Sam Smith: Ruth Abbott, who passed recently, was half of one of America’s most remarkable couples. For starters, she met her future husband in 1937 while he was in jail. She told the Montgomery County Gazette, “He and my father were arrested for picketing in New York. They were both sentenced to 30 days in the Erie County Jail.” Added the paper: “Ruth said she went to the jail to visit her father and would also visit Abbott because her father told her that he didn’t have many visitors.”
I met and worked with the couple when Sammie was running the remarkably successful battle against freeways in the nation’s capital – a fight that kept DC from becoming another Los Angeles. The experience would help form my view of politics, permanently alienating me, for example, from the liberal bias that you could only work with those who shared most of your values. After all, the anti-freeway movement thrived on its variety, symbolized by the day that there were two speakers at a rally: Grosvenor Chapman, president of the All white Georgetown Citizens Association, and Reginald Booker, the black activist head of Niggers Inc. I remember looking up on the stage at the remarkable pair and thinking, “We’ve won.” And we had.
Evening Star photo
Meredith Hooker, Montgomery County Gazette, 2002 – Interstate 95 could have split the City of Takoma Park when the road was proposed during the 1960s. But Sammie Abbott wouldn’t let it happen.
The late Takoma Park mayor led the fight against the proposed freeway that would have destroyed homes in both Takoma Park and Washington, D.C., including his own. During the battle, Abbott created the slogan “No White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes.”. . .
Abbott became mayor at age 72 in 1980 and served until 1986. When he first ran for mayor, he lost by eight votes in 1978. He lost by seven votes during his final mayoral race in 1986.
During Abbott’s six-year tenure, speed humps and four-way stops were put in the city to slow traffic. Abbott created the city newsletter. Takoma Park became “Tree City, USA” and a nuclear-free zone. The city also became a sanctuary for refugees escaping the brutality of right-wing regimes in Central America. “He was very, very busy,” Ruth Abbott said. . .
Aldrighetti said in the days Abbott served on the council, “democracy reigned” and caused council meetings to go until 3 a.m. Often, he said, the meetings began in the council chambers and ended at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring when people became tired and hungry. . .
Ruth Abbott said Sam was arrested almost 50 times for protesting various things over the course of his life. “He went from one big issue to the next,” she said.
Abbott, a graphic artist and union organizer, would tell you he printed more anti-war flyers than any other artist in America did, Aldrighetti said. Although Abbott was a fighter pilot in World War II, Abbott opposed the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Aldrighetti said.. . .
Leventhal said Abbott was an advocate for affordable housing and tenants’ rights and helped the city to implement rent control, which is still in place today. He said one of Abbott’s biggest goals was to create affordable housing for everyone.
When Montgomery College was planning to expand and take down homes on Takoma Avenue, Abbott sat in front of a bulldozer to stop the construction, Aldrighetti said. . .
Sam Smith, 1990 – 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 rather 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 far older than I. People like David and Selma Rein, Julius Hobson and Sammie Abbott.
As a product of the fifties in which cynicism and disengagement were the highest forms of political activity, I found myself often unable to identify with the Aquarian optimism of those just a few years younger than myself. Aquarius was not an age, I thought, but only 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 had, I found out, 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 to the truth that had eluded me during my years of Quaker education.
Of course I could not have described Sammie’s effect on me so succinctly 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 wonder 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 a president’s puerile apocalyptic vision we were wasting the afternoon mere memories with so much to be done.
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.
I remember 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 deferred.
But I also remember 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 Shaw. Sammie immediately sat down and created a 3 by 4 foot poster with a blow-up of the section in question, the freeway overlaid in red identifying exactly which buildings — such as Pride Headquarters and the Howard Theatre — would be torn down. The headline: White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’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. Long after others his age were enjoying retirement, he served as mayor of what became known the People’s Republic of Takoma Park because of the progressive policies pressed by Sammie and his supporters. . . .
I think what Sammie Abbot was all about was attending to what Jefferson called the revival and expansion of our rights before they expire in a convulsion. There is no more noble activity in which he could have spent his life and few who have done it with more consistency, imagination, courage and love of justice.