You have to understand, I always liked Jimmy O’Shea. Admired him. No matter what happened, and the word betrayal has been thrown around a lot on all sides, I respected him and respect is what MUST be restored to your narrative. You’re going to imply I betrayed him. I did not. I’m neither proud nor guiltstricken about what I did in those days and anyway by 1968 Jimmy was no longer the same person I knew in 1965 or 1961. Everyone had changed. He was not the person you portray in such a kindly light (to play off your use of Cardinal Newman’s poem at the end of the second section. Remember, the poem continues, “amid the encircling gloom.”)
I took more flack from people like Jimmy than I deserved, which needs to be corrected. They gave me shit, frankly, because I saw the big picture and they didn’t. That was the major difference between us. I saw what had to be done. That carries a bad taste in some quarters, the flavor of avoiding personal responsibility, shifting the blame, but in my opinion knowing what has to be done is the highest of political skills. What has to be done is never romantic and fabulous. It’s not what turns you on and it cuts right through all that cult, guru, Supreme Commander, Maulana, seat-of-the-pants madness, instant satori, all that what-could-be-if-only bullshit. If only is such a pitiful phrase. If only I’d married Joan. If only the workers would understand their ‘revolutionary role.’ What is is what is only. There is only what is. Mastering what is, on the largest possible scale, is true politics. I lay no claim to great politics, but I saw the big picture. Jimmy didn’t.
Neither did Stokely Carmichael.
It was their names, Jimmy’s and Stokely’s, on the fundraising leaflet (and the title, The Civil Rights Movement After Selma) that drew me to that gathering in Palo Alto. Fall, 1965, September. I won’t say whose house it was, not on tape, because that gets into certain connections, overt and covert, with people around Jimmy. Stokely was far better known than Jimmy then, though not famous yet, not till the Black Power days of ‘66 and ‘67. Neither of them were as famous as I, and it galls me, frankly, that Jimmy did not remember me from Cornell. We had met before, briefly, at Cornell.
The hostess made a big fuss over me at the door, knew I didn’t drink, brought me a tulip glass of fruitjuice, so I expected rather more, a lot more, from Jimmy, whom I spotted standing in front of one of those contemporary sculptures made of bent tubing painted in bright raw reds and yellows. I came up casually beside him, said, “so, what do you think?” and instead of “Oh my god, I can’t believe...” something like that, I got a sideways look and “Reminds me of those color-coded pipes in oil refineries.” Clever. I waited. Nothing. The hostess came over, said something like, “Oh our leaders are together,” putting us on the same level, and launched into a little concern of hers which could Jimmy help her with? Stokely had not yet arrived and she was concerned, “You see, these days I never know what to call them. We grew up calling them colored,” she said, “and they seemed to like that. Then they were Negroes and that was ok too, only I just read that some want to be called blacks. It’s embarrassing. What do you think I should do?”
Jimmy had a way of stalling for time by looking into your eyes (particularly women’s eyes) in a way that was distant and intimate at the same time, focussing on some spot inside your head as if reading your mind. “I think you should call them whatever they want to be called,” he said. She missed the irony entirely. Shortly after, Stokely arrived.
Cornell is important because it’s microcosmic in terms of our relationship. Jimmy was a pacifist, Quaker I believe, who refused to enroll in compulsory ROTC; I was the leader who got rid of ROTC. He wrote the leaflets for the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, but without me, there would have been no chapter on campus and apparently he could sit across the table at SANE meetings I was chairing and not see me, or have me not register in his memory. I’m not saying he was antisemitic, he had Jewish friends, Jewish girl friends, he just didn’t see me. He was a minor poet, part of the literary crowd, those were the days of Tom Pynchon, I don’t think he knew Tom, I didn’t either, Tom kept to himself off campus, but everybody knew then Tom was a genius though we didn’t understand a thing he wrote. Frankly, Jimmy was one of those F. Scott Fitzgerald type students, freshscrubbed, preppy-looking, noble, midwestern, the ones who weren’t necessarily handsome themselves, but who defined handsome. They were all from Minneapolis as far as I was concerned, anyone west of Montclair was from Minneapolis. Nabokov taught at Cornell then, we all paraded around with copies of Lolita. The poet W.D. Snodgrass (Cornell fired him just before he won the Pulitzer Prize) wrote a great line about Cornell students: They are the Whites, the vaguely furiously driven, which described the situation pretty well. Unfortunately I never attended their courses, Nabokov, et al. I’m not ashamed to say I got into the Ivy League by the back door, Cornell Hotel School to be specific, the tuition being considerably less than Arts and Sciences. Then you eased your way into liberal arts classes and eventually with some help from a dean, transferred. At the time, I didn’t advertise what part of the campus I attended, not letting on, for example, that I knew more about Montrachet than any preppy from Minneapolis. After a while people got used to seeing you around. That’s how I came to be invited to a three-day May Day bash at Dick Farina’s (later Richard Fariña, married to the sister of Joan Baez, who married David Harris, whom you thinly disguise as ‘Harris Longworth’ in your opening scene on Stop the Draft Week. Small world.)
