Mark Levy Oral History

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  • Oral Histories

Citation

Levy, Mark, “Mark Levy Oral History,” Harlem Education History Project, accessed September 18, 2019, https://educatingharlem.cdrs.columbia.edu/omeka/items/show/145.

Transcript

Interviewer: Ok, today is November 21st, 2013 and this is Viola Huang, interviewing Mark Levy. First of all, could you tell me a bit more about yourself, uh, like biographically, where did you grow up, where did you go to school, what kind of educational background do you have?
ML: Ok, uh, I was born and raised not far from here in Columbia University, uh, I was born on the Upper West Side, in the 90s near Central Park, I lived there for the most of my life, I now live on 94th Street and West End, and I used to, I grew up on 96th Street. So I'm born and raised a native New Yorker and Upper West Sider. I went to public school, uh, in this neighborhood, I then went to private school for high school, a place called Horace Mann. It's been in the papers recently, the last year or two. But my father went bankrupt, and so I couldn't graduate from them, couldn't pay the tuition, uh, I went to high school at a public school called New York Public School of Commerce. Uhm, I date that to where important parts of my education started, uhm, I then went to Antioch College in Ohio, work study program and I had to leave there for the same economic reasons. Uhm, we thought we could get through Antioch, cause it's a co-op program, you work three months, study three months. But the only way you save any money is if you go back and live at home. And so I didn't wanna do that, so I had two different kinds jobs, couldn't save any money, so I couldn't do that. Then I went to Queens College [clears throat] here in New York. Uhm, and I, this... is probably ‘60 is when I went to Queens College, I graduated from high school in 1957 and I was at Antioch ’57-‘59, I dropped out for a year, so it's ‘60 when I started at Queens College. Just to set the era. Uhm, and I was at Queens College 50 years ago now, when Kennedy was shot and got married three day afterwards. Uhm, I, uh went from, in terms of educational things, uh, I got my degree, my bachelors at Queens, started teaching in Harlem Junior High School 43, I taught there for four years, uhm and then in 68 I went back to Queens College both to get a Masters degree and to start teaching on the faculty in what was called the SEEK [Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge] program. Uh, I did that for four years, uh, taught in the SEEK program and another program called Action, which was a community organizing program. And then decided to leave, uh, classroom teaching and the academic world to go into union organizing, uhm, which I did for 35-40 years until I retired. Uhm, the last bunch of years I've been working on a couple different civil rights projects, uhm, based...both at Queens College and also doing some work back in the city in Mississippi that I had been a volunteer at in 64. I think that covers the main dates and places. I've lived in other places than New York, you know for jobs and schools so I'm not, you know just a New Yorker New Yorker.
I: Ok, and you mentioned that there was a specific time during your educational career where, where something changed or which had a real impact on you, you mentioned that.
ML: Right, it was high school.
I: Can you elaborate that a bit?
ML: Uh, yeah, uhm, Horace Mann is a prep school and it was all-boys at that time, so when I went to the public school in, and then we had to wear ties and jackets, and we were tracked to be, sort of members of the ruling class. Or at a minimum doctors and lawyers. [clears throat] I came from a middle-class family, but was always aware that my family was not as wealthy as other people. I had to get to school by the subway, up to 242nd Street and other people were driven by their chauffeurs. Uhm, when I went to the public school, which is now where Lincoln Center is, High School of Commerce was there and then they knocked that whole area down. Uhm, I, first thing I discovered was that there were girls and the girls were smart. You know, I hadn't gone to high, right, I hadn't gone to high school with girls, so girls we'd meet girls at a dance, from a girls' school or something like that. You know going to an all-boys school, you just don't ever get that exposure. Here I was being tracked into the, you know, business and wealthy and professional world and at the same time it was clear that boys were on that track. [clears throat] So I get to my high school and there are smart girls in my class, uh, also everybody there was working class. And almost everybody had an accent. Uh, there were Greeks and there were Italians and I was one of the few American-born in the class. Most of the people in my class were European immigrants. Uhm, and, uhm, for some reason I never really liked the basic American sports, so you going back to 1957, uhm, what sport did I turn out to like? I liked soccer. So I could play soccer and no Americans had played soccer at that time, but High School of Commerce had a soccer team, so I could play soccer. One of the stories that I love to tell from then, was at the end of the year. As a senior in high school we had prom. And the president of the class was, uhm, going to pick a hotel to have the dance of the prom. And somehow she either picked me or I was elected to be on the prom-committee. The woman's name, girl's name was Malbert Torres.
[6:53 min]
ML: And she was Puerto Rican, and...light-skinned but brown-skinned. And I remember that, now, that the first hotel or two that we went to, uhm, the manager or matron spoke directly to me, what, we were asking about price and about service and about all these things, and which ever one of us asked the question the answers came to me. I was totally unaware, I was totally unaware what...I never had an exposure, I never had a discussion and it was a long time ago. And I credit Malbert Torres, cause she...one day when we went home after this, went home, went back to school after some of these interviews, she sat me down and said “Mark, you, are you aware of the dynamic that's going on?” And we talked about that. And I wasn't aware and she said “look, I'm president of the class, they are talking to you, I'm a female, I'm a Puerto Rican, you're white, you're male, you're Jewish and they are talking to you.” And she did it in a way that, you know, I felt good about. You know, I was...thank you for telling me. I didn't feel like, you know, I was gonna lose something by them talking...so, we just sort of made it up in our heads how we would handle the rest of the interviews. And it was one of...first experience...I mean, here I was 17 years old in 1957 and I had somebody explaining to me racism and sexism. And in a way...I mean that language didn't exist then, for her even to be telling me. I mean I don't remember how the discussion...may have been something like I feel bad, why are they talking to you, let's talk about it. But it didn't have those terms, but she sat me down and explained that stuff to me. And it was sort of the beginning of my awareness. Of how that functioned: sexism, racism, national discrimination like. It wasn't even a language. She spoke English without any accent. Uhm, [pause] and by going to the public school, I was able to unlearn all the tracking and orientation and, you know, those other kinds of things of where I was headed. I saw that there was another world. I'm now an advocate of public schools. And that experience...I, I think that's hugely different. So then, you know, moves towards private schools, charter schools, where everybody looks alike, talks alike, you know except for the two scholarship kids, there is something like that. I think it helps make a class-based society.
I: Ok, uhm, connected to that, can you explain how you got involved in social struggles? I mean you, you mentioned one part, I guess, but was there more to it? Or, what did influence you?
ML: Well, that was, that was high school. Uhm, [clears throat] I come from a liberal Jewish family, not an activist Jewish family, uhm, my father's side was from Vilna, depending on which set of wars and national boundaries, it was in one country or another. His whole family was wiped out during the Holocaust and during all of that. So I grew up with a fairly strong sense that discrimination was bad. And different families in different times of philanthropic groups have ways to deal with that. So that my mother, who did not come from eastern Europe, did not come from a more immigrant working-class family, she came from a German Jewish family and within the hierarchy of Jewish families, German Jews are a higher status than eastern European Jews. And she came from a wealthy family that had immigrated a couple of generations before. So there was sort of a class-difference between my parents. My mother’s..concerns was she felt strongly about discrimination against Jews. Right, so you can cluster around that and say discrmination against Jews is a bad thing. My father had a different opinion, he said discrimination against anybody is a bad thing, morally, religiously, however you wanted to define it. And in practical senses, if you allow, uhm, not just moral senses but practically, if the society or you allow discrmination against anybody, ultimately it will catch up with you. Right? So, that was a big value, another big value at home was just making the world a better place. I, there is some Yiddish or Hebrew term for that, but that was a value. We were not a religious family, we're more a cultural family. I didn't go...I was bar mitzvahed, I didn't go to services, but being part of the, uh, Jewish history, Jewish tradition, uh, was an important [?]. [clears throat] So that, that influence me a lot [clears throat] I had cousins, who were left-wingers. Probably members of the communist party at some point. I was taught that they were the bad part of the family and I was never allowed to hang out with them, guess who my favorite cousins were, right. So you don't hang out with Uncle Harry or Aunt Ray, they're, they're not good. I mean that was the 50s, the...coming out of the McCarthy period, is when I graduated. [clears throat] But Cousin Judy and Cousin Merryl were my two favorite cousins. Uhm, when I went to Antioch in Ohio, I didn't know it was any sort of beatnik or radical school. I went there because it was practical, you go to school three months, you work three months. So that you can apply what you learned immediately to that. The first week at Antioch, uhm, what do you call them. Sort of like a...a, uhm, senior advisor, dorm advisor, comes in to welcome us to Antioch, and you know, how are you and all that kind of stuff [clears throat] and he tells us, uh, there are two barber shops in town and you can't go to one of them, cause we're boycotting him. There is a white barber and there is a black barber. And the white barber is discriminatory and won't cut anyobody's hair, you know won't cut black people's hair, but the black barber will cut anybody's hair. So we organized a boycott against the white barber. Again, that was 1957 [clears throat], which is very unusual. This was a small town in Ohio, uhm, and in terms of the first political action that I ever took, that was probably it, right. In terms of civil rights action. I mention it only because, you know if I were writing a novel, you wouldn't quite believe the elements. The person who did that orientation, his name is, name is Steve Schwerner. Ok? And the name Steve Schwerner pops up again in my life in a couple of different places, uhm, Steve Schwerner was the brother of Mickey Schwerner, who was killed during the Civil Rights Movement and who I knew and helped recruit me, etc. etc. We will come to that probably later. But Steve Schwerner was my senior advisor at Antioch. And he was the one who said, “We gotta boycott.” So those, those were a couple of the earliest consciousness-raising things. There are other things later on that helped change my view, we can talk about those now or later, whenever you want.
I: Sure, uhm, yeah, you can, you can go ahead if you want.
[15:30 min]
ML: Uhm, when I went from Antioch to Queens College, I complained about Queens College not having some of the same kind of curriculum and, you know, one is a big public university, the other is small, private… I wasn't quite aware, it was more like I want a good education. So I complained and, [clears throat] somebody in student government said, “We got a live one here” -- and they recruited me into student government and I got a little bit active and a little bit more active, and I wound up ultimately becoming student body president. Only because the group that had controlled student government that came out of a particular fraternity, didn't have a candidate for the next year. So I got picked and I was learning that...and a lot of the issues that I had been involved in were not civil rights issues, they were student rights issues. Could students pick who they wanted as a speaker, could students, could female students wear slacks to get into the library cafeteria classes, Queens College, there was a dress code, back at that time. Uhm, other kinds, there were political issues that were in the background, and in the background of my head. Uh, they were issues around the atomic bomb, and there were issues around McCarthyism and, and House Un-American Activities Committee. There was a lot of that kind of stuff that existed, but I didn't, I wasn't very much involved. Uh, I started dating somebody, who was my first wife. Uhm, whose parents were left-wingers, whose mother was a shop steward in a big union. That helped me get involved but it didn't change my politics. Uhm, and, I remember, you know, one of those turning points like the, the story of Malbert Torres, uhm, one of my good buddies was a secretary, was a couple of years older than me but she wasn't older. Uh, she was black, her name is Helen Hendrix, and for some reason, Helen, you know liked me, saw something in me, was willing to talk to me and we were friends, we chatted. She saved my ass a couple of times, like you know, I walked on the grass, and one of the campus guards, you know, tried to get me in trouble for that. And, you know, I was really angry, and she sort of said, you know you can't go tilting at every wind-mill. And she also said that if you want things done at the college, uh, here is how you do it, you gotta get to know the secretaries. And the secretaries, in every department they're the ones who really make things happen. But again, it was sort of my, not only, uh, race and sex, uh, but, you know understanding about gender and power and all that kind of stuff.
[18:46 min]
One day, probably it was like a Monday or Tuesday, I come back and, you know, Helen says to me, how was your weekend, and I say, you know, it was great, she says what did you do, I went to the movie, she said, I went, she went to the same movie. Don't remember the name of it but it was a typical western. Cowboys and Indians, uhm, the brave settlers getting their wagons and go across the country, you know, to settle a new land, and there are women and there are children, and then there are the farmers. And there they are out on the plains and all of a sudden the Indians attack them and they circle the wagons and, you know they're shooting and, you know the Indians are shooting bows and arrows and you watch women and children and men get...and so, Helen asked me she said, yeah I saw the same movie, who did you root for? And I said, what are you talking about? Who did I root for? And you know, there is no choice, you know, I, I rooted for the good guys, who are the good guys, you know, the good guys were the cowboys and the settlers and they were being brave and they were going out there. And she said, I rooted for the Indians. [laughs] So, uh, you know, it just stopped me in my tracks and she said, so I asked why did she root for the Indians, and she said, well first of all they are dark-skinned, I am dark-skinned. Second of all, it was their land, you know, the settlers and the cowboys weren't the good...explorers, they were in fact invaders. They were coming out there and the Indians were just defending their land and defending their homes. And it was like...wow. You know, how could two people, one white, one black go to the same event and see two totally different experiences. In all my years as a student, at any level, you know, that was one of the most profound lessons. You know, how do you see the world, not only from a different perspective, but how do you appreciate the people, who see the world from a different perspective. How do you walk in somebody else's shoes? And, to this day, whenever anybody asks me in my undergraduate and graduate work who is my favorite teacher? I say it's Helen Hendrix, who was at that time, you know, quote unquote just a secretary. A black female secretary. Right? She went on to get a good degree and become a counselor and do all sorts of other things with her life. She was a huge influence and that really changed a lot of my understanding. It didn't get me to be an activist. Uh, Helen was a very proper lady and not much of an activist, and I don't know that she was ever an activist in that sense. Her...what she did later in her life was to become, she founded a number of pre-professional minority recruitment programs for black and Puerto Rican kids who wanted to be doctors or dentists or lawyers and she sort of encouraged them and mentored them and did things like that. I don't think she ever marched on a picket line or carried a sign. And I also had to learn to appreciate that that was a contribution to, uhm. So.
I: And one step further, so, you said that was not the time when you became an activist. Can you explain...or was there a specific time when you would say, ok now I'm an activist?
ML: Uhm, well, you know, different levels...let me try and give a couple of different examples that resonate with historic periods. The buses, the freedom rider buses that went from, I guess they were supposed to go from Washington to New Orleans and then they were beaten up and, you know, bombed and all of that in Mississippi, before they got to New Orleans. I think that was 1961? Yes, around there? One of the guys who got beaten up really badly, I don't remember his name, but his wife lived on the West Side. And I ran into her, I didn't know her well, I ran into her and she asked me, will I take her husband's place, cause they were gonna send more buses. And I looked at her and said no. I said, you're crazy? Why would I volunteer to get my, you know, face beat up and burnt like your husband and all that kind of stuff. And I said no, I just couldn't handle it. And I didn't trust her, or respect her, or appreciate that kind of unilateral action, cause the freedom ride buses were way ahead of the rest of the movement, you know, Congress of Racial Equality, CORE, had organized them to really do testing, uh, before there was a mass-movement to go along with it. So I said no, uhm, the next year or two was the March on Washington. Ok, that was ‘63. And I was student body president in ‘63 and all, you know, engaged in student rights issues when the march came and there was something about, not only the march itself and who is organizing it, but also a sense of, there were issues in the North as well as South. And the marchers' demands, and I give lots of talks now and I ask people what the name of the march was and what the, you know, buttons said. And I swear teachers, even faculty people can't answer. It was the March for Jobs and Freedom. So it was a combination of economic demands and social justice demands that were much broader than just the narrow term civil rights. Uhm, and, I guess Betty, we weren't married at that piont, and other people in student government said we should, you know, get a bus, we should go down, we should go down and do...together it was not my idea, but I said yes. And we organized a bus, and we went down. And it was great. My memories, my clear memories of the March on Washington, we were fairly near the front. And we never paid attention to a word that was being said from the podium. So, when King gave the speech that's always repeated now, we just weren't paying attention. You know, he must have been up there saying I have a dream and we weren't paying attention. Cause what was so exciting and moving, and I use it now as a metaphor in talks, what was so exciting and moving was the fact that people kept coming and coming. The crowd was just huge, the crowd was growing. None of us had ever participated in anything that large or diverse. There were white folks, and there were black folks, and there were young folks and there were white folks, and there were very, very, very white folks, I mean here were bus-loads of Episcopalian grey-haired old men and women from wealthy homes in Connecticut coming down, marching next to, you know, a Baptist church from New York and auto-workers from Detroit, etc., etc. And it was a real grassroots thing. And the people on the podium could say whatever they wanted to say, the event was the march and the people. What I say to groups where I'm invited to speak, out of my experience, not just out of, you know, book learning or consciousness, I said would anybody ever remember that march, would it be in the newspapers now, if there were 2,000 people there instead of 250,000? And, you know, high school teachers and students look at me like I'm nuts, and I extend that to talk about all the grassroots organizing and the local issues that existed in Boston, New York, and Detroit. And so look, we weren't lemmings that just went down cause Martin Luther King said you'll all come. Not to take anything away from Reverend King, but we didn't go down necessarily around southern issues. We were aware of southern issues and I guess what we were saying by being there was that, hey, we got issues in New York similar to the issues that you have here. And if you read all of King's speech, particularly the part that's never quoted, the first part before he swings into his preaching I have a dream, he talks about the commonality of issues. The first part of the speech is, is really brilliant and is very inclusive. Uhm, and that's, that's my memories, not the speech, but my memory is exactly of those other things. So that was one of the first things, and so I did that, and I didn't get me head beaten, right, remember the first time I was afraid of getting beaten up. This time it was this huge crowd of people, there was the...Bayard Rustin
[28:48 min]
and the others who would organize the march and had done a lot, so there was security all over the place and I don't mean cops doing security, I meant, you know, the march having their own security and keeping the control...the crowd under control and there was food and sandwiches and signs and we knew how to get back to our buses, I mean, getting down there was easier than getting home. Uhm, and having experienced that civil rights demonstrations did not have to mean you're putting your life on the line and that the idiots and jerks and racists and all those people were not gonna be, you know, there beating our heads with the cops standing their with their arms crossed. So to say, you could do it, you know, it was, it was a chance to say we do things without huge risks. We know that there are risks, right. I didn't know that we could do that when I went down there right, but I came out of it, it's sort of if I was saying about the student rights issues, I learned that people working together could make a difference. Around little issues...you know it's not, it wasn't huge and the same thing, the March on Washington said, you know, grassroots people could do organizing, take some risks and it wouldn't necessarily mean the end of the world. So that led me to, uh, I think more of an optimistic sense than in the year, year, year of ‘63, ‘64. Some of my friends on campus went to Prince Edward County of Virginia, their materials are in the archives at Queens College and they were there because Prince Edward County in the state of Virginia had shut the schools rather than comply with the desegregation law. Right. The Supreme Court decision was ‘54, this is already ‘63, it's 9 years, 10 years later, the county just shut the schools. And the white kids went off to charter [private] schools and got money funding for that, the black kids were left struggling. I mean there were things that the community did, and one of the things they did was to recruit, you know, tutors to come down. So some of my friends went to do that. Ah, Betty was doing a Masters degree at Harvard in Education. And I was finishing all my incompletes. For me, some of the campus politics and this other stuff is far more fun than, you know, studying my, my, for my courses. Uhm, which helped me also learn that there are...GPAs are not the same as intelligence. Uhm, and she was in Boston, so I was going back and forth between where I lived on the Lower East Side at that time and Boston. And I ran into a woman, her name is Dottie Zellner, uh, she is still alive. Uhm, Dottie had been the editor of the Queens College newspaper, couple years before, before me. I forgot, we ran into each other on a train or a bus, cause her husband was at Brandeis that year. Dottie was a New Yorker and she had married a white guy from Alabama. She had joined SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and she was one of the first whites in SNCC and given a degree of responsibilities and Bob Zellner was a southern white, his father was a Baptist and a minister and they were an interesting couple. And at some point, Dottie said to me, there is this project in Mississippi and the way she approached me, she said, cause we had talked, she knew, we weren't at Queens really at the same time, uh, but she knew that I was student body president, she knew my wife Betty, cause I think her parents, family may have been activists and or she knew that my wife's family were activists. Uh, so she said things like, you know, you and Betty have things that you can contribute, you have skills that you can contribute, uh, she also said, we're not going to Mississippi as missionaries. The people of Mississippi and SNCC as a civil rights organization based in the South need help. And we're asking you to help us. Which is very different than, you know, I'm going down to prove a point or I'm going down to preach at you. It's like, come and help is very different. And she was very open and honest about Mississippi being dangerous. Uhm, people get beaten, people get killed. Medgar Evers was assassinated, there was this, you know, riot of white southerners on the Ole' Miss campus when James Meredith tried to register and the National Guard was attacked, uhm, by, you know, white Mississippians and not just the Klan. That was like a riot. So, she explained all of that kind of stuff and said but here as an organization this is how we deal with these things. So they had, you know, rules for how people traveled, they had communications, they had all sorts of things set up. So that, within that kind of situation, at least people could trust the people who...our goal is not to set up martyrs, our goal is not to get the bus burnt, right. Uh, our goal is not to die, our goal is to register voters to do this, to do that, right. And we're gonna try to be careful. Uh, when I talk to classes, my example is, uh, she or somebody else suggested, I grew a beard when I was in high school in 1957, which is now [laughs] 50 odd years, more than 50 years ago, and that whole time I did not have a beard for maybe 2 years, cause I shaved my beard to go to Mississippi.
[35:10 min]
I somehow figured out, cause they said, we're gonna be walking around and, you know, difficult place and, and, and people expect you to be dirty and beatniks and hippies and communists and invaders and all the other things they called us. Uhm, so your identity is as a civil rights worker, as a person living in a black home, uhm, you know, sort of shave your beard, shave your beard. So I did, right. You know, I am not, I had to learn I am not my beard, right. Uhm, dressing is a tactic and not an identity. Uh, so she told me all of that stuff, then I did what any red-blooded, cause I used to ride on the train or bus with her, and then I did what any red-blooded American would do, I said, thanks Dottie, before I answer you, let me go home and speak to my wife. And, I, so I went home and, you know, Betty, do you wanna do this, is this good, you know, you're at Harvard, and you know, you're gonna, your plans are gonna, is to start teaching, and, uh, uh. Actually, she may even...no it wasn't at that time, later she came to Columbia and TC, she got a PhD here. Uh, so she said yes before I did. And I believe she checked with her parents, who said it was a good thing. They said they were worried for her, you know, they were caring parents and they...but they also said you gotta do what you gotta do and if this is what you wanna do, it's a good thing to do. My parents reacted differentially. My father was more supportive, my mother less so. Some of it, I think it was cause she was politically more conservative, some of it was cause mothers are that way, you know. Uhm, so, Dottie's approach to me and the way she did it, the way she organized me, was absolutely critical and significant in how I can say yes or why I could say yes. And there was all this other stuff in my background and things that I learned, uhm, you know, and I tell kids these days, you know, this was not a facebook invitation or a tweet or, you know, you know, and I wasn't responding to a poster and I wasn't responding to attending a meeting. I was responding to a personal, you know, outreach and approach and I think that's the way organizing happens and is done.
I: And related to that, because you mentioned before that you were aware that there are issues in the North, too, right.
ML: Right.
I: So, uhm, how come, how can you explain in more detail this change of mind-set maybe or was that a change of mind-set that you thought, but the South is worse and they really need our help, or, I don't know,
ML: Oh that's a good question.
I: the picture you had from the North and the South, because you were in, close to Harlem, right? And I mean there were issues in Harlem, so I'm just wondering how, and I also read some of your hatemail, and you mentioned that there was opposition, right, from the South as well.
ML: Right.
I: So I'm just wondering how come you were so determined to go to the South instead of, you know, staying here, do stuff here.
ML: Well, actually, one of my...let me go back one other step about awareness of problems here. At that early point, I don't know how aware of some of the black pride stuff I was. I was a little bit, cause there were things going on in New York. There was uh, for example, at Queens College, there was a whole debate about participating in stopping tr...this is in 62 and 63, stopping traffic on the express way, because the World's Fair, you know, Flushing World's Fair was being opened, it was big celebration, except no, there were no black construction workers. The construction trades were totally racist and totally closed. And so here was this huge thing, lots of money that was going into it, and there were community groups and civil rights groups that were opposing the opening of the fair, were opposing construction sites all around, cause it was only white construction workers. And you know, they were the best paid and some of the best jobs and here they were shot. Uhm, so I knew that. One of my first experiences with discrimination about being Jewish, I enjoy telling this story, cause of where we sit right now. Uhm, I must have been 8 or 10 years old, so I was born in 39, 47 something like that. Period of time. It was a family thing at my house and one of my parents' friends said something like, where do you wanna go to college, when you grow up? You know, stupid question to a little kid, right. So I answered the question. You know, what college did I know that I would wanna go to that existed in my brain that I could answer. It was Columbia, right, cause Columbia was the neighborhood college. And so I said I wanna go to Columbia. So my mother said, no you can't go there. And I said why? She said, they had a quota, they didn't let Jews in. And it was one of the first times I was ever told that Jews weren't allowed in certain places. And it had to do with Columbia and the quota system. And there was a quota in most Ivy League schools at that time and I'm not quite sure when or where or what the dates are when it started changing a little bit. But that was one of my first experiences. Uhm, so I told you about the Flushing thing, why did I go to Mississippi? Intellectually I knew it was the worst, ideologically what SNCC was saying was, we can't change the rest of the world, or the rest of the country, while the worst exists. So if you tackle the worst, and can make a change there, can make a change in other places. The other things that was intellectually made sense to me was that, [sighs] and this parallels current politics, uhm, anything decent, liberal, progressive, however you wanted to define that at that time, was stopped in Congress,
