Friday, December 20, 2013

For a Better World – Lives of the New Left IV

Indiana University (IU) of the 1960s was a typical conservative Midwestern state university with its sprawling campus, many students, and location in a small town, Bloomington. Like the other schools of the Big Ten Football Conference, IU mainly served residents of the state.

The vast majority of students came to Bloomington to get a good, relatively inexpensive higher education. Tuition was only about $200 a semester for Indiana residents. The general ambition was to earn an undergraduate degree in four years, then find a job and take one’s place in society.

However, the ‘60s was no ordinary decade. It was a time of considerable social tumult as a distant war on the other side of the world roiled and divided American society. Students at a great number of colleges and universities started protesting the Vietnam War and demanding radical change of the prevailing ‘system’, as they referred to the existing socio-economic structure.

They called themselves the New Left. While such critically-minded students were by no means numerous on most campuses and though activism at IU was not as extensive as elsewhere, the IU New Left acquitted itself well in the annals of the time.*

Unlike most of their fellow students in Bloomington who were intent on ultimately fitting into the world beyond the campus gates, the IU New Left’s aim was to end the war in Vietnam and, in the process, transform American society rather than join it – and they preferred radical change. My younger brother, Jeff Sharlet, IU ’67, an ex-Vietnam GI who died young, was part of the IU New Left contingent.

Jeff Sharlet leading a protest rally at IU, spring 1967

This past summer over a half century later, quite a number of the IU New Left turned up in Bloomington for a grand reunion. Not a large group to begin with, some 60 or more reassembled at their old stomping grounds, swapping stories of past campaigns, inevitable setbacks, and eventual victories – large and small, personal and public. They kicked off their gathering with what was dubbed a ‘Town Hall’ at which many of the returnees made short presentations about their activism during and beyond their time at Indiana University.

Their diverse interests and various causes, then as students (long gone were the idealistic dreams of ‘revolution’) and since as graduates, made for a rich mosaic of their continuous striving for meaningful, albeit incremental, social change in America.

The profiles in this post cover the gamut of the ‘60s at IU. The first is of Paulann Hosler Sheets, who arrived at the university in ’59 from a city in eastern Indiana near the Ohio border and subsequently played key roles in two major events of the early decade – the pro-Cuba march during the Missile Crisis of ’62 and the related case of the ‘Bloomington Three’ (B-3), students indicted under the Indiana Anti-Communism Act.

The other profile is of Dan Kaplan, a major campus leader, who helped successfully rally thousands of IU students against President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

Many of the future New Leftists who enrolled at IU came from liberal family backgrounds while some had early exposure to radical political ideas. Most, looking back in time in 2013, called their activist experience at IU seminal. A few students of the left came from conservative Indiana families, and their time of political engagement at the university was both initially transformative as well as ultimately seminal.

Such was the experience of Paulann Sheets, who took  her BA degree at IU and subsequently won a fellowship to the grad school. She came to campus a Goldwater Republican and joined a sorority – in the stratified world of student housing, the upper stratum of the campus social universe. In a very short time, however, Paulann hooked up with the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and became a Trotskyist as well as a premier campus activist.

Her first major action was the Fair Play for Cuba March of October ’62 – in opposition to President Kennedy’s naval blockade of the island during the tense Missile Crisis.  Paulann was part of a very small band of brothers and two sisters who planned to march across campus displaying their opposition on signs held aloft – so-called ‘speech on a stick’ –  with slogans like ‘Hands Off Cuba’ and ‘Stop the Blockade’. However, when the group assembled, they found themselves confronted by several thousand jeering, jingoistic fellow students.

The protest group, mostly YSA members, had previously agreed that Jim Bingham would make the final decision whether it was a ‘go’ or ‘no go’. Seeing the veritable sea of hostile counter-protestors before them, he called off the action, but Paulann and Polly Smith boldly announced they were going to march, mob or no mob. The guys, certainly more conscious of the potential dangers ahead, joined them.

In the midst of the Cold War with the USSR, the great bugbear, the marchers were predictably mobbed, signs shredded, punches thrown – all while campus security and the city police stood by impassively. Bravely, the tiny group marched on, fortunately essentially unscathed, before wisely abandoning the remainder of the route for safe refuge from the hostiles. Nevertheless, their statement had been made.

During the following spring of ’63, three of the YSA leaders – Jim Bingham, Ralph Levitt, and Tom Morgan – were indicted on trumped-up charges of conspiring to overthrow the government of the state under Indiana’s dubious McCarthy-style statute, so-called after the notorious political witch hunter of the ‘50s, the late Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Their persecutor was the young, politically ambitious county district attorney, or DA, Thomas Hoadley.

Encouraged by YSA’s parent organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Paulann organized the ‘Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students’, or CABS, serving as its secretary on behalf of her three comrades whose education and lives were disrupted for the next two years by the DA’s willful political crusade.

