Recently on our family listserve, my grandfather Irving shared an essay memoir he wrote to the Obama campaign. It’s a moving recollection and reflection on his own involvement in the civil rights movement, something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. After asking to see if he’d be ok with it, I’m now happy to share it with you. Enjoy!
A Dramatic Memory on the Eve of Obama’s Election
Irving M. Levine
One month after the dramatic election of Barack Obama, I celebrated my 79th birthday with renewed hope and considerable glee. The day, December 7th, always evokes vivid memories of my 12th birthday in 1941. There wasn’t much to celebrate, of course, as I sat by the radio, hour-after-hour, hoping and praying that despite massive losses at Pearl Harbor, we might still prevail as a nation. Thank god that we had chosen FDR as our President. His indomitable spirit, inspirational character, and transformational leadership rallied us to victory against truly evil forces seeking to dominate the world.
From those times of dark shadows to today, my life’s journey has been a good and lucky one. Born into poverty, two months after the stock market crash of 1929, I grew up in a neighborhood largely populated by Jews, Blacks, and small enclaves of Italian and Polish families. We lived in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn—home to Murder Incorporated—and our fates were up for grabs. For my three brothers and me, poverty and high-crime would not prove to be a knockout blow. A close family, mutual aid, the WPA, and our parents’ good character got us through the worst of times. But for many of my street-corner buddies, their lives went the wrong way. Dozens ended “up the river” or died of drug and gang activities.
I was also “saved” by the social activism of a group of teenage boys and adult supporters. They protested the lack of recreational activities in the neighborhood by forming the Brownsville Boys Club (BBC). I rose to be a key leader in this group of 2000 boys. I served first as a voluntary athletic director, and later as the BBC’s president. As a young teen of 13, I vividly remember one meeting at the local public library. The question of the day was “should the BBC allow Negroes to be members of the club?” I led the pro-civil rights faction to a unanimous vote of “yes.” My joy was palpable. These were the early 40’s, when almost all neighborhood organizations were segregated. We had become the first officially integrated boys club in the nation. And did we reap the benefits!
My early activism paid off as I was soon chosen to be the athletic director. We achieved victory after victory, especially in basketball, as our integrated teams triumphed throughout the city. The catcalls from the opposition, and their local audiences were defiant and deafening: “Get that nigger!” “Kill that Jew-bastard!” But this ugly bigotry only made our victories that much sweeter.
These experiences launched my career as a youth worker, community organizer, civil rights leader, and founding director of the Institute for American Pluralism, based at the American Jewish Committee, which became a leading think-tank, training and policy center on multi-ethnic relations. It was an organization widely credited for beginning of the “new pluralism movement” of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Since President-elect Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention speech, I have felt a very personal, almost mystical attraction to his leadership style and change agenda. There was something about his community training, brilliant public discourse, and calm, courageous stands that reminded me of my own life experiences. There was also something more that I could not quite put my finger on. And then on election night, watching as tens of thousands of citizens, the poor, the rich and those of mostly modest income, representing the entire tapestry of the American dream, gathered in Chicago and in countless celebrations across the country, I finally knew what had touched me to the core. I was remembering another dramatic personal experience that capped my early adult years. The event was important as a legacy of what our great country can do when people rally together and seize the moment.
It was 11PM of the last day of the Indiana Civil Rights Legislative Conference of 1960. I am sitting with my co-director of the Civil Rights legislative conference in the legislators’ balcony. We are the official lobbyists for Indiana’s first comprehensive Civil Rights bill. We are downcast and deeply upset as our bill doesn’t have the support to pass. Surprisingly, two prominent Republican leaders approach us. They are the same guys who have been the fiercest opponents of our bill. But as providence would have it, they need our help. A few weeks before, they committed an act of foolishness that inadvertently (they say) eliminated two 19th Century Indiana laws derived from the 14th Amendment. The storm at this abomination was enormous. Editorials around the country clamored that the Republican Party had to do something about the disaster, as pundits suggested that the old KKK image of Indiana had been revived. A big concession is necessary, and in the waning hours of the night, these leaders turn to us. “What do you guys want?” they ask. “We want the whole thing,” we said. “We want our bill with no amendments.” What we wanted was, in fact, the most comprehensive state civil rights bill in the country. I had drafted the law on a far-fetched hope that a breakthrough might be possible because we had the support of a new democratic governor, Matthew Welsh. But we were blocked because the Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature. “Okay,” the two Republican leaders said. “Give us a copy of the bill, and we’ll pass it before the midnight deadline.” This was some 60 minutes away!
So sure of defeat, we had not even brought the bill to the legislature that evening. My partner, John Preston Ward, was a prominent Indianapolis attorney and the director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. I was the state-wide director of the Indiana Jewish Community Relations Council. John was tall, lean, handsome, and brilliant. He was also black and totally blind. And he taught Constitutional Law at Indiana University. He took a deep breath and verbally recited, from memory, the text of our entire bill to a stenographer. The bill was brought to the floor for a vote, and quickly passed into law. To John, this act of great intellect and memory was no feat at all. To me it was a miracle.
I have yet to shake his hand or speak to our President-elect, but my recollection of John’s feat that winter evening in Indianapolis has clearly morphed John’s persona into Barack Obama. I have been channeling John Preston Ward and his wonderful achievements whenever my eyes and ears are cast on our new President. They say that one’s memory can play strange tricks as you age, but not this time!
For me there was once another hero who helped open the door for a new day—caring and committed, deeply passionate about what is right and good, and smart as a whip. John Preston Ward and Barack Obama both found a way to seize opportunity and advanced the best hopes and audacious dreams for our nation and for my grandchildren. Attending the Obama inaugural would be the perfect later life gift for me, and a great recognition for what folks like John and I did to prepare our nation for this historic moment.