assignments in the future, that I was as likely to be sent to an administrative office in New York or to a search and rescue vessel whose home port for 30 days at a stretch would a godawful plot of the Atlantic known only as Ocean Station Charlie.
Besides, I had spent three and a half years thinking about what I wanted to do. As I did, the excitement of broadcasting wore off; it now seemed a life full of the shallow and cynical. In its place, as first sporadically and eventually compulsively, came visions of Sid Yudain publishing Roll Call and Ronnie Dugger putting out the Texas Observer, and of me sitting like them in some office doing what they were doing, only my way instead of theirs. It was odd to be in uniform on the bridge of a United States naval vessel thinking of such matters but I realized the ease with which I had adapted to the military reflected as much as anything skills I had learned during the discipline of my childhood. They had little to do with what was in my heart. What I could do, even well, and what I wanted to do, even poorly, were far apart. Like Thoreau I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet stool.
Looking carefully at my finances, I realized that I might possibly accomplish it. I had inherited enough funds that with effort, frugality and luck it just might be feasible to put out my own publication, if only for a little while.
Once unleashed, ideas for a publication poured into every vacant recess of my brain. Together they began to create the notion of an elegant, funny, literary yet journalistically hard-hitting monthly. Its saints would range from Samuel Johnson and Mark Twain to the guys I would later come to think of as The Initials: A.J. Liebling and E. B. White and H.L.Mencken. From Dr. Johnson, I even stole a name: The Idler.
Attempting to explain this preposterous notion to a fellow journalist more than three decades later, I described the product as the work of an “ill-formed young person trying to put together thoughts on politics and society. You might call it an early edition of a ‘zine.”
Except there weren’t any ‘zines back then. With a tiny number of exceptions — Ronnie Dugger being one — publishing belonged to the old, the established, and the wealthy. The idea that a 26-year-old would start a monthly magazine in Washington was absurd. Fortunately, I failed to notice this.
I put together The Idler like I was assembling a hunting shack. My friend Dick Sullivan had just purchased the Warren Printing Company in the next town over from Bristol. Figuring that I would do much better getting my printing done in a small New England town than in DC, I contracted for the presses. I wrote friends to ask them to subscribe and to contribute; more than a few would, although John Neary, already at Life, reminded me that it was Dr. Johnson who had said that only a blockhead wrote for other than money. I asked Hugh Haynie, cartoonist for the Louisville Courier Journal, to let me use his cartoons and I sought out the columns of Charlie McDowell of the Richmond Times-Gazette.
Hugh was not only a cartoonist but a fellow hooligan with whom I had successfully conspired to defraud the government of a number of flights to Louisville in order to design a boating safety manual based on his drawings. In fact, my time was largely spent enjoying the gestalt of a town which centered, without distraction, upon enjoyment. One Saturday we did wander down to the paper and Hugh drew a few sketches, but we quickly tired of the effort and went home to prepare for that evening’s party. Standing in the lobby, the elevator door opened and a young black man bounced out, bragging loudly, and causing all eyes to turn his way. It’s that new fighter, Hugh explained, a guy by the name of Cassius Clay.
McDowell I had not met, but I thought I knew him, which was easily the case for anyone who had read more than a handful of his columns. These columns had been required reading for those of us at Officer Candidate School who retained a thirst for words written by someone other than the US Government. We somehow found time to grab a Richmond Times-Dispatch from the paper box and read Charlie’s column between breakfast and having to fall into formation again.
Haynie and McDowell readily agreed to my request. John Perts, the caricaturist for Roll Call, was a bit more cautious. A conservative Virginian, he sought to find out more about my politics before committing his drawings to my care. I wrote him in March 1964:
Dear Mr. Perts,
I don’t believe our philosophies are incapable of pleasant coexistence. I am no political dogmatist. A few year’s experience as a reporter has knocked the nails out of the soapbox and I find myself on the ground, wishing to talk with people rather than at them. But since you asked . . .
I believe in government being most responsive to those whose needs are the greatest. Thus civil rights is, to my mind, the most important issue before us today. The problems of poverty, unemployment, education and medical care follow not far behind.
I favor the administration’s civil rights proposals, the general trend of liberal Medicare programs and unabashed public spending for education and public welfare when the quality and condition our people can be improved.
. . .The business at hand is to invent and improve the machinery of the good life. This is what The Idler, in a small way, will attempt to do. Not with sweeping pronouncements, but with questions asked, doubts raised, and new ideas presented. . . If you find ideas with which you take exception an angry letter or a thoughtful alternative will be printed with relish.
The Idler will try at all times to have a sense of humor. . . Political matters will often be under discussion but the magazine will try to be an unfettered sidewalk superintendent of our times, peeking through whatever crack happens to be handy. I hope that when the reader is through the month’s issue, he will say to himself, “Now that was fun.” The Idler will fight its own battles as a happy warrior and will encourage other to do likewise.
I set a similar tone in a form letter to potential readers:
While liberal in viewpoint, it will not just be another sermon from another journalistic mount, but an informal and witty account of the passing political and social scene written in the casual and personal style of a country newspaper. We feel that you will be delighted by its lack of pretension, amused by its humor, and enlightened by its comments and news. Not pressed to please a mass audience or its advertisers, The Idler will be free to wander where its curiosity leads. It will present its views as a friend might over an after-dinner drink. . . .
Printed on light buff paper, The Idler will be a small magazine, conservative in format. It will not stun your eyes with full color photos or flashy layouts, for the magazine is to be read, not hung on the wall. . .
Among those who responded to news of my impending return to DC was my friend Larry’s mother and my ex-landlady, Olive Smith. Mrs. Smith offered me the whole first floor of 125 5th Street NE for $110 a month, utilities and two parking spaces included. I now not only had a place to stay but an exceedingly inexpensive office.