Jimmy was a year behind me at Cornell, about to achieve local notoriety by becoming the lover of a drama grad student ten years older than he. I don’t blame him for not noticing me at Farina/Fariña’s party. Everyone was drunk and she was quite something, the Emma Goldman of the Drama Department.
The point is he wasn’t political. He had a chance. I tried to teach him. He hadn’t his public voice yet and when he got it, the voice was an agitator’s, a rabble-rouser’s, not like mine, a voice everyone acknowledged directed and inspired.
From one bash to another, back to Palo Alto. Jimmy was speaking when Stokely arrived late. He ignored the advertised subject, said nothing about the Selma March. He probably didn’t even go. (I did, flew down on the same flight as Charlton Heston. I dropped up to First Class to tell him how much his performance as Moses had moved me, he was very effusive, we talked for several moments about the emotional impact of the attack by Bull Connor’s police on the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery and the greatness of Martin Luther King.) He, Jimmy, spoke for some reason about his visit to a high school in Corcoran, a godforsaken farm community west of Delano, where he’d been invited to explain what the southern civil rights movement was all about and instead, told the kids, “Let me show you what a SNCC field worker does when he comes into a town in Mississippi or Alabama” and started asking them what they thought about their school and Corcoran and their parents’ lives, and pretty soon, according to him, they were all riled up about the way the school and their teachers treated them, and their fathers’ oppressive jobs, farmworkers mostly, and how there were no recreational facilities in Corcoran. My disappointment increased when Stokely entered the room and I graciously saluted him, unobtrusively, tipping my fingers to my forehead, and he gave no sign of recognition. I knew then that when Stokely spoke there would be no reconciliation and that reconciliation was what I had come for. I would have walked out, but I had been so rash as to draw his attention to me (the hostess would have anyway) that now I had to endure another hour of SNCC dogma about how you go into a community, ignore the established leaders, present no program, and let the poor decide what they want for themselves, when our cumulative experience in the civil rights movement since the Montgomery bus boycott proved that the poor are never ready to assume power in an advanced society.
Now, I, Lou Rosen, without whom there would have been no 1964 Freedom Summer, no Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, had to stand behind a ficus plant in a fabulous living room and listen to two men, one white, one black, both charismatic (Jimmy had lost his preppy look, gained some character, and Stokely, what can I say, lithe as a panther) enthrall these liberals with a vision of a process that won’t work, the carrying out of which unleashes violent forces that will destroy the very social contract on which a liberal society depends.
I’m getting ahead of myself. I know that now, but I didn’t in 1965.
In the Palo Alto living room, I still wanted to believe that the civil rights movement was a band of brothers, a circle of friends, from which I was temporarily exiled for arguing that the movement had to be reigned in, controlled by its more responsible leaders, so as not to antagonize the White House. Lyndon Johnson had just signed the Voting Rights Act and federal voting officials were being sent to register Negroes for the first time in 100 years in the exact place Stokely was now talking about, Lowndes County, the heartland of racist terror in Alabama, ruled for a century by white landed gentry through the systematic threat of murder and torture, where a white divinity student from Boston had been shotgunned to death weeks earlier by a deputy sheriff for registering Negroes to vote.
So I applauded Stokely when he said “Our plan is simple. We intend to take power in Lowndes County,” because I was used to rhetoric, and Stokely was employing the democratic power of the vote against those who had for generations abused democracy. He was no threat to America. But my applause stopped when he said, “This time we are not asking for outside help, for marches and demonstrations, for Hollywood stars and Stanford students,” and I knew he was referring to me and my work. I wasn’t insulted. There seemed to be a stifling distance between me and them in that room. Jimmy talking about a wretched highschool in a small town, Stokely about a dirtpoor Southern county no one had heard of. They were pulling away from the big picture. Two years to the month from when Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Monument, in the seat of power, and he’s telling these good people that when the poor Negroes of Mississippi brought their Freedom Democratic Party to the 1964 Democratic Convention and the president of the United States wouldn’t bow down to them and give them everything their overheated imaginations desired, after we had gained for them everything they needed. He’s telling them we liberals sold out the poor, and he won’t even mention my name or look me in the eye. He and Jimmy talk of power, not integration, of what the poor will do and not of what we the people in the room can do, a small room with irrelevant people in it.
Stokely did one true political thing at the end. A professor asked him why the “legendary civil rights leader Bob Moses” had spoken at a recent rally against the U.S. military action to prevent communist takeover of Indochina, and wasn’t that a bit out of SNCC's purvue?
“As an organization, we haven’t taken a stand on the war in Vietnam,” Stokely said, “but if you want my personal opinion,” (of course they did) “if we’re going to die, we should die fighting those who oppress us.”
See how cleverly he sidestepped the issue? Besides, it was 1965. There was no war in Vietnam.
That’s when the word occurred to me, behind the ficus and the enthralled crowd of professors and liberals. Neutralize. It didn’t bear the same ugly connotations it gained after the CIA revelations. I didn’t mean terminate with extreme prejudice, executive action, all those macho cold war terms, but something closer to the original sense, to render inert, to reduce to inefficiency, nullify. They were skewing the process dangerously to the left and might take the decent people of that room with them. So that was when I thought for the first time: neutralize.
END PART 1