Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lives of the New Left I

Summer ’13 saw a memorable reunion of the New Left (NL) activists of Indiana University (IU) from the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Those were the days when they took on the war in Vietnam and other pressing issues of social justice.

They arrived back on the campus for the reunion from all parts of the country. Quite a number had not broken bread or lifted a glass together in at least a quarter of a century, while many had neither met nor even spoken for over 50 years. Most were now people of age, in their late 60s or early 70s.

The organizers of the gathering came up with a good way to break the ice and get everyone re-acquainted – a ‘Town Hall’ meeting held in a small auditorium the first morning. Reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’ long narrative poem, Spoon River Anthology (1915), the result of the IU session was a fascinating compilation of mini-biographies of the activists’ lives at the university and beyond.

The crucial difference was that while Masters’ characters were all “sleeping on the hill,” that is, in the graveyard of the fictional town of Spoon River, the New Left people were alive and well in Bloomington, their old college town. For openers, each one was asked to rise and give a name and a brief ID. Then a couple of dozen of the 60 or so people there were randomly invited one by one to go to the front of the room and bear witness to their long lives on the left – the  affiliation of their youth to which they had maintained fidelity over the years.

Taken together their ‘testimonies’ comprise a remarkably diverse chronicle of life on the left in America since the ‘60s. This post is the first of a series of the self-portraits sketched that morning that we’ll be posting on the blog in the coming months. The first three profiles are of a woman co-founder of the IU New Left; then a man who followed in her footsteps as a campus leader; and finally, a slightly younger speaker whose father, an IU professor, had been a local activist at an earlier critical time in Bloomington.

In their subsequent adult lives, the three became respectively a professional song-writer/musician, a locomotive engineer, and a criminal defense investigator, but all had kept faith with their past. With brief headnotes as background only where needed, the first three stories as recorded and transcribed follow.

Leading off that morning was Nell Levin, the former Bernella Satterfield, a ‘red diaper baby’* originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. She was somewhat modest about her interesting background. Nell and David Satterfield first met in North Beach in California, then again in Greenwich Village where they hung out with Bob Dylan before his rise to fame. At IU, Nell and David not only played Country and Bluegrass together – Nell on the fiddle, David on the guitar – but during spring ’65 when the US escalated the war in Vietnam, they also became co-founders of the campus SDS chapter or the Students for a Democratic Society.

Nell described the ’64 group that became the vanguard of SDS as “’outsider’ types – we were beatniks, grad students, often older than the typical undergrad, and some of us were from other parts of the country or the world … we were the weirdoes, the bohemian fringe, the vanguard.”** Brother Jeff Sharlet, back from the war in Vietnam, joined SDS not long after. He was the only ex-Vietnam GI in the group.

The Satterfields lived with their child Cordelia not far from campus, and their living room became the venue for political discussions and early SDS meetings. In her own voice, Nell picks up the story from there:

I got involved with SDS in the early days, probably about 1964 and I was active til the Weathermen*** takeover, and I said, “I didn’t sign up for this.” I started writing songs in Los Angeles (LA) and someone said you have to go to Nashville. I had already been to Nashville in ’78 playing with a band there, the ‘Buffalo Gals’, and I knew a lot of people there. I had left Bloomington in 1982-83 and went to LA for six years, that’s when I started writing songs. That’s when I ended up going back to Nashville.

When I got to Tennessee, I said, ‘Wow’ there’s a lot of problems in Tennessee. You know – it’s the South, education was very low. The main thing was, I went to the grocery store and they had a sales tax on food – I came from California where there’s no such thing – the most regressive possible tax. I ended up working for a group called ‘Tennessians for Fair Taxation’ for four years. I ran that organization, and then I was talking to different people and they were saying “We need a statewide progressive coalition.”

So in 2001 me and a group of people founded an organization called ‘Tennessee Alliance for Progress’ – TAP. I’ve been running that organization for the last 12 years and it’s been an interesting road trying to get the progressive  agenda passed in that red state. Unfortunately, it’s gone from bad to worse now that Republicans control all three branches of government, including the Tennessee legislature.

Nell Levin, 2011

For the first time since Reconstruction, they control everything in Tennessee. In the 2003 election they got a lot of Tea Party people elected so we can’t get anything passed presently. (Question from the floor: Do you still have the food tax?) We still do, yes. We had a huge demonstration in 2002-03 when we came within three votes of getting an income tax passed. We had riots in the streets, it was incredible what we went through over that in Nashville, the state capital. By three votes we failed.

We still have tax on food although it’s been lowered a little bit. We still have no income tax, but we have the food tax. We always get voted one of the most regressive tax states in the US.

We got discouraged by the 2010 election so we said, “Ok, we’re going local.” So now we’re working in East Nashville, my neighborhood and a majority Black neighborhood. We started doing work on environmentalism, tying that to jobs. That’s been our focus for the last three years inspired by the work of Van Jones [an attorney and nationally known environmentalist]. He’s endorsed our work on his web site. We’re very proud to be endorsed by Van Jones.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 12 years running TAP. It’s been a roller coaster, hard to get money in the South for progressive causes. We don’t have a lot of the foundations you have in other parts of the country. Anyway that’s basically what I’m doing.