125 5TH STREET NE BECAME A POPULAR CRASH PAD ON WEEKEND, ESPECIALLY FOR REFUGEES FROM VARIOUS NEARBY MILITARY ENCAMPMENTS
The initial reaction was favorable. Ron Linton, clerk of the powerful Senate Public Works Committee, called to find out who the hell was putting out such a magazine and invited me to lunch to find out more. We became lifelong friends. It was not long before articles and short items from The Idler began appearing elsewhere, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Reader’s Digest to the members’ bulletin of Washington’s Cosmos Club. The range of serious articles was suggested in a flyer sent out a few months later:
A summary of major legislation passed by Congress last year; Representative Wright Patman, Chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee calling for major reforms in the Federal Reserve system: a detailed report on hurricanes how they are formed and their effects; the case against the multilateral nuclear force; a defense of the prayer reading decision of the Supreme Court by the lawyer who argued the case; a summary of current conditions in Puerto Rico; new light on the Titanic disaster; why millions are disenfranchised by antiquated election laws: the role of a congressional whip; how we can end the draft by Senator Gaylord Nelson, major congressional critic of conscription.
The monthly also included whimsical and humorous pieces including those of McDowell, a wry column by an old leftist named Sam Darcey, and a character named Uncle Abner who reported regularly from Saltlickham and answered letters from imaginary readers. Perhaps the most unusual contributor was Madeleine Dion of Federalsburg, Md. Mrs. Dion was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1890 and had resided in various places around Europe, including a stay in Vienna from 1908 to 1913.
When I tumbled upon her, she was living in greatly reduced conditions with a collection of cats (including her favorite, Oliver Wendell Holmes) and writing a column for the local paper under the name of Lorelei. Her style was so mercurial, prejudiced and unpredictable that I suggested that she write me regularly and let me excerpt the letters at will. This produced results like the following:
Anybody home? Are all of you hiding in the cellars, away from the heat and stickiness? I got no place to hide, so I am reduced to a grease spot. I am suffering my yearly purgatory — too hot to write, to cook, garden growing wild, chickens running half naked, thunder and lightning and winds, horrible climate, horrible place, and I am perpetually hungry and thirsty.
I am happy we are bombing the hell out of the VC but we should have done it right in the beginning. Of course if we had, that war would be over and lots of guys would be running around with no jobs and we would have to hurry and start another little war somewhere to make some people we don’t even know happy to get cake mixers and chrome plated shower baths and stuff. And elections. .. .
I read that Billy Graham was not such an archangel in London. Everybody is tired of his ranting. I think he is a pain in the neck and an opportunist, He is worried about sex behavior and obsession but so what? He has five kids. He didn’t find them under cabbage plants, did he?
You city cave-dwellers don’t know what a thrill I get every single morning, stepping out into the wet grass, bare-footed contessa me, and going into my garden to get my quota of vitamins — lettuce, onions, the overnight growth of the squash, beans, and cucumbers, to push a finger close to the root of potato plants to feel the new potatoes, to feel which I will soon dig out every day for my dinner.
Yesterday was Oliver W. Holmes’ birthday. He was 2 years old and I bought him a can of Chicken o’the Sea Tuna. How is that?
I thought that leavening the portentous with such pieces might remind the reader of something that I had learned from my time in rural Maine and from writers like E.B. White: that the great is only the aggregate of the small and that the detailed is often a far better window onto truth than the most elegant abstractions. Lorelei, I thought might help keep my readers, and me, in our place.
Not everyone, however, enjoyed The Idler. Rollin, my Coast Guard journalist’s mate first class from St. Louis — now on his way to becoming a fundamentalist minister — wrote me a three page single-spaced letter in September 1964:
Thank you for the first copy of Idler and the subscription. Needless to say, your entire publication is contrary to my very existence, but that only signifies we live in America. You are very intelligent and witty. I am sure you have put on paper your philosophy for our troubled nation that you are sure is our panacea. But please remember even Voltaire, Napoleon, Caesar, Hitler, Tojo, Lincoln, Kennedy, and the odds-makers at Las Vegas have been mistaken; some incredibly so.
. . . Please do forgive me if I have been untactful. It was not my intent. You are more than a friend to me and I am concerned for something you have not allowed God to reveal unto you, your eternal soul. This matter is so serious that God did not spare even His own Son Jesus. He so loves you Sam, that rather than have you spend eternity in torment, He sent Jesus to die in your stead. This is your life.
You may continue to reject Him or you may accept Him as your own Savior as atonement for your sins by simple child-like trust. The choice is yours. This is your Cape Kennedy. You have spent your years on your drawing board planning how to live your life the very best. But, in a few short years you will be launched into space. If anything is wrong there, it is too late to return to the drawing board and you must be destroyed. Thus God so says is the fate of all men who will not give their lives to Jesus Christ. The only difference is that His destruction is eternal. . . .
A month later I finally worked up a lengthy reply in which I said, among other things:
You have a clear understanding of what you believe to be the nature of God and Christ. I have not. Does that set us so far apart? I believe not, for if God is the kind of God that I would wish him to be, he will accept my lack of understanding of the infinite and settle for a human attempt at carrying out his dictates as I am able to comprehend them. Whether a man is a missionary of God, as you are, or a human involved in worldly affairs, like myself, the task remains much the same. We each in our way, bungling as we go, must make a brave effort to elevate the human race an inch to two. . . In any care, don’t give me up for lost just yet. It’s good to keep a few sinners as friends just to help maintain one’s perspective.
Rollin wrote a number of further letters — cordial, concerned yet tinged with the threat of eternal damnation — until, I suppose, we both decided there was nothing more we could do about each other.