[41:56 min]
because the U.S. Senate was totally determined by a seniority system. And who are the most senior senators? They were always the southern senators who would get the white conservative southern senators. There was this term Dixiecrats. The Dixiecrats were used, controlled the Senate. And they could get elected over and over and over and over again, because blacks weren't allowed to vote. So it was a close system and their influence was more than just what they were doing. They could stop what was happening in the North, and I, I forget now what issues, whether it was something about housing or some other kinds of things that the Dixiecrats were blocking. You know it was like, look guys if you wanna block it for yourself down there, do that, but don't block it up North. I mean I was...the level of logic that I had at that time, so I knew that, what was happening in the South made a difference in the North. Probably the biggest difference came from another set of sources that was probably more emotional than intellectual, you know, I mentioned that I went to Horace Mann, so I was being tracked into this upper-class white male society, if you need a metaphor, all you have to do is watch the TV show 'Madman' now. I mean that's, that's where I was going, right. To wear a white shirt, to live in a suburban house, to have a wife who would, you know, do all my bidding and etc., etc. That was, that was the world. There were few little cracks in that image because around that time, there were people in San Francisco and a few other places, demonstrating against, uh, the restrictions of McCarthyism, House Un-American Activities Committe, but that wasn't important to me. What I saw...and then the newspapers, if you go back then and read the newspapers, hidden on certain pages was, oh my goodness there are people who, in uhm, Africa, people in, uh, South America, people in India, who were throwing out the Europeans, right. They were demanding changes, right. There were wars of national liberation going on and anticolonial movements. There were just...and it wasn't ideological, I just saw the, what looked like everything was fixed in stone was starting to change. And for me, the most emotional connections of those changes was the black freedom movement. The Montgomery bus boycott ran what a year or 2 years around, a couple of years and it was grassroots thing. I mean now the story is told, you know, Rosa Parks sat down and that was it. That wasn't true and that was...the way went on and then there was this great leader named Martin Luther King and he was just a kid then. And, and he did stuff, but really he was a follower and a spokesperson rather than an organizer or that. So you had a, you had black struggles that were going on, that were being successful. They were saying we gotta change this country and there were a whole bunch of those other things that were going on. So that, those of us who were growing up in the 60s were faced with this question, who do you wanna be, you know. If you were born white and you were born male in this country, are you gonna align yourself with all those traditional values or the world is changing, and there are other ways of seeing things and other ways of behaving, are you gonna align with those, the other kinds of values, the struggle values. And, that, you know, I probably could have been recruited in something else, oh right, there was another huge option at that time. There was this young president, his name was John F. Kennedy, right, and he said, ask not, you know, what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country. And that...he followed that up with Peace Corps, right. With different political view points, I could go back and have critical questions about the ultimate aim of the Peace Corps and why he did it, but to my generation, it was...I should be more careful...to many people in my generation, it was an exciting option, it represented values to go out and make a difference in the world. It was an invitation to young people to play a leading role in helping other places. So I and other people really were making choices. A lot of my friends at that time went into Peace Corps and I probably could have gone into the Peace Corps, cause it would have been the same kind of thing. Dottie Zellner got to me first, you know, and also my own [pauses] sense of either myself or politics was and still is more local and national. I don't know, I have friends who were involved in international struggles Nicaragua, Cuba, Vietnam, here, there, wherever. Uhm, and I shouldn't say that in a facetious tone but they really were and they were very committed and they did really interesting and wonderful things, and, uhm. I was more concerned with like here and now, the people down the street, you know, what the jobs, unions, local stuff, schools, education, you know, so my own activism and then later my role as an organizer it was much more here in the United States. So, rather than joining the Peace Corps, you know, I could go South.
I: Right, ok. Uhm, so you mentioned that, uhm, there was the idea that the South is the worst, so it has to be changed first in order to change the rest of the country. Uh, would you say a similar thing about yourself? So do you think it was necessary for you to go down there in order to become more aware of the issues in the North? Because you said there were some things you were aware of but not necessarily African American issues.
ML: Oh yeah, Oh absolutely. Did I change in the South? Oh absolutely. You know, I come back and I have two sentences that I use over and over again. And then when I've looked at other white volunteers writings or sayings, they use almost the same quotes. You know. One is I learned far more than I ever taught, absolutely true. I went down, I wound up, I first volunteered to be, to do voter registration that was changed around, where I did Freedom Schools. And it was my first teaching experience. So we were teaching, but I was learning fas..., you know, just so much stuff. That was one, learn more than we ever taught. And the other thing that came to us very quickly and I keep saying it now, cause I get angry when people pat me on the back, now as a 74-year old guy, saying you were so brave back then. [pauses] We were volunteers and went down there, the brave people were the local people. You know, I was a white guy, living in a black person's home. And I was gonna go back to New York at the end of the summer. So, you know, something could have happened, COULD have happened to me. I could have been arrested, I could have been beaten up, I could have been killed, but I was risking, you know, 2 months. Whereas Ms Turner and her husband, who put us up in their house, every policeman, every Ku Klux Klan person, every employer knew that Mr. and Ms. Turner were putting up Mark and Betty Levy. And they were going to have to stay. And they were going to have to live with that after, not only Mark and Betty went home, but after we took the TV cameras and the newspapers with us, right.
[50:43 min]
Uh, so the idea that we were risking so much and so much with big deal both back then and now was made of that really hides the contribution and leadership of local people. So, those were awarenesses and then there were big, [pauses] at the end of the summer, [pauses] the summer culminated with the challenge of Atlantic City. The National Democratic Party was meeting there, there was a convention to select the president, Johnson was running. He had been vice-president and became president when Johnson, when Kennedy was assassinated, so, this was really his first election as president. Uhm, the Republicans had made it clear that Barry Goldwater, for that time an arch-conservative from Arizona, was running and he saw that as a major threat to the Democratic Party. Those of us in Mississippi, uh, what we were busy doing was...Democratic Party had all these Dixiecrats in it, and if they wouldn't let black folks vote and register to vote, then we had COFO [Council of Federated Organizations] and SNCC and CORE had set up a mock election and a challenge to it. So the civil rights groups had set up a procedure where they followed the letter of the law within the Democratic Party, of how you select a, uhm, a delegation to that kind of convention. And they followed it, whereas the segregationists just didn't, right. It was the good old boys, they meet them back of a room, you know, they pick their delegates, they send a...they wouldn't let anybody in, so we spent the whole summer recruiting the challenge Democratic Party. There was some hope, because they have been organizing all around the country by local people, by our parents, you know, you know those of us who went and by any others to get support from northern and western delegations to support within the Democratic Party the challenge to seating the segregationist party. Whether we were naïve or stupid or whatever, we thought it might, it was possible. So, we get there and Johnson, uh, is just absolutely rabid, his understanding, his political vision was that if he lost the South, he could lose the whole election, so he invested every ounce of energy and all his craftiness and, you know, powers to lean on the liberals. So he, he got to Hubert Humphrey, and Hubert Humphrey got to the unions and Hubert Humphrey got to Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins and all the other major civil rights leaders. Who then got to the delegations and the elected leaders who were supporting the seating of the Democratic Party, and he totally opposed it, there could have been a compromise, you know, ok, let's seat both parties, you know, 50/50
[54:26 min]
let's do something like that and Johnson's whole position was if he did anything like that, the South would pick up and leave and he came out with the idea, we will...HE will pick 2 people, right, not all of the delegations can pick their own people, he will pick 2 people and they can be observers, that not even seated on the floor as observers, and 4 years later, he made some commitments that they would change the process. And the people of Freedom Democratic Party just voted that down. They said, this is, this is tokenism that's worse than anything else. So the southerners, the Mississippians got up and walked out anyhow, the white delegations got up and walked out anyhow, but it became a lesson to us volunteers that the liberals who had made commitments also owed a lot to people back then, gave them money and all that kind of stuff. We watched a lot of people who we respected and trusted, just absolutely cave in. They said, oh we're the pragmatists, we'll work with you later and, you know, King got a lot of money from the unions and, you know, not personally but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference got money from unions and there was a lot of that stuff going on and people said we just can't risk it around this one thing, you can't set your feet in concrete around one thing. But for those of us who have been in Mississippi, it was watching up close and very personal the failure the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It just collapsed. So that was one big step in changing my next level of consciousness. Long explanation to get that point, I remember your question. Then the other thing that was going on that came out of that was, it was just the beginnings of the Black Power Movement and Stokely Carmichael and all the others. Where they were saying, ok white folks, thank you for coming down, oh they never said thank you for coming down, ok, now it's your turn to go back home and work with your in your communities. And that was the political thrust. And I accepted that idea, I thought it was a fine idea, I mean my whole, you know, I went to help in the South, uhm, you know, I helped, I went back the next summer in ‘65, cause we, some of us were asked to come back and help with other kinds of projects, so the idea was then to come back up here and play a role in the North. And I got involved in the teachers union, I got a job as a teacher, uhm, I was teaching eighth graders, had a whole bunch of ideas to bring to a new kind of teaching, uh, I tried to make connections with other teachers around the city. The other thing that was going on at that time [clears throat] uhm, I forget the exact date, but it was sometime in August of ‘64, when the Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that became the excuse to start the Vietnam War. It was the same thing as weapons of mass destruction. It was a, a phony made-up thing that's just been, you know, recently revealed that it was phony. And what the U.S. Government said was that American ships were attacked by Vietnamese ships in the Gulf of Tonkin and so we had to declare war, uhm, on Vietnam. So the war was just starting to explode around that time and Johnson, who is doing excellent stuff around civil rights, I mean he got the Voting Rights Act passed, he also, I give him huge credit, he saw the connections between economic issues, the Great Society push of Johnson tied together the civil rights issues and the economic issues. Uhm, so he is doing all these things, but he's getting really aggressive with this whole war, I mean, he owned the war, he pushed the war and coming back North, uhm, we have things to do not only in, in the North but you had the whole anti-war movement beginning. Also another thing that grew out of the early parts of the civil rights movement was the feminist movement. We had women coming out saying, even within our own organization, we were, where we are all comrads, you know, some of us stayed in the office and had to do the typing and others went around doing, you know, heroic deeds outside. This is not right [laughs]. So that became, the feminist movement was going so there was a lot of ferment that was going on. I didn't feel bad about not being out in the South, there was a lot of stuff going on in New York and on all sorts of levels.
I: Right, uhm you mentioned the Black Power Movement, which asked you to go back, kind of, uhm was there some awareness of yourself that it may be a problem, because as you said, you're white, right and you go to the South to teach blacks which was not entirely true as you say but you learned a lot yourself, but, and you also said you didn't go as missionaries but I think some public opinions were, you know, couldn't get over this idea of you going South to teach blacks and stuff like that. So, how did you deal with that, I mean were you aware of this problem and how did you deal with it?
ML: Uhm, [pauses] it bothered me less than other people. I'm not sure why. Partly because I thought it was fair, you know, black people had all the right in the world to be angry at whites, uh, you know, I have not been to Germany. I've not been to lots of countries in the world, I still can't cross the border to go to Germany. So, I sort of understood that, uhm, I didn't take it personally, I didn't feel guilty, uhm, and there was work to be done. There were also various streams within that Black Power Movement, and somewhere a little nutsy, you know there was this whole back to Africa approach. Uhm, and I don't mean that that was nutsy, that was one approach...Black Panther Party was actually, the name of Black Panther Party is the Black Panther Party for Armed Self-Defense. Black Panther Party never aggressively went out and shot cops. Uhm, but the cops portrayed them as doing that. Whereas the Black Panther Party, uhm, would do free breakfast programs, they said if somebody tries to get me in my house, I'm gonna shoot them. Uhm, and the Black Panthers called themselves Marxists. And, that was, an analysis, an economic and political analysis that I thought made sense. And still think makes sense. Uhm, there is a...and, and the Black Panthers had a class analysis as well as a racial analysis. Uhm, and when I said the back to Africa thing, the reason I was not sympathetic to that, was that it didn't have that class-sense, it just go back to Africa and also, you know, just because you're black, you got something in common with all the blacks, I just, that didn't make sense. And I knew that, just because I was Jewish, didn't, doesn't necessarily mean that all Jews like me or I like all Jews. There was an incident in the Meridian, uhm [pauses], I'd gone, going back a step. I had gone
[63:03 min]
to Mississippi after having raised some money and gotten some support from the synagogue that I had been bar mitzvahed in. I had never gone, you know, for many services, maybe occasionally on holidays but I was not a member of the congregation. But part of going south meant we had to get materials and money, so I had gone back and so I felt this support of much of the Jewish community of New York. So I go to Mississippi, first week we're there, my wife who was not religious at all, one of her parents was Jewish, her mother was Jewish. Vaguely, however, one would define being Jewish. Uhm, and her father was not. He was probably a Catholic. And he was probably, a, a very...he was a German Catholic if you go, went back a couple of generations. Uhm, and uhm, what was I gonna say? Oh, uh, so Betty and I went early on in Meridian [MI] to the Jewish synagogue. Meridian happened to be the second biggest city...in Meridian, that's where we got assigned, we didn't pick the city rather than rural area, we were supposed to actually to go out and do both city and rural. So we went to the synagogue, they had a synagogue, we were supposed to try and reach out and see if there were any white folks who would talk to us. So we do. We got to the first or second step of the synagogue, it was either a Friday night or a Saturday, I can't remember which, you know it was the summer, so I remember it was daytime, but, you know, it can be night or day. [clears throat] But I remember that a woman came out and before we got past the second step, she said, do not come here, you are not welcome. And I think we said something like, oh we don't wanna give out flyers or make a speech, we just wanna join the service and the congregation. I [she] said you are not welcome, we are southerners first. And so we're turning around and left. Cause we knew what the phrase, we are southerners first, meant. It meant that just because you are Jews and we're Jews, doesn't mean we have anything in common. We are segregationists, cause we are southerners. But I've learned since then, intellectually that some of them were segregationists and some of them were just terrorized. They were afraid to risk, uh, risk social, I mean being Jewish in the deep South was not probably a great thing or easy so they risked either social ostracism more than they already had or they risked attack. But a fair number of them were segregationists and would have ratted out their own congregation, right. So, you know, I, I learned from that experience that if that's true with Jews, there is a similar thing that's true with blacks, you know. Look at Clarence Thomas, you know, on the Supreme Court now, you know. Every bad decision against anything that had racial benefits to it, he was on the wrong side. Uhm, so I didn't, I didn't oppose it, you know, I understood it, I wasn't worried about black power. There were plenty of things to do, you know, I was a teacher, there was stuff about my own status as a teacher, union activities, uhm, I think I was a teacher for one year when there was a strike. The first year there was a strike. It was a good strike. It was around more effective schools and class-size and things like that. There was a strike a number of years later that really ruptured the city. It was a strike around Ocean Hill-Brownsville, uhm, and that put the nail in the coffin between, working together between Jewish organizations and black organizations. The only picket line I've ever crossed. I went in and taught in a school in Queens. I crossed the picket line cause I supported the school, uhm, community control of schools. And I thought my union was absolutely, a 100%, not only wrong but racist in what they were doing. So, uhm, but there were plenty of good things to do, and if Black Power Movement was going in other directions, who was I to know what was the right thing to do right. I really had that sense, so you do your thing, I'll do my thing and we will figure it out as time will go.
I: Interesting, ok. And you mentioned before that, your activism in the South changed you a lot, right.
ML: Right.
I: How did that influence your relationships to other activists in the North who may have stayed in the North? Was there something like that, that you were, I don't know, had activist friends or something like that who stayed in the North and then you went to the South and you came back. Was there any problem?
ML: No, I had no more solidarity with people who had been in the South because we'd all been in the South. It didn't cause any tensions or ruptures. Uhm, but the sense I described you before about my focus on issues within the United States rather than international issues, that was a focus before I went and, you know, when I came back, so whatever tensions I had between my friends about, you know, should I join a, you know, a committee to work on issues around Cuba or this or that as opposed to, you know, economic or racial issues. Uhm, my position just didn't really change on those things.
I: Ok, and uhm, would you say that's also true for the broader picture of the struggles in the North and the South? So do you think, ...what was the relationship between the struggles in the South and the North? Can you say something about that?
ML: Uhm. I don't, it didn't affect me. I mean there was a lot going on. One of the things that started happening after that period, besides the Vietnam War and all, in the black community in the North, there were riots. Right, New York City, Newark, Los Angeles, I mean, there were riots. Now the term riot as it applies in the United States really started about when whites would go crazy and run through black neighborhoods and burn up black neighborhoods. You know...all sorts, but that history is like lost, right. You use the word riot and it's sort of black folks burning down the stores. Riots were really when white folks would go in and do that, would punish black neighborhoods or something. Uhm, so it..they were very complicated but active times. You know you'd go home at night teaching and you turn on the TV and you want to turn off the news, but you couldn't turn off the news cause you'd be watching the U.S. planes bombing in Vietnam, wave after, I mean you just see that on television, the wave after wave, when the bombs being dropped and you'd say, oh my God, you know. And, and, you know, then you'd switch to a riot in some city in New York. So there was a lot going on, and I personally, am not the kind of person, whether it's intellectually or whatever, who felt that there was a right answer, you know [laughs], a single way. My tensions were more with people who said, you know, if you don't do this right away, you know, you know the world is gonna fall apart or we have the opportunity to make a revolution now if you go here or there or stuff like that. That's wasn't...I was like, mmh, doesn't seem to make sense to me.
I: Ok.
ML: My sense was that whatever the struggle was, it was a good struggle, but there were no guarantees that it was gonna be a short-term victory or a long-term phase, so dig in for the long-term. Uh, some my frustration with the people who were around me that I would talk to, who were talking politics and who were saying, you gotta do this, now you gotta do that now. Some of them turned out to be stock-brokers and whatever, you know, if you can't make the revolution by tomorrow, then you should turn around and get rich. And befeather your own nest.
[71:55 min]
Most of the people who were activists in Mississippi stayed involved in social justice issues. Everything you read, plus all my contacts, plus my followers, reaching out people now as we get close to the 50th anniversary. Most of the people, you know, went on, if they didn't do social justice issues specifically, then they led professional lives that were connected to that. Uhm, whether that was part of our destiny or direction, when we went down or whether that was part of the vision that shaped us when we came back, was like how can I go out and make a million dollars, you know, by paying my workers cheaply, you know whether that happened to us there or would have been our direction anyhow, you know, I have no way of knowing that kind of stuff. Uhm, but the southern thing did not become a thing in itself for me. Some whites went back and settled in the South, some are still in Mississippi, uhm, when I was teaching in junior high school, I totally forgot about this but [clears throat] what...my archives showed up something I had forgotten about and also a woman I met down there said when I was in junior high school, she and I, Sadie something rather, she was a student in the Freedom School. We tried to start a pen-pal thing.
I: Yeah, right, yeah I remember.
ML: Yeah. But it died, it just absolutely died, uhm, when I go and speak to classes, kids wanna know, did I keep up contacts with those people? And I didn't, I really didn't. We tried, but there is something about a...some people did, but very few, you know, I've checked, uh, all my life I always felt kinda guilty for not doing it, but there is something about the power of that moment and the connections that, you know, you can't go back again, or something like that, you move on, and, and whatever. It's been great reconnecting with some of the people now and talking about what's happening in life, what's the world like now and how do you feel, did we do good, did we not do good, and talking about those things with local Mississippians who are activists, talking about those things with other volunteers, but for most part, most people did not stay connected just for the Mississippi struggle.
I: Ok, uhm, you mentioned that like you didn't really have a specific goal in mind when you went down there, uhm, but looking back, would you say that they were successful, whatever successful means to you? But, uhm.
ML: Well, oh, I, if I said I didn't have a goal, I didn't mean it quite that way. Uh, SNCC and CORE and the umbrella group COFO defined the projects that they were doing. And they made it clear the main goal of the summer was to make advances around voter registration to the extent that it could be, and that, one of the things that was necessary to make advances around voter registration was to turn the national spotlight on the state of Mississippi. Kennedy before he was shot, only acted when there was a huge crises. The FBI was friends with the local police, J. Edgar Hoover hated the civil rights movement and his agents were investigating whether, you know, Martin Luther King was a communist or sleeping with women, but he didn't care whether people were getting killed. Uhm, so the goal was the voter registration [75:47] in Mississippi. How we got assigned to different projects, I was flexible about that, you know, uh, we, Betty and I originally went down to orientation the first week in Ohio cause we were volunteering to do voter registration.
[76:06 min]
While we were there, we met this couple Mickey and Rita Schwerner, and, got friendly with them because there weren't many married couples of the same age and because Rita Schwerner went to Queens College, I went to Queens College, Betty went to Queens College, you know how you play those stories, and because Mickey Schwerner, I said Schwerner? I know a Schwerner, I, you know, you know is Steve Schwerner your brother? Oh yeah, so we got friendly with them, right. So they said come work in our project. Uhm, so we said ok. I wasn't terribly excited about doing that, partly because, the real, tough heroes, uh, of, of Mississippi were the SNCC people rather than CORE people, and it just turned out they were in a CORE project area rather than a SNCC project area, but they asked us and we said yes. I don't know how long it was that we knew them, but at some point, they said, you know, what do you wanna do with the rest of your life? And Betty was just finishing up at Harvard and wanted to be a teacher, I said I wanna be a teacher, and they said, well why are you doing voter registration, why don't you do Freedom School? Uh, so we said ok. They said we got a building, we're gonna have 3 or 4 Freedom Schools, one in the city and a couple of satellite ones around it. This was a conversation in the first week in Ohio. And we said, fine, we'll do that. And, you know, it was only a week, so some of these decisions were, had to be very compressed, and then Mickey and Rita said, ok Mark and Betty, now that you've agreed to be Freedom School teachers, would you be the coordinators of the Freedom School? So, I'm sure there was some conversation between me and Betty and we said yes. They said, well, now that you're in charge of the Freedom School, we need you to stay in Ohio for the second week of orientation, because the second week of orientation is directed to teachers rather than, uhm, voter registration. And you need to help pick and orient the people who are gonna be, you know, basically in your Freedom School. It wasn't, you know, SNCC was not hierarchical, right, so they didn't say you're the principal and you're the assistant principal, and you gonna be in charge of those people. It's, you know, you're the co-coordinat...the term was co-ordinators. So, you're co-coordinators and you have to pick the rest of your team. So we agreed to do that. With an understanding that the Freedom Schools were not, an, uh, entity in, to themselves. They were part of the movement. The movement was then indicated to voter registration and building the movement and organizing in the community, so in the Freedom Schools, there was content and things we wanted to teach, which I'm happy to talk about at some other, you know, point. But, uhm, this was, a Freedom School was to build the, help build the youth movement. You know, uh, cause whatever you did this year, next year, you, you gonna have high school kids joining in, right. The leaders of the civil rights movement in Mississippi were young. 16, 18, 20, 25. I was 24, I was an old guy. And, and, James Forman was in his twenties. Uh, he may have been 30, Bob Moses was in his twenties. And there were the two old guys down there. Everybody else was younger. So the idea that the Freedom Schools were part of the process for recruiting the next year or twos worth of people in the movement. And that, here we were in ‘64, and no school had been desegregated in Mississippi. So you had to talk to students who were gonna go back into those schools who were gonna be the first generation to desegregate those schools. And also, the Freedom Schools were the places where the movement could talk to the kids of the families who were willing to register to vote. So Freedom Schools weren't an abstract building, you know, to go teach just, you know, things by teachers. It was an institution of part of the movement.
