A Memoir of Radical Jewish Transformation, Part I
by Arthur Waskow
The path to Barack Obama was blazed forty years ago, in Washington, D.C. That’s where we decided to nominate the first African American ever put forward for president at a major party convention.
The path began in blood and fire, smoke and sorrow, tears and tear gas.
On March 31, 1968, I was a secular activist and writer in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and a fellow of the progressive Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. I lived in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, which was then scruffy and bursting with political energy, not yet yuppified. (We learned years later that the FBI’s Cointelpro division had posted one agent at the top of my block and one at the bottom, to surveil us; there were so many activists living on the block that it was more efficient than following us one by one.)
Together with Marc Raskin, I had written “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” in support of youth who chose to resist the draft. I had drummed up hundreds of signatures and had turned in my draft card with a thousand others at the Department of Justice, just before marching off to besiege the Pentagon. When Marc, the Reverend Bill Coffin, and America’s grandpa and baby doctor, Benjamin Spock, were indicted with a few others for conspiring to aid and abet disobedience of the draft law, I was an unindicted co-conspirator.
In my ‘other’ political life, by early March of ’68, a neighborhood caucus had nominated me to be a member of a “Peace and Progress” slate seeking election as D.C.’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention, scheduled for August in Chicago. President Lyndon Johnson would be the candidate of the opposing slate; we, brave (or foolhardy) grassroots activists that we were, had begun to organize without a presidential candidate to call our own. But a few days later, Bobby Kennedy decided to run. We knew that he was the one candidate who could unite Black and white Washingtonians, so we voted to support him, though we knew the campaign would still be hard to win.
Suddenly it seemed our anti-war slate could win, and the war could swiftly end.
Spontaneously, from all around the city, anti-war activists converged on Lafayette Park, across from the White House, to dance and sing in joy that the killing would stop. The police arrested one dancer, then fifteen minutes later decided there was nothing to charge him with, dis-arrested him, and brought him back to the park. We felt as if the government had fallen.
There followed a few days of euphoria and hopefulness — until April 4th, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.
Black America rose up in fire and smoke. The army occupied the city of Washington. Troops took over public schools to bivouac, and set up firearms on the broad traffic circles that Pierre Charles L’Enfant had designed a hundred and fifty years before precisely (so I was told) to put down an uprising like that of the cobblestone revolutionaries of Paris. A Jeep pointed a machine-gun at my block, though the neighborhood survived without a racial civil war.
So our euphoria crashed. Passover came, and I realized it was Pharaoh’s Army, none other, that was standing in the streets. The image went deep into my psyche, and my secularism vanished like the smoke above the city.
The next months were intense beyond belief, for me and for America. With my four-year-old son perched beside me, I rode a sound truck through the shattered streets of Washington, blaring out the name of Kennedy. In some white neighborhoods in Northwest Washington, I served as advance man for our delegation’s chair, the Reverend Channing Phillips, a young Black minister in the King mode, committed to nonviolence and civil rights and peace and a “Free DC.”
At one meeting, I saw Phillips face down a white voter who was annoyed that uppity Blacks were leading this D.C. delegation. Phillips smiled. “We are committed to nonviolence,” he said. “But do you think the Black garbagemen in this town don’t know exactly where the water mains are hidden underground, and what it takes to turn them off?” The white guy turned far whiter.
One day I got a phone call from one of RFK’s inner aides, who told me that Ted Sorenson, the inmost of all, had called to say that “The Senator thinks that Arthur should quit the delegation because he isn’t personally committed to Bobby, only to ending the war.”
Long silence. Finally I said, “If the Senator wants me to quit his delegation, the Senator himself should call to tell me so.”
Another long silence. Then: “That’s a good answer.” I never heard another word.
Our Peace and Progress slate won election to the convention, with a make up that was unprecedented: a Black welfare mother; a couple of Kennedy’s Irish politicos; a millionaire (Phil Stern) who had written half a dozen books arguing that millionaires should be paying higher taxes; Topper Carew, an Afro-headed young architect who was teaching city planning to Black men on the streets; sweet white mothers who abhorred the war; a few ambitious lawyers, white and Black; and at least one multi-arrested troublemaker (me).
As June began in 1968, I was in Boston, living my other life. I was waiting to become a possible witness for the defense in the trial of my friends who were charged with conspiring to aid and abet resistance to the draft. Since I might become a witness, I could not sit in court to hear the others testify. So I sat in the courthouse law library, reading the journals of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Then Bobby Kennedy won the California primary. Our delegations were on their way to victory in Chicago, the war was on its way to ending, just as we had thought on that distant day in March.
And on the same early morning in which we knew he had won those delegates, Bobby was murdered.
In Boston, far from my odd collection of fellow delegates, I felt shattered. Once again, the system had figured out a way to stymie us: kill us. I couldn’t bear to sit any longer in the law library while my friends grieved and the Constitution crumbled. I flew home, and on the plane I had a thought: Bereft of our legitimate candidate, why shouldn’t the D.C. delegation nominate a favorite son?
Who might that be? Obvious: our chair — Black, antiwar, King-like, a decent human being — the Reverend Channing Phillips.
It wasn’t all so simple. Some of the white anti-war mothers insisted we check out the anti-war candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy. So we invited him to meet our delegation.
First question: “Senator, I’m a welfare mother, and I live in Barry Farms, in the projects. Would you come visit us, to see what life is really like there?”