Along with her activism, Nell continues her long music career. Backup on a Grammy-nominated CD in 2000, she and her husband Michael recently formed the ‘Shelby Bottom String Band’. Their first CD is East Nashville Rag.

Ike Nahem, now an Amtrak locomotive engineer operating out of New York, arrived at Indiana University in the late ‘60s; he was in the second wave, so to speak, of New Left activists. His reunion ‘testimony’ below at the Town Hall was fairly complete and requires little further introduction. Ike covered his activism from the IU years through his current continuing involvement on the left:

I was in Bloomington 1969-73, the best years of my life until I met my wife of course. So great to see people here who were my friends and comrades from those years.  We were so active – I mean it was the height of the Vietnam War – it was an amazing time.

Ike Nahem and his wife

When you think about it, a school that was 2% Black … elected a member of the Black Panther Party as student body president in an election where thousands and thousands of students voted. Where we gathered in Dunn Meadow this morning, we filled that place after the Kent State and Jackson State killings [spring 1970]. Protestors were way out into the streets.

It was an incredible time, and we had a really serious mass movement on this campus, one of the best in the country, and it was also one of the best organized and led. In Bloomington, we had very little of what we called ‘ultra-leftism’ and violence and stuff like that.

We were appealing to people and mobilizing them. I remember a lot of us hard core activists in those primitive ‘old tech’ days would be on a mimeo machine stenciling out things on a leaflet, and spending hours putting something together that we could do in 10 seconds today. We were churning out leaflets and getting ink all over ourselves and going out to demonstrations.

Fifty people would come, 100 people would come, and then one day Nixon invaded Cambodia [April 30,‘70], and the same fraternities, some of them who would scream and yell at us, poured out that day. We ended up having like 10,000 people marching down into Dunn Meadow, so those were the times and they were great times.

Anti-Vietnam War rally, Dunn Meadow, Indiana University, 1969

They marked me for the rest of my life, and today I’m still involved in the struggle. I’m an Amtrak locomotive engineer, I drive high-speed trains from New  York to Washington, and I’m involved in the union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Teamsters. I don’t have the energy I had back then, but I’m still very active politically.

The main issue I’m involved with is solidarity with Cuba. We’re trying to stop the US economic and political war against Cuba, and free the ‘Cuban 5’ [in prison in the US]. I’ve also been involved in the Anti-Apartheid struggle. I helped publish some books of Nelson Mandela who I had the honor of meeting as well as Fidel Castro.

It’s great to see everybody after all these years. Those Bloomington years were amazing and it’s great to see so many people who are fighting the good fight!

Ike Nahem is currently the coordinator of Cuba Solidarity New York and a founder of the July 26 Coalition in support of the Cuban Revolution.

The last of the three activists presented here, Nora Liell was younger than most of the veterans of the New Left’s Town Hall, having been a student at Bloomington High School when most of them were at the university. But even in high school, Nora and her classmates were involved in the Vietnam antiwar movement, in particular opposing the draft.

Like Nell Levin, Nora was a ‘red diaper baby’, but she was also a so-called ‘faculty brat’ as well – her father was John Liell, a distinguished sociologist at IU who had instilled in his children a sense of social conscience.

A specialist on race and poverty, Professor Liell, a well-published scholar, chose not to confine himself just to academic pursuits. He founded the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and served as first president of the Bloomington chapter of the ACLU. In the late ‘60s, President Johnson appointed him to an executive position in the ‘War on Poverty’.

Nora assumed that many of the IU alums at the Town Hall probably knew her father from student days since both he and his wife were prominent local activists. Proud of her father, she drew special attention to one particular action she knew everyone in the room could relate to.

Bloomington, nestled in southern Indiana, had been a town of ‘soft’ segregation well into the ‘50s. Nora’s father had “helped organize the sit-in for African Americans to be able to drink at Nick’s,” the most popular student bar then and now – still there just off campus.

Nick’s, Bloomington, Indiana

Following in her parents’ footsteps, Nora became a community activist and a volunteer in local Bloomington politics. She later became a criminal defense investigator in the Office of the Indiana State Public Defender in Indianapolis, the state capital.

These have been but three of the many personal testimonies heard that morning at Indiana University during summer ’13. In their accounts of their student activism and subsequent lives, Nell, Ike, and Nora presented not only their personal journeys from New Left days, but a view of activism in for progressive causes in America in the course of the decades since those heady times. As Ike Nahem put it, the struggle goes on.

* The phrase ‘red diaper baby’ usually signifies a child born of at least one parent associated with the American Communist Party, although more loosely as one born of radical parents of the Old Left. It’s difficult to know whether a self-described person means the term narrowly or broadly.

***At the final SDS convention held in June ’69, the organization split into two factions. The Weathermen faction subsequently went underground and engaged in violence.

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