Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Spoon River Redux -- Lives of the New Left II

Revisiting the New Left reunion summer ‘13 at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, I turn again to the ‘Town Hall’, a unique event at which a number of former campus activists spoke publicly about their lives in the past and beyond.* Again with caveats, the analogy to poet Edgar Lee Masters’ famous 1915 tale, Spoon River Anthology, comes to mind.

Similarly, Spoon River and the 21st century Town Hall represent composites of lives lived in a small Midwestern town – fictional Spoon River of Illinois – and Bloomington, an actual university town in Indiana. As the poet created a microcosm of the life of Universal Man, quite by serendipity the collective voice of the IU Town Hall reflected 1960s/early ‘70s New Left activism in all its diversity as well as the former students’ progressive pursuits since that time.

Courthouse Square, Bloomington IN 

In sharp contrast, while Masters sketched a dark and pessimistic picture of his subjects’ lives, by and large the former New Left activists were upbeat and optimistic in their contemporary outlook. Although many of them had hoped idealistically for systemic change in America (revolution), which failed to occur, they had peacefully fought the good fight and still continue the struggle for progressive change in myriad ways a half century later.

The next three Town Hall speakers include an American whose activism took him from IU to revolutionary Central America; an Englishman, the theoretician of the early New Left at IU; and a woman, who played a major role in the then emerging Women’s Liberation Movement at Indiana University.

The two men had been friends of brother Jeff Sharlet and worked with him in the IU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), while the woman had an indirect connection to Jeff’s name posthumously. Later in their adult lives, the three activists became, respectively, the founder of a record label and an author; the historical diarist of the IU New Left; and a professor of Women’s Studies.

Rick Congress, the first of the group to speak at the Town Hall, presented a comprehensive account from his IU days to present time, requiring no further introduction:

I was born in Indianapolis, and as soon as I was old enough to think I realized that was a mistake. My best friend and I aspired – when we were about 11 or 12 years old – to be beatniks and tried to do that in Indianapolis. But anyway, I took a contrary sort of path, and everybody knows Indiana and Indianapolis in terms of the [right-wing] John Birch Society and the American Legion.

I went off to school in Bloomington in ’61. I was looking for some way to get in trouble, so I ran into a student named P-something. Anybody remember him? There was YPSL [Young People’s Socialist League], and the first demonstration I went on at IU was a national march on Washington, to protest against [atmospheric] testing of nuclear bombs.

Rick Congress at the New Left Reunion, 2013

I also knew people in the fledgling YSA [Young Socialist Alliance] – Ralph Levitt [a YSA leader at IU] is actually from my hometown. I knew his family and others. So I was in between these different [organizations] – learning about these political groups and getting involved.

I neglected to go to class so I was out after a year. Then I came back and [until] ‘69 sort of bounced around a bit – Bloomington, Chicago, Indianapolis – but my ties in Bloomington were all part of the left. I spent many days at 102 North Dunn hanging out with Robin Hunter and Dave Satterfield and all kinds of people. It was ultimately philosophizing about music, the meaning of life, politics, and revolution. We spent one whole afternoon analyzing Bob Dylan and revolution and the meaning of life or lack thereof.

So I left Indiana – I had participated in some of the actions, mainly as an outside agitator, the big strike, the tuition strike at IU in ’69. Then I left and traveled around to different cities – Seattle, Berkeley, Houston. I was a foot soldier for the Socialist Workers Party [SWP].

I bailed out of that in ’84, and during the rest of the ‘80s I spent a lot of time in Nicaragua doing things for the Sandinistas – organizing speaking tours and Central American revolutionary things. After that, I didn’t do anything politically for a long time. But then I got back – snapped out of it with the [Israeli] assault on Gaza in 2009. I then became very involved in politics around the Middle East when I traveled to Gaza.

I’ve become more a single-issue person, but follow everything. I actually have to say, thanks to Facebook, I was able to get in touch with a lot of people like Robin and others from Bloomington [now] later in life. I was here in ’87; we had a reunion, a similar type reunion, so some of the people here I saw in ’87.

I ended up teaching ESL [English as a Second Language] for a couple of summers at a technical institute in New Jersey, mainly to Chinese grad students. So then I started a record label, I’ve always been into music since high school. I have a label called ‘Random Chance Records’ for Blues, Jazz ….

I wrote a book, a biography, Blues Mandolin Man, University Press of Mississippi (2001). It’s really ironic because at Old Miss there’s now a Center for Blues Studies, and Living Blues Magazine is published there. There’s some really good people there, at least around that issue anyway.

[Question]: What’s the name of the book?

Blues Mandolin Man: The Life and Music of Yank Rachell. He lived and ended up dying in Indianapolis, so I heard him play in coffeehouses in 1966-67. Nell Levin just told me that he played in Bloomington. I know that a lot of musicians from Bloomington went to that [Indianapolis] coffeehouse [to hear him play].

Anyway, that’s it. I live in New York City. I’ve been there a long time since the early ‘80s, and I have this record label I use for teaching and to agitate once in a while. That’s my Bloomington legacy. I made my connections my first year in Bloomington with all these people, and then later in ’64 with Robin. So that’s my life.