McCarthy: “I’ve visited the ghetto in Pittsburgh. They’re all alike, I think.
The temperature dropped thirty degrees in three seconds. Quickly we ushered the senator out. Channing it would be: the first Black person ever to be nominated for president at a major-party convention would be one of us. An almost vote-less Washingtonian. Appropriate.
The history of the Chicago Convention, which led to the nomination of Johnson’s vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, is almost too well-known to repeat. But there were moments that still are unreported, poignant and instructive to remember:
On Monday and Tuesday nights of the Convention, the anti-war delegations, D.C. among them, chanted so loud that they forced adjournments against the will of Mayor Daley. When Daley threatened to send his cops into the crowd, I saw delegates pick up chairs, prepared to brawl. Twice the chairperson surrendered. Twice a dozen other delegates and I then sped to Grant Park to speak to the crowd of demonstrators. At Tom Hayden’s invitation, we made ourselves a thin, frightened line between the demonstrators and the National Guard — for Hayden hoped the Guard would not quite dare attack the elected representatives of The People.
On Wednesday night, the roll of the states was to be called for nominations and then a vote. This time, the Grant Park demonstrators tried to come to us at the convention.
The cops went berserk, beating, smashing, and chasing. They invaded Gene McCarthy’s headquarters, high in a hotel across the street from Grant Park. Lawyers and clerks called Convention Hall in tears and panic.
The roll call of the delegations was just about to begin when the anti-war New York and California delegations called an emergency caucus. I got the message, went to Channing Phillips, and explained that my people were being beaten, maybe killed: I was deeply sorry to miss his nomination, but I had to go.
He looked at me: “Those are my people too, those people on the streets. I need to go as well!”
“But Channing, you’re about to be nominated for president! How can you miss it?” I didn’t need to add that the moment was historic.
“I’m coming,” he said.
The emergency caucus made a quick decision: We would call for the convention to adjourn before the actual voting began. If our motion was ruled out of order, we would chant again. New York and California would start it off.
Channing and I got back to the floor barely in time to hear Phil Stern place his name in nomination. Wisconsin moved to adjourn and the motion was ruled out of order — but there was no roar, no chanting.
I frantically made my way to the New York delegation, where I found Paul O’Dwyer, candidate for the Senate, along with Congressional candidate Al Lowenstein, a key anti-war leader. “What’s happening?” I begged. “We agreed to chant, to stop them in their tracks.”
“That was last night,” O’Dwyer said. “Tonight on national television they are nominating a president. They won’t allow it.”
“Allow it? How can they stop us?”
O’Dwyer stared at me, this wild-eyed bearded delegate from the D.C. mavericks, and turned away.
I understood. Yes, we could have stopped them — at the cost of two hundred fist fights, maybe cops firing at delegates, all on national television. At the cost of breaking up the Democratic Party. Such considerations, apparently, were more important than the Vietnam War.
Al Lowenstein led a candlelight procession from Convention Hall to Grant Park, where the demonstrators had already been beaten or tear-gassed into oblivion. It was a sweet gesture — and meaningless.
I found where the Ramparts magazine crew had been planning “wall-poster” emergency stories to get the truth out to the demonstrators and delegates alike. I had written a story or two for them myself. The Ramparts folks were exhausted, sipping Scotch and telling stories. Sweet — and meaningless.
I made my way to the Stockyards Inn, where engaged intellectuals I knew were waiting for hundreds of disaffected delegates to quit the Convention and work with them to shape a New Party. I was the only one delegate who came.
The next night, the last of the Democratic Convention, I made my way to Grant Park instead of Convention Hall. There the Reverend Dick Fernandez, gutsy executive of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, grimly told me that the cops would be killing people that night.
Not me. I turned away, with all of my identities shredded. Street radical, left-wing Democrat, engaged intellectual — all sweet and meaningless.
My soul was as empty as Grant Park that last night. Empty of everything but clouds of tear gas. The gas merged in my nose and lungs with the clouds of smoke that had hovered in April over Washington.
Still, I had the friendship of a Black clergyman who thought that stopping the cops from beating people on the streets was more important than seeing himself make history by being nominated for president.
And I had — just emerging from the core of me — the misty memory of an identity that stretched back almost four thousand years. And the memory of making Passover while Pharaoh’s Army strode the streets of Washington just after the murder of Martin Luther King.
That fall, I wrote the Freedom Seder. The following spring, we celebrated it in the basement of Channing Phillips’ church.
Forty is an iconic number in biblical tradition: forty days of rain as the Flood began, forty years of wandering in the Wilderness, forty days of fasting for Moses (and then Jesus) on the mountaintop, forty days of Lent.
Rabbi Jeff Roth teaches that this iconic “forty” is rooted in the forty weeks of pregnancy.
Each forty, a pregnant pause.
From 1968 to 2008: forty years of pregnant pause after King’s death, Kennedy’s death, the hopes of an America reborn killed off in Memphis and Los Angeles and Chicago.
Is the pregnancy completed? Forty years later, are we prepared to give birth? To cross the Jordan not to utopia but to a new, unpromised place?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs The Shalom Center, a Philadelphia-based resource center focused on Judaism, environmental issues, and peacemaking. His many books include The Freedom Seder (1970); Seasons of Our Joy (1982/91); Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest Of Life (1997); A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual Path (with Phyllis Berman, 2002), and The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (with Sister Joan Chittister and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti, 2006).