1975-1978 Age 21-24 The Houston Years
(This is the fourth chapter of my autobiographical series. The others can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning. This chapter was initially sent to my music fan email list on September 1, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)
In the previous chapter, I said that the City of Dallas had transferred me to a job where I worked alone, on the graveyard shift, and my days off were Monday and Tuesday. Whether they did this because they were worried I was trying to organize a union, or because of my socialist activity, I don’t know. But it definitely cramped my style, both in terms of political activity and social activity. Having to go to work on Friday and Saturday nights at 10pm sucked. Really sucked. No more hanging at Mother Blues– or anywhere. And what girl wants to go on a date on a Monday or Tuesday night? The SWP had been urging me to move to Houston, where there was a branch of the party. I had no desire to move to Houston, which had a well-deserved reputation as a redneck city, but given that I was no longer going college, and my social life killed by the new work shift, I gave in and moved in January, 1975.
Confronting the KKK in New Orleans
Soon after moving to Houston, I agreed to be part of a 3-person team of Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) members who travelled to various college towns in Texas and Louisiana to recruit new members. We would typically setup a literature table and sell the Young Socialist newspaper, books and pamphlets. We would also organize a meeting where we took turns giving a speech and hopefully recruiting new members. While visiting the University of New Orleans, a white student came up to our literature table, identified himself as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and threatened to attack us if we held the meeting. It was my turn to give the speech. The University of New Orleans was a community college; most of the students were from working class or middle class families, and there were a lot of Black students. At our literature table we met members of the Black Student Union, partly because we sold books of Malcolm X’s speeches. I told the Black students of the threat made by the KKK, and asked if they would be willing to sit on the front row of seats and serve as security. They readily agreed. By 1975, things had changed in the South. These young Black students were itching to kick some Klan ass.
Because of the threat by the Klan, and the response of the Black students, this was by far the best-attended meeting we held on the tour. There were 80-100 people in attendance. I was fired up and gave a good speech; it’s the same high I get now when I play music for a big audience. The Klan members, after seeing the first three rows filled with Black students, wisely chose not to attack me, and remained in the back, and limited themselves to hostile questions and comments after my speech. The FBI had an undercover agent there, too. Their files on me confirm that we recruited 5 new members there, enough for a new YSA chapter.
University of Houston: School, Work, Political Activity, Music
In the fall of 1975 I enrolled at the University of Houston and was a leader of the YSA chapter there. I also became a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I lived with a girl named Ellen, who I had met in Dallas, for all but my last semester of college in Houston. During all my college years I either worked part or fulltime. I had various jobs, but the one that last the longest was at UPS. I unloaded and loaded trucks in the horrible Houston heat and humidity, and UPS foreman were constantly pushing us to work faster. The work sucked big-time, but it paid better than any other part-time job a college student could get, so we put up with it. Eventually I got promoted to an easier job of sorting packages coming off the trucks onto conveyer belts to be loaded into other trucks. I led a organizing drive by the Teamsters, but that failed. The workforce was students, and so there was a lot of turnover. Nobody considered this a permanent job. And the Teamsters staff was never very serious about it.
Between work, classes, homework, and political activity I had little time for partying like most college students. I would invite a friend or two over to our apartment on Saturday nights to drink beer and listen to my records. The 70’s were bad for rock music, in my opinion. I found the music of bands like Aerosmith and Journey boring, and their vapid lyrics about sex and parying even more boring. I still hate that shit. Instead I got into other types of music– Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Maria Muldaur, Ricky Lee Jones and Alt Country/Texas songwriters– Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willie Nelson, B.W. Stevenson. Occasionally I would go to small live music bars to see people like Shake Russell play. Shake would play his songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a seeming random group of local musicians. I was thinking: that looks like fun; I wish I could do that.