I: That's interesting, yeah, especially, well within the movement, because it wasn't, they couldn't vote, right? So, but, it was really still important to teach kids about themselves or...
ML: And about the movement, you know. Local people were encouraged to try register to vote. I mean there had been this whole movement to get them to register and they would go downtown and there would be howling mobs of whites and their names would be published in the paper and their addresses would be published in the paper. But there would be people who would go and do that. And, and there were, while there were Freedom Schools during the summer at night, there were community centers where adults were being trained how to take the literacy test, what would be expected, cause there was, there were two assumptions, one is for the period of the summer we, we were running through the electoral process to challenge the seating of the Democratic Party but there was a presumption that by doing that, by building, what was called, the Freedom Democratic Party, that the core of the leadership would then still exist as an organization the following year. Uhm, SNCC differed from SCLC, Southern, whatever, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's group, the way Ella Baker talked about it, was SNCC was a group-centered leadership, whereas SCLC was a leadership-centered group. And, we believed in that, I mean that was to out core. And so, the Freedom Schools was just part of the same thing. I mean we were organized...we were not coming in like Martin Luther King or church leaders to lead a demonstration. We were there doing community organizing to lead a demonstration. We were there doing community organizing. Uh, and, and it was important that a core of young people and older people would be left when we went home to pick up whatever the activities were that followed. So the Freedom Schools were understood to be part of that process.
I: Right, ok. And in relation to that can you say a bit more about the philosophy of the Freedom Schools and the, the teaching methods, uhm, what is, I don't know, you don't need to say everything but, uhm, just what was special for you I think.
ML: Well, the brief answer about the Freedom Schools, uhm, what was special for me. One was the school was part of the movement. Right, it was not an independent set of goals. That was first of all. Second of all, the kind of teaching we did there was to ask questions. With, there weren't right or wrong answers.
[83:33 min]
You know, it was very different than today where we teach kids how to take tests and presume that there are answers that could be multiple choice, uh. There we were asking questions, and the questions that we were asking with our students were questions we didn't have answers to either. And we would, uh, there were questions about trying to figure out what the world is all about, and what the movement is all about. And there were also questions where, where we were try, we were learning about what life was like in Mississippi, you know. As a white northerner, I didn't know what it was like growing up being black in Mississippi, to survive, to struggle, to risk, to go to work everyday. Uh, uh, to be a church leader, one, you know, Sunday afternoon and to be cleaning white folks' toilets the next day. You know, and, uh, being demeaned in all sorts of ways, you know. I sort of knew that intellectually but on an emotional level, or knowing people who would eventually talk to you a little bit about what that was like. Uhm, but, that was important, that was a big part of the Freedom School. Uhm, so it was whole world view of what schools could be in terms of making active citizens in a way that I really wanted to believe that we were capable of doing. Uhm, so I mean, that was my sense of the Freedom Schools and I think that was the design of the Freedom Schools. Uhm, as part of a longer answer, there was a guy in Boston, his name is Noel Day, black guy, sort of big, big guy, uhm, who was a leader of a boycott in Boston of schools. Cause Boston is a very racist city and the schools very segregated, and there was struggle going on up there. Noel Day, was one of a bunch of people who helped developed the curriculum, uhm, if you can use that term for the Freedom Schools. And almost all the stuff that he did to help develop it was around asking questions. And there was this wonderful set of questions that we talked about, you know, I can do that now or after I drink some water [laughs], or some other time that we talk, but uh. So the, the schools were, you know, the main thing about the schools was that it was part of the, the community struggles. Just, just one part, it wasn't any different, it was not anything special. For the rest of my life I've learned that it was special. There was something very unusual and unique that we were able to create and do there that has sort of influenced how I relate to a lot of educational issues, human issues. Is there anything else, I wanna add...
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Second Part
I: Right, where was I.
ML: You know, a thing that you have mentioned when we first started talking or even before we were on the record. In terms of talking about freedom schools stuff, it is not connected and I am not just babbling but I have been doing this project out of Queens College where I got the college to do some commemorative activities, some departments and people have responses, a lot haven't. The best responses have been from the SEEK Program where I used to teach. And I have been invited into a whole bunch of their classes to talk about different aspects of my experience. Not just the whole Civil Rights Movement because I am not just there to teach. I prefer a mode of teaching that a guy named Marshall Ganz at Harvard talks about, using the personal narrative as a way to find commonality with people and then figure out next steps. Long introduction. The SEEK Program when I used to teach it was all black and Puerto Rican, it is not that way anymore. Partially because the demographics of Queens have changed and also because the central CUNY system changed the admission. So you walk into a SEEK class now, or I get invited to talk about Civil Rights Movement to a SEEK class now and I walk into the room and I look around the room, and this is not just one class, this is a whole bunch: 75% of the room is Asian, Chinese and Korean, there is a sprinkling of Muslims, you know women with their heads in the habibs, and one or two white working class folks maybe, maybe one or two Black folks in there with a hoodie on or something like that. But it is mainly Chinese, mainly Asian, Chinese and Korean. So how do you talk about the movement. I have had two experiences now that have just been amazing. I was walking into one class and the teacher just said: “I am going to let you speak to them.” And this teacher is a terrific teacher, she was not just looking for time off to grade papers. And she said: “I want you to talk to them without me here and there is some smart people in the room, they understand English better than they speak it. So make them speak.” So I had in my head what I wanted to do that period, so I walk in and I say you know: “Professor (?Rodway?) invited me in to speak and to talk about some of my experiences but before I do all these things I want to find out who I am talking to. So tell me how long you have lived in Queens, where you came from and how you feel about living in Queens.” And then I shut up and we went around the room, and I asked: “Who wants to start?” And nobody volunteered, right. A) It is in the nature of students, and B) it is in the nature of Asian students, everybody was being polite. So then I figured I could order them to speak. “We'll start over here, you first, will you please start.” So we went around the room and everybody had something to say in answer to that question, and it was almost like a double period, I had a couple of hours. I then asked them follow up questions. For example, this one Chinese guy, and I don't know enough about China to say “Where did you come from, north, south, here, there?” I know the difference between city and rural but that is the way they would describe, whether they were a city person or a country person. He said: “Well, I have lived here 5 years, I like it because I feel very comfortable.”
“Okay, what don't you like?”
“Well, everybody around me speaks Chinese, I don't speak English.”
And they did not tell me whether it was Cantonese or something. It is like he doesn't know there is any difference between...
“I don't get a chance to speak English. And I would really like to practice my English.”
“So why do you and your family live there then?”
“Oh, because that is where we moved to.”
I said: “How do you like your apartment?”
“Oh, we lived better in China than we live here.”
I did not ask him who their landlord was, whether their landlord was a Chinese landlord or Anglo landlord, that was too threatening to start with.
And I said: “Well, why don't you move? Why don't you move to another neighborhood in Queens?”
And there were these looks of absolute shock on their faces. And the first one that I got into this discussion with, this was echoed by others. And they started to realize that it wasn't just self-segregation, that really, they couldn't move. If they wanted to move to another part of Queens that they were going to be discriminated against. Whether it was by people in the neighborhood or the bank, or the real estate agency. I did not explore with them the depths of what they knew. But they knew in their core that the pocket of Koreans that lived here and the pocket of Chinese from a particular part of China that lived over there, that this was not just voluntary. There was something mandatory or forcible about it. It was not just choice. So that would come out.
And then I remember one of the Muslim young women, when I asked her about who she feels about living here in Queens. She said: “I work, I work very hard, I am paid $5 an hour. That is below minimum wage. I know that is illegal.”
So my training and orientation in Mississippi asking questions, where I did not know the answers to them. But having some assumptions that if I just asked the questions, things would come out and if I asked follow-up questions and if I did not accept the obvious superficial responses that people would come up with... It was just amazing, two hours, I never got to tell my story. The bell rang, teachers, the guy stepped outside. And actually, the teacher had left their aid, they have people, graduates, they call them supplemental instructors, S.I.s, in the class. And the SI was there, and SIs are the same age and the same racial diversity as the students, and it just was not in my brain that the SI was there. So Prof. (? Rodway?) told me that this was just really wonderful and that the kids got a lot out of it.
Yesterday, SEEK program had...., and there are hundreds and hundreds of students in the SEEK program, you know, all these different years, not just the first-year class, I think there are 200 in the program each year, I think. They asked students to submit poetry, 1 – 2 page essays. And they also had another form where you could... it was drawings and the you could write text next to it, visual, graphic, novels, whatever. And they had a contest and they had some of their own folks judging. And kids got up and read their material, kids, pardon me, I don't mean kids. I guess if you are 74 you can call them kids.
And so the students got up and read their poetry. I was crying through the whole thing. A) The writing was so terrific, it was just high, high level. If I did not see a face and if I did not hear them read through very heavy accents, most of them, and I just read the text, the understanding, the use of language. And then each one of the thing... And then part of the theme was that they just take of their discussions about civil rights that have been dealt with at varying levels and in different classes and take some of that discussion and apply it to their poetry and writing. It was just amazing. Everybody had something very powerful to say that they came to America hoping America was going to be what they thought it was wherever they came from. And everybody had stories on how they have been treated badly, wherever they had come from. Just amazing. Whether treated badly as a woman, or person of color, or just as an immigrant, etc, a gay guy. But they also talked about... they had awareness and anger about issues at home, their home country. So two different women, one was from India, I think the other was a Muslim from Guyana? They talked about arranged marriages and what that did to them in terms of their family, and in terms of somebody they loved and in terms of their consciousness as human beings and their status. There was one guy, I can't remember, South Asian, who did not say he was gay but his whole piece was about how he observed gays being treated and how his parents reacted to gays being treated. But he did not say: “I am gay.” But his paper was about that. And it was just amazing.
So it is like all you have got to do is ask the right questions and let people... Not everybody has these experiences, not everybody understands these experiences. You know, in a certain sense, one of the things that I have come to understand is that one of the reasons that discrimination continues is that some people benefit from discrimination. And you can use a jargon term like 'white skin privilege', right, like the first story I told you. And when I go and talk about civil rights I go and use that term and you should see people's faces. And most people talk about civil rights, they don't want to talk about white skin privilege. Whether that is overt or whether it is the unconscious stuff about I walk into a room and I got a beard and I am white and I am a male and people will listen to me. And I could say gobbledy-gook for a while, and they would listen to me. And if I came in with 10 women, it still happens, right? They all talk to me. And it is how people learn that kind of stuff and how they deal with it and you can invite people into those discussions and that is the kind of stuff that I learned and it stays with me.
I: Could you say a bit more about the Harlem projects you mentioned? The Ed Gordon Center project?
ML: It could not have been my first year of teaching, you know, first year of teaching you are just swamped, you know. If you get up in the morning and go to school... And I remember like probably every other new teacher, I would come home at 3 o'clock and then watch TV from 3 o'clock to 11 o'clock, whatever was on the tube, you know, because I was just exhausted and emotionally drained. And it is struggling how to be a teacher, first year is just really difficult.
One of my beliefs about education and teaching is that a huge percentage of what a teacher does depends of the supervisors. I think a lot of the pressure that is coming down on teachers now is bad or wrong. Because I think the leadership in the school, from the principal to the vice principal to the department chairs, how they motivate and encourage and lead their teachers, and then how teachers feel about themselves and then teaching comes from a higher level.
I had a wonderful Social Studies chairman. His name was Leo Wagner I remember, he was just a terrific supportive guy. So I would come in angry, upset, scared or whatever, he was very supportive and he encouraged me to figure out and do stuff. And I must have done okay.
The second year two things happened to me. The way all good teachers get rewarded, they gave me the.... good teacher, I worked hardest to do well with my roughest kids, I loved students who had attitude. So I worked well with some of the tough kids. So I was rewarded by being given some of the hardest classes. I was like: Oh, give me a break. Right. But on top of that Mr. Wagner connected me to this experimental program that had just been designed, it was the first year, I don't know how long it actually lasted, it was a joint effort with a group called Architects Renewals Committee in Harlem, ARCH, it was called. I remember the guy who was the head of it, he was like some activist architect, white guy. And the Center for Urban Education that was really an outlier, at Teachers College, you know, everybody knew that Columbia and Teachers College did not have much to do with Harlem that was good. But the Center for Urban Education and Dr. Gordon were respected. And at that time in New York, the fourth grade and the eighth grade dealt with city issues as part of the curriculum. I was an eighth grade teacher, so I was supposed to teach about the city and the state. And you know, there was a lot of stupid stuff in the curriculum. You know, how Indians used beaver pelts to trade. Or structurally what the city's government and the state government was like, legislature and how a bill becomes a law. All the stuff that is really not empowering and not useful. And what ARCH and the Center for Urban Ed wanted to do was say to the students: Let's study your community's history to figure out how it changed architecturally and demographically. That was their orientation and there was some training, they had some materials for us. And I took a look at that stuff and I said: Well, this is a good excuse. And I asked them whether I could take it in different directions. Not totally different but in addition to what they were doing. And they said yes, and they were very supportive and Mr. Wagner my social studies chairman was very supportive. And I drew on my Mississippi experiences, so early in the semester I asked the students what they liked about the community, what they did not like about the community. And then within that dichotomy, we then put on the board a list of what didn't they like about their community. And I would ask... because some of the answers that the kids would give were off the wall, right? I mean, some made sense, some were strange. So the way to filter through that, rather than me as a teacher impose my sense of what is on the wall and what is not, I would ask: How many people feel the same way? And by doing that it became clear this was a shared experience, and you may hate your mother, and that is why you hate the community because whatever... I can't deal with anything like this right now, I am not a social worker, I am a Social Studies teacher. So we found a bunch of issues that the students identified as things that they were concerned about.
The next set of questions that I asked, and that came not so much from the ARCH-CUE curriculum but from my Mississippi variants of that. I asked: Which of these things that are now clusters that we share feelings about do you think we can really do something about? I am not asking you to end the war in Vietnam as an eighth grader, or whatever some of the huge issues were that they identified. I can't remember and I don't even know whether those lists exists, they were like blackboard lists. So there were good discussions: What can we change, what can't we change? One class in the eighth grade, so there are things that we can do. And out of that we got a bunch of issues that were in common that people felt that they could do something about. And I broke people into the committees because: Why do something about something you do not care about. Who wants to work on this, who wants to work on this? And my memory is: I don't have all the projects in mind. One had to do with housing, right? Because all the buildings that are still here, whether they are the Manhattanville houses, the Grant houses, so mainly project-based and some private tenement-based housing.
So there were housing issues and those split into the public housing and the private, you know, small building, houses. Uhm, another had to do with the way they were treated in the stores and the high prices of the supermarkets. Uhm, these were eighth graders right, cause, kids get sent to the store to buy milk or something like that, so they know. Another, and this was my favorite of the projects, they complained about the playground right across the school. Which is still there, but the city at some point, put in a swimming pool, so some of the playground pieces are now an outdoor pool. Uhm, there were another couple of projects that were like that, but I don't remember now. So we would have discussions about, ok, what's step one, what can, you know, let's investigate. Then let's investigate avenues to do things. My favorite stories are really related to the playground because in some senses, the range of things were, were broader in, in options that we can do. Ok, so the first thing you do is, playground, whose playground is it? Right, so we tracked it down, it was New York City Department of Parks. Ok, so if it's the Department of Parks, let's look at the, you know, this is what we were supposed to do, right. [laughs] Look and see who is in charge of the Department of Parks and how do you reach them, so, the kids wrote letters and the kids called. Nothing happened, right. This is what we expected, but I warned them ahead of time. I said, this is the first step, let's see what happens. Maybe they'll come and fix things up, maybe they just don't know that it's all messed up. So, you know, we tried, nothing happened and the next, ok, what are the other things that we can do? And, there were some talks we could picket, hand out leaflets, and we could ask people in the community whether they would come and do a self-help project. And for some reason, the kids wanted to do that. I was, you know, my father does x, y, and z, and so he could help do this and oh, there is a hardware store around the corner, uhm, maybe they would give us the stuff to do it. So we, got involved in getting ready to do a self-help project. And I don't remember how the transition happened, and some point, I, somebody on the committee said, we should call the city again. Tell them, that we're about to fix it, cause they gonna see us fixing it, so we better let them know. And, I probably felt fine, maybe this will embarrass them. So we did and the city finally came out and fixed up the park. Right, it was the handball courts in that particular part of the park. You know, big excitement and it worked well. We did a lot of things according to the ARCH-CUE curriculum like, uh, does your family have, when did your family get to the neighborhood. Do they have any pictures of it? We were tracking down the history of that [23:11] community there. And I found all sorts of wonderful stuff that's, you know, I, I found line drawings of when there were trees and streams and before the buildings were built and then, we got somehow to the Department of Housing and they showed pictures of what was there before they put the projects up and when the projects were brand new. And I even found original, like 1860 maps. You know, they were awesome price of fifty dollars or something like that. So I bought some original maps. You know, so that the kids could look at that. Uh, and we were trying to track community history and the same time, cause that was part of it, who made the changes who changed things. Uhm, then there was this whole other side that, again, grew out of Freedom School stuff, cause in the Freedom School questions, the third set of questions. I didn't tell you the first two, but the third set of questions was to imagine, you know, the utopian, imagine the better. So I don't remember how I pulled this off, so they'd die, they'd fire me, now if somebody tried to do this. I somehow got one of the classes up on the roof of the building, the school building. And I said, let's look out and look at the roofs of the building around here. How was all that space used? You know, there is more room on roofs than there are on the streets. So if this neighborhood has problems because there isn't room to build stuff, what could you put on top of the roofs? I was like wow. And it was also like, look around, cause there are human beings out there and human beings are very creative and if you look carefully at those roofs or if you think about it or talk to people in your building, you'll tell me what goes on up there. And it wasn't just drug-time and, you know, stuff. So I got the stories about the pigeons, I got stories about barbecues, I got all sorts of stories and all you could see chairs, you could see extra little things that were built up there, so, it got the kids to try and envision above and beyond what existed now. And then they could draw things, you know, their whole range of imagining an proposal, you know, how would you get something like this passed if you wanted to do more over there, what could be the limits, what might you do, so. So that was, that was the project. I may have done it a second year, I can't remember. And then I left, I went, yeah, I went to Queens.
I: But the project lived on? Or...
ML: No, I yeah, you know, I don't know. Uhm, it was probably like lots of projects, they recruited a bunch of teachers in it. I remember, their asking for reports that I...I spent days writing a report and giving feedback and all that stuff. Uhm, there were couple of us doing it in our school. There were teams doing it in elementary schools with the 4th graders. Whereas much more history driven or community studies driven, you know project. Uhm, I don't know what happened to it, I don't know where it went.
I: But was it a collaboration with...not with specific schools, right, but rather with teachers, or how did they, the CUE reach people. So how did they find you or other teachers?
ML: They found the school and the, uh, the supervisors found me.
I: Ok, and you mentioned that you altered the curriculum slightly, right.
ML: Oh yeah.
I: Do you know who developed the original curriculum in the first place? Was it...
ML: I think it was the architect guy, whose name will come to me tomorrow morning. I have tried, I've tried tracking him down, and I haven't been able to find him. I got his name: C, I don't know his first name, so it was C. Richard Hatch. H-A-T-C-H. I don't know where he is these days, I don't know what he is doing, I don't know what he did after that project. I got little bits and clues over periods of time that didn't quite make sense. Uh, so I didn't have a whole picture and then I don't know which things were just gossip or true or whatever.
[28:04 min]
But I think he was the driving force behind it.
I: And you weren't in contact with any of the other teachers, right? It wasn't...
ML: No, I think one of the...[sighs] I don't remember much training or sharing, in one of the documents, and I don't remember where this is, there was a CUE-document that reports on the project and shows a picture of us meeting. A few of the teachers and the ARCH and CUE people. But I don't remember many meetings. I remember who the other teacher was who was doing this, the other 8th grade teacher, but I don't think we did anything collaboratively. You know, it was like, you do your things and I will, you know, write about before and after but we're not trying to do a team thing. So it was more test-case than, you know, a real effort. Uhm, but you, you know, what I've said before, a lot of those issues, issues, initiatives came to an abrupt and ugly end. Cause Ocean Hill-Brownsville was the next year or the year after that.
I: Right, ok. Yeah, it probably answers my next question already, but are you familiar with democratic schools like the Albany Free School or the Sudbury Valley School, probably not, right, ok.
ML: No.
I: Because they have this, they have a similar curriculum, not really curriculum but approach to education I think so I'm just wondering if there was some sort of collaboration, but, yeah.
ML: I have no idea.
I: Ok. And, uhm, the school you taught at was in Harlem, right?
ML: West-Harlem.
I: West-Harlem. Ok, sorry, totally, yeah.
ML: Yeah, West and I make that differentiation not because it's a differentiation that I cared about, I said I was teaching in Harlem but people in the community always liked to differentiate. Oh, we're not really Harlem, we're West-Harlem, you know. City College is up the hill, you know, Columbia is up the other hill, and to a certain extent, there was truth to that, because there was a slightly broader mixture of a student body. Right, cause the...am I getting my buildings straight....the Morningside buildings were middle-class projects. I don't remember whether they were co-op but the Grant houses were public housing. So there was some, slightly different economic base to some of the public houses around here so that the school was a little, uhm, more affected by that. And one of the big feeder elementary schools was the one, right down the hill from here near the big rocks, and I think Columbia had some influence or Teachers College had some influence there, so some of the kids came in, in pretty good prepared academic shape.
I: Ok, yeah that was actually my question, about the demographics of your school, so...
ML: Well, [sighs]. New York is wonderful. You know, it's one of the most segregated cities in the country now, in terms of its schools, and I, it was probably back then also. And if the school itself wasn't segregated, then all you had to do is look at the classes. The elementary school that I went to, that on 96th Street, I never thought it was a segregated school until I saw photographs of our graduating year. So, my class was 6.1 or 6.2, 6.1 or 6.2. And those classes were almost exclusively white. But 6.3, 6.4, 6.5, 6.6 were almost totally black. And I think the same thing was true at the junior high school. I think there were 1 or 2 classes that were somewhat mixed for a school in this neighborhood and then as you went down the classes, less and less so.
I: Interesting. And at that time, you didn't live in Harlem though, right? You were still in 96 area?
ML: Right.
I: Ok. And how did that affect your, I don't know, your relationship to the students? Was that...because they were probably part of the community, right?
ML: Right. Well, I was, uh, I mean I would go home at night, right. Uh, but I was still on the West Side, I would arrive by subway, I didn't drive. Some of the other teachers, a lot of the other teachers in the school lived way out on Long Island. I mean, they would get to schoolby 6 or 6:30 in the morning and play Bridge, or Pinochle because they got there early to avoid traffic. Uhm, so I would get there by subway. I wasn't in the neighborhood but I was doing those projects and I would walk around the neighborhood. Uhm, it was my neighborhood, right. And whatever sense of survival that New Yorkers get, you know, I walk down that street but not the other street or see somebody coming at me and, you know, those 4 people look ok, but those 2 over there...uh, maybe I'll cross the street. Uhm, I felt fairly comfortable and walking around the neighborhood, you know, I'd bump into, you know, students I know, hey there is Mr Levy. So I was ok with that. So I didn't live in the neighborhood but I did spend time. The Long Island teachers would, you know, come in their cars, play, you know, Bridge, teach that class and then go back at, uh, Long Island. So I was somewhere inbetween, being of the neighborhood and not of the neighborhood.
I: Ok. Were there teachers that were really from the neighborhood? Like...
ML: No, I don't think so. There were several black teachers. But I don't think they lived in the neighborhood. They, some, uhm, there is a facebook page from my junior high school. Uhm, and, they actually pick up a few years after I was there, and the facebook page has existed for a number of years and they find more people. Who...and they talk a lot about who is your favorite teacher.
[35:02 min]
And why. There is a lot of, lot of evidence if you wanted to see that, it's not exactly the same year, but it's current and it's great stuff. It's just great stuff. I participated for a little while and they let me in. Cause it was supposed to be students, student, who is your favorite teacher and they saw I taught there for a little while, so they, you know, they befriended me and let me in, but I, I, you know, I'm not there too much and [laughs] they sound like local community kids and so it's not my role to comment on that, but, you know, you can look or we can figure out ways for you to look, cause it can give you some interesting insights. Some of them have friends, some of them are connected, some of them found pictures of the neighborhood. There is actually, uh, a marvelous black historian that writes around, about Manhattanville, on about that neighborhood. He has a book about that neighborhood and then he has a zillion other documents experiences. So the, he leads walking tours of Manhattanville.