I initially saw myself more as an unconventional member of the establishment rather than its opponent. Early on, I tried to explain to readers who I suspected were considerably more traditional than myself some of the remarkable changes that were occurring in America and how they might best adapt to them. If anything, my view of American radicalism was that of a sympathetic, albeit sometimes patronizing, observer. Among other things, The Idler in its three short years of existence, tracked my sometimes awkward, equivocating, and even pompous pilgrimage away from what I had been taught and still in many ways believed I was. In June 1965, for example, I wrote:
There is a new radical spirit. It has drawn much of its strength from the civil rights movement, but it goes far beyond that. challenging not just America’s racial attitudes but some of her most cherished and smug assumptions,
It protests the whole humdrum, humbug world of white urban American sophistication with its self-serving definition of success, its indifference towards the socially and economically disenfranchised of the country, its phony values and its 8 oz. drip-dry culture.
It is as purposeful as a March on Montgomery and as pointless as an obscene sign on the University of California campus.
But when it came to applying such principles to our increasing involvement in Vietnam, I found myself on far less certain ground. For example, from a piece in September 1965:
President Johnson is faced with two major dangers. He must not let this war expand beyond reasonable limits and he must not negotiate a phony and ignominious settlement. The president is fully aware of these dangers and, no doubt, personally confident that he can avoid them.
At present our strategy appears to be based on. the concept of holding Saigon and selected areas along the east coast, then moving out into the countryside as conditions permit. According to news reports, we have also determined not to waste American troops in missions with high ambush potential, and instead will reserve them for battalion-size action. This is a realistic strategy. It makes much more sense than one based on the false hope of negotiation or false faith in expansion. It implies a lengthy stay in Vietnam and it means, for perhaps years to come, something less than total victory against the V.C. But it also represents our best hope of saving what is left of South Vietnam without paying an unreasonable price . . .
But the public must be conditioned to the realities of the situation. They must be made to understand the necessity of the undramatic, sufficient, and lengthy application of American force in South Vietnam.
This was written by a 27-year-old barely a year out of the military, raised in the bosom of cold war liberalism, conscious of my responsibility to realpolitik and influenced by friends and media to whom even such cautious words bordered on questionable.
It may provide some perspective to quote a small item that appeared in a box in the same issue:
We sent a classified ad up to the Saturday Review not so long ago and got back a reply which said, in part, “After careful consideration, our Acceptability Board came to the conclusion that it would prefer not to run your ad.”
We had hoped that the Saturday Review would be able to find a little space for us amongst their other ads concerning Sell’s Famous Liver Pate, WBAI-FM, exotic tropical fruit, work for an ex-convict, sex education records, and a private party wishing to buy Horatio Alger books. So we called them up to find out what was wrong.
Nothing wrong with the ad, the lady told us. “The board just decided your magazine was a little too liberal.”
It was not the harshest view. Among the notes received was a subscription blank that read: “You all go to hell as Reds. We’re on to you and we’ll fight you to the death.” The subscription form was made out for “Martin Luther Coon”
Further expiation may be found in the fact that I wrote those words only months after the anti-war movement had begun. Howard Zinn remembers because he was there:
The movement against the war in Vietnam started with isolated actions in 1965. Black civil rights activists in the South were among the first to resist the draft. SNNC’s Bob Moses joined historian Staughton Lynd and veteran pacifist Dave Dellinger to march in Washington against the war, and Life Magazine had a dramatic photo of the three of them walking abreast, being splattered with red paint by angry super patriots. In the spring of 1965 I spoke at what was to be the first of many anti-war rallies on the Boston Common. It was a discouragingly small crowd – perhaps a hundred people. . . .
Over the next year, my views, like those of many others would undergo major transformation. By March 1966 I was still writing things such as:
We must learn the limits of a realistic American role and not exceed them. The specific extent of this role is hard for one sitting at a desk half a world away to suggest. But it would seem to include defense of major South Vietnamese population centers and areas of strategic importance, including all or part of the Mekong Delta. It includes the presence of large numbers of American troops, the provision of technical assistance and supplies to the South Vietnamese army and a far higher level of economic assistance than that at present.
But I was also suggesting limits and alternatives:
[The proper role] does not include bombing North Vietnam, ravishing South Vietnam’s villages in order to flush out a few Vietcong. or wasting American lives in battle for ground not worth the powder to blow it to hell.
We may have to stay in Vietnam a long time. The American public will accept this if it feels the course we pursue there is reasonable, just as the public has accepted the large number of American troops in Europe for over two decades. But if we repeatedly engage in actions that are neither moral nor productive, the public at home and the nations abroad will reject our role. The Americans in Vietnam will become lonely, hated men fighting a lonely, hated war.
As I write, the big peace offensive is still underway. I hope it will be by the time this reaches the reader. For we have not, until recently, been as diligent in escalating the peace as we have been in escalating the war. We could too easily slip back into the old ways of battle. The big lesson of the Cold War is that careful, conscientious escalation of the peace works to the benefit of everyone, despite the minor immediate losses of face and compromised ideological goals. We can always risk taking a few halting steps away from disaster.
Then in April 1966:
Perhaps it is not too late to salvage our position in Vietnam, but if we are to do it there are going to have to be some fairly dramatic changes made,. . . .The overriding fact of the Vietnamese war is that neither we nor the South Vietnamese are doing a good job at it. One does not improve a bad situation by enlarging its scope.
Finally in June 1966:
[LBJ’s] Vietnam escapade has been an abject failure.
If we pursue the war to ultimate military victory, which appears the present goal of our government, we shall have surrendered reason and justice to the temptations of brazen power. We may defeat the communists, but we shall have also defeated ourselves.