Valedictorian from a very good high school and a first class student in IU’s Government Department, Paulann interrupted her own education, withdrawing from school for a time to travel the country on behalf of the B-3. The FBI’s Indianapolis Field Office considered her so effective that they recommended Paulann as a candidate for the ‘Index’, the secret list of citizens who, in event of national emergency were to be closely monitored, and in some cases interned.

Paulann Sheets at the IU reunion, August 2013

In her presentation at the reunion Town Hall, Paulann provided the backdrop for her vigorous activism:

I’m from Fort Wayne, Indiana. My name’s Paulann. Well, that’s a story in itself – Paulann Hosler Groninger Caplovitz Sheets. And I think it all goes back to about the 4th grade when I had a teacher, and she taught everything, and her name was Sadie Baker Hatcher Hawkins Simon, and I must have been trying to live up to that.

And something that really stuck was what she said to us probably once a month which is, “History is the struggle of the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots.’” And it really stuck with me even though as a member of my family I identified as a Republican – a Goldwater Republican by the time I came here in ‘59. That’s where I was.

But at the heart of Goldwaterism in my parents’ creed was standing up for your principles. ‘Be true to thyself’. Well, I was a top student at Northside High School, but I knew nothing about the world. Nothing. And I didn’t know anything about myself. I didn’t know what was beautiful, what was true. I had just tried to meet all the expectations that were placed upon me, and did so, and then I came to Bloomington.

Well, first semester [of my Sophomore year] as a Government student there was a campaign for president going on, and [the Hollywood actress] Angie Dickinson and others arrived [in town to campaign for the Democratic ticket]. Jack Kennedy was running, and Richard Nixon was running. I was for Nixon. And I remember a sign that we put up that said something like, “If you trick our Dick, we’ll flush your John.”

I thought it was so clever, but I just shocked and shamed my Department of Government. You have to remember back then it was the Department of Government, not Political Science, that was pretentious and foolish.

And Bernie Morris – and I bet you remember Bernie [a professor of Government]. When I was still in the throes of my passion for Trotskyism in the sense that this is how I see the world – I can’t call myself a revolutionary socialist because if you’re not making a revolution 24/7, you really don’t deserve to call yourself that. But anyway, Bernie scoffed at this Political Science; he said, “Political Séance.” That says it all.

Anyway, in a nutshell, I began to learn about the world and of course discovered racism, sexism, poverty, all the things everybody else knew about, but I had been protected from. I was deeply shocked. But what’s ironic is that my real activism started with the march against the Cuban blockade in ’62.

That Republican family of mine – my father was quite a salesman for York Air Conditioning equipment. He would win big prizes in his company [including trips]. He went to Cuba in 1958 with my mother. And he was horrified at what he’d seen. This is before Castro came down from the hills [in late ‘58].

My father came back terribly impressed with Castro; it was the greatest thing that could have happened because he had seen child prostitution in the streets of Havana. And so I was predisposed to be a Cuban revolutionary supporter and have stayed one ever since. And unfortunately the struggle has gone on.

[Moderator: Didn’t you work with the Bloomington Three?]

Yes, I was the organizer of the Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students’, thanks to the Socialist Workers Party. It was a great experience. I quit school for a year and a half and gave speeches here and there, trying to provide moral support to our great Ralph [Levitt], Tom [Morgan], and Jim [Bingham] who went through the ordeal imposed on them by DA Hoadley very bravely and with grace under fire.

The ‘Bloomington Three’ at IU – Levitt, Morgan, and Bingham

Floor time at the Town Hall was necessarily limited, and at this point Paulann broke off, unable to elaborate further about the ‘Committee’. Later she told me more of her work on behalf of the B-3, which I’ll summarize.

Ralph Levitt and Jim Bingham, both IU grad students, and Tom Morgan, an undergrad, were officers of the campus YSA as well as the ‘Fair Play for Cuba Committee’. They and others had been instrumental in the march (described above) and during the following spring they had invited a national YSA officer to speak on campus in what Paulann described as “a sedate affair before an academic audience.”

DA Hoadley, claiming that the speaker’s remarks were a call for revolution against the State of Indiana, quickly moved to indict the three YSA leaders. Paulann said they well understood that the grand jury’s decision was “also a reaction to the October ’62 anti-blockade march” – an attempt to intimidate students from speaking out on controversial issues as well as an unprecedented assault on freedom of speech at a university.

Almost simultaneously, YSA called a meeting with Paulann (then Paulann Hosler Groninger) in the chair, posing Lenin’s question ‘What is to be done?’ The national YSA and the SWP in New York recommended the creation of a local defense committee for the B-3. Paulann led the formation of CABS, or the Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students, to serve as a springboard for mobilizing national support for Ralph, Jim, and Tom.