I: Ok, do you know his name?
ML: I have it at home.
I: Ok.
ML: Uhm, so he's available for community background and he is a really interesting guy.
I: Ok, cool, thanks. Uhm, yeah, that actually, you kinda mentioned that already that you are not really in contact with anyone from the Freedom Schools too much anymore?
ML: Uh, there are a bunch of people that I've reconnected with.
I: Oh, ok.
ML: That I went back. When I retired, that's ‘07, around ‘07. I went back to Mississippi, I have pictures that I found in the archive and pulled out and decided on this project of trying, sharing those pictures with people who were there. Say hey, you know, can you find yourself in these pictures? But, I don't know the names of the people in these pictures, can you find yourself there? You know, your grandmother or your mother or you. Or, you know, whatever. And it, it's been great, so links to my pictures have just flown all around the country. And, uhm, I reconnected with some people. You know, I have some really nice contacts with this one family in, uh, California. Some of the people still live in Mississippi and people are all over the place. In the archives I also found, and I'm looking for doctoral students who want to do something with this stuff, if you happen to know anybody...
I: Ok [laughs].
ML: I found class lists.
I: Mmh, ok.
ML: I know who attended. The names of the 250 students who came to the Freedom School. And I have pictures. In all the things that I've read about Mississippi, nobody has done any follow-up or discussion of, uh, you know, follow or interviews with kids, you know, later or things like that, so. The raw data is there. The other thing that I recently found, uh, that's not in my own files but somebody gave them to me to do with this whatever I wanted to do with. We didn't travel around till the Freedom Schools, ok. Mississippi was like scary, you didn't ...just travel. Uhm, but there was one statewide event for the Freedom Schools. There was a statewide convention in the Freedom Schools. We used it to talk about politics and resolutions at this statewide convention. And just coincidentally, my building, I don't mean my, the building that I taught in was the coordinator got picked to be the place where the state-wide convention was held. It was the biggest building. And it was a brick building as opposed to a wooden building or somebody's porch. Uhm, and there were a couple of big churches in town that were open to the civil rights movement. Not all the churches. There were 30 odd churches, black churches in Meridian and only a few of them would allow us civil rights activities. So even the black community was divided on how it felt it could risk a position it could take.
[39:32 min]
Uh, so I have pictures of the convention and what this woman just found was the lists, the sign-in sheets of who attended the convention. Now there are a couple of big delegations, uh, and excel is wonderful [laughs], so, so, you know, I'm not a researcher, I'm an activist, right. But when I discover something I know that I discover something, so I, I was just, as an organizer, I was going to Mississippi and I had all of these lists with me and I was gonna meet people, so I'm sitting on the plane, I'm typing the names in, I'm not great on the computer, but I knew if you pushed that button, it would alphabetize, right. And so it would help me find people, wow. There were a whole bunch of people who had the same name. Now, could they be family? I had no awareness as the coordinator of the Freedom School that there were whole families. The families that were committed to the movement brought all their kids or sent all their kids. And, you know, I found out subsequently cause the little kids went to the community center, the, I guess, more older elementary junior high and high school kids came to the Freedom School. But there are just clusters of family names. And then, given the way families work in Mississippi, they don't necessarily have the same name, uhm, cause parents, grandparents, single families, which kids are raised where, you know, so that you could have four kids with different names in the same family. So, I, [41:15] lists other people they've said besides the alphabetized lists, this one is really somebody's brother. So I have that data and I saw how that fell out and the same way when I got the sheets about who attended the convention, they were sort of scattered sheets and I put them on an excel sheet and I arranged them by, uh, which town they came from. And a couple of big delegations just don't show up, so some of the sheets, you know, either people did not sign in or the sheets got lost or whatever. But I've got a lot of, a lot of raw data, if anybody wanna follow up.
I: That's interesting, yeah.
ML: Anyhow, so what was the question, the question, oh did I have any connections with people after. So I've tracked down and found some people.
I: Ok.
ML: A high proportion of people have passed.
I: Mh, yeah.
ML: It's really sad, you know. The data about life expectancy based on class and race that shows up, you know. That does show up when you start tracking people down, there are a lot of people, but there, there are a bunch who are alive a. And b a lot of them are gonna be back in Meridian, this June. So that graduate student that you might find in most of the papers or something like that, cause this is the 50th anniversary and the way the leaders have organized, or put forward plans for how to do the anniversary, a few events are gonna be in the capitol in Jackson, but they encourage local communities to do their own thing. And do their own organizing, so I'm not, I'm in phone contact with a couple of people, but I'm not a driving force down there, right. I'm encouraging and occasionally sending money. But, uh, whether they can actually pull it off or not, I have no idea. But they say they got people from all over the country coming back for this.
I: Nice, do you plan on going if it happens?
ML: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It will be like, not the last week in June, it's like the third week in June.
I: Ok, cool. I'll definitely follow up on that. [both laugh] Uhm, right, so if you had the chance to go back in time, is there anything you would have done differently from your perspective now?
ML: [sighs] You know, I just spoke to a whole bunch of people last week or two, I'v been talking so much, so my head is spinning. And a lot of people have asked that question. Truthfully I don't think there is. Uhm, you know I did one silly thing that wasn't bad, it was just misunderstanding. Uhm, I'll tell you that, that story in a second. Another thing, I don't know what I would have done about that. Uhm, back at that time, my car was a little green Volkswagen bug, ok. So, we could, we had a choice of either bringing our own cars or not. Not having a car down there. I brought my car. So, it was a green Volkswagen with New York plates. You know, I shaved, I wore white shirts, I just didn't think how a green Volkswagen would stand out, you know, everybody down there had pick-up trucks, or they had Chevies or, you know. So that was one cultural learning that, you know, I may have done differently. Another was, a cultural learning and I, I just sort of, uhm, the family we stayed with, the Turners, didn't have kids. Uhm, and my wife and I didn't have kids and we, uhm, they worked, both of them worked 2-3 jobs and we were the heads of the Freedom School, we didn't hang out a lot. I've always felt bad about that and when I got to meet Ms Turner, I apologized and asked her, and she sort of laughed and said that she felt the same way that they didn't hang out with us. And in talking to other volunteers, I think one of the main difference, I mean some of it is a gender difference, you know, women will hang out more than men will hang out. Uh, the other difference is whether there were kids. If there were kids, the volunteers would play with the kids, would drive them to here to there, would do things. We didn't hang out much with the Turners, we didn't eat a lot there. You know, they would be gone in the morning, cause they had jobs early in the morning and uh, we might have had some Sunday dinners, but we were off church breakfast, we were working. So I tried to, but we ate there occasionally, right. So we got to eat collard greens and, you know, all that southern food. Some of which I like, some of which I don't like. Uhm, so we wanted to do something in our own style for them. The last time, the last day we were there, we went to, whatever the local big supermarket was. There weren't many at that time, uhm, and we bought a big rib roast. It was very expensive. Whatever very expensive was back then and for me. So we bought this big rib roast and I, I had this vision in my head of lovely slices of, of, of beef that, uh, because they weren't a wealthy family, you know, they didn't ever serve anything like that. So we came with that and they wouldn't let us cook it. They wanted to cook it. They thanked us for the gift and they were gonna cook it. So we sit down to dinner and they bring out this beef, they had boiled it. They had made it like a brisket or something. And I was like *grr*. You know, it was like some of the cultural differences really, you know. Should have rather than giving them a gift out of our own experience we could have maybe thought about what would have fit their experience more. But I mean those are two silly little things. In terms of big stuff or political stuff, you know, uhm, I was lucky, we were lucky, we did rights things. You know, maybe I would have kept better records, and people down there kept diaries and all that good stuff that they can still access. You know, I didn't do that. I didn't throw away a lot of stuff, I kept it in boxes. You know, Betty was a, a writer and a collector more than, much more than I was and she was more systematic. Uhm, but I, you know politically things were so good and so exciting. In some ways we were very lucky by being in a place that was unlucky. The fact that Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were our leaders and were killed before we even got down there, the media was all over that town. Regularly, right. And somehow, the white power elite in the, inside of the city of Meridian, not outside. You'd go to the rural areas the business men of Meridian had no influence, but within, and I didn't know about this until afterwards that there was some decision in Meridian to not hurt any of us. Not jail any of us. Uh, to not be in the newspaper more. That deal between the powerful, the cops, and the cops even with the Klan didn't extend out to the rural area. And so, the violence that you read about that persisted all summer, and the church burnings that went on all summer, continued in other parts. But because the murders of the three guys, the murders of the two white guys happened in Meridian, uh, uh, Meridian was relatively, you know, relatively calm. Relatively saying. Doesn't mean, I mean we were always afraid and any jerk could pull out a gun and do something stupid. I found out from some of the, young, who are no longer young, I saw former students, female students who said that there was this gang of white guys who would drive by the school, after school, as people going home and throw balloons filled with urine at them.
[50:20 min]
But they never told the teachers, we didn't know that happened. They didn't want us to be afraid. So, you know, the things that I didn't know we had maybe a little more margin for error, so I look back and, you know, I've been asked this question so many times, I really can't...it's not I'm, it's not that I'm withholding, if I said I had some lessons to learn, you know, I would be more than happy to share them, but, you know, we were pretty good with that.
I: Yeah, and would you do it again? If you...
ML: Uh, would I do it again? Oh, absolutely. No question. I mean, in a certain sense I am, I've been going back. I've been pushing...when I go back, it's pushing, uhm. You know, the state of Mississippi, uhm, is not a nice place now, right. They refuse to adopt the Medicaid, they, you know, you can go down a lot of current legislation and they are still one of the poorest states, they are still one of the worst educationally, uhm, but percentage of people in jail who are black for one reason or another is extraordinarily high there. So court case in Meridian about the last ten years or so, kids, black kids in a high school whenever there is a discipline problem, rather than disciplinary procedures being used like in any other school, they call the cops. You know, you're late three time and they arrest you. And I, you know, kids wind up in jail. Right, it's the, what do you call it, the school-to-prison-pipeline? It really exists. And there is a suit that documents it. Some parts of the suit have been settled, but it was very bad and the cops, the judges, and the school, including some, uh, uh, uh, black principle and including a black judge, colluded in that system. Some of it's collusion, some of it is, they then made rules, it's sort of like the incarceration rules where, where judges don't have discretionary, you know the, things were passed. But there was discretion, and, you know, so some things were really bad down there. Uhm, Why did I go off of that tangent? Uhm, so I, oh, going back and pushing. So one of the best teachers down there was a woman named Gail Faulk. Gail, I gotten in touch with Gail, she lives in Vermont, uhm, when we went back a couple of years ago, we pushed our way into the high school, to give some talks and we pushed our way into some other places that, uhm, show the pictures that I had. When we went to the high school, a bunch of teachers pulled their classes together in an auditorium, not everybody, there were few teachers, one black and a couple white teachers, who were happy for us to talk about the civil rights era. And we asked, how many of the students had had any conversation with their parents or grandparents? Or aunties or uncles about the civil rights movement. And I had showed some slides and we talked a little bit. One girl's hand went up. So, the history, the stories, the idea of struggle, the idea of a lot of that stuff is lost. You know. Uhm, and there are lots of reasons why. One thing that we never, ever talked about or thought about, uhm, but it pops up when you look at, you know, the list of people who were in the Freedom School, do you know the book Warmth of Other Suns?
I: Yeah.
ML: Ok. Resistance to oppression whether it's resistance in Nazi-Germany or resistance in Mississippi, you can acquiesce, you can engage in guerilla warfare, you could pick up and leave. Right, and there was this migration that was going on, right. Before the summer and after the summer. I remember one of the instructions that they gave us, was the Freedom School was supposed to be a place to cultivate leadership, so that people could stay and be leaders the next year. And that we were not to encourage people leaving. But it wasn't in the context of this migration going on, right. In some senses no, there haven't been many people who have, you know, identified that phenomenon as a phenomenon rather than just families, individuals picking up and leaving. Uhm, but when you look at it now, a lot of people in the Freedom School left. Either as part of the migration, or some volunteers either encouraged or helped out. Right, I remember some of my favorite students hearing a couple of months later that they had picked up and moved to...I think Seattle. Three wonderful young girls, and their mother went to Seattle.
[56:05 min]
And I was just heartbroken that they weren't in Meridian. And I blamed the, uh, the, uh, volunteer who brought them to her hometown. But I may have been wrong, I don't know the conversation, the conversation could have been, we are leaving, can you help us find a place to go. Right.
I: Could be, you never know.
ML: So, you know, some of those folks have scattered for good reasons, some for bad reasons, you know.
I: In relation to that, uh, mh, do you see how or if, uhm the Freedom Schools or the Great Migration also changed Harlem and made it the place it is now, or?
ML: Oh sure, sure.
I: Yeah, but can you, can you, I don't know describe it, or is it just too complex?
ML: I, it's complex and at that point in my life, both Freedom Summer and when I was teaching in Harlem, I didn't know or appreciate, uhm, the Harlem Rennaisance. When I went out to teach at Queens College, uh, in the SEEK program, uhm, when I was first hired there, the students were all black and Puerto Rican, some of them were out of jail, the faculty was almost exclusively white. The administration was exclusively white. And there was a rebellion, there was a awesome rebellion, you know. Some of those students and the faculty tore up that campus, scared the shit out of everybody. Non-violently.
I: Ok.
ML: Who...non-violent, but provocative. So, for example, one of the things that absolutely scandalized and at first it scandalized me and then I had to smile, uh, but it scandalized the campus and I, I actually saw some progressive friend of mine, included it in his book as some evil, a crowd of students and faculty, yelling and screaming and beating on drums go running into the library making a lot of noise in the library and what do they do, they ran up to where the card-catalogs were and they took a couple of the card-catalogs and threw them down. So the cards fell out. Scandalized everybody. [coughs] So is that violent or non-violent?
I: Non-violent?
ML: I would say it's non-violent.
I: No-one got hurt, right?
ML: Cause nobody was hurt. And nothing was done that was un-remediable, right. It's a bunch of work putting the cards back together but somebody's had once done it, right. Those cards weren't originally in the drawer right. If you remember the alphabet and the code system, you can get the cards back in. Was it provocative? You bet ya, right. So there were things that, that they did like that and the goal was to turn the program from a Eurocentric program, Queens College thinks that Columbia University is the beginning and end of the world, so what we were teaching was the, the Columbia University contemporary civilization courses, I don't know whether they still do it here. They used to have this big, fat books, you know, so you talk, teach about Spinoza, and this one and that one, you know, the great thinkers of the world. But they all happened to be white and they all happened to live in Europe and they all happened to live in Europe in this limited period of time, right. And so the students and faculty, the students and a few faculty said that there really needs to be a different way to see all this. So after the rebellion, the rebellion had two goals, one goal was to hire more third-world faculty and the other was to turn the curriculum from a Eurocentric to a third-world-centric curriculum. Now in 1968, who knew what third-world-centric curriculum looked like? Now, even the people who were demanding it, they had a couple of books, right, you know Montu is one, I, I forget what some of the books were. And, and, you know, they were knowledgeable and pushing..what did I know, I didn't know shit. You know, I didn't know any of that stuff. A lot of the whites either left or were let go, I was one of the whites who was kept. And to teach third-world studies and to throw out all those big, fat Columbia books, uhm, I had to learn third-world studies, I had to learn a whole world-view. You know, I had never gone to school and learn that the scrolls, the mathematics, the literacy that existed along the, what is it the silk route or the spice route in Timbuktu, to then say, what were those people on the other side of the Mediterranean doing, you know. What was history and culture like in Europe during those years? You know, they were all illiterate there, you know, they were living, you know, with furs on in little wooden huts, you know, while the civilization was going on. And what about what was happening with the Aztecs and the Mayans and their buildings and in China, look at the domes and the buildings. And you know, they couldn't build squat in Europe during that. So [laughs], you know, what did I know? So I had to learn that stuff, uhm, along with learning that stuff came the same questions, what was happening in the United States? So, were [pause] blacks, African Americans just victims, right? Cause I come out of Mississippi so I knew the victims’ story, you know. Uhm, and so the answers is, no they weren't just victims, right. They were scholars, they were artists, there was this vibrancy, just look at Harlem. I mean... ok, so you know, as a white Jewish kid in New York, I knew about Jazz, ok. So that there were some Jazz-musicians. But did I know about classical, black classical musicians? Did, you know, there were just so many things that I didn't know and didn't appreciate, so I didn't understand about the Harlem Renaissance and the talent and the brilliance and the writing and all that stuff that was going on in Harlem when I in fact was teaching in Harlem. I, I, I got my kids involved in the architecture, in changing problems they saw in the community, uhm, but I didn't know enough to point them to the history of the Harlem Renaissance. And, and this really obscure library that was so far away – the tape doesn't pick up the facetiousness of this – called the Schomburg, right. Schomburg was what ten blocks away, but for kids in local communities, you know, or for a teacher in a local community, it was far away. So the things that the Schomburg was pulling together and the brilliance of what people were saying and collecting at that time, had no influence on us. Uh, so it was there but it passed us by.
I: Interesting. Uhm, yeah I think, one last question, I'm sorry, because I already took so much of your time.
ML: Ok, no problem.
I: Uhm, you mentioned Ocean Hill-Brownsville and you're being Jewish.
ML: Yes.
I: And, am well I read a lot about Black-Jewish relations and conflicts and has that ever, uhm, I don't know, uhm, influenced your experience or, I don't know, uhm, in the South but also in the North?
ML: In the North? Yes, yes.
I: And, would you mind talking about it, or...rather not.
ML: No, no, no, it's fine, I've talked about it publicly. A bunch. Uhm, so we come back from Mississippi, and one of the things in parol to when we went back is to share our experiences, right. In the same way as we collected books and money, as good organizers, you go back to the same people who gave you the books and the money and you say, let me tell you this stuff. Uhm, and there were tensions around Atlantic City. About the liberals and the Jewish liberals having kept out of stuff. I wasn't aware of it, and I, you know, when you use the word Jewish, there are people who are observant and have stuff to do with the religion and there are people who are not observant and even within those other categories, there is organized, you know, so there are these huge, huge, I don't know if they are huge, they are big well-organized, very wealthy funded organization of Jews. The American Jewish Congress or this or that. But these are all rich businessmen, powerful, influential people and they are basically conservative, uhm, and what was happening around that time, if you go back and connect the dates and I'm not great at specific dates, but Israel was a young country. And, the focus of the American Jewish Congress and some of these other powerful and influential national Jewish organizations was totally on Israel. It was the, I don't know what the metaphor is, you know, the, a test, that you know, it's either this or it's that, you know, there is some phrase I'm looking for I can't think of. Uhm, so I come back and I wanna talk about civil rights movement and I go back to my synagogue which was B'nai Jeshurun, uh, which is on the West Side, it's 89th Street I think. And I forget who I talked to, but it was like the second sentence out of their mouths, was something like but SNCC said this and this about Israel. And I was like, yeah, so? You know, I just came back from Mississippi and that's what's going on there. And they said, but they said this about Israel. And, what, at that time, I, that I remember that I was involved in a [67:08] stuff was going on, but what I remember was that, at that point and time, SNCC and some other civil rights groups were raising questions about Israel's role in Africa. As a, oh what's the word I want, uhm, [pause]. They were doing America's bidding. Right, in South Africa. So the United States' official position was to boycott South Africa, to resist the Apartheid, right, cause civil rights movements said, you know, South Africa is bad, right. But then they became the transfer point. American money was buying Israeli arms and supporting Israeli government, you know, supporting the Apartheid government.
[67:55 min]
So the criticism was, what's the word I want, that they were like the puppets, no there's another word, uhm, that Israel was doing the United States' bidding. Uhm, which...eveything I read was absolutely true. So, why not say it, right? Well, if you are a, at that time an equation was being made: Jewish equals Zionist. And to be somebody who is Jewish, proud of being Jewish, culturally Jewish, but not a Zionist, not even an anti-Zionist, but just not a Zionist, we should all leave where we are and go to Israel and Israel can do no wrong. I never believed that. Uhm, so, I could accept a discussion about Israel does some things right and some things wrong, but you weren't allowed to say that. And, a civil rights group if they uttered the slightest criticism about Israel was deemed anti-Semitic, anti-Semitic was bad, therefore we hate all blacks and we are not gonna support civil rights movement anymore. Uhm, that kind of thinking that was going on in, as the black power movement was developing, cause the black power movement was, you know, critical of Israel, anybody critical of Israel is anti-Semitic, influenced the Teachers Union as you get to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville. You know, the black community can't be trusted to hire or fire teachers because they are anti-Semitic. So Albert Schanker could lead even though the contract didn't allow it, could lead the union into a strike because we were defending a contract. Really, what was happening was, you know, we as Jews opposed to black community is what Schanker was saying. Uhm, and it became, it just accelerated that whole process, you know, without using some of the code words, you know, Teachers Union opposed community control, because community control would lead to violating the contract. You know, look at all the code words that could be left out of a sentence like that, right. Uhm, and, and the whole discussion of Israel and the discussion of Semitism or anti-Semitism, you know, was really just accelerating during that time. And I try in doing whatever I do, I make presentations and say I am Jewish, I'm proud to be Jewish, if I were in Germany I wouldn't have had a choice, you know, whether I was Jewish or not, they would [laughs] there was a formula, right. And uhm, a lot of the culture of my religion led me to do these things. And I say that out loud, right. I say it regularly, but within my own community, I'm probably labeled anti-Semitic. Uh, Dottie Zellner, the woman who recruited me to go to Mississippi, uh, does co-operative work between Palestinians and Jews, she works with some theater group that has Israelis and Palestinians working together. But that's, that's major “verboten”, right. And she's written some articles and publishes a fair amount and is active with the same values in her civil rights when she talks about the rights of Palestinians and so she's sort of drummed out of the Jewish community as being anti-Semitic. Even though she, when she was interviewed she, there is a book on Jewish women in the civil rights movement. Uh, interesting title, lot of interesting stuff in there, because in addition to interviewing six women who were involved in the civil rights movement, it gets into issues of feminism, what's the definition of Judaism, you know, if you never go to synagogue are you a Jew? You know, all that kind of stuff. And there was a range, some people religious, some people aren't and had different experiences in the civil rights movement. Interesting book. So, you know, Dottie identifies and says she's Jewish, she does not renege on that but she says I could be Jewish and, you know, have Palestinian friends and I can say that Israel is doing bad things. So, you know. So, but that's not necessarily true about all of us who were in Mississippi, you know. I think a lot of people feel more conflicted about that.
I: Mh, ok, interesting, yeah.
ML: You know, somebody in my synagogue says, you know, you're...what's the term, you're a self-hating anti-Semite. That's the term, right. I say screw you, you know. [laughs] Say whatever you want, I am who I am and I believe in what I believe and that's not me, you know. You not gonna scare me or threaten me. And, you know, there, there are websites that run by orthodox Zionists who will label publicly label people as self-hating anti-Semites or anti-Zionists. And they have these long lists. I haven't checked to see whether I am on there. I know Dottie is on there and some of my friends have said, oh I just found my name, you know, published as being. It's like, you know. [laughs] Well, you know, we know the world is like that.
I: I was just, I was also fascinated because I saw in the, in your collection that there was some curriculum about teaching Nazi-Germany in the Freedom Schools and I was just interested why and who, uhm, developed it, and with what aim in mind and if that somewhat also influenced Black-Jewish relations or not. Or did that have any influence on anything?
ML: Uhm, I've read a bunch of articles and I know, knew, most of them are no longer alive. Some of the people who developed those case studies and selected the case studies, I personally didn't have experience, I was, I taught one or two things, but I was the principle, right. So I didn't get to teach some or use some of the case studies. Uhm, I don't know how that got included or what effect it had or which teachers shows to use which case studies. I remember seeing it there and I remember thinking it was a good idea, uh, the goal was really as far as can remember back not, uh, anything to do with black-Jewish, but it had to do with look what can happen in a totalitarian situation, what can happen with discrimination, pushed to its far end. I remember that in talking about that curriculum, in fact it was one of the first times...[pause] I'm trying to recollect, but I think that's where I learned that the Holocaust did not affect, the Holocaust or Nazis did not just jail and kill Jews. You know, that, uh, uhm, if you were, uhm, what's the word, travellers, uh.
I: Roma, Roma and Sinti.
ML: Huh?
I: Roma and Sinti?
ML: Oh, right, right, right. Uh gypsies, if you were a gypsie, uh, if you were gay, if you were a socialist or a trade unionist, some Catholics, you know they worked the way up and down the list. I know it was a growing list. Uhm, and so that the rise of Naziism and the complicity of the whole country in wiping out whole layers of population. Wasn't just about Jews. Uh, I don't think my parents ever told me about that, right. Their story was what they did to Jews. Uh, and I think Mississippi in that curriculum opened up that question for me. I haven't thought about that for ages, but that was the thing that clicked in the back of my head.
I: Ok, yeah, thank you so much.
ML: Ok.
I: Yeah, I'm sorry about, that it took so long.
ML: No, no, no, that's fine.
I: Yeah, just gonna stop here.
ML: Ok.
[77:08]