Some, including myself, are not psychologically inclined to have their heads bashed in by a US Marshall guarding the Pentagon. Still it seems almost inevitable that extraction from the mess of SE Asia or of our cities will not come without vehement, even violent, confrontation, Those willing to risk that confrontation on behalf of those less bold are more to be honored than censured.
The same issue contained an article by Howard Zinn defending radical protests against the napalm-maker, Dow Chemical. I had become a full-winged dove.
The story came from Liberation News Service, which I described as a “news service for the so-called underground press.” That month I turned thirty, the age that one could no longer be trusted. In fact, most of those on the streets were younger than I; those condemning and suppressing them were older. I had wandered into a generational no-man’s land and never would have guessed that forty years later, I would be one of the few members of the “so-called underground press” still at it.o
There was another story that wound its way across the pages of The Idler, in this case with little editorial equivocation. It was first expressed in a moving fashion in letters written from Mississippi in the summer of 1964 by my college roommate, ex-wrestler and ex-paratrooper Gren Whitman. From Biloxi on August 8 he wrote:
Fear cannot be described, only felt. I have been frightened many times In my life in varying degrees, in varying circumstances. And courage is not the absence of fear. Fear is the essence of courage. What are your emotions now, driving with us along a lonely highway in rural Mississippi, in an integrated car? It you are frightened, you are with friends, and you are sane. If you are not afraid, you know nothing about Missis-sippi. You have never heard of the Free-dom Rides and how they ended in Jack-son. You have never heard of Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, and countless oth-ers. You have not heard of Neshoba County. You have never talked with a Mississippi Negro or a civil rights veteran.
And if your fear has overcome your convictions, you have no business with us. Go home.
Our three colored companions are profoundly aware that two whites are in the car with them and what this will mean if we are stopped for any reason. The two of us, likewise, know that though we are white, we become as black as tar once we are known to be CR types. White Mississippians make no distinctions. There is a strange and wonderful and, for you, a new bond between us, compounded of fear, and dedication and brotherhood. . . .
Our final stop is a colored settlement near a planing mill owned by a Mr. Black. Most of these people are his, tenants and employees, We know that he has told them not to talk to us and that they inform him each time we come around. So we keep our visit short. We talk quickly and to the point: “Join the Freedom Party. You need It. It needs you.” No one signs. Few talk. James, sensing that someone has already headed to tell ‘Mr. Charlie’ that we’re talking to “his niggers” says “let’s go” and we git. Fast. There is always the next time. Folks have seen us, some have talked, however briefly. The precious seed Is planted. The freedom seed.
In January, I got a chance to help plant the seed. The notorious DC Transit wanted to raise its fares and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized to stop it. They urged citizens with cars to drive bus passengers during a one-day boycott.
I joined the volunteers. On the morning of January 24, 1966, 1 hauled myself out of bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my ’54 Chrysler, and made my way to Sixth and H Streets Northeast, one of the assembly points for volunteer jitneys. A boycott organizer filled my car with three high school girls and a middle- aged and rather fat woman.
A bus drove by and it was empty. “They’re all empty,” the woman said, It was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered if she was right.
If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent fare increase Chalk was seeking would cost them two week’s worth of groceries over the course of a year.
I let my passengers off and headed back to Sixth and H. At Florida and New York, I counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning and the boycott was working,
“It’s beautiful,” the man in the slightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for Seven-teenth Street. “It’s working and it’s beautiful. Hey, you see those two there. Let’s try and get them.”
I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two men stood.
“Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in,” my rider called to the pair.
“You headed downtown?”
“Yeah, get in.”
“Great. It’s working, huh? Great!”
At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it. Want a cup of coffee?”
“I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn’t.”
We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.
“We’ve got to live together, man. You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed. “You ever worked with SNCC before?” “Nope,” I said.
‘Well, I’11 tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they’re a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they’ll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good, man.”
Later, I picked up a man at a downtown bus stop. The woman in the back seat asked him, “You weren’t waiting for a bus, were you?”
“No. I just figured someone would come along and pick me up.”
“That’s good, ’cause if you were waiting for a bus I was going to bop you upside your head.”
We all laughed and the man reassured her again.
“You know,” the woman in back continued, “there were some of the girls at work who said they were going to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I’d go get a big stick and stand at the bus stop and bop ’em one if they got on Mr. Chalk’s buses. Some people just don’t know how to cooperate. And you know, you don’t have nothing in this world until you get people together. Hey, lookit over there, let’s see if that guy’s going out northeast.”
People stuck together that Monday, I carried seventy-one people, only five of them white. SNCC estimated that DC Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Two days later, the transit commission, in a unanimous but only temporary decision, denied DC Transit the fare hike. The commission’s executive director dryly told reporters that the boycott played no part in the decision. He was probably right. The commission worried about such things as cash dividends, investor’s equity, rate of return, depreciated value, and company base. The boycotters worried about a nickel more a ride. And in the end, the commission was to approve the fare hike and then more; a few years later the fare was up to forty cents.
But the boycott was important, anyway. Never had so many Washingtonians done anything so irregular and contrary to official wishes. The assumption that DC residents would passively accept the injustices of their city was shattered. SNCC and the Free DC Movement had laid the groundwork for future action.
After the bus boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague, L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my living room talking about how I could help in SNCC’s public relations. I readily agreed; for the first time in my life I had joined a movement.
Three years earlier Barry had quit his $5,500 a-year post teaching chemistry at Knoxville College in Tennessee and joined the SNCC. He soon showed up in Washington to head the local office. Barry early formed an improbable and ultimately nearly explosive partnership with an erstwhile farm implements manufacturer, salesman, self-styled nutrition expert, and economic theoretician named L. D. Pratt. Barry was lean, black, soft-spoken, self-contained, and given to wearing a straw plantation style hat; Pratt was husky, white, excitable, demonstrative, and covered his baldness with a felt fedora that made him appear a character out of a one-column cut in a forties edition of Time magazine.