Following the recommended modus operandi, she recruited concerned IU faculty, the better known the better, to lend their names to the committee’s letterhead. She successfully “rounded up about 15-17 worthies,” among whom were some of Indiana’s most prominent professors. The local CABS letterhead in turn provided leverage for acquiring the support of distinguished scholars at nationally-known universities, ensuring high visibility for the beleaguered B-3. Hence, Paulann regarded her recruitment efforts in Bloomington as her most important contribution to the defense of her friends and comrades.

The story of the B-3 continues, but that’s for another time. For now, suffice it to say that after having their lives turned upside down for a couple of years, the case finally ended well for the Bloomington Three.

Paulann later withdrew from the PhD program in Government and went on to Columbia University for a law degree at the urging of David Caplovitz, a sociologist whose work on the voiceless poor, The Poor Pay More, she admired. Eventually appointed an Assistant Attorney General of New York State, she subsequently did a stint as an adjunct law professor and is currently a member of a law firm specializing in assisting homeowners facing foreclosure. 

Paulann later went on to Columbia University for a law degree, was appointed an Assistant Attorney General of New York State, subsequently did a stint as an adjunct law professor, and is currently a member of a law firm specializing in assisting homeowners facing foreclosure.

Unlike Paulann Sheets, Dan Kaplan, IU ’70, appeared in Bloomington politically shaped, if not yet fully formed. He was born and raised in Gary, a steel town in northwestern Indiana. As a youngster there, Dan became acquainted with the Balanoff family.†  

The father of his Balanoff contemporaries was a steelworker’s union leader and a longtime member of the Old Left. Already at a young age, Dan would sit in their living room arguing the relative merits of Trotsky versus Stalin. Balanoff senior got Dan a summer job at a steel plant where he joined the union, the first of several in his long career in labor.

Dan’s activism got underway before his arrival at IU. He had been involved with the ‘Friends of SNCC’ (pronounced ‘snick’, supporters of the Black civil rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the Chicago area. Dan had also attended SDS’s June National Council meeting in Ann Arbor MI before entering IU fall term ’66. He was soon drawn to the campus SDS chapter and quickly became a stalwart of the New Left.

Brother Jeff Sharlet was chapter president during Dan’s freshman year, and they became good friends. When Jeff graduated in ’67, Dan was elected SDS president and led the group during the Dow Chemical sit-in, the campus protest against Secretary of State Rusk, and other actions during 1968-69.

Let’s have Dan pick it up from here from his IU Town Hall remarks:

[In high school] I got involved a little bit with SNCC in the Chicago area and somehow ended up going to the SDS National Council meeting in Ann Arbor with someone in this room. Jim Balanoff and I spent a weekend there, so I was very focused on SDS when I came here to IU.

Long story short, or a little shorter, I became president of the SDS chapter here in Bloomington from 1967 into 1969. I later joined the campus YSA just a few weeks before the [national] upsurge against [Nixon’s] invasion of Cambodia [which began April 30, 1970].

Dan Kaplan, 2012

I left Bloomington in ’70; I went to New York for a year where I spent a lot of time at the National Office of the Socialist Workers Party, observing close up the functioning of the party’s central leadership. After a year in New York, I moved to the [San Francisco] Bay Area, where I became a staff member for the Northern California Peace Action Coalition. I organized against the war in Vietnam until the war ended when I lost my job.

I then became a social worker in the Department of Social Services in San Francisco. That gave me an opportunity to join the labor movement. I became a member of the Executive Board of the San Francisco local of the Social Workers Union and was involved in the city’s labor movement for a long time.

Then I went back to school and ended up becoming a community college instructor teaching American politics, international relations, and political philosophy. I always, I must admit – although I wouldn’t have necessarily said this to my students – I always taught from a Marxian perspective. I never had a problem delivering a radical analysis.

Eventually I ended up at the City College of San Francisco, working half-time for the faculty union while teaching Political Science courses half-time at the college. From there, I was hired to be the Executive Secretary of the San Mateo Community College Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers [AFT] Local 1493. And I’m still holding that position today as well as teaching political philosophy classes from time to time.

I must say, as many people have said here at the Town Hall this morning, Bloomington really had a seminal influence on my mind and I think my values. They were already roughly [shaped] values, but they were solidified by my activism here in Bloomington, which has helped me stay really focused on my ideas of how to create a better world and a fundamentally successful movement for social change.

We haven’t been winning that battle obviously, but I’m still committed to engaging in the struggle.

A lifelong activist, Dan continues to serve as Executive Secretary of AFT 1493, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this fall. In addition, he sits on the editorial board of the local’s newsletter, The Advocate, for which he occasionally writes. Dan was a co-organizer of the IU New Left reunion of 2013.
I don’t think it can be put much better than in Dan’s words – in their activist years at IU and during the decades since, Paulann and Dan, each in their different ways, have steadfastly striven ‘to create a better world’.

*See M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002).

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