Title

Mark Levy Oral History

Description

Experiences as a teacher in the Freedom Schools in Mississippi and in connection with a school project in Harlem, New York.

Creator

Levy, Mark

Date

2013-11-21

Contributor

Huang, Viola

Rights

Transcript pending
Permission granted

Format

.mp3

Language

English

Type

Oral History

Interviewer

Huang, Viola

Interviewee

Levy, Mark

Location

Hamilton Hall, Columbia University

Transcription

Interviewer: Ok, today is November 21st, 2013 and this is Viola Huang, interviewing Mark Levy. First of all, could you tell me a bit more about yourself, uh, like biographically, where did you grow up, where did you go to school, what kind of educational background do you have?
ML: Ok, uh, I was born and raised not far from here in Columbia University, uh, I was born on the Upper West Side, in the 90s near Central Park, I lived there for the most of my life, I now live on 94th Street and West End, and I used to, I grew up on 96th Street. So I'm born and raised a native New Yorker and Upper West Sider. I went to public school, uh, in this neighborhood, I then went to private school for high school, a place called Horace Mann. It's been in the papers recently, the last year or two. But my father went bankrupt, and so I couldn't graduate from them, couldn't pay the tuition, uh, I went to high school at a public school called New York Public School of Commerce. Uhm, I date that to where important parts of my education started, uhm, I then went to Antioch College in Ohio, work study program and I had to leave there for the same economic reasons. Uhm, we thought we could get through Antioch, cause it's a co-op program, you work three months, study three months. But the only way you save any money is if you go back and live at home. And so I didn't wanna do that, so I had two different kinds jobs, couldn't save any money, so I couldn't do that. Then I went to Queens College [clears throat] here in New York. Uhm, and I, this... is probably ‘60 is when I went to Queens College, I graduated from high school in 1957 and I was at Antioch ’57-‘59, I dropped out for a year, so it's ‘60 when I started at Queens College. Just to set the era. Uhm, and I was at Queens College 50 years ago now, when Kennedy was shot and got married three day afterwards. Uhm, I, uh went from, in terms of educational things, uh, I got my degree, my bachelors at Queens, started teaching in Harlem Junior High School 43, I taught there for four years, uhm and then in 68 I went back to Queens College both to get a Masters degree and to start teaching on the faculty in what was called the SEEK [Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge] program. Uh, I did that for four years, uh, taught in the SEEK program and another program called Action, which was a community organizing program. And then decided to leave, uh, classroom teaching and the academic world to go into union organizing, uhm, which I did for 35-40 years until I retired. Uhm, the last bunch of years I've been working on a couple different civil rights projects, uhm, based...both at Queens College and also doing some work back in the city in Mississippi that I had been a volunteer at in 64. I think that covers the main dates and places. I've lived in other places than New York, you know for jobs and schools so I'm not, you know just a New Yorker New Yorker.
I: Ok, and you mentioned that there was a specific time during your educational career where, where something changed or which had a real impact on you, you mentioned that.
ML: Right, it was high school.
I: Can you elaborate that a bit?
ML: Uh, yeah, uhm, Horace Mann is a prep school and it was all-boys at that time, so when I went to the public school in, and then we had to wear ties and jackets, and we were tracked to be, sort of members of the ruling class. Or at a minimum doctors and lawyers. [clears throat] I came from a middle-class family, but was always aware that my family was not as wealthy as other people. I had to get to school by the subway, up to 242nd Street and other people were driven by their chauffeurs. Uhm, when I went to the public school, which is now where Lincoln Center is, High School of Commerce was there and then they knocked that whole area down. Uhm, I, first thing I discovered was that there were girls and the girls were smart. You know, I hadn't gone to high, right, I hadn't gone to high school with girls, so girls we'd meet girls at a dance, from a girls' school or something like that. You know going to an all-boys school, you just don't ever get that exposure. Here I was being tracked into the, you know, business and wealthy and professional world and at the same time it was clear that boys were on that track. [clears throat] So I get to my high school and there are smart girls in my class, uh, also everybody there was working class. And almost everybody had an accent. Uh, there were Greeks and there were Italians and I was one of the few American-born in the class. Most of the people in my class were European immigrants. Uhm, and, uhm, for some reason I never really liked the basic American sports, so you going back to 1957, uhm, what sport did I turn out to like? I liked soccer. So I could play soccer and no Americans had played soccer at that time, but High School of Commerce had a soccer team, so I could play soccer. One of the stories that I love to tell from then, was at the end of the year. As a senior in high school we had prom. And the president of the class was, uhm, going to pick a hotel to have the dance of the prom. And somehow she either picked me or I was elected to be on the prom-committee. The woman's name, girl's name was Malbert Torres.
[6:53 min]
ML: And she was Puerto Rican, and...light-skinned but brown-skinned. And I remember that, now, that the first hotel or two that we went to, uhm, the manager or matron spoke directly to me, what, we were asking about price and about service and about all these things, and which ever one of us asked the question the answers came to me. I was totally unaware, I was totally unaware what...I never had an exposure, I never had a discussion and it was a long time ago. And I credit Malbert Torres, cause she...one day when we went home after this, went home, went back to school after some of these interviews, she sat me down and said “Mark, you, are you aware of the dynamic that's going on?” And we talked about that. And I wasn't aware and she said “look, I'm president of the class, they are talking to you, I'm a female, I'm a Puerto Rican, you're white, you're male, you're Jewish and they are talking to you.” And she did it in a way that, you know, I felt good about. You know, I was...thank you for telling me. I didn't feel like, you know, I was gonna lose something by them talking...so, we just sort of made it up in our heads how we would handle the rest of the interviews. And it was one of...first experience...I mean, here I was 17 years old in 1957 and I had somebody explaining to me racism and sexism. And in a way...I mean that language didn't exist then, for her even to be telling me. I mean I don't remember how the discussion...may have been something like I feel bad, why are they talking to you, let's talk about it. But it didn't have those terms, but she sat me down and explained that stuff to me. And it was sort of the beginning of my awareness. Of how that functioned: sexism, racism, national discrimination like. It wasn't even a language. She spoke English without any accent. Uhm, [pause] and by going to the public school, I was able to unlearn all the tracking and orientation and, you know, those other kinds of things of where I was headed. I saw that there was another world. I'm now an advocate of public schools. And that experience...I, I think that's hugely different. So then, you know, moves towards private schools, charter schools, where everybody looks alike, talks alike, you know except for the two scholarship kids, there is something like that. I think it helps make a class-based society.
I: Ok, uhm, connected to that, can you explain how you got involved in social struggles? I mean you, you mentioned one part, I guess, but was there more to it? Or, what did influence you?
ML: Well, that was, that was high school. Uhm, [clears throat] I come from a liberal Jewish family, not an activist Jewish family, uhm, my father's side was from Vilna, depending on which set of wars and national boundaries, it was in one country or another. His whole family was wiped out during the Holocaust and during all of that. So I grew up with a fairly strong sense that discrimination was bad. And different families in different times of philanthropic groups have ways to deal with that. So that my mother, who did not come from eastern Europe, did not come from a more immigrant working-class family, she came from a German Jewish family and within the hierarchy of Jewish families, German Jews are a higher status than eastern European Jews. And she came from a wealthy family that had immigrated a couple of generations before. So there was sort of a class-difference between my parents. My mother’s..concerns was she felt strongly about discrimination against Jews. Right, so you can cluster around that and say discrmination against Jews is a bad thing. My father had a different opinion, he said discrimination against anybody is a bad thing, morally, religiously, however you wanted to define it. And in practical senses, if you allow, uhm, not just moral senses but practically, if the society or you allow discrmination against anybody, ultimately it will catch up with you. Right? So, that was a big value, another big value at home was just making the world a better place. I, there is some Yiddish or Hebrew term for that, but that was a value. We were not a religious family, we're more a cultural family. I didn't go...I was bar mitzvahed, I didn't go to services, but being part of the, uh, Jewish history, Jewish tradition, uh, was an important [?]. [clears throat] So that, that influence me a lot [clears throat] I had cousins, who were left-wingers. Probably members of the communist party at some point. I was taught that they were the bad part of the family and I was never allowed to hang out with them, guess who my favorite cousins were, right. So you don't hang out with Uncle Harry or Aunt Ray, they're, they're not good. I mean that was the 50s, the...coming out of the McCarthy period, is when I graduated. [clears throat] But Cousin Judy and Cousin Merryl were my two favorite cousins. Uhm, when I went to Antioch in Ohio, I didn't know it was any sort of beatnik or radical school. I went there because it was practical, you go to school three months, you work three months. So that you can apply what you learned immediately to that. The first week at Antioch, uhm, what do you call them. Sort of like a...a, uhm, senior advisor, dorm advisor, comes in to welcome us to Antioch, and you know, how are you and all that kind of stuff [clears throat] and he tells us, uh, there are two barber shops in town and you can't go to one of them, cause we're boycotting him. There is a white barber and there is a black barber. And the white barber is discriminatory and won't cut anyobody's hair, you know won't cut black people's hair, but the black barber will cut anybody's hair. So we organized a boycott against the white barber. Again, that was 1957 [clears throat], which is very unusual. This was a small town in Ohio, uhm, and in terms of the first political action that I ever took, that was probably it, right. In terms of civil rights action. I mention it only because, you know if I were writing a novel, you wouldn't quite believe the elements. The person who did that orientation, his name is, name is Steve Schwerner. Ok? And the name Steve Schwerner pops up again in my life in a couple of different places, uhm, Steve Schwerner was the brother of Mickey Schwerner, who was killed during the Civil Rights Movement and who I knew and helped recruit me, etc. etc. We will come to that probably later. But Steve Schwerner was my senior advisor at Antioch. And he was the one who said, “We gotta boycott.” So those, those were a couple of the earliest consciousness-raising things. There are other things later on that helped change my view, we can talk about those now or later, whenever you want.
I: Sure, uhm, yeah, you can, you can go ahead if you want.
[15:30 min]
ML: Uhm, when I went from Antioch to Queens College, I complained about Queens College not having some of the same kind of curriculum and, you know, one is a big public university, the other is small, private… I wasn't quite aware, it was more like I want a good education. So I complained and, [clears throat] somebody in student government said, “We got a live one here” -- and they recruited me into student government and I got a little bit active and a little bit more active, and I wound up ultimately becoming student body president. Only because the group that had controlled student government that came out of a particular fraternity, didn't have a candidate for the next year. So I got picked and I was learning that...and a lot of the issues that I had been involved in were not civil rights issues, they were student rights issues. Could students pick who they wanted as a speaker, could students, could female students wear slacks to get into the library cafeteria classes, Queens College, there was a dress code, back at that time. Uhm, other kinds, there were political issues that were in the background, and in the background of my head. Uh, they were issues around the atomic bomb, and there were issues around McCarthyism and, and House Un-American Activities Committee. There was a lot of that kind of stuff that existed, but I didn't, I wasn't very much involved. Uh, I started dating somebody, who was my first wife. Uhm, whose parents were left-wingers, whose mother was a shop steward in a big union. That helped me get involved but it didn't change my politics. Uhm, and, I remember, you know, one of those turning points like the, the story of Malbert Torres, uhm, one of my good buddies was a secretary, was a couple of years older than me but she wasn't older. Uh, she was black, her name is Helen Hendrix, and for some reason, Helen, you know liked me, saw something in me, was willing to talk to me and we were friends, we chatted. She saved my ass a couple of times, like you know, I walked on the grass, and one of the campus guards, you know, tried to get me in trouble for that. And, you know, I was really angry, and she sort of said, you know you can't go tilting at every wind-mill. And she also said that if you want things done at the college, uh, here is how you do it, you gotta get to know the secretaries. And the secretaries, in every department they're the ones who really make things happen. But again, it was sort of my, not only, uh, race and sex, uh, but, you know understanding about gender and power and all that kind of stuff.
[18:46 min]
One day, probably it was like a Monday or Tuesday, I come back and, you know, Helen says to me, how was your weekend, and I say, you know, it was great, she says what did you do, I went to the movie, she said, I went, she went to the same movie. Don't remember the name of it but it was a typical western. Cowboys and Indians, uhm, the brave settlers getting their wagons and go across the country, you know, to settle a new land, and there are women and there are children, and then there are the farmers. And there they are out on the plains and all of a sudden the Indians attack them and they circle the wagons and, you know they're shooting and, you know the Indians are shooting bows and arrows and you watch women and children and men get...and so, Helen asked me she said, yeah I saw the same movie, who did you root for? And I said, what are you talking about? Who did I root for? And you know, there is no choice, you know, I, I rooted for the good guys, who are the good guys, you know, the good guys were the cowboys and the settlers and they were being brave and they were going out there. And she said, I rooted for the Indians. [laughs] So, uh, you know, it just stopped me in my tracks and she said, so I asked why did she root for the Indians, and she said, well first of all they are dark-skinned, I am dark-skinned. Second of all, it was their land, you know, the settlers and the cowboys weren't the good...explorers, they were in fact invaders. They were coming out there and the Indians were just defending their land and defending their homes. And it was like...wow. You know, how could two people, one white, one black go to the same event and see two totally different experiences. In all my years as a student, at any level, you know, that was one of the most profound lessons. You know, how do you see the world, not only from a different perspective, but how do you appreciate the people, who see the world from a different perspective. How do you walk in somebody else's shoes? And, to this day, whenever anybody asks me in my undergraduate and graduate work who is my favorite teacher? I say it's Helen Hendrix, who was at that time, you know, quote unquote just a secretary. A black female secretary. Right? She went on to get a good degree and become a counselor and do all sorts of other things with her life. She was a huge influence and that really changed a lot of my understanding. It didn't get me to be an activist. Uh, Helen was a very proper lady and not much of an activist, and I don't know that she was ever an activist in that sense. Her...what she did later in her life was to become, she founded a number of pre-professional minority recruitment programs for black and Puerto Rican kids who wanted to be doctors or dentists or lawyers and she sort of encouraged them and mentored them and did things like that. I don't think she ever marched on a picket line or carried a sign. And I also had to learn to appreciate that that was a contribution to, uhm. So.
I: And one step further, so, you said that was not the time when you became an activist. Can you explain...or was there a specific time when you would say, ok now I'm an activist?
ML: Uhm, well, you know, different levels...let me try and give a couple of different examples that resonate with historic periods. The buses, the freedom rider buses that went from, I guess they were supposed to go from Washington to New Orleans and then they were beaten up and, you know, bombed and all of that in Mississippi, before they got to New Orleans. I think that was 1961? Yes, around there? One of the guys who got beaten up really badly, I don't remember his name, but his wife lived on the West Side. And I ran into her, I didn't know her well, I ran into her and she asked me, will I take her husband's place, cause they were gonna send more buses. And I looked at her and said no. I said, you're crazy? Why would I volunteer to get my, you know, face beat up and burnt like your husband and all that kind of stuff. And I said no, I just couldn't handle it. And I didn't trust her, or respect her, or appreciate that kind of unilateral action, cause the freedom ride buses were way ahead of the rest of the movement, you know, Congress of Racial Equality, CORE, had organized them to really do testing, uh, before there was a mass-movement to go along with it. So I said no, uhm, the next year or two was the March on Washington. Ok, that was ‘63. And I was student body president in ‘63 and all, you know, engaged in student rights issues when the march came and there was something about, not only the march itself and who is organizing it, but also a sense of, there were issues in the North as well as South. And the marchers' demands, and I give lots of talks now and I ask people what the name of the march was and what the, you know, buttons said. And I swear teachers, even faculty people can't answer. It was the March for Jobs and Freedom. So it was a combination of economic demands and social justice demands that were much broader than just the narrow term civil rights. Uhm, and, I guess Betty, we weren't married at that piont, and other people in student government said we should, you know, get a bus, we should go down, we should go down and do...together it was not my idea, but I said yes. And we organized a bus, and we went down. And it was great. My memories, my clear memories of the March on Washington, we were fairly near the front. And we never paid attention to a word that was being said from the podium. So, when King gave the speech that's always repeated now, we just weren't paying attention. You know, he must have been up there saying I have a dream and we weren't paying attention. Cause what was so exciting and moving, and I use it now as a metaphor in talks, what was so exciting and moving was the fact that people kept coming and coming. The crowd was just huge, the crowd was growing. None of us had ever participated in anything that large or diverse. There were white folks, and there were black folks, and there were young folks and there were white folks, and there were very, very, very white folks, I mean here were bus-loads of Episcopalian grey-haired old men and women from wealthy homes in Connecticut coming down, marching next to, you know, a Baptist church from New York and auto-workers from Detroit, etc., etc. And it was a real grassroots thing. And the people on the podium could say whatever they wanted to say, the event was the march and the people. What I say to groups where I'm invited to speak, out of my experience, not just out of, you know, book learning or consciousness, I said would anybody ever remember that march, would it be in the newspapers now, if there were 2,000 people there instead of 250,000? And, you know, high school teachers and students look at me like I'm nuts, and I extend that to talk about all the grassroots organizing and the local issues that existed in Boston, New York, and Detroit. And so look, we weren't lemmings that just went down cause Martin Luther King said you'll all come. Not to take anything away from Reverend King, but we didn't go down necessarily around southern issues. We were aware of southern issues and I guess what we were saying by being there was that, hey, we got issues in New York similar to the issues that you have here. And if you read all of King's speech, particularly the part that's never quoted, the first part before he swings into his preaching I have a dream, he talks about the commonality of issues. The first part of the speech is, is really brilliant and is very inclusive. Uhm, and that's, that's my memories, not the speech, but my memory is exactly of those other things. So that was one of the first things, and so I did that, and I didn't get me head beaten, right, remember the first time I was afraid of getting beaten up. This time it was this huge crowd of people, there was the...Bayard Rustin
[28:48 min]
and the others who would organize the march and had done a lot, so there was security all over the place and I don't mean cops doing security, I meant, you know, the march having their own security and keeping the control...the crowd under control and there was food and sandwiches and signs and we knew how to get back to our buses, I mean, getting down there was easier than getting home. Uhm, and having experienced that civil rights demonstrations did not have to mean you're putting your life on the line and that the idiots and jerks and racists and all those people were not gonna be, you know, there beating our heads with the cops standing their with their arms crossed. So to say, you could do it, you know, it was, it was a chance to say we do things without huge risks. We know that there are risks, right. I didn't know that we could do that when I went down there right, but I came out of it, it's sort of if I was saying about the student rights issues, I learned that people working together could make a difference. Around little issues...you know it's not, it wasn't huge and the same thing, the March on Washington said, you know, grassroots people could do organizing, take some risks and it wouldn't necessarily mean the end of the world. So that led me to, uh, I think more of an optimistic sense than in the year, year, year of ‘63, ‘64. Some of my friends on campus went to Prince Edward County of Virginia, their materials are in the archives at Queens College and they were there because Prince Edward County in the state of Virginia had shut the schools rather than comply with the desegregation law. Right. The Supreme Court decision was ‘54, this is already ‘63, it's 9 years, 10 years later, the county just shut the schools. And the white kids went off to charter [private] schools and got money funding for that, the black kids were left struggling. I mean there were things that the community did, and one of the things they did was to recruit, you know, tutors to come down. So some of my friends went to do that. Ah, Betty was doing a Masters degree at Harvard in Education. And I was finishing all my incompletes. For me, some of the campus politics and this other stuff is far more fun than, you know, studying my, my, for my courses. Uhm, which helped me also learn that there are...GPAs are not the same as intelligence. Uhm, and she was in Boston, so I was going back and forth between where I lived on the Lower East Side at that time and Boston. And I ran into a woman, her name is Dottie Zellner, uh, she is still alive. Uhm, Dottie had been the editor of the Queens College newspaper, couple years before, before me. I forgot, we ran into each other on a train or a bus, cause her husband was at Brandeis that year. Dottie was a New Yorker and she had married a white guy from Alabama. She had joined SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and she was one of the first whites in SNCC and given a degree of responsibilities and Bob Zellner was a southern white, his father was a Baptist and a minister and they were an interesting couple. And at some point, Dottie said to me, there is this project in Mississippi and the way she approached me, she said, cause we had talked, she knew, we weren't at Queens really at the same time, uh, but she knew that I was student body president, she knew my wife Betty, cause I think her parents, family may have been activists and or she knew that my wife's family were activists. Uh, so she said things like, you know, you and Betty have things that you can contribute, you have skills that you can contribute, uh, she also said, we're not going to Mississippi as missionaries. The people of Mississippi and SNCC as a civil rights organization based in the South need help. And we're asking you to help us. Which is very different than, you know, I'm going down to prove a point or I'm going down to preach at you. It's like, come and help is very different. And she was very open and honest about Mississippi being dangerous. Uhm, people get beaten, people get killed. Medgar Evers was assassinated, there was this, you know, riot of white southerners on the Ole' Miss campus when James Meredith tried to register and the National Guard was attacked, uhm, by, you know, white Mississippians and not just the Klan. That was like a riot. So, she explained all of that kind of stuff and said but here as an organization this is how we deal with these things. So they had, you know, rules for how people traveled, they had communications, they had all sorts of things set up. So that, within that kind of situation, at least people could trust the people who...our goal is not to set up martyrs, our goal is not to get the bus burnt, right. Uh, our goal is not to die, our goal is to register voters to do this, to do that, right. And we're gonna try to be careful. Uh, when I talk to classes, my example is, uh, she or somebody else suggested, I grew a beard when I was in high school in 1957, which is now [laughs] 50 odd years, more than 50 years ago, and that whole time I did not have a beard for maybe 2 years, cause I shaved my beard to go to Mississippi.
[35:10 min]
I somehow figured out, cause they said, we're gonna be walking around and, you know, difficult place and, and, and people expect you to be dirty and beatniks and hippies and communists and invaders and all the other things they called us. Uhm, so your identity is as a civil rights worker, as a person living in a black home, uhm, you know, sort of shave your beard, shave your beard. So I did, right. You know, I am not, I had to learn I am not my beard, right. Uhm, dressing is a tactic and not an identity. Uh, so she told me all of that stuff, then I did what any red-blooded, cause I used to ride on the train or bus with her, and then I did what any red-blooded American would do, I said, thanks Dottie, before I answer you, let me go home and speak to my wife. And, I, so I went home and, you know, Betty, do you wanna do this, is this good, you know, you're at Harvard, and you know, you're gonna, your plans are gonna, is to start teaching, and, uh, uh. Actually, she may even...no it wasn't at that time, later she came to Columbia and TC, she got a PhD here. Uh, so she said yes before I did. And I believe she checked with her parents, who said it was a good thing. They said they were worried for her, you know, they were caring parents and they...but they also said you gotta do what you gotta do and if this is what you wanna do, it's a good thing to do. My parents reacted differentially. My father was more supportive, my mother less so. Some of it, I think it was cause she was politically more conservative, some of it was cause mothers are that way, you know. Uhm, so, Dottie's approach to me and the way she did it, the way she organized me, was absolutely critical and significant in how I can say yes or why I could say yes. And there was all this other stuff in my background and things that I learned, uhm, you know, and I tell kids these days, you know, this was not a facebook invitation or a tweet or, you know, you know, and I wasn't responding to a poster and I wasn't responding to attending a meeting. I was responding to a personal, you know, outreach and approach and I think that's the way organizing happens and is done.
I: And related to that, because you mentioned before that you were aware that there are issues in the North, too, right.
ML: Right.
I: So, uhm, how come, how can you explain in more detail this change of mind-set maybe or was that a change of mind-set that you thought, but the South is worse and they really need our help, or, I don't know,
ML: Oh that's a good question.
I: the picture you had from the North and the South, because you were in, close to Harlem, right? And I mean there were issues in Harlem, so I'm just wondering how, and I also read some of your hatemail, and you mentioned that there was opposition, right, from the South as well.
ML: Right.
I: So I'm just wondering how come you were so determined to go to the South instead of, you know, staying here, do stuff here.
ML: Well, actually, one of my...let me go back one other step about awareness of problems here. At that early point, I don't know how aware of some of the black pride stuff I was. I was a little bit, cause there were things going on in New York. There was uh, for example, at Queens College, there was a whole debate about participating in stopping tr...this is in 62 and 63, stopping traffic on the express way, because the World's Fair, you know, Flushing World's Fair was being opened, it was big celebration, except no, there were no black construction workers. The construction trades were totally racist and totally closed. And so here was this huge thing, lots of money that was going into it, and there were community groups and civil rights groups that were opposing the opening of the fair, were opposing construction sites all around, cause it was only white construction workers. And you know, they were the best paid and some of the best jobs and here they were shot. Uhm, so I knew that. One of my first experiences with discrimination about being Jewish, I enjoy telling this story, cause of where we sit right now. Uhm, I must have been 8 or 10 years old, so I was born in 39, 47 something like that. Period of time. It was a family thing at my house and one of my parents' friends said something like, where do you wanna go to college, when you grow up? You know, stupid question to a little kid, right. So I answered the question. You know, what college did I know that I would wanna go to that existed in my brain that I could answer. It was Columbia, right, cause Columbia was the neighborhood college. And so I said I wanna go to Columbia. So my mother said, no you can't go there. And I said why? She said, they had a quota, they didn't let Jews in. And it was one of the first times I was ever told that Jews weren't allowed in certain places. And it had to do with Columbia and the quota system. And there was a quota in most Ivy League schools at that time and I'm not quite sure when or where or what the dates are when it started changing a little bit. But that was one of my first experiences. Uhm, so I told you about the Flushing thing, why did I go to Mississippi? Intellectually I knew it was the worst, ideologically what SNCC was saying was, we can't change the rest of the world, or the rest of the country, while the worst exists. So if you tackle the worst, and can make a change there, can make a change in other places. The other things that was intellectually made sense to me was that, [sighs] and this parallels current politics, uhm, anything decent, liberal, progressive, however you wanted to define that at that time, was stopped in Congress,