Together they designed the boycott and a drive to win self-government for the colony of Washington. Although the life of the Free DC Movement would be measured in months, it seemed like years, for so much was crammed into its short existence. Barry and Pratt both worked themselves to the marrow and it was during those months that Barry first gained a long-lingering reputation for always being late for appointments, news conferences, and actions. “I work on CPT– colored people’s time,” explained Barry. Part of my job was to stand on the street-corner and convince the press that Marion really would show up if they just waited a bit longer. The reporters would bitch, but since Barry was shaking up the city, they mostly waited anyhow.
Barry’s subsequent moves in his drive for passage of right-to-vote legislation in Congress included an effort to get businessmen in downtown stores and along H Street (a black shopping area second only to downtown in commercial importance) to support the movement by displaying its sticker in their windows. Hundreds of orange and black stickers with the slogan “Free DC” below a shattered chain went up in store windows; but the threat of a business boycott led other merchants to cry blackmail, and some of the more traditional civil rights and home rule leaders began to back away from Barry’s tough tactics.
In the coming months, Barry and his organization would disrupt the calm of the city with increasing frequency. A number of Free DC supporters were arrested at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. By the following fall, Barry would have been arrested three times, for failing to “move on,” for disorderly conduct, and for holding a Free DC block party without official sanction.
Barry used his arrests to make points. After being arrested for failing to move on at a policeman’s order, Barry said, “It is a bad law that gives policemen the sole discretion in such matters. Especially in Washington where the cops are so uneducated and awful. They use the law as a harassing device against Negroes.” And he warned, less than two years before the 1968 riot, that the attitude of police might lead to an outbreak of racial violence.
While Barry was on the streets, on the tube, in court, and in jail, his associate, L. D. Pratt, was developing a reputation as the mystery man behind the operation dis-turbing the tranquility of the colonial capital.
Pratt refused to be interviewed by reporters and, al-though it was known that he was closely involved in designing the bus boycott, few knew who be was or what he was up to.
In fact, by the time Pratt was sixteen, he had lived in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, and Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of DC. He worked for a bank in Maryland, selling farm implements in the mid-west and trying to pull bankrupt businesses out of hock. At the time of the bus boycott, the 39-year-old Pratt was unemployed. His wife was supporting the family along with what money L. D. could bring by running a car pool. Meanwhile, when he wasn’t involved in Free DC and SNCC business, he was at the Library of Congress studying food nutrition.
Pratt was fascinated by agriculture and agricultural problems. He wanted to revise the whole system and I never saw him more excited as when he developed plans, ultimately futile, for a takeover by civil rights and antipoverty groups of the multimillion dollar Greenbelt Consumer Services, one of the nation’s earliest and most financially successful cooperatives.
Pratt mixed street jargon with academic terms in a cacophonic lingo all of his own: “Look, man, those cats gotta implode their power base before they do anything.” He was an activist and a thinker; a short-term planner and a long-term dreamer.
The pair belied their public images. In person. Barry, the mortal threat to peace and order, was personally a gentle and quiet individual and Pratt, the mystery man, was, out of range of the press, open and loquacious.
Marion was leading a movement, but it had some of the intensity, closeness and spirit of a rebellion. Barry enlisted into the cause anyone he could find. You would be talking on the phone and a special operator would break in with an “emergency call” and it would be Barry or Pratt or someone else with the latest crisis or plan. There were black cops who had been spiritually seconded to the movement and ministers who served as a link between the radical Barry and the more moderate civil rights movement and friendly reporters who still believed there was an objective difference between justice and injustice,. And through it all was movement, excitement and hope, not even dampened by the thirtieth chorus of “We Shall Overcome” sung in a church hall while waiting for Marion finally to show up.
Pratt described his relationship with Barry this way: “I am the theoretician and Marion is the practitioner. I just give suggestions and he makes the decisions. I re-spect his opinions more than my own.”
Barry and Pratt not only upset policemen and government officials; they perturbed the established civil rights and home rule leadership in the city. While a few such leaders, Walter Fauntroy prime among them, were careful not to undercut Barry and provided as much help as they felt they could, others were plainly annoyed by the upstarts.
Tensions grew when the Free DC Movement decided to take on the White House Conference on Civil Rights that had been scheduled for May 1966. Barry planned to raise the issue of home rule at the conference and, in announcing the plans, chastised the moderate Coalition for Conscience for “wavering” in its support of the plan. Two days later the Washington Post reported, “Washington civil rights leaders yesterday pondered the future of the campaign for home rule in light of the growing independence on the part of Free D.C. Movement leader Marion Barry Jr. One leader said it appears that the movement was at ‘the end of its relationship with the Coalition of Conscience,’ the city’s loosely knit confederation of ministers and civil rights groups.”
But it was not just the Free DC’s militancy and independence that upset the old leaders. They also were profoundly disturbed by the rise of the black power idea; Coalition co-chairman Channing Phillips stated, “The black nationalist stand of SNCC is inconsistent with the Coalition’s philosophy.”
Still, while the 20-something Barry was an anathema to the white business leaders and considered a rogue by the local civil rights establishment, as early as 1966 a poll found him ranked fifth by black residents as the person who had done the most for blacks in DC.
In SNCC and elsewhere, the spirit of black nationalism was indeed awakening. Black power had its roots in the deep frustration of the civil rights movement with the progress towards some sustainable form of equality. In 1963, Howard Zinn, then a professor at Spellman College, told a SNCC conference that the ballot box would not give blacks much power. Zinn said SNCC should build up “centers of power outside the official political mechanism.”