My political activity at the University of Houston campus consisted of selling the YSA’s monthly newspaper, the Young Socialist, and the SWP weekly newspaper, The Militant, and staffing our literature table once a week. We would also hold forums where one of us would speak on current issues, and sometimes sponsor guest speakers that the SWP and YSA had organized national tours for, such as Tsietsi Mashinini, leader of the Soweto student uprising in South Africa, and Leah Tsemel, Israeli human rights lawyer who defended Palestinians.
We also participated in broader coalitions around various issues. Antiracist work and coalitions were a top priority; more on that in the next paragraphs. The women’s rights movement was focused on getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed, and our women members participated in the National Organization for Women and the campus women’s group. We supported and publicized the struggles of people internationally living under US-supported authoritarian regimes, such as the Shah of Iran, the Blacks living under the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Palestinians under occupation by the Zionist government of Israel. But results were minimal; by 1975 the “Sixties” were long gone, and the University of Houston was hardly a Berkeley even in the Sixties.
The Anti-Racist Movement in the 1970’s
After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, legal discrimination ended in the South. Gone were the white and colored water fountains of my youth in Jackson, and Blacks could now vote without fear of KKK violence. The Black struggle moved to a new level– ending illegal, defacto discrimination. Now the South became like the North, where Blacks were legally equal with whites, but in practice suffered discrimination in all walks of life. The schools in black neighborhoods received less funding that the schools in white neighborhoods. Real estate agents refused to show homes to blacks in white neighborhoods, and if they tried to buy one, the banks would deny the loans. Qualified blacks were turned down for jobs in favor of less-qualified white job applicants. Blacks were not admitted to colleges but whites with lower test scores were. And so on. This type of discrimination was harder to prove, and resulted in the demand for affirmative action, with quotas, to force racist institutions to end discrimination. White police in black neighborhoods were far more brutal and violent than they were in suburban white neighborhoods (sound familiar?). Then there was the death penalty, which was disproportionately used against Black defendants. The SWP and YSA supported all these struggles against racism.
Please allow me a short digression here to talk about my mom again. In order to combat housing discrimination, in 1968 the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, which included an enforcement agency. My mom took a job with this agency. They would first send a black person to inquire about renting an apartment, and if they were told there were none available, they would then send my mom, a white person. If they offered my mom an apartment, they were busted. I remember my mom was proud of this work; she was sort of an undercover antiracist activist.
The Boston Busing Crisis
In 1974, a judge ruled in a favor of a lawsuit file by Blacks ordering the Boston schools to end defacto segregation. Whites in Boston rioted when black students were bused into the formerly all-white schools. I have to admit, this southerner could not help but notice the hypocrisy of the white Yankees. The whites in the north supported the Civil Rights movement as long as it was confined to the South. But, as I told you in my previous chapters, my school in Jackson, Mississippi was peacefully integrated in 1967, and the schools in Dallas peacefully integrated in 1971. Southern white kids of my generation– most of them, at least– changed their attitudes and became friends with Blacks. Yet when the schools were integrated in supposedly progressive Boston– the heart of the Abolitionist movement before the Civil War– the whites rioted rather than accept Black students into their schools. Now who’s superior, Mr. and Ms. Yankee White Liberal?
It was around this time that a YSA member turned me on to Randy Newman and his brilliant album about the South, Good Ole Boys. Randy Newman liked to write “in character.” It’s like an actor playing a bad guy in a movie, except in movies, everyone knows your acting. With songwriting, a lot of people assume all your songs are about yourself. So it takes a lot of courage for songwriters to write “in charracter.” The opening song, Rednecks, is written from the point of view of a southern racist redneck, who Newman ridicules, but he also uses that character to blast northern hypocrisy. I immediately went out and bought my own copy of the album, and I listened to it over and over. In addition to the brilliant satirical lyrics, the music is beautiful. I would rank it as one of the Top 10 albums of all time, and probably one of the Top 5.