[41:56 min]
because the U.S. Senate was totally determined by a seniority system. And who are the most senior senators? They were always the southern senators who would get the white conservative southern senators. There was this term Dixiecrats. The Dixiecrats were used, controlled the Senate. And they could get elected over and over and over and over again, because blacks weren't allowed to vote. So it was a close system and their influence was more than just what they were doing. They could stop what was happening in the North, and I, I forget now what issues, whether it was something about housing or some other kinds of things that the Dixiecrats were blocking. You know it was like, look guys if you wanna block it for yourself down there, do that, but don't block it up North. I mean I was...the level of logic that I had at that time, so I knew that, what was happening in the South made a difference in the North. Probably the biggest difference came from another set of sources that was probably more emotional than intellectual, you know, I mentioned that I went to Horace Mann, so I was being tracked into this upper-class white male society, if you need a metaphor, all you have to do is watch the TV show 'Madman' now. I mean that's, that's where I was going, right. To wear a white shirt, to live in a suburban house, to have a wife who would, you know, do all my bidding and etc., etc. That was, that was the world. There were few little cracks in that image because around that time, there were people in San Francisco and a few other places, demonstrating against, uh, the restrictions of McCarthyism, House Un-American Activities Committe, but that wasn't important to me. What I saw...and then the newspapers, if you go back then and read the newspapers, hidden on certain pages was, oh my goodness there are people who, in uhm, Africa, people in, uh, South America, people in India, who were throwing out the Europeans, right. They were demanding changes, right. There were wars of national liberation going on and anticolonial movements. There were just...and it wasn't ideological, I just saw the, what looked like everything was fixed in stone was starting to change. And for me, the most emotional connections of those changes was the black freedom movement. The Montgomery bus boycott ran what a year or 2 years around, a couple of years and it was grassroots thing. I mean now the story is told, you know, Rosa Parks sat down and that was it. That wasn't true and that was...the way went on and then there was this great leader named Martin Luther King and he was just a kid then. And, and he did stuff, but really he was a follower and a spokesperson rather than an organizer or that. So you had a, you had black struggles that were going on, that were being successful. They were saying we gotta change this country and there were a whole bunch of those other things that were going on. So that, those of us who were growing up in the 60s were faced with this question, who do you wanna be, you know. If you were born white and you were born male in this country, are you gonna align yourself with all those traditional values or the world is changing, and there are other ways of seeing things and other ways of behaving, are you gonna align with those, the other kinds of values, the struggle values. And, that, you know, I probably could have been recruited in something else, oh right, there was another huge option at that time. There was this young president, his name was John F. Kennedy, right, and he said, ask not, you know, what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country. And that...he followed that up with Peace Corps, right. With different political view points, I could go back and have critical questions about the ultimate aim of the Peace Corps and why he did it, but to my generation, it was...I should be more careful...to many people in my generation, it was an exciting option, it represented values to go out and make a difference in the world. It was an invitation to young people to play a leading role in helping other places. So I and other people really were making choices. A lot of my friends at that time went into Peace Corps and I probably could have gone into the Peace Corps, cause it would have been the same kind of thing. Dottie Zellner got to me first, you know, and also my own [pauses] sense of either myself or politics was and still is more local and national. I don't know, I have friends who were involved in international struggles Nicaragua, Cuba, Vietnam, here, there, wherever. Uhm, and I shouldn't say that in a facetious tone but they really were and they were very committed and they did really interesting and wonderful things, and, uhm. I was more concerned with like here and now, the people down the street, you know, what the jobs, unions, local stuff, schools, education, you know, so my own activism and then later my role as an organizer it was much more here in the United States. So, rather than joining the Peace Corps, you know, I could go South.
I: Right, ok. Uhm, so you mentioned that, uhm, there was the idea that the South is the worst, so it has to be changed first in order to change the rest of the country. Uh, would you say a similar thing about yourself? So do you think it was necessary for you to go down there in order to become more aware of the issues in the North? Because you said there were some things you were aware of but not necessarily African American issues.
ML: Oh yeah, Oh absolutely. Did I change in the South? Oh absolutely. You know, I come back and I have two sentences that I use over and over again. And then when I've looked at other white volunteers writings or sayings, they use almost the same quotes. You know. One is I learned far more than I ever taught, absolutely true. I went down, I wound up, I first volunteered to be, to do voter registration that was changed around, where I did Freedom Schools. And it was my first teaching experience. So we were teaching, but I was learning fas..., you know, just so much stuff. That was one, learn more than we ever taught. And the other thing that came to us very quickly and I keep saying it now, cause I get angry when people pat me on the back, now as a 74-year old guy, saying you were so brave back then. [pauses] We were volunteers and went down there, the brave people were the local people. You know, I was a white guy, living in a black person's home. And I was gonna go back to New York at the end of the summer. So, you know, something could have happened, COULD have happened to me. I could have been arrested, I could have been beaten up, I could have been killed, but I was risking, you know, 2 months. Whereas Ms Turner and her husband, who put us up in their house, every policeman, every Ku Klux Klan person, every employer knew that Mr. and Ms. Turner were putting up Mark and Betty Levy. And they were going to have to stay. And they were going to have to live with that after, not only Mark and Betty went home, but after we took the TV cameras and the newspapers with us, right.
[50:43 min]
Uh, so the idea that we were risking so much and so much with big deal both back then and now was made of that really hides the contribution and leadership of local people. So, those were awarenesses and then there were big, [pauses] at the end of the summer, [pauses] the summer culminated with the challenge of Atlantic City. The National Democratic Party was meeting there, there was a convention to select the president, Johnson was running. He had been vice-president and became president when Johnson, when Kennedy was assassinated, so, this was really his first election as president. Uhm, the Republicans had made it clear that Barry Goldwater, for that time an arch-conservative from Arizona, was running and he saw that as a major threat to the Democratic Party. Those of us in Mississippi, uh, what we were busy doing was...Democratic Party had all these Dixiecrats in it, and if they wouldn't let black folks vote and register to vote, then we had COFO [Council of Federated Organizations] and SNCC and CORE had set up a mock election and a challenge to it. So the civil rights groups had set up a procedure where they followed the letter of the law within the Democratic Party, of how you select a, uhm, a delegation to that kind of convention. And they followed it, whereas the segregationists just didn't, right. It was the good old boys, they meet them back of a room, you know, they pick their delegates, they send a...they wouldn't let anybody in, so we spent the whole summer recruiting the challenge Democratic Party. There was some hope, because they have been organizing all around the country by local people, by our parents, you know, you know those of us who went and by any others to get support from northern and western delegations to support within the Democratic Party the challenge to seating the segregationist party. Whether we were naïve or stupid or whatever, we thought it might, it was possible. So, we get there and Johnson, uh, is just absolutely rabid, his understanding, his political vision was that if he lost the South, he could lose the whole election, so he invested every ounce of energy and all his craftiness and, you know, powers to lean on the liberals. So he, he got to Hubert Humphrey, and Hubert Humphrey got to the unions and Hubert Humphrey got to Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins and all the other major civil rights leaders. Who then got to the delegations and the elected leaders who were supporting the seating of the Democratic Party, and he totally opposed it, there could have been a compromise, you know, ok, let's seat both parties, you know, 50/50
[54:26 min]
let's do something like that and Johnson's whole position was if he did anything like that, the South would pick up and leave and he came out with the idea, we will...HE will pick 2 people, right, not all of the delegations can pick their own people, he will pick 2 people and they can be observers, that not even seated on the floor as observers, and 4 years later, he made some commitments that they would change the process. And the people of Freedom Democratic Party just voted that down. They said, this is, this is tokenism that's worse than anything else. So the southerners, the Mississippians got up and walked out anyhow, the white delegations got up and walked out anyhow, but it became a lesson to us volunteers that the liberals who had made commitments also owed a lot to people back then, gave them money and all that kind of stuff. We watched a lot of people who we respected and trusted, just absolutely cave in. They said, oh we're the pragmatists, we'll work with you later and, you know, King got a lot of money from the unions and, you know, not personally but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference got money from unions and there was a lot of that stuff going on and people said we just can't risk it around this one thing, you can't set your feet in concrete around one thing. But for those of us who have been in Mississippi, it was watching up close and very personal the failure the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It just collapsed. So that was one big step in changing my next level of consciousness. Long explanation to get that point, I remember your question. Then the other thing that was going on that came out of that was, it was just the beginnings of the Black Power Movement and Stokely Carmichael and all the others. Where they were saying, ok white folks, thank you for coming down, oh they never said thank you for coming down, ok, now it's your turn to go back home and work with your in your communities. And that was the political thrust. And I accepted that idea, I thought it was a fine idea, I mean my whole, you know, I went to help in the South, uhm, you know, I helped, I went back the next summer in ‘65, cause we, some of us were asked to come back and help with other kinds of projects, so the idea was then to come back up here and play a role in the North. And I got involved in the teachers union, I got a job as a teacher, uhm, I was teaching eighth graders, had a whole bunch of ideas to bring to a new kind of teaching, uh, I tried to make connections with other teachers around the city. The other thing that was going on at that time [clears throat] uhm, I forget the exact date, but it was sometime in August of ‘64, when the Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that became the excuse to start the Vietnam War. It was the same thing as weapons of mass destruction. It was a, a phony made-up thing that's just been, you know, recently revealed that it was phony. And what the U.S. Government said was that American ships were attacked by Vietnamese ships in the Gulf of Tonkin and so we had to declare war, uhm, on Vietnam. So the war was just starting to explode around that time and Johnson, who is doing excellent stuff around civil rights, I mean he got the Voting Rights Act passed, he also, I give him huge credit, he saw the connections between economic issues, the Great Society push of Johnson tied together the civil rights issues and the economic issues. Uhm, so he is doing all these things, but he's getting really aggressive with this whole war, I mean, he owned the war, he pushed the war and coming back North, uhm, we have things to do not only in, in the North but you had the whole anti-war movement beginning. Also another thing that grew out of the early parts of the civil rights movement was the feminist movement. We had women coming out saying, even within our own organization, we were, where we are all comrads, you know, some of us stayed in the office and had to do the typing and others went around doing, you know, heroic deeds outside. This is not right [laughs]. So that became, the feminist movement was going so there was a lot of ferment that was going on. I didn't feel bad about not being out in the South, there was a lot of stuff going on in New York and on all sorts of levels.
I: Right, uhm you mentioned the Black Power Movement, which asked you to go back, kind of, uhm was there some awareness of yourself that it may be a problem, because as you said, you're white, right and you go to the South to teach blacks which was not entirely true as you say but you learned a lot yourself, but, and you also said you didn't go as missionaries but I think some public opinions were, you know, couldn't get over this idea of you going South to teach blacks and stuff like that. So, how did you deal with that, I mean were you aware of this problem and how did you deal with it?
ML: Uhm, [pauses] it bothered me less than other people. I'm not sure why. Partly because I thought it was fair, you know, black people had all the right in the world to be angry at whites, uh, you know, I have not been to Germany. I've not been to lots of countries in the world, I still can't cross the border to go to Germany. So, I sort of understood that, uhm, I didn't take it personally, I didn't feel guilty, uhm, and there was work to be done. There were also various streams within that Black Power Movement, and somewhere a little nutsy, you know there was this whole back to Africa approach. Uhm, and I don't mean that that was nutsy, that was one approach...Black Panther Party was actually, the name of Black Panther Party is the Black Panther Party for Armed Self-Defense. Black Panther Party never aggressively went out and shot cops. Uhm, but the cops portrayed them as doing that. Whereas the Black Panther Party, uhm, would do free breakfast programs, they said if somebody tries to get me in my house, I'm gonna shoot them. Uhm, and the Black Panthers called themselves Marxists. And, that was, an analysis, an economic and political analysis that I thought made sense. And still think makes sense. Uhm, there is a...and, and the Black Panthers had a class analysis as well as a racial analysis. Uhm, and when I said the back to Africa thing, the reason I was not sympathetic to that, was that it didn't have that class-sense, it just go back to Africa and also, you know, just because you're black, you got something in common with all the blacks, I just, that didn't make sense. And I knew that, just because I was Jewish, didn't, doesn't necessarily mean that all Jews like me or I like all Jews. There was an incident in the Meridian, uhm [pauses], I'd gone, going back a step. I had gone
[63:03 min]
to Mississippi after having raised some money and gotten some support from the synagogue that I had been bar mitzvahed in. I had never gone, you know, for many services, maybe occasionally on holidays but I was not a member of the congregation. But part of going south meant we had to get materials and money, so I had gone back and so I felt this support of much of the Jewish community of New York. So I go to Mississippi, first week we're there, my wife who was not religious at all, one of her parents was Jewish, her mother was Jewish. Vaguely, however, one would define being Jewish. Uhm, and her father was not. He was probably a Catholic. And he was probably, a, a very...he was a German Catholic if you go, went back a couple of generations. Uhm, and uhm, what was I gonna say? Oh, uh, so Betty and I went early on in Meridian [MI] to the Jewish synagogue. Meridian happened to be the second biggest city...in Meridian, that's where we got assigned, we didn't pick the city rather than rural area, we were supposed to actually to go out and do both city and rural. So we went to the synagogue, they had a synagogue, we were supposed to try and reach out and see if there were any white folks who would talk to us. So we do. We got to the first or second step of the synagogue, it was either a Friday night or a Saturday, I can't remember which, you know it was the summer, so I remember it was daytime, but, you know, it can be night or day. [clears throat] But I remember that a woman came out and before we got past the second step, she said, do not come here, you are not welcome. And I think we said something like, oh we don't wanna give out flyers or make a speech, we just wanna join the service and the congregation. I [she] said you are not welcome, we are southerners first. And so we're turning around and left. Cause we knew what the phrase, we are southerners first, meant. It meant that just because you are Jews and we're Jews, doesn't mean we have anything in common. We are segregationists, cause we are southerners. But I've learned since then, intellectually that some of them were segregationists and some of them were just terrorized. They were afraid to risk, uh, risk social, I mean being Jewish in the deep South was not probably a great thing or easy so they risked either social ostracism more than they already had or they risked attack. But a fair number of them were segregationists and would have ratted out their own congregation, right. So, you know, I, I learned from that experience that if that's true with Jews, there is a similar thing that's true with blacks, you know. Look at Clarence Thomas, you know, on the Supreme Court now, you know. Every bad decision against anything that had racial benefits to it, he was on the wrong side. Uhm, so I didn't, I didn't oppose it, you know, I understood it, I wasn't worried about black power. There were plenty of things to do, you know, I was a teacher, there was stuff about my own status as a teacher, union activities, uhm, I think I was a teacher for one year when there was a strike. The first year there was a strike. It was a good strike. It was around more effective schools and class-size and things like that. There was a strike a number of years later that really ruptured the city. It was a strike around Ocean Hill-Brownsville, uhm, and that put the nail in the coffin between, working together between Jewish organizations and black organizations. The only picket line I've ever crossed. I went in and taught in a school in Queens. I crossed the picket line cause I supported the school, uhm, community control of schools. And I thought my union was absolutely, a 100%, not only wrong but racist in what they were doing. So, uhm, but there were plenty of good things to do, and if Black Power Movement was going in other directions, who was I to know what was the right thing to do right. I really had that sense, so you do your thing, I'll do my thing and we will figure it out as time will go.
I: Interesting, ok. And you mentioned before that, your activism in the South changed you a lot, right.
ML: Right.
I: How did that influence your relationships to other activists in the North who may have stayed in the North? Was there something like that, that you were, I don't know, had activist friends or something like that who stayed in the North and then you went to the South and you came back. Was there any problem?
ML: No, I had no more solidarity with people who had been in the South because we'd all been in the South. It didn't cause any tensions or ruptures. Uhm, but the sense I described you before about my focus on issues within the United States rather than international issues, that was a focus before I went and, you know, when I came back, so whatever tensions I had between my friends about, you know, should I join a, you know, a committee to work on issues around Cuba or this or that as opposed to, you know, economic or racial issues. Uhm, my position just didn't really change on those things.
I: Ok, and uhm, would you say that's also true for the broader picture of the struggles in the North and the South? So do you think, ...what was the relationship between the struggles in the South and the North? Can you say something about that?
ML: Uhm. I don't, it didn't affect me. I mean there was a lot going on. One of the things that started happening after that period, besides the Vietnam War and all, in the black community in the North, there were riots. Right, New York City, Newark, Los Angeles, I mean, there were riots. Now the term riot as it applies in the United States really started about when whites would go crazy and run through black neighborhoods and burn up black neighborhoods. You know...all sorts, but that history is like lost, right. You use the word riot and it's sort of black folks burning down the stores. Riots were really when white folks would go in and do that, would punish black neighborhoods or something. Uhm, so it..they were very complicated but active times. You know you'd go home at night teaching and you turn on the TV and you want to turn off the news, but you couldn't turn off the news cause you'd be watching the U.S. planes bombing in Vietnam, wave after, I mean you just see that on television, the wave after wave, when the bombs being dropped and you'd say, oh my God, you know. And, and, you know, then you'd switch to a riot in some city in New York. So there was a lot going on, and I personally, am not the kind of person, whether it's intellectually or whatever, who felt that there was a right answer, you know [laughs], a single way. My tensions were more with people who said, you know, if you don't do this right away, you know, you know the world is gonna fall apart or we have the opportunity to make a revolution now if you go here or there or stuff like that. That's wasn't...I was like, mmh, doesn't seem to make sense to me.
I: Ok.
ML: My sense was that whatever the struggle was, it was a good struggle, but there were no guarantees that it was gonna be a short-term victory or a long-term phase, so dig in for the long-term. Uh, some my frustration with the people who were around me that I would talk to, who were talking politics and who were saying, you gotta do this, now you gotta do that now. Some of them turned out to be stock-brokers and whatever, you know, if you can't make the revolution by tomorrow, then you should turn around and get rich. And befeather your own nest.
[71:55 min]
Most of the people who were activists in Mississippi stayed involved in social justice issues. Everything you read, plus all my contacts, plus my followers, reaching out people now as we get close to the 50th anniversary. Most of the people, you know, went on, if they didn't do social justice issues specifically, then they led professional lives that were connected to that. Uhm, whether that was part of our destiny or direction, when we went down or whether that was part of the vision that shaped us when we came back, was like how can I go out and make a million dollars, you know, by paying my workers cheaply, you know whether that happened to us there or would have been our direction anyhow, you know, I have no way of knowing that kind of stuff. Uhm, but the southern thing did not become a thing in itself for me. Some whites went back and settled in the South, some are still in Mississippi, uhm, when I was teaching in junior high school, I totally forgot about this but [clears throat] what...my archives showed up something I had forgotten about and also a woman I met down there said when I was in junior high school, she and I, Sadie something rather, she was a student in the Freedom School. We tried to start a pen-pal thing.
I: Yeah, right, yeah I remember.
ML: Yeah. But it died, it just absolutely died, uhm, when I go and speak to classes, kids wanna know, did I keep up contacts with those people? And I didn't, I really didn't. We tried, but there is something about a...some people did, but very few, you know, I've checked, uh, all my life I always felt kinda guilty for not doing it, but there is something about the power of that moment and the connections that, you know, you can't go back again, or something like that, you move on, and, and whatever. It's been great reconnecting with some of the people now and talking about what's happening in life, what's the world like now and how do you feel, did we do good, did we not do good, and talking about those things with local Mississippians who are activists, talking about those things with other volunteers, but for most part, most people did not stay connected just for the Mississippi struggle.
I: Ok, uhm, you mentioned that like you didn't really have a specific goal in mind when you went down there, uhm, but looking back, would you say that they were successful, whatever successful means to you? But, uhm.
ML: Well, oh, I, if I said I didn't have a goal, I didn't mean it quite that way. Uh, SNCC and CORE and the umbrella group COFO defined the projects that they were doing. And they made it clear the main goal of the summer was to make advances around voter registration to the extent that it could be, and that, one of the things that was necessary to make advances around voter registration was to turn the national spotlight on the state of Mississippi. Kennedy before he was shot, only acted when there was a huge crises. The FBI was friends with the local police, J. Edgar Hoover hated the civil rights movement and his agents were investigating whether, you know, Martin Luther King was a communist or sleeping with women, but he didn't care whether people were getting killed. Uhm, so the goal was the voter registration [75:47] in Mississippi. How we got assigned to different projects, I was flexible about that, you know, uh, we, Betty and I originally went down to orientation the first week in Ohio cause we were volunteering to do voter registration.
[76:06 min]
While we were there, we met this couple Mickey and Rita Schwerner, and, got friendly with them because there weren't many married couples of the same age and because Rita Schwerner went to Queens College, I went to Queens College, Betty went to Queens College, you know how you play those stories, and because Mickey Schwerner, I said Schwerner? I know a Schwerner, I, you know, you know is Steve Schwerner your brother? Oh yeah, so we got friendly with them, right. So they said come work in our project. Uhm, so we said ok. I wasn't terribly excited about doing that, partly because, the real, tough heroes, uh, of, of Mississippi were the SNCC people rather than CORE people, and it just turned out they were in a CORE project area rather than a SNCC project area, but they asked us and we said yes. I don't know how long it was that we knew them, but at some point, they said, you know, what do you wanna do with the rest of your life? And Betty was just finishing up at Harvard and wanted to be a teacher, I said I wanna be a teacher, and they said, well why are you doing voter registration, why don't you do Freedom School? Uh, so we said ok. They said we got a building, we're gonna have 3 or 4 Freedom Schools, one in the city and a couple of satellite ones around it. This was a conversation in the first week in Ohio. And we said, fine, we'll do that. And, you know, it was only a week, so some of these decisions were, had to be very compressed, and then Mickey and Rita said, ok Mark and Betty, now that you've agreed to be Freedom School teachers, would you be the coordinators of the Freedom School? So, I'm sure there was some conversation between me and Betty and we said yes. They said, well, now that you're in charge of the Freedom School, we need you to stay in Ohio for the second week of orientation, because the second week of orientation is directed to teachers rather than, uhm, voter registration. And you need to help pick and orient the people who are gonna be, you know, basically in your Freedom School. It wasn't, you know, SNCC was not hierarchical, right, so they didn't say you're the principal and you're the assistant principal, and you gonna be in charge of those people. It's, you know, you're the co-coordinat...the term was co-ordinators. So, you're co-coordinators and you have to pick the rest of your team. So we agreed to do that. With an understanding that the Freedom Schools were not, an, uh, entity in, to themselves. They were part of the movement. The movement was then indicated to voter registration and building the movement and organizing in the community, so in the Freedom Schools, there was content and things we wanted to teach, which I'm happy to talk about at some other, you know, point. But, uhm, this was, a Freedom School was to build the, help build the youth movement. You know, uh, cause whatever you did this year, next year, you, you gonna have high school kids joining in, right. The leaders of the civil rights movement in Mississippi were young. 16, 18, 20, 25. I was 24, I was an old guy. And, and, James Forman was in his twenties. Uh, he may have been 30, Bob Moses was in his twenties. And there were the two old guys down there. Everybody else was younger. So the idea that the Freedom Schools were part of the process for recruiting the next year or twos worth of people in the movement. And that, here we were in ‘64, and no school had been desegregated in Mississippi. So you had to talk to students who were gonna go back into those schools who were gonna be the first generation to desegregate those schools. And also, the Freedom Schools were the places where the movement could talk to the kids of the families who were willing to register to vote. So Freedom Schools weren't an abstract building, you know, to go teach just, you know, things by teachers. It was an institution of part of the movement.