This was a time when the official symbol of the Alabama Democratic Party included a banner reading “White Supremacy — For the Right.” The SNCC-organized Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had attempted to be seated at the national Democratic convention and was rebuffed, offered only two non-voting at-large seats to represent not just Mississippi all American blacks. SNCC communications director Julian Bond twice won election to the Georgia legislature, and twice that body refused to seat him. Jerry Demuth, writing in The Idler in October 1966 asked: “After Julian Bond, Atlantic City and the Alabama Democratic Party with its proclamation of white supremacy, what is there except a Black Panther Party?”
The voices of black power of the time were varied. Two months after being replaced as SNCC chair by the more militant Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis explained:
I support the concept of black power and I have tried repeatedly to articulate it to people in terms they can understand, so that they will know it is for civil rights, not against whites.
The National Committee of Negro Churchmen of the National Council of Churches tried to combine black power and integration in an August 1965 newspaper ad:
A more equal sharing of power is precisely what is required as the precondition of authentic human interaction. We understand the growing demand of Negro and white youth for a more honest kind of integration: one which increases rather than decreases the capacity of the disinherited to participate with power in all the structures of our common life. Without this capacity to participate with power — i.e. to have some organized political and economic strength to really influence people with whom one interacts — integration is not meaningful. For the issue is not one of racial balance but of honest racial interaction.
But this was a hope far from current reality and many more blacks listened to the view of Carmichael: “Integration is an insidious subterfuge for white supremacy.” He told a crowd in Greenwood, MS, “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years and we ain’t got nothing. What we’re gonna start saying now is ‘Black Power.'”
The most important white at SNCC, L. D. Pratt, continued to play a important role for some time, but his ability to work with Barry declined sharply and, and after receiving physical threats dropped out of the local scene.
Before that, however, the Free DC Movement was to play a major part in bringing the issue of self-determination further in Congress than it had been in almost a hundred years, The militancy of the Free DC Movement, so disliked by both congressmen and civil rights moderates alike, provided the counter-pressure necessary to scare more than a few legislators into thinking that maybe it was about time for a little self-government in DC. In 1967 President Johnson reorganized the local government with an appointed chief executive and city council. He told them to act as though they had been elected. In 1968 the city got an elected school board.
And before it was over, Barry and Pratt had one more “good shot,” as L.D. liked to call them. Hauling an odd assortment of black and white activists off to a weekend retreat, the pair organized a lecture, seminar, and planning sessions to pave the way for a massive push against slum housing. In fact, that’s what it was going to be called – PUSH, People United against Slum Housing. It would be no ordinary effort. Barry theorized that the reason slumlords were invulnerable was because protests were usually directed against only a small portion of their holdings. If you could uncover the full economic interests of a slumlord, Including his commercial holdings, you could organize an effective boycott against him.
From L. D.’s theoretical charts and Marion’s discourse, the action moved to strange places like a hall at a Catholic woman’s college where volunteers sorted out thousands of paper slips containing important information about DC eviction cases over the past two years, and the basement of the Court of General Sessions, where a friendly judge had permitted the group space to do its research closer to the source material. The little slips of paper slowly built up information concerning slumlords, lawyers, front corporations, and their interconnections. From the long tables in the basement of the Court of General Sessions, the slips went to the Recorder of Deeds office where more volunteers began arduously sifting through official records. The project never got much beyond that. Perhaps it fell of its own weight; the task of organizing all those slips of paper without a computer was staggering, Perhaps the separate directions in which various participants were rapidly going was a factor, In any event, the days of the Free DC Movement were just about over.
In 1965, the US Civil Rights Commission announced that it would hold hearings in Mississippi — at a time when the governor of the state had warned of “civil war” if the federal government dare send registrars in to put blacks on the voting rolls. I covered the hearings and the result was a whole issue that summarized one of the grimmest and least known stories of failed democracy:
Henry Rayburn, a 63-year-old farmer from near Charleston, was approached by a man with a club when going to vote. Rayburn says the man told him “he would kill me if I tried to vote.”
The Commission wanted to know if the police had been notified of the threat. No, Rayburn replied, because “the law coincides with what the other side does insofar as Negroes are involved.”
Another man named John Brewer went to sign up. He and his friends were met by a crowd of whites.
One of them said, “You niggers get away from the courthouse. You don’t have no business here,”
For the next three weeks trucks with gun racks on the back repeatedly drove up and circled Brewer’s house. He finally registered on the fourth try.
Brewer is a World War 11 veteran. He told the Commission, “The only time I felt like a man was when I was in the Army, After I got out it seemed my freedom run out.”
And he added, “I want to vote because there are some things I want to get straight.”
Leave out the violence, and you could find plenty of similar stories in DC. The Idler told one of them:
The Negro spent four months looking for a house in Washington. He was prepared to pay good money for the proper building but his color devalued his cash. He was told by some that he would cause the property to deteriorate in worth. Others spoke of dirty walls, fires, and loud parties.
Not a particularly newsworthy story. A familiar story to many Negroes who attempt to move into well-to-do neighborhoods. Only difference was this: the Negro is David Rubadiri, Ambassador of Malawai, the 35th [new] independent state, and the house he was seeking was to be used as his nation’s embassy in the United States.
One of the influences on me was a book I had read in college: Stride Towards Freedom, especially the sixth chapter in which King described his pilgrimage towards nonviolence. I had only recently graduated from a Quaker high school, half impressed by and half cynical of the experience. Now I had left the peaceable kingdom of the Friends for the oscillating values of tumult of college and King’s book proved more than an introduction to the civil rights movement. It helped straighten out messages I had received about a lot of things, but had never quite understood.
I was too lusty and too enthralled by politics to think that simply being good and not bopping people on the head was a sufficient approach to life. King helped to explain it in new terms: “My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil. . . Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate.”