The Anti-War Movement and the Anti-Racist Movement
You must permit me another digression here. In the Sixties, the SWP and YSA played leadership roles in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Their strategy was to form broad-based coalitions open to all individuals and organizations who favored peaceful marches demanding the troops be brought home immediately. “Out Now!” was the slogan. They were highly successful, organizing the largest marches against the war, which, along with the soldiers refusing the fight, pressured Nixon into ending the war. The SWP and YSA-influenced antiwar coalitions embraced the troops, both active duty and those who had returned, and many of those ex-soldiers played a leadership role in the antiwar coalitions. This history is well-documented in Fred Halstead’s book, Out Now! Fred, himself a veteran, was the SWP’s main leader in the antiwar movement, and, to my knowledge, his book on the antiwar movement is still the best.
Many years later, when the government was trying to head off opposition to its new wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, a myth was created that the anti-Vietnam War protesters were against the soldiers. This big lie is easily disproved in Halstead’s book, and documentary movies such as Sir! No Sir! Even in the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam war, which is weak on the antiwar movement, some of the soldiers he interviews note that they joined the antiwar movement when they got home from Vietnam, some of them forming the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In GI opposition to the Vietnam War, 1965-1973 historian Howard Zinn, a leader of the antiwar movement, is well-worth reading. This article and this one (the latter has great photos), also effectively refute the big lie of the antiwar movement being against the troops, and the fact that soldiers, or “G.I.s”, as they were know then, were an important component of the antiwar movement.
The SWP and YSA tried to apply their successful anti-war coalition-building strategy to the anti-racist movement, centered around the Boston busing crisis. As part of that strategy, the YSA initiated the National Student Coalition Against Racism. I travelled to Boston to attend the founding convention. I met with members of the Black Student Union at U of H and helped initiate a local chapter. After the Boston crisis died down, we tried to expand the coalition to other antiracist issues, such as affirmative action and police brutality. But unfortunately, this attempt to build an antiracist coalition failed. Part of the reason was, no doubt, that the most gifted Black leaders of the time– Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and some of the Black Panther Party leaders– had been assassinated. Most of the rest had be co-opted into the Democratic Party machine. The SWP and YSA were unable to fill the void, because they had few black members, having recruited most of their members from the mainly white antiwar movement, and Blacks were not inclined to join coalitions with predominately white organizations. Their mistrust of white liberals and white radicals was understandable and justified. And I think the fact that there was no central issue in the antiracist fight at the time was a factor. Today, there is a central key issue– the issue of police murders in the Black Community– and, as a result, there is a national coalition–Black Lives Matter.
When the email series about my discography morphed into a semi-autobiographical essay, I mentioned that I had been observing the Black Lives Matter protests with interest, because I used to be an activist myself. Now you know.
Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education, History and Spanish
I majored in Secondary Education, with a focus on History and Spanish. I didn’t want to teach high school; I was too shy and afraid of how to handle discipline problems. But at the time I thought that was the only career open to me in the social sciences, especially history, which I loved (still do). In my final Spring semester, I did the required student teaching which confirmed I did not want to teach high school. I needed two more Spanish classes to graduate, and found that the UofH had classes in Guadalajara, Mexico. I signed up for that, and lived with a family that spoke no English. I had to speak Spanish all the time. I had a headache the first three days because my brain had to work 10 times harder just to communicate. But by the 5th week, I noticed that I was thinking in Spanish. I passed my fluency test and remained fluent in Spanish for a few years, but as the saying goes, “use it or lose it,” so I’ve forgotten a lot of Spanish since then. I can just get by now.
Goodbye Houston, Hello Phoenix
I graduated from the University of Houson in the summer of 1978. At the time the SWP was growing and expanding into new cities. I never really liked Houston anyway, and was ready for a change. I asked if they could use help starting a new branch, and the SWP leadership suggested Phoenix. I quickly agreed, and moved there in August.
Next: 1978-1991: Phoenix, Tucson, Qutting the SWP/YSA, Independent Political Activity, Music