I: That's interesting, yeah, especially, well within the movement, because it wasn't, they couldn't vote, right? So, but, it was really still important to teach kids about themselves or...
ML: And about the movement, you know. Local people were encouraged to try register to vote. I mean there had been this whole movement to get them to register and they would go downtown and there would be howling mobs of whites and their names would be published in the paper and their addresses would be published in the paper. But there would be people who would go and do that. And, and there were, while there were Freedom Schools during the summer at night, there were community centers where adults were being trained how to take the literacy test, what would be expected, cause there was, there were two assumptions, one is for the period of the summer we, we were running through the electoral process to challenge the seating of the Democratic Party but there was a presumption that by doing that, by building, what was called, the Freedom Democratic Party, that the core of the leadership would then still exist as an organization the following year. Uhm, SNCC differed from SCLC, Southern, whatever, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's group, the way Ella Baker talked about it, was SNCC was a group-centered leadership, whereas SCLC was a leadership-centered group. And, we believed in that, I mean that was to out core. And so, the Freedom Schools was just part of the same thing. I mean we were organized...we were not coming in like Martin Luther King or church leaders to lead a demonstration. We were there doing community organizing to lead a demonstration. We were there doing community organizing. Uh, and, and it was important that a core of young people and older people would be left when we went home to pick up whatever the activities were that followed. So the Freedom Schools were understood to be part of that process.
I: Right, ok. And in relation to that can you say a bit more about the philosophy of the Freedom Schools and the, the teaching methods, uhm, what is, I don't know, you don't need to say everything but, uhm, just what was special for you I think.
ML: Well, the brief answer about the Freedom Schools, uhm, what was special for me. One was the school was part of the movement. Right, it was not an independent set of goals. That was first of all. Second of all, the kind of teaching we did there was to ask questions. With, there weren't right or wrong answers.
[83:33 min]
You know, it was very different than today where we teach kids how to take tests and presume that there are answers that could be multiple choice, uh. There we were asking questions, and the questions that we were asking with our students were questions we didn't have answers to either. And we would, uh, there were questions about trying to figure out what the world is all about, and what the movement is all about. And there were also questions where, where we were try, we were learning about what life was like in Mississippi, you know. As a white northerner, I didn't know what it was like growing up being black in Mississippi, to survive, to struggle, to risk, to go to work everyday. Uh, uh, to be a church leader, one, you know, Sunday afternoon and to be cleaning white folks' toilets the next day. You know, and, uh, being demeaned in all sorts of ways, you know. I sort of knew that intellectually but on an emotional level, or knowing people who would eventually talk to you a little bit about what that was like. Uhm, but, that was important, that was a big part of the Freedom School. Uhm, so it was whole world view of what schools could be in terms of making active citizens in a way that I really wanted to believe that we were capable of doing. Uhm, so I mean, that was my sense of the Freedom Schools and I think that was the design of the Freedom Schools. Uhm, as part of a longer answer, there was a guy in Boston, his name is Noel Day, black guy, sort of big, big guy, uhm, who was a leader of a boycott in Boston of schools. Cause Boston is a very racist city and the schools very segregated, and there was struggle going on up there. Noel Day, was one of a bunch of people who helped developed the curriculum, uhm, if you can use that term for the Freedom Schools. And almost all the stuff that he did to help develop it was around asking questions. And there was this wonderful set of questions that we talked about, you know, I can do that now or after I drink some water [laughs], or some other time that we talk, but uh. So the, the schools were, you know, the main thing about the schools was that it was part of the, the community struggles. Just, just one part, it wasn't any different, it was not anything special. For the rest of my life I've learned that it was special. There was something very unusual and unique that we were able to create and do there that has sort of influenced how I relate to a lot of educational issues, human issues. Is there anything else, I wanna add...
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Second Part
I: Right, where was I.
ML: You know, a thing that you have mentioned when we first started talking or even before we were on the record. In terms of talking about freedom schools stuff, it is not connected and I am not just babbling but I have been doing this project out of Queens College where I got the college to do some commemorative activities, some departments and people have responses, a lot haven't. The best responses have been from the SEEK Program where I used to teach. And I have been invited into a whole bunch of their classes to talk about different aspects of my experience. Not just the whole Civil Rights Movement because I am not just there to teach. I prefer a mode of teaching that a guy named Marshall Ganz at Harvard talks about, using the personal narrative as a way to find commonality with people and then figure out next steps. Long introduction. The SEEK Program when I used to teach it was all black and Puerto Rican, it is not that way anymore. Partially because the demographics of Queens have changed and also because the central CUNY system changed the admission. So you walk into a SEEK class now, or I get invited to talk about Civil Rights Movement to a SEEK class now and I walk into the room and I look around the room, and this is not just one class, this is a whole bunch: 75% of the room is Asian, Chinese and Korean, there is a sprinkling of Muslims, you know women with their heads in the habibs, and one or two white working class folks maybe, maybe one or two Black folks in there with a hoodie on or something like that. But it is mainly Chinese, mainly Asian, Chinese and Korean. So how do you talk about the movement. I have had two experiences now that have just been amazing. I was walking into one class and the teacher just said: “I am going to let you speak to them.” And this teacher is a terrific teacher, she was not just looking for time off to grade papers. And she said: “I want you to talk to them without me here and there is some smart people in the room, they understand English better than they speak it. So make them speak.” So I had in my head what I wanted to do that period, so I walk in and I say you know: “Professor (?Rodway?) invited me in to speak and to talk about some of my experiences but before I do all these things I want to find out who I am talking to. So tell me how long you have lived in Queens, where you came from and how you feel about living in Queens.” And then I shut up and we went around the room, and I asked: “Who wants to start?” And nobody volunteered, right. A) It is in the nature of students, and B) it is in the nature of Asian students, everybody was being polite. So then I figured I could order them to speak. “We'll start over here, you first, will you please start.” So we went around the room and everybody had something to say in answer to that question, and it was almost like a double period, I had a couple of hours. I then asked them follow up questions. For example, this one Chinese guy, and I don't know enough about China to say “Where did you come from, north, south, here, there?” I know the difference between city and rural but that is the way they would describe, whether they were a city person or a country person. He said: “Well, I have lived here 5 years, I like it because I feel very comfortable.”
“Okay, what don't you like?”
“Well, everybody around me speaks Chinese, I don't speak English.”
And they did not tell me whether it was Cantonese or something. It is like he doesn't know there is any difference between...
“I don't get a chance to speak English. And I would really like to practice my English.”
“So why do you and your family live there then?”
“Oh, because that is where we moved to.”
I said: “How do you like your apartment?”
“Oh, we lived better in China than we live here.”
I did not ask him who their landlord was, whether their landlord was a Chinese landlord or Anglo landlord, that was too threatening to start with.
And I said: “Well, why don't you move? Why don't you move to another neighborhood in Queens?”
And there were these looks of absolute shock on their faces. And the first one that I got into this discussion with, this was echoed by others. And they started to realize that it wasn't just self-segregation, that really, they couldn't move. If they wanted to move to another part of Queens that they were going to be discriminated against. Whether it was by people in the neighborhood or the bank, or the real estate agency. I did not explore with them the depths of what they knew. But they knew in their core that the pocket of Koreans that lived here and the pocket of Chinese from a particular part of China that lived over there, that this was not just voluntary. There was something mandatory or forcible about it. It was not just choice. So that would come out.
And then I remember one of the Muslim young women, when I asked her about who she feels about living here in Queens. She said: “I work, I work very hard, I am paid $5 an hour. That is below minimum wage. I know that is illegal.”
So my training and orientation in Mississippi asking questions, where I did not know the answers to them. But having some assumptions that if I just asked the questions, things would come out and if I asked follow-up questions and if I did not accept the obvious superficial responses that people would come up with... It was just amazing, two hours, I never got to tell my story. The bell rang, teachers, the guy stepped outside. And actually, the teacher had left their aid, they have people, graduates, they call them supplemental instructors, S.I.s, in the class. And the SI was there, and SIs are the same age and the same racial diversity as the students, and it just was not in my brain that the SI was there. So Prof. (? Rodway?) told me that this was just really wonderful and that the kids got a lot out of it.
Yesterday, SEEK program had...., and there are hundreds and hundreds of students in the SEEK program, you know, all these different years, not just the first-year class, I think there are 200 in the program each year, I think. They asked students to submit poetry, 1 – 2 page essays. And they also had another form where you could... it was drawings and the you could write text next to it, visual, graphic, novels, whatever. And they had a contest and they had some of their own folks judging. And kids got up and read their material, kids, pardon me, I don't mean kids. I guess if you are 74 you can call them kids.
And so the students got up and read their poetry. I was crying through the whole thing. A) The writing was so terrific, it was just high, high level. If I did not see a face and if I did not hear them read through very heavy accents, most of them, and I just read the text, the understanding, the use of language. And then each one of the thing... And then part of the theme was that they just take of their discussions about civil rights that have been dealt with at varying levels and in different classes and take some of that discussion and apply it to their poetry and writing. It was just amazing. Everybody had something very powerful to say that they came to America hoping America was going to be what they thought it was wherever they came from. And everybody had stories on how they have been treated badly, wherever they had come from. Just amazing. Whether treated badly as a woman, or person of color, or just as an immigrant, etc, a gay guy. But they also talked about... they had awareness and anger about issues at home, their home country. So two different women, one was from India, I think the other was a Muslim from Guyana? They talked about arranged marriages and what that did to them in terms of their family, and in terms of somebody they loved and in terms of their consciousness as human beings and their status. There was one guy, I can't remember, South Asian, who did not say he was gay but his whole piece was about how he observed gays being treated and how his parents reacted to gays being treated. But he did not say: “I am gay.” But his paper was about that. And it was just amazing.
So it is like all you have got to do is ask the right questions and let people... Not everybody has these experiences, not everybody understands these experiences. You know, in a certain sense, one of the things that I have come to understand is that one of the reasons that discrimination continues is that some people benefit from discrimination. And you can use a jargon term like 'white skin privilege', right, like the first story I told you. And when I go and talk about civil rights I go and use that term and you should see people's faces. And most people talk about civil rights, they don't want to talk about white skin privilege. Whether that is overt or whether it is the unconscious stuff about I walk into a room and I got a beard and I am white and I am a male and people will listen to me. And I could say gobbledy-gook for a while, and they would listen to me. And if I came in with 10 women, it still happens, right? They all talk to me. And it is how people learn that kind of stuff and how they deal with it and you can invite people into those discussions and that is the kind of stuff that I learned and it stays with me.
I: Could you say a bit more about the Harlem projects you mentioned? The Ed Gordon Center project?
ML: It could not have been my first year of teaching, you know, first year of teaching you are just swamped, you know. If you get up in the morning and go to school... And I remember like probably every other new teacher, I would come home at 3 o'clock and then watch TV from 3 o'clock to 11 o'clock, whatever was on the tube, you know, because I was just exhausted and emotionally drained. And it is struggling how to be a teacher, first year is just really difficult.
One of my beliefs about education and teaching is that a huge percentage of what a teacher does depends of the supervisors. I think a lot of the pressure that is coming down on teachers now is bad or wrong. Because I think the leadership in the school, from the principal to the vice principal to the department chairs, how they motivate and encourage and lead their teachers, and then how teachers feel about themselves and then teaching comes from a higher level.
I had a wonderful Social Studies chairman. His name was Leo Wagner I remember, he was just a terrific supportive guy. So I would come in angry, upset, scared or whatever, he was very supportive and he encouraged me to figure out and do stuff. And I must have done okay.
The second year two things happened to me. The way all good teachers get rewarded, they gave me the.... good teacher, I worked hardest to do well with my roughest kids, I loved students who had attitude. So I worked well with some of the tough kids. So I was rewarded by being given some of the hardest classes. I was like: Oh, give me a break. Right. But on top of that Mr. Wagner connected me to this experimental program that had just been designed, it was the first year, I don't know how long it actually lasted, it was a joint effort with a group called Architects Renewals Committee in Harlem, ARCH, it was called. I remember the guy who was the head of it, he was like some activist architect, white guy. And the Center for Urban Education that was really an outlier, at Teachers College, you know, everybody knew that Columbia and Teachers College did not have much to do with Harlem that was good. But the Center for Urban Education and Dr. Gordon were respected. And at that time in New York, the fourth grade and the eighth grade dealt with city issues as part of the curriculum. I was an eighth grade teacher, so I was supposed to teach about the city and the state. And you know, there was a lot of stupid stuff in the curriculum. You know, how Indians used beaver pelts to trade. Or structurally what the city's government and the state government was like, legislature and how a bill becomes a law. All the stuff that is really not empowering and not useful. And what ARCH and the Center for Urban Ed wanted to do was say to the students: Let's study your community's history to figure out how it changed architecturally and demographically. That was their orientation and there was some training, they had some materials for us. And I took a look at that stuff and I said: Well, this is a good excuse. And I asked them whether I could take it in different directions. Not totally different but in addition to what they were doing. And they said yes, and they were very supportive and Mr. Wagner my social studies chairman was very supportive. And I drew on my Mississippi experiences, so early in the semester I asked the students what they liked about the community, what they did not like about the community. And then within that dichotomy, we then put on the board a list of what didn't they like about their community. And I would ask... because some of the answers that the kids would give were off the wall, right? I mean, some made sense, some were strange. So the way to filter through that, rather than me as a teacher impose my sense of what is on the wall and what is not, I would ask: How many people feel the same way? And by doing that it became clear this was a shared experience, and you may hate your mother, and that is why you hate the community because whatever... I can't deal with anything like this right now, I am not a social worker, I am a Social Studies teacher. So we found a bunch of issues that the students identified as things that they were concerned about.
The next set of questions that I asked, and that came not so much from the ARCH-CUE curriculum but from my Mississippi variants of that. I asked: Which of these things that are now clusters that we share feelings about do you think we can really do something about? I am not asking you to end the war in Vietnam as an eighth grader, or whatever some of the huge issues were that they identified. I can't remember and I don't even know whether those lists exists, they were like blackboard lists. So there were good discussions: What can we change, what can't we change? One class in the eighth grade, so there are things that we can do. And out of that we got a bunch of issues that were in common that people felt that they could do something about. And I broke people into the committees because: Why do something about something you do not care about. Who wants to work on this, who wants to work on this? And my memory is: I don't have all the projects in mind. One had to do with housing, right? Because all the buildings that are still here, whether they are the Manhattanville houses, the Grant houses, so mainly project-based and some private tenement-based housing.
So there were housing issues and those split into the public housing and the private, you know, small building, houses. Uhm, another had to do with the way they were treated in the stores and the high prices of the supermarkets. Uhm, these were eighth graders right, cause, kids get sent to the store to buy milk or something like that, so they know. Another, and this was my favorite of the projects, they complained about the playground right across the school. Which is still there, but the city at some point, put in a swimming pool, so some of the playground pieces are now an outdoor pool. Uhm, there were another couple of projects that were like that, but I don't remember now. So we would have discussions about, ok, what's step one, what can, you know, let's investigate. Then let's investigate avenues to do things. My favorite stories are really related to the playground because in some senses, the range of things were, were broader in, in options that we can do. Ok, so the first thing you do is, playground, whose playground is it? Right, so we tracked it down, it was New York City Department of Parks. Ok, so if it's the Department of Parks, let's look at the, you know, this is what we were supposed to do, right. [laughs] Look and see who is in charge of the Department of Parks and how do you reach them, so, the kids wrote letters and the kids called. Nothing happened, right. This is what we expected, but I warned them ahead of time. I said, this is the first step, let's see what happens. Maybe they'll come and fix things up, maybe they just don't know that it's all messed up. So, you know, we tried, nothing happened and the next, ok, what are the other things that we can do? And, there were some talks we could picket, hand out leaflets, and we could ask people in the community whether they would come and do a self-help project. And for some reason, the kids wanted to do that. I was, you know, my father does x, y, and z, and so he could help do this and oh, there is a hardware store around the corner, uhm, maybe they would give us the stuff to do it. So we, got involved in getting ready to do a self-help project. And I don't remember how the transition happened, and some point, I, somebody on the committee said, we should call the city again. Tell them, that we're about to fix it, cause they gonna see us fixing it, so we better let them know. And, I probably felt fine, maybe this will embarrass them. So we did and the city finally came out and fixed up the park. Right, it was the handball courts in that particular part of the park. You know, big excitement and it worked well. We did a lot of things according to the ARCH-CUE curriculum like, uh, does your family have, when did your family get to the neighborhood. Do they have any pictures of it? We were tracking down the history of that [23:11] community there. And I found all sorts of wonderful stuff that's, you know, I, I found line drawings of when there were trees and streams and before the buildings were built and then, we got somehow to the Department of Housing and they showed pictures of what was there before they put the projects up and when the projects were brand new. And I even found original, like 1860 maps. You know, they were awesome price of fifty dollars or something like that. So I bought some original maps. You know, so that the kids could look at that. Uh, and we were trying to track community history and the same time, cause that was part of it, who made the changes who changed things. Uhm, then there was this whole other side that, again, grew out of Freedom School stuff, cause in the Freedom School questions, the third set of questions. I didn't tell you the first two, but the third set of questions was to imagine, you know, the utopian, imagine the better. So I don't remember how I pulled this off, so they'd die, they'd fire me, now if somebody tried to do this. I somehow got one of the classes up on the roof of the building, the school building. And I said, let's look out and look at the roofs of the building around here. How was all that space used? You know, there is more room on roofs than there are on the streets. So if this neighborhood has problems because there isn't room to build stuff, what could you put on top of the roofs? I was like wow. And it was also like, look around, cause there are human beings out there and human beings are very creative and if you look carefully at those roofs or if you think about it or talk to people in your building, you'll tell me what goes on up there. And it wasn't just drug-time and, you know, stuff. So I got the stories about the pigeons, I got stories about barbecues, I got all sorts of stories and all you could see chairs, you could see extra little things that were built up there, so, it got the kids to try and envision above and beyond what existed now. And then they could draw things, you know, their whole range of imagining an proposal, you know, how would you get something like this passed if you wanted to do more over there, what could be the limits, what might you do, so. So that was, that was the project. I may have done it a second year, I can't remember. And then I left, I went, yeah, I went to Queens.
I: But the project lived on? Or...
ML: No, I yeah, you know, I don't know. Uhm, it was probably like lots of projects, they recruited a bunch of teachers in it. I remember, their asking for reports that I...I spent days writing a report and giving feedback and all that stuff. Uhm, there were couple of us doing it in our school. There were teams doing it in elementary schools with the 4th graders. Whereas much more history driven or community studies driven, you know project. Uhm, I don't know what happened to it, I don't know where it went.
I: But was it a collaboration with...not with specific schools, right, but rather with teachers, or how did they, the CUE reach people. So how did they find you or other teachers?
ML: They found the school and the, uh, the supervisors found me.
I: Ok, and you mentioned that you altered the curriculum slightly, right.
ML: Oh yeah.
I: Do you know who developed the original curriculum in the first place? Was it...
ML: I think it was the architect guy, whose name will come to me tomorrow morning. I have tried, I've tried tracking him down, and I haven't been able to find him. I got his name: C, I don't know his first name, so it was C. Richard Hatch. H-A-T-C-H. I don't know where he is these days, I don't know what he is doing, I don't know what he did after that project. I got little bits and clues over periods of time that didn't quite make sense. Uh, so I didn't have a whole picture and then I don't know which things were just gossip or true or whatever.
[28:04 min]
But I think he was the driving force behind it.
I: And you weren't in contact with any of the other teachers, right? It wasn't...
ML: No, I think one of the...[sighs] I don't remember much training or sharing, in one of the documents, and I don't remember where this is, there was a CUE-document that reports on the project and shows a picture of us meeting. A few of the teachers and the ARCH and CUE people. But I don't remember many meetings. I remember who the other teacher was who was doing this, the other 8th grade teacher, but I don't think we did anything collaboratively. You know, it was like, you do your things and I will, you know, write about before and after but we're not trying to do a team thing. So it was more test-case than, you know, a real effort. Uhm, but you, you know, what I've said before, a lot of those issues, issues, initiatives came to an abrupt and ugly end. Cause Ocean Hill-Brownsville was the next year or the year after that.
I: Right, ok. Yeah, it probably answers my next question already, but are you familiar with democratic schools like the Albany Free School or the Sudbury Valley School, probably not, right, ok.
ML: No.
I: Because they have this, they have a similar curriculum, not really curriculum but approach to education I think so I'm just wondering if there was some sort of collaboration, but, yeah.
ML: I have no idea.
I: Ok. And, uhm, the school you taught at was in Harlem, right?
ML: West-Harlem.
I: West-Harlem. Ok, sorry, totally, yeah.
ML: Yeah, West and I make that differentiation not because it's a differentiation that I cared about, I said I was teaching in Harlem but people in the community always liked to differentiate. Oh, we're not really Harlem, we're West-Harlem, you know. City College is up the hill, you know, Columbia is up the other hill, and to a certain extent, there was truth to that, because there was a slightly broader mixture of a student body. Right, cause the...am I getting my buildings straight....the Morningside buildings were middle-class projects. I don't remember whether they were co-op but the Grant houses were public housing. So there was some, slightly different economic base to some of the public houses around here so that the school was a little, uhm, more affected by that. And one of the big feeder elementary schools was the one, right down the hill from here near the big rocks, and I think Columbia had some influence or Teachers College had some influence there, so some of the kids came in, in pretty good prepared academic shape.
I: Ok, yeah that was actually my question, about the demographics of your school, so...
ML: Well, [sighs]. New York is wonderful. You know, it's one of the most segregated cities in the country now, in terms of its schools, and I, it was probably back then also. And if the school itself wasn't segregated, then all you had to do is look at the classes. The elementary school that I went to, that on 96th Street, I never thought it was a segregated school until I saw photographs of our graduating year. So, my class was 6.1 or 6.2, 6.1 or 6.2. And those classes were almost exclusively white. But 6.3, 6.4, 6.5, 6.6 were almost totally black. And I think the same thing was true at the junior high school. I think there were 1 or 2 classes that were somewhat mixed for a school in this neighborhood and then as you went down the classes, less and less so.
I: Interesting. And at that time, you didn't live in Harlem though, right? You were still in 96 area?
ML: Right.
I: Ok. And how did that affect your, I don't know, your relationship to the students? Was that...because they were probably part of the community, right?
ML: Right. Well, I was, uh, I mean I would go home at night, right. Uh, but I was still on the West Side, I would arrive by subway, I didn't drive. Some of the other teachers, a lot of the other teachers in the school lived way out on Long Island. I mean, they would get to schoolby 6 or 6:30 in the morning and play Bridge, or Pinochle because they got there early to avoid traffic. Uhm, so I would get there by subway. I wasn't in the neighborhood but I was doing those projects and I would walk around the neighborhood. Uhm, it was my neighborhood, right. And whatever sense of survival that New Yorkers get, you know, I walk down that street but not the other street or see somebody coming at me and, you know, those 4 people look ok, but those 2 over there...uh, maybe I'll cross the street. Uhm, I felt fairly comfortable and walking around the neighborhood, you know, I'd bump into, you know, students I know, hey there is Mr Levy. So I was ok with that. So I didn't live in the neighborhood but I did spend time. The Long Island teachers would, you know, come in their cars, play, you know, Bridge, teach that class and then go back at, uh, Long Island. So I was somewhere inbetween, being of the neighborhood and not of the neighborhood.
I: Ok. Were there teachers that were really from the neighborhood? Like...
ML: No, I don't think so. There were several black teachers. But I don't think they lived in the neighborhood. They, some, uhm, there is a facebook page from my junior high school. Uhm, and, they actually pick up a few years after I was there, and the facebook page has existed for a number of years and they find more people. Who...and they talk a lot about who is your favorite teacher.
[35:02 min]
And why. There is a lot of, lot of evidence if you wanted to see that, it's not exactly the same year, but it's current and it's great stuff. It's just great stuff. I participated for a little while and they let me in. Cause it was supposed to be students, student, who is your favorite teacher and they saw I taught there for a little while, so they, you know, they befriended me and let me in, but I, I, you know, I'm not there too much and [laughs] they sound like local community kids and so it's not my role to comment on that, but, you know, you can look or we can figure out ways for you to look, cause it can give you some interesting insights. Some of them have friends, some of them are connected, some of them found pictures of the neighborhood. There is actually, uh, a marvelous black historian that writes around, about Manhattanville, on about that neighborhood. He has a book about that neighborhood and then he has a zillion other documents experiences. So the, he leads walking tours of Manhattanville.