He read Niebuhr’s criticisms of pacifism, which he rejected in part but noted:
Niebuhr has extraordinary insight into human nature, especially the behavior of nations and social groups. He is keenly aware of the complexity of human motives and the relationship between morality and power. . . While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.
Many pacifists, I felt, failed to see this. All too many had an unwarranted optimism concerning man and leaned unconsciously towards self-righteousness. It was my revolt against these attitudes under the influence of Niebuhr that accounts for the fact that in spite of my strong leaning toward pacifism, I have never joined a pacifist organization. . . I felt then, and I feel now, that the pacifist would have a great appeal if he did not claim to be free from the moral dilemmas that the Christian non-pacifist confronts.”
His four pages on Marx also appealed to me. I had just been introduced to Marx and, unlike college students of a later generation, thought him dreary and opaque. I found it difficult to understand how revolutions had risen on his words. Those classmates who were interested in Marx I found somewhat dreary and opaque as well, but since they were getting better grades, I listened to them and tried to remember what they had said for my blue book.
King approached Marx with curiosity and analysis and when he was through, concluded, “My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each, represents a partial truth. Historically, capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise, and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth-century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal.”
So Martin Luther King came to me not so much as a civil rights leader but as a philosopher-friend, the first non-mushy pacifist I had met, and a guy helping me get through Marx. Not that civil rights and race weren’t important. I was an anthropology major and that experience combined with a Quaker education helped form a strong revulsion against the cultural myopia of white America. I knew from anthropology that there was no scientific basis for segregation and discrimination, and from the Friends I had learned there was no moral one either. But King synthesized wandering feelings, giving them a point, and words: “When a subject people moves towards freedom, they are not creating cleavage, but are revealing the cleavage which apologists of the old order have sought to conceal.” Try to say that as succinctly when you’re a sophomore.
Of course, King would touch me many times again though I never got closer to him than the lawn of the chapel at Howard University when he spoke in 1959 or 1960. There were-too many people for the church so loudspeakers were mounted outside and we sat on the grass, moved but not fully understanding how much more we would be moved before it was over.
In the wake of his assassination, I almost lost him. King the leader still remained, but King the philosopher was being discredited at every turn. The tough guys had moved in, with their revolutions in the barrels of guns, actions that assumed principles would follow, the conscious resegregation on new terms. Agape was for white flower children; King was a Tom; and new leaders proliferated. There was progress, yes. There was necessity, too. Black nationalism was part of the unfinished business. But there was also a hollowness.
It was not a question of old style integration. Ethnic identity was not the issue. It was a matter of rediscovering friendly turf, the reintroduction of decency as a value, a mutual regard for cultural differences and a mutual recognition of common aspirations. I knew it was true, because Martin Luther King had told me. He said, “Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”o
Now, a few years later, I found no shortage of stories or causes. In November 1965, I broke with my political heritage and called for “neo-populism” in a piece titled Where are the Gutbucket Liberals?
. . . The liberals stumbled all over each other in their rush to pay homage to sloppily designed and inadequate measures. More recently, the liberals displayed their pitiful degeneration as they betrayed thousands of Mississippi Negroes by their failure to push force fully for the unseating of the all-white Mississippi congressional delegation, an action fully justified by law and demanded by conscience.
Perhaps the saddest of the lot is the professional Washington liberal. He is the most vocal in his claim of liberalism and quickest to accede to the whims of the illiberal, The professional Washington liberal attends White House conferences on this and that, writes articles for the press, testifies before congressional committees, and feels proud when he can help tack on fifty million dollars to a piece of constructive-sounding legislation.
Yet give him a legislative placebo to salve his conscience and he will beat his reactionary compatriot to the Chevy Chase Club by a half hour every time. . .
A couple of months late I went further, attacking the chief icon of liberalism:
Mr. Humphrey uncomplainingly goes about the business of being chief eunuch of the Johnson Administration. It is, we are told, the realistic thing to do. It is also sad: sad not just because he has put his liberalism in hock for the duration, but sad because he has pawned his courage and his eloquence as well. His speeches since he became Vice President have been atrocious and ungenuine They sound as if written by a ghostwriter forced at knifepoint to extol the gossamer glories of the Great Society. And who would have suspected that Hubert Humphrey would one day join the ranks of red-baiters giving speeches like the one before the Detroit Economic Club in which he spoke thus of an anti-Administration demonstration:
“Do you think those demonstrators were organized by some fine little club? They were organized by international apparatus. Ninety-five per cent of the demonstrators are no more Communist than you or I. But the international Communist movement organized it and masterminded it. ”
But few things startled my friends and readers more then an article in February 1967 issued called Keep the Seat, Baby, defending Adam Clayton Powell’s right to remain in Congress:
The case of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell — -the current moral crisis rattling the roof beams of the Republic — had brought forth one of those occasional surges of public piety that attempt, through momentary fervor, to compensate for our normal ethical languor. Righteous America is awake once more and on the march; the whites of Mr. Powell’s eyes are almost within range.
The Harlem legislator and theologian is accused of looseness with (in order of importance to the national mind) women, tongue and federal monies. He has been In contempt of civil authority, a fugitive from the law, and he refuses to show any remorse for his failings. On the contrary, he has been arrogant and flippant.
. . . The punishment proposed for Mr. Powell is the loss of his congressional seat. A strong case can be made against such punishment on constitutional and other legal grounds. Furthermore, there is a good defense based on precedent. As recently as 1956, a member of the Home was convicted of income tax evasion, sentenced to jail and fined $10,000. Not only did the offending gentleman subsequently regain his seat, but his seniority as well. Senator Dodd has not been made to stand aside while more serious charges against him are examined. Nor were Mississippi’s congressmen unseated last session despite massive evidence of the disenfranchisement of Negroes In their districts. Congress has repeatedly declined to act In cases involving far more evil thin that alleged in the instance of Powell. Even Senator McCarthy got off with censure.