Next to take the floor was Robin Hunter, hailing from Alberta, Canada, a good friend and comrade of Rick Congress since IU days. Robin chose not to speak at length. He didn’t need to; his legend preceded him from the ‘60s at IU. Few of the assembled 50 or 60 old New Left hands were unaware of Robin’s reputation as both a theorist and leader of the IU New Left.

Briefly, because his political resumé is too long to recite, Robin Hunter arrived at Indiana University in the mid-60s as a graduate student in Political Science. Already versed in Marxist theory, he became a prize student of the late Professor Bernard ‘Bernie’ Morris who taught Marxism.**

Robin became a co-founder of SDS in ’65; president of the IU Student Senate; and, in ’67, co-founded the Progressive Reform Party (PRP), the New Left student party led by Guy Loftman, who won the student body presidency that year. 

At IU, Robin Hunter had been involved in every major New Left action of the period, including formal debates with leading campus student conservatives, collaboration with Jeff in publicly rebutting the university president’s criticism of the New Left, and the Dow Chemical sit-in of late ’67, among other actions at and around Indiana University.


Robin Hunter (l) and Jeff Sharlet at an antiwar rally, Indianapolis IN, 1967

Later he became a force in YSA, and his behind the scenes leadership of that group was so effective that the FBI, in a confidential report to Washington, anointed him the éminence grise of the organization. Happily for the sake of history, Robin kept a detailed diary of his New Left years at IU.***

Introduced by Pat Cole, the Town Hall moderator, Robin Hunter spoke briefly in his characteristic style about his personal journey across the years from London to North America:

I’m a foreigner. I was born 15 miles out of London, and the night I was born there was an air raid, so I was born in the dark. Six miles away from where I was born, George Orwell was at that point writing Animal Farm, which he finished and published in early 1945.

My parents were in the Labor Party, and we won the ’45 election, but it [Labor] sort of flopped by 1950. They were rather disillusioned so I really didn’t inherit any of their politics. They said they knew I was a socialist. I lived in Canada and I was a founding member of a Social Democratic party, but it sort of flopped too, although it’s now the official opposition.

I resigned from the party some years ago because, when capitalism looked like it was about to collapse, the party wasn’t doing anything about saying there was an alternative political economy possible.

So I thought, well screw the NDP [National Democratic Party], I’m out of it. If they debunk the socialists [whom] I find that I can work with, I will [work with them]. So if any of you want to work with me, you know where to find me.

Finally in this set of profiles is Ruth Mahaney, a graduate student in English at Indiana in the late ‘60s, and an influential figure in the rising Women’s Liberation Movement at IU. In addition to campus antiwar activism, Ruth started the Abortion Counseling Center and was a member of the IU chapter of the New University Conference (NUC).

The abortion center provided information scarce in conservative Indiana – attracting women callers from small towns around the state as well as IU undergrads and Bloomington housewives. The NUC, a newer national organization on the left that drew as members younger faculty and grad students, not only took a stance against the Vietnam War, but also advocated for university reforms to humanize the institution, including greater sensitivity to women playing more diverse roles in society.

Let Ruth pick it up from there:

I arrived at IU in ’66 and left in ’70. I was active in the opposition to the war and helped organize demonstrations against it …. I also got involved in the New University Conference chapter here at IU [which, after brother Jeff’s early death in ’69, was renamed the ‘Jeff Sharlet NUC chapter’].   From that, I got involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, which became a really big part of my life.

Cover of handbook of the Jeff Sharlet Chapter of the New University Conference, Indiana University, 1969-70

I was active in the Abortion Counseling Center and all the projects of the Women’s Liberation Movement on campus. Along with Anne Wagner and others, I lived in Women’s Liberation House over on Washington Street before we bought a place. I was also very involved with Mark Ritchey [a major second wave leader of the campus New Left], who sends his love and hello from Wichita, Kansas.

In 1970 I moved to Chicago for a year and worked in the National Office of the New University Conference at the University of Chicago. We went around the country helping organize Women’s Studies on various campuses, and I’m very proud that most of those programs have grown into what we see today as the enormous [presence] of Women’s Studies [in the curriculum].

I then went on to teach Women’s Studies at Sonoma State University and later at San Francisco State University. I’m now at the City College of San Francisco teaching both Queer Studies and Women’s Studies.

I moved to San Francisco in the early ‘80s and came out as a lesbian. I became part of the collectively-owned Modern Times Bookstore, [a progressive bookstore] in the city. That’s where I still am, in San Francisco.

And so Rick, Robin, and Ruth, with many achievements to their credit as young New Left activists, have resisted resting on past laurels and, to take liberties with a memorable line from F Scott Fitzgerald, “beat on, boats against the current,” as they continue to pursue old and new causes in the 21st century.****

***On Robin Hunter’s IU activism, see M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002), passim. For Jeff Sharlet’s speech as SDS president rebutting the IU president, see

****From the closing line of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

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