I: Ok, do you know his name?
ML: I have it at home.
I: Ok.
ML: Uhm, so he's available for community background and he is a really interesting guy.
I: Ok, cool, thanks. Uhm, yeah, that actually, you kinda mentioned that already that you are not really in contact with anyone from the Freedom Schools too much anymore?
ML: Uh, there are a bunch of people that I've reconnected with.
I: Oh, ok.
ML: That I went back. When I retired, that's ‘07, around ‘07. I went back to Mississippi, I have pictures that I found in the archive and pulled out and decided on this project of trying, sharing those pictures with people who were there. Say hey, you know, can you find yourself in these pictures? But, I don't know the names of the people in these pictures, can you find yourself there? You know, your grandmother or your mother or you. Or, you know, whatever. And it, it's been great, so links to my pictures have just flown all around the country. And, uhm, I reconnected with some people. You know, I have some really nice contacts with this one family in, uh, California. Some of the people still live in Mississippi and people are all over the place. In the archives I also found, and I'm looking for doctoral students who want to do something with this stuff, if you happen to know anybody...
I: Ok [laughs].
ML: I found class lists.
I: Mmh, ok.
ML: I know who attended. The names of the 250 students who came to the Freedom School. And I have pictures. In all the things that I've read about Mississippi, nobody has done any follow-up or discussion of, uh, you know, follow or interviews with kids, you know, later or things like that, so. The raw data is there. The other thing that I recently found, uh, that's not in my own files but somebody gave them to me to do with this whatever I wanted to do with. We didn't travel around till the Freedom Schools, ok. Mississippi was like scary, you didn't ...just travel. Uhm, but there was one statewide event for the Freedom Schools. There was a statewide convention in the Freedom Schools. We used it to talk about politics and resolutions at this statewide convention. And just coincidentally, my building, I don't mean my, the building that I taught in was the coordinator got picked to be the place where the state-wide convention was held. It was the biggest building. And it was a brick building as opposed to a wooden building or somebody's porch. Uhm, and there were a couple of big churches in town that were open to the civil rights movement. Not all the churches. There were 30 odd churches, black churches in Meridian and only a few of them would allow us civil rights activities. So even the black community was divided on how it felt it could risk a position it could take.
[39:32 min]
Uh, so I have pictures of the convention and what this woman just found was the lists, the sign-in sheets of who attended the convention. Now there are a couple of big delegations, uh, and excel is wonderful [laughs], so, so, you know, I'm not a researcher, I'm an activist, right. But when I discover something I know that I discover something, so I, I was just, as an organizer, I was going to Mississippi and I had all of these lists with me and I was gonna meet people, so I'm sitting on the plane, I'm typing the names in, I'm not great on the computer, but I knew if you pushed that button, it would alphabetize, right. And so it would help me find people, wow. There were a whole bunch of people who had the same name. Now, could they be family? I had no awareness as the coordinator of the Freedom School that there were whole families. The families that were committed to the movement brought all their kids or sent all their kids. And, you know, I found out subsequently cause the little kids went to the community center, the, I guess, more older elementary junior high and high school kids came to the Freedom School. But there are just clusters of family names. And then, given the way families work in Mississippi, they don't necessarily have the same name, uhm, cause parents, grandparents, single families, which kids are raised where, you know, so that you could have four kids with different names in the same family. So, I, [41:15] lists other people they've said besides the alphabetized lists, this one is really somebody's brother. So I have that data and I saw how that fell out and the same way when I got the sheets about who attended the convention, they were sort of scattered sheets and I put them on an excel sheet and I arranged them by, uh, which town they came from. And a couple of big delegations just don't show up, so some of the sheets, you know, either people did not sign in or the sheets got lost or whatever. But I've got a lot of, a lot of raw data, if anybody wanna follow up.
I: That's interesting, yeah.
ML: Anyhow, so what was the question, the question, oh did I have any connections with people after. So I've tracked down and found some people.
I: Ok.
ML: A high proportion of people have passed.
I: Mh, yeah.
ML: It's really sad, you know. The data about life expectancy based on class and race that shows up, you know. That does show up when you start tracking people down, there are a lot of people, but there, there are a bunch who are alive a. And b a lot of them are gonna be back in Meridian, this June. So that graduate student that you might find in most of the papers or something like that, cause this is the 50th anniversary and the way the leaders have organized, or put forward plans for how to do the anniversary, a few events are gonna be in the capitol in Jackson, but they encourage local communities to do their own thing. And do their own organizing, so I'm not, I'm in phone contact with a couple of people, but I'm not a driving force down there, right. I'm encouraging and occasionally sending money. But, uh, whether they can actually pull it off or not, I have no idea. But they say they got people from all over the country coming back for this.
I: Nice, do you plan on going if it happens?
ML: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It will be like, not the last week in June, it's like the third week in June.
I: Ok, cool. I'll definitely follow up on that. [both laugh] Uhm, right, so if you had the chance to go back in time, is there anything you would have done differently from your perspective now?
ML: [sighs] You know, I just spoke to a whole bunch of people last week or two, I'v been talking so much, so my head is spinning. And a lot of people have asked that question. Truthfully I don't think there is. Uhm, you know I did one silly thing that wasn't bad, it was just misunderstanding. Uhm, I'll tell you that, that story in a second. Another thing, I don't know what I would have done about that. Uhm, back at that time, my car was a little green Volkswagen bug, ok. So, we could, we had a choice of either bringing our own cars or not. Not having a car down there. I brought my car. So, it was a green Volkswagen with New York plates. You know, I shaved, I wore white shirts, I just didn't think how a green Volkswagen would stand out, you know, everybody down there had pick-up trucks, or they had Chevies or, you know. So that was one cultural learning that, you know, I may have done differently. Another was, a cultural learning and I, I just sort of, uhm, the family we stayed with, the Turners, didn't have kids. Uhm, and my wife and I didn't have kids and we, uhm, they worked, both of them worked 2-3 jobs and we were the heads of the Freedom School, we didn't hang out a lot. I've always felt bad about that and when I got to meet Ms Turner, I apologized and asked her, and she sort of laughed and said that she felt the same way that they didn't hang out with us. And in talking to other volunteers, I think one of the main difference, I mean some of it is a gender difference, you know, women will hang out more than men will hang out. Uh, the other difference is whether there were kids. If there were kids, the volunteers would play with the kids, would drive them to here to there, would do things. We didn't hang out much with the Turners, we didn't eat a lot there. You know, they would be gone in the morning, cause they had jobs early in the morning and uh, we might have had some Sunday dinners, but we were off church breakfast, we were working. So I tried to, but we ate there occasionally, right. So we got to eat collard greens and, you know, all that southern food. Some of which I like, some of which I don't like. Uhm, so we wanted to do something in our own style for them. The last time, the last day we were there, we went to, whatever the local big supermarket was. There weren't many at that time, uhm, and we bought a big rib roast. It was very expensive. Whatever very expensive was back then and for me. So we bought this big rib roast and I, I had this vision in my head of lovely slices of, of, of beef that, uh, because they weren't a wealthy family, you know, they didn't ever serve anything like that. So we came with that and they wouldn't let us cook it. They wanted to cook it. They thanked us for the gift and they were gonna cook it. So we sit down to dinner and they bring out this beef, they had boiled it. They had made it like a brisket or something. And I was like *grr*. You know, it was like some of the cultural differences really, you know. Should have rather than giving them a gift out of our own experience we could have maybe thought about what would have fit their experience more. But I mean those are two silly little things. In terms of big stuff or political stuff, you know, uhm, I was lucky, we were lucky, we did rights things. You know, maybe I would have kept better records, and people down there kept diaries and all that good stuff that they can still access. You know, I didn't do that. I didn't throw away a lot of stuff, I kept it in boxes. You know, Betty was a, a writer and a collector more than, much more than I was and she was more systematic. Uhm, but I, you know politically things were so good and so exciting. In some ways we were very lucky by being in a place that was unlucky. The fact that Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were our leaders and were killed before we even got down there, the media was all over that town. Regularly, right. And somehow, the white power elite in the, inside of the city of Meridian, not outside. You'd go to the rural areas the business men of Meridian had no influence, but within, and I didn't know about this until afterwards that there was some decision in Meridian to not hurt any of us. Not jail any of us. Uh, to not be in the newspaper more. That deal between the powerful, the cops, and the cops even with the Klan didn't extend out to the rural area. And so, the violence that you read about that persisted all summer, and the church burnings that went on all summer, continued in other parts. But because the murders of the three guys, the murders of the two white guys happened in Meridian, uh, uh, Meridian was relatively, you know, relatively calm. Relatively saying. Doesn't mean, I mean we were always afraid and any jerk could pull out a gun and do something stupid. I found out from some of the, young, who are no longer young, I saw former students, female students who said that there was this gang of white guys who would drive by the school, after school, as people going home and throw balloons filled with urine at them.
[50:20 min]
But they never told the teachers, we didn't know that happened. They didn't want us to be afraid. So, you know, the things that I didn't know we had maybe a little more margin for error, so I look back and, you know, I've been asked this question so many times, I really can't...it's not I'm, it's not that I'm withholding, if I said I had some lessons to learn, you know, I would be more than happy to share them, but, you know, we were pretty good with that.
I: Yeah, and would you do it again? If you...
ML: Uh, would I do it again? Oh, absolutely. No question. I mean, in a certain sense I am, I've been going back. I've been pushing...when I go back, it's pushing, uhm. You know, the state of Mississippi, uhm, is not a nice place now, right. They refuse to adopt the Medicaid, they, you know, you can go down a lot of current legislation and they are still one of the poorest states, they are still one of the worst educationally, uhm, but percentage of people in jail who are black for one reason or another is extraordinarily high there. So court case in Meridian about the last ten years or so, kids, black kids in a high school whenever there is a discipline problem, rather than disciplinary procedures being used like in any other school, they call the cops. You know, you're late three time and they arrest you. And I, you know, kids wind up in jail. Right, it's the, what do you call it, the school-to-prison-pipeline? It really exists. And there is a suit that documents it. Some parts of the suit have been settled, but it was very bad and the cops, the judges, and the school, including some, uh, uh, uh, black principle and including a black judge, colluded in that system. Some of it's collusion, some of it is, they then made rules, it's sort of like the incarceration rules where, where judges don't have discretionary, you know the, things were passed. But there was discretion, and, you know, so some things were really bad down there. Uhm, Why did I go off of that tangent? Uhm, so I, oh, going back and pushing. So one of the best teachers down there was a woman named Gail Faulk. Gail, I gotten in touch with Gail, she lives in Vermont, uhm, when we went back a couple of years ago, we pushed our way into the high school, to give some talks and we pushed our way into some other places that, uhm, show the pictures that I had. When we went to the high school, a bunch of teachers pulled their classes together in an auditorium, not everybody, there were few teachers, one black and a couple white teachers, who were happy for us to talk about the civil rights era. And we asked, how many of the students had had any conversation with their parents or grandparents? Or aunties or uncles about the civil rights movement. And I had showed some slides and we talked a little bit. One girl's hand went up. So, the history, the stories, the idea of struggle, the idea of a lot of that stuff is lost. You know. Uhm, and there are lots of reasons why. One thing that we never, ever talked about or thought about, uhm, but it pops up when you look at, you know, the list of people who were in the Freedom School, do you know the book Warmth of Other Suns?
I: Yeah.
ML: Ok. Resistance to oppression whether it's resistance in Nazi-Germany or resistance in Mississippi, you can acquiesce, you can engage in guerilla warfare, you could pick up and leave. Right, and there was this migration that was going on, right. Before the summer and after the summer. I remember one of the instructions that they gave us, was the Freedom School was supposed to be a place to cultivate leadership, so that people could stay and be leaders the next year. And that we were not to encourage people leaving. But it wasn't in the context of this migration going on, right. In some senses no, there haven't been many people who have, you know, identified that phenomenon as a phenomenon rather than just families, individuals picking up and leaving. Uhm, but when you look at it now, a lot of people in the Freedom School left. Either as part of the migration, or some volunteers either encouraged or helped out. Right, I remember some of my favorite students hearing a couple of months later that they had picked up and moved to...I think Seattle. Three wonderful young girls, and their mother went to Seattle.
[56:05 min]
And I was just heartbroken that they weren't in Meridian. And I blamed the, uh, the, uh, volunteer who brought them to her hometown. But I may have been wrong, I don't know the conversation, the conversation could have been, we are leaving, can you help us find a place to go. Right.
I: Could be, you never know.
ML: So, you know, some of those folks have scattered for good reasons, some for bad reasons, you know.
I: In relation to that, uh, mh, do you see how or if, uhm the Freedom Schools or the Great Migration also changed Harlem and made it the place it is now, or?
ML: Oh sure, sure.
I: Yeah, but can you, can you, I don't know describe it, or is it just too complex?
ML: I, it's complex and at that point in my life, both Freedom Summer and when I was teaching in Harlem, I didn't know or appreciate, uhm, the Harlem Rennaisance. When I went out to teach at Queens College, uh, in the SEEK program, uhm, when I was first hired there, the students were all black and Puerto Rican, some of them were out of jail, the faculty was almost exclusively white. The administration was exclusively white. And there was a rebellion, there was a awesome rebellion, you know. Some of those students and the faculty tore up that campus, scared the shit out of everybody. Non-violently.
I: Ok.
ML: Who...non-violent, but provocative. So, for example, one of the things that absolutely scandalized and at first it scandalized me and then I had to smile, uh, but it scandalized the campus and I, I actually saw some progressive friend of mine, included it in his book as some evil, a crowd of students and faculty, yelling and screaming and beating on drums go running into the library making a lot of noise in the library and what do they do, they ran up to where the card-catalogs were and they took a couple of the card-catalogs and threw them down. So the cards fell out. Scandalized everybody. [coughs] So is that violent or non-violent?
I: Non-violent?
ML: I would say it's non-violent.
I: No-one got hurt, right?
ML: Cause nobody was hurt. And nothing was done that was un-remediable, right. It's a bunch of work putting the cards back together but somebody's had once done it, right. Those cards weren't originally in the drawer right. If you remember the alphabet and the code system, you can get the cards back in. Was it provocative? You bet ya, right. So there were things that, that they did like that and the goal was to turn the program from a Eurocentric program, Queens College thinks that Columbia University is the beginning and end of the world, so what we were teaching was the, the Columbia University contemporary civilization courses, I don't know whether they still do it here. They used to have this big, fat books, you know, so you talk, teach about Spinoza, and this one and that one, you know, the great thinkers of the world. But they all happened to be white and they all happened to live in Europe and they all happened to live in Europe in this limited period of time, right. And so the students and faculty, the students and a few faculty said that there really needs to be a different way to see all this. So after the rebellion, the rebellion had two goals, one goal was to hire more third-world faculty and the other was to turn the curriculum from a Eurocentric to a third-world-centric curriculum. Now in 1968, who knew what third-world-centric curriculum looked like? Now, even the people who were demanding it, they had a couple of books, right, you know Montu is one, I, I forget what some of the books were. And, and, you know, they were knowledgeable and pushing..what did I know, I didn't know shit. You know, I didn't know any of that stuff. A lot of the whites either left or were let go, I was one of the whites who was kept. And to teach third-world studies and to throw out all those big, fat Columbia books, uhm, I had to learn third-world studies, I had to learn a whole world-view. You know, I had never gone to school and learn that the scrolls, the mathematics, the literacy that existed along the, what is it the silk route or the spice route in Timbuktu, to then say, what were those people on the other side of the Mediterranean doing, you know. What was history and culture like in Europe during those years? You know, they were all illiterate there, you know, they were living, you know, with furs on in little wooden huts, you know, while the civilization was going on. And what about what was happening with the Aztecs and the Mayans and their buildings and in China, look at the domes and the buildings. And you know, they couldn't build squat in Europe during that. So [laughs], you know, what did I know? So I had to learn that stuff, uhm, along with learning that stuff came the same questions, what was happening in the United States? So, were [pause] blacks, African Americans just victims, right? Cause I come out of Mississippi so I knew the victims’ story, you know. Uhm, and so the answers is, no they weren't just victims, right. They were scholars, they were artists, there was this vibrancy, just look at Harlem. I mean... ok, so you know, as a white Jewish kid in New York, I knew about Jazz, ok. So that there were some Jazz-musicians. But did I know about classical, black classical musicians? Did, you know, there were just so many things that I didn't know and didn't appreciate, so I didn't understand about the Harlem Renaissance and the talent and the brilliance and the writing and all that stuff that was going on in Harlem when I in fact was teaching in Harlem. I, I, I got my kids involved in the architecture, in changing problems they saw in the community, uhm, but I didn't know enough to point them to the history of the Harlem Renaissance. And, and this really obscure library that was so far away – the tape doesn't pick up the facetiousness of this – called the Schomburg, right. Schomburg was what ten blocks away, but for kids in local communities, you know, or for a teacher in a local community, it was far away. So the things that the Schomburg was pulling together and the brilliance of what people were saying and collecting at that time, had no influence on us. Uh, so it was there but it passed us by.
I: Interesting. Uhm, yeah I think, one last question, I'm sorry, because I already took so much of your time.
ML: Ok, no problem.
I: Uhm, you mentioned Ocean Hill-Brownsville and you're being Jewish.
ML: Yes.
I: And, am well I read a lot about Black-Jewish relations and conflicts and has that ever, uhm, I don't know, uhm, influenced your experience or, I don't know, uhm, in the South but also in the North?
ML: In the North? Yes, yes.
I: And, would you mind talking about it, or...rather not.
ML: No, no, no, it's fine, I've talked about it publicly. A bunch. Uhm, so we come back from Mississippi, and one of the things in parol to when we went back is to share our experiences, right. In the same way as we collected books and money, as good organizers, you go back to the same people who gave you the books and the money and you say, let me tell you this stuff. Uhm, and there were tensions around Atlantic City. About the liberals and the Jewish liberals having kept out of stuff. I wasn't aware of it, and I, you know, when you use the word Jewish, there are people who are observant and have stuff to do with the religion and there are people who are not observant and even within those other categories, there is organized, you know, so there are these huge, huge, I don't know if they are huge, they are big well-organized, very wealthy funded organization of Jews. The American Jewish Congress or this or that. But these are all rich businessmen, powerful, influential people and they are basically conservative, uhm, and what was happening around that time, if you go back and connect the dates and I'm not great at specific dates, but Israel was a young country. And, the focus of the American Jewish Congress and some of these other powerful and influential national Jewish organizations was totally on Israel. It was the, I don't know what the metaphor is, you know, the, a test, that you know, it's either this or it's that, you know, there is some phrase I'm looking for I can't think of. Uhm, so I come back and I wanna talk about civil rights movement and I go back to my synagogue which was B'nai Jeshurun, uh, which is on the West Side, it's 89th Street I think. And I forget who I talked to, but it was like the second sentence out of their mouths, was something like but SNCC said this and this about Israel. And I was like, yeah, so? You know, I just came back from Mississippi and that's what's going on there. And they said, but they said this about Israel. And, what, at that time, I, that I remember that I was involved in a [67:08] stuff was going on, but what I remember was that, at that point and time, SNCC and some other civil rights groups were raising questions about Israel's role in Africa. As a, oh what's the word I want, uhm, [pause]. They were doing America's bidding. Right, in South Africa. So the United States' official position was to boycott South Africa, to resist the Apartheid, right, cause civil rights movements said, you know, South Africa is bad, right. But then they became the transfer point. American money was buying Israeli arms and supporting Israeli government, you know, supporting the Apartheid government.
[67:55 min]
So the criticism was, what's the word I want, that they were like the puppets, no there's another word, uhm, that Israel was doing the United States' bidding. Uhm, which...eveything I read was absolutely true. So, why not say it, right? Well, if you are a, at that time an equation was being made: Jewish equals Zionist. And to be somebody who is Jewish, proud of being Jewish, culturally Jewish, but not a Zionist, not even an anti-Zionist, but just not a Zionist, we should all leave where we are and go to Israel and Israel can do no wrong. I never believed that. Uhm, so, I could accept a discussion about Israel does some things right and some things wrong, but you weren't allowed to say that. And, a civil rights group if they uttered the slightest criticism about Israel was deemed anti-Semitic, anti-Semitic was bad, therefore we hate all blacks and we are not gonna support civil rights movement anymore. Uhm, that kind of thinking that was going on in, as the black power movement was developing, cause the black power movement was, you know, critical of Israel, anybody critical of Israel is anti-Semitic, influenced the Teachers Union as you get to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville. You know, the black community can't be trusted to hire or fire teachers because they are anti-Semitic. So Albert Schanker could lead even though the contract didn't allow it, could lead the union into a strike because we were defending a contract. Really, what was happening was, you know, we as Jews opposed to black community is what Schanker was saying. Uhm, and it became, it just accelerated that whole process, you know, without using some of the code words, you know, Teachers Union opposed community control, because community control would lead to violating the contract. You know, look at all the code words that could be left out of a sentence like that, right. Uhm, and, and the whole discussion of Israel and the discussion of Semitism or anti-Semitism, you know, was really just accelerating during that time. And I try in doing whatever I do, I make presentations and say I am Jewish, I'm proud to be Jewish, if I were in Germany I wouldn't have had a choice, you know, whether I was Jewish or not, they would [laughs] there was a formula, right. And uhm, a lot of the culture of my religion led me to do these things. And I say that out loud, right. I say it regularly, but within my own community, I'm probably labeled anti-Semitic. Uh, Dottie Zellner, the woman who recruited me to go to Mississippi, uh, does co-operative work between Palestinians and Jews, she works with some theater group that has Israelis and Palestinians working together. But that's, that's major “verboten”, right. And she's written some articles and publishes a fair amount and is active with the same values in her civil rights when she talks about the rights of Palestinians and so she's sort of drummed out of the Jewish community as being anti-Semitic. Even though she, when she was interviewed she, there is a book on Jewish women in the civil rights movement. Uh, interesting title, lot of interesting stuff in there, because in addition to interviewing six women who were involved in the civil rights movement, it gets into issues of feminism, what's the definition of Judaism, you know, if you never go to synagogue are you a Jew? You know, all that kind of stuff. And there was a range, some people religious, some people aren't and had different experiences in the civil rights movement. Interesting book. So, you know, Dottie identifies and says she's Jewish, she does not renege on that but she says I could be Jewish and, you know, have Palestinian friends and I can say that Israel is doing bad things. So, you know. So, but that's not necessarily true about all of us who were in Mississippi, you know. I think a lot of people feel more conflicted about that.
I: Mh, ok, interesting, yeah.
ML: You know, somebody in my synagogue says, you know, you're...what's the term, you're a self-hating anti-Semite. That's the term, right. I say screw you, you know. [laughs] Say whatever you want, I am who I am and I believe in what I believe and that's not me, you know. You not gonna scare me or threaten me. And, you know, there, there are websites that run by orthodox Zionists who will label publicly label people as self-hating anti-Semites or anti-Zionists. And they have these long lists. I haven't checked to see whether I am on there. I know Dottie is on there and some of my friends have said, oh I just found my name, you know, published as being. It's like, you know. [laughs] Well, you know, we know the world is like that.
I: I was just, I was also fascinated because I saw in the, in your collection that there was some curriculum about teaching Nazi-Germany in the Freedom Schools and I was just interested why and who, uhm, developed it, and with what aim in mind and if that somewhat also influenced Black-Jewish relations or not. Or did that have any influence on anything?
ML: Uhm, I've read a bunch of articles and I know, knew, most of them are no longer alive. Some of the people who developed those case studies and selected the case studies, I personally didn't have experience, I was, I taught one or two things, but I was the principle, right. So I didn't get to teach some or use some of the case studies. Uhm, I don't know how that got included or what effect it had or which teachers shows to use which case studies. I remember seeing it there and I remember thinking it was a good idea, uh, the goal was really as far as can remember back not, uh, anything to do with black-Jewish, but it had to do with look what can happen in a totalitarian situation, what can happen with discrimination, pushed to its far end. I remember that in talking about that curriculum, in fact it was one of the first times...[pause] I'm trying to recollect, but I think that's where I learned that the Holocaust did not affect, the Holocaust or Nazis did not just jail and kill Jews. You know, that, uh, uhm, if you were, uhm, what's the word, travellers, uh.
I: Roma, Roma and Sinti.
ML: Huh?
I: Roma and Sinti?
ML: Oh, right, right, right. Uh gypsies, if you were a gypsie, uh, if you were gay, if you were a socialist or a trade unionist, some Catholics, you know they worked the way up and down the list. I know it was a growing list. Uhm, and so that the rise of Naziism and the complicity of the whole country in wiping out whole layers of population. Wasn't just about Jews. Uh, I don't think my parents ever told me about that, right. Their story was what they did to Jews. Uh, and I think Mississippi in that curriculum opened up that question for me. I haven't thought about that for ages, but that was the thing that clicked in the back of my head.
I: Ok, yeah, thank you so much.
ML: Ok.
I: Yeah, I'm sorry about, that it took so long.
ML: No, no, no, that's fine.
I: Yeah, just gonna stop here.
ML: Ok.
[77:08]

Original Format

Digital audio recording

Duration

01:17:04