In fact, should the charges lodged against the former chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee be pressed with equal vigor against all other deserving legislators in the land, it would become difficult to raise a quorum in either house of Congress or for our state legislatures to exist at all.
The article produced a phone call from Powell’s top aide, Chuck Stone, beginning a friendship that has in itself justified the article. Stone arranged with me to meet with Powell. I walked in about 10 am one morning. His suite had the longest office bar I had ever seen. Powell opened the cabinet doors to display a generous selection of liquors. “This, Sam,” the Reverend Powell said, “is what comes of serving the lord.”
Meanwhile at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Lyndon Johnson, who was helping to create the Great Society with no little help from Powell, was serving the Lord in his own bizarre way. Stories abound — from Johnson holding high level conferences while seated on the throne of convenience to an alleged Oval Office tete-a-tete with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton during which Johnson leaned over to Burton, put his hand on his knee and said, “I figure that between the three of us we’ve fucked just about everybody.” LBJ and the Burtons got away with it. Powell didn’t.
My defense of Powell was based not only on constitutional grounds — the concept that voters should be the judges of their own legislators — but from understanding that this terribly flawed man had been key to passing more socially productive legislation in less time that at any point in American history. It wasn’t a saint who gave us the Great Society, but two scoundrels, LBJ and Adam Clayton Powell.o
If you read Huey Long’s platform of the 1930s, you wish the current national Democratic Party could do as well. But those were days when you could see and feel political virtue. A new road, a new hospital, tax relief that made a difference. Today politics has become a giant Nintendo game, exciting and convincing while you’re playing, but nothing there when you turn off the set. If we drive around Washington we would be hard pressed to find places where we could point and say, “Look, at least Marion Barry did this.” There are no Barry monuments, no Barry unfulfilled dreams, no Barry proverbs to mitigate his memory. Yet we should remember that Barry was doing no more than playing by the rules of his time, which stated that social programs only need be promised, wars on social ills need only be waged, and virtue only need be declared. Nothing in politics anymore needed be brought to fruition. Marion Barry said he never used drugs; George Bush said he would eliminate them. And perhaps Barry learned from the Bushes of America that it really didn’t matter what you said. No one would bother with the final truth.
When people would write about Marion Barry years later, they wouldn’t mention the good part because they had never seen it. All they saw was the cynical, corroded shell of a man they hadn’t known and thought it had been that way all along. Like an old car rusting in a pasture.
As Barry moved into politics, first on the school board, then the city council, then the mayor’s office I had moved my support and enthusiasm with him, and without apologies. Once in the top job, however, his weaknesses quickly lost their constraints and whatever greatness Marion might have possessed started to disintegrate.
I had been close to Marion, but there came a time when I remembered Jack Burden, the journalist turned henchman to Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men” and I told myself I didn’t want to end up like him. And so I let increasing distance grow between us until finally there was nothing except the passing reference to times of which I suspect both of us were prouder.
Later I would sometimes tweak him when we met.
“What’s happenin’, Sam?”
“Not much, Marion. Just staying home with the wife and kids. How about you?”
One February of an election year, he told me at a party, “We’ve got to have lunch, Sam.” I replied, “Marion, we don’t have to have lunch until at least July.”
Yet there was a portion of the bond that remained unbroken. I would sometimes describe Barry as a drunk uncle you both liked and hated. He introduced me once as “one of the first white people who’d have anything to do with me” and to his new third wife he said, “Sam and I go back a long time. Over the years he’s become more radical and I’ve become more conservative.”
When Barry ran for reelection the last time, I took the position that I was all in favor of redemption; I just didn’t see why you had to do it in the mayor’s office. With a straight face, I suggested as an alternative that he follow the example of an Irish bishop whose long-ago love affair had just been exposed. The bishop had gone to Guatemala to care for the Indians in the mountains. The thought completely broke up the show’s host.
During the campaign I appeared on a TV show with Barry. In a more serious manner, I pointed out to him that he had never apologized to the people of the city for the pain he had caused them. He went into his redemption speech and ended by saying that he hoped some day “Sam would consider me redeemed, too.”
That was the end of the show, and we walked out together and sat down in the lounge next to the studio. “Marion,” I said, “I wasn’t talking about your redemption. There are a lot of people in this town who were embarrassed and hurt by what you did and I don’t see any sign that you even recognize it.” Barry still didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about and so I said, “Look, isn’t it one of the twelve steps that you’re meant to make amends to those you have harmed along the way?”
For a moment, he connected: “You mean I should tell them that I’m sorry.?”
“It might help.”
Barry nodded and excused himself, but he hadn’t really heard. As I looked into his well-trained eyes I realized I had sought something beyond his vision. For him there were no others.o
And yet I still think of the good years. The years in which Barry was one of a handful of people who made self-determination for DC possible, the years in which he was the voice of progress and sanity on the school board and city council. I think of a man who was willing to risk his life for the freedom of others, who was willing to go to jail on the chance it would help others gain a measure of liberty. And like Jack Burden writing of Willie Stark, “I have to believe he was a great man. What happened to his greatness is not the question. Perhaps he spilled it on the ground the way you spill a liquid when the bottle breaks. Perhaps he piled up his greatness and burnt it in one great blaze in the dark like a bonfire and then there wasn’t anything but dark and the embers winking. Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together that what was adulterated was lost. But he had it. I must believe that.”
On the wall of my office is an autographed bumper sticker from Marion’s first campaign for mayor. It reads: “Barry — the way things ought to be.” In his last words Willie Stark said, “It might have been all different, Jack. You got to believe that.”