A New York Yankee in Louisiana

Coming Alive In Dangerous Times (1961-1983): Chapter 1
Len Krimerman

[Editor's note: this is chapter one of GEO founding-member Len Krimerman's new memoir. We will be releasing additional chapters over the next month. Read the preface and introduction here.]

Before the Beginning

In the summer of 1961, I made two trips to New Orleans, with very different purposes and outcomes.

The first took place in late May, just after the Freedom Rides to end segregation in the South had begun. Four friends, all graduate students at the same northeastern university, and all white, decided to answer the call for a little known Freedom Ride from Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi. We were from different academic disciplines – two mathematicians, a chemist, and a philosopher. But all four of us wanted to see an end to the brutal system of segregation in the South and in our nation, and we shared the sense that these Freedom Rides could spark a path to segregation’s demise.

I was among them, and we drove my car, despite it having recognizably “Yankee” license plates. We stopped, other than for snacks or gas, only twice all the way from Ithaca, New York to New Orleans. The first was in Alabama, where one of us – Charlie Haynie – had relatives he wanted to visit. He went inside, leaving us to wait in the car, but quickly re-emerged, obviously disappointed. The visit had not gone well, especially after he explained to his relatives that we were headed even further south to support the cause of racial justice. Charlie tried hard, with no success, to reach through their bigoted opposition. He had even tried appealing to the animal kingdom – where, he had pointed out, horses of many different colors had no qualms about mating and in general got along harmoniously. Needless to say, our mood became somewhat less optimistic after this incident.

Our second stop was not a voluntary one. It occurred on the interstate in the middle of Mississippi, where state police pulled us over. But the smell of danger was a false alarm: it was very late at night on Memorial Day weekend, and the troopers just wanted us to know that there were coffee and snacks several miles ahead, should we be tired. We had assumed that the troopers, given my license plates, were aware of our northern origins, and also that they knew all about our impending Freedom Ride into Mississippi, and would quickly put 2+2 together, and at the very least, arrest us. But fortunately these assumptions were way off-base, giving us a great deal of personal relief along with some additional hope about our mission.

We made it without further incident to New Orleans, where a training session in non-violent resistance had been prepared for us and about a dozen or so other potential freedom riders. Our own Freedom Ride was to go in the opposite direction from the first and most widely publicized one, which left from Washington, DC, and was to travel through several Deep South states, concluding in the Big Easy. Our destination, by contrast, was Jackson, Mississippi, and we were to leave the following day.

Our hosts made sure that the dangers we would face were very well described in advance. As on the earlier Freedom Rides, we could expect lots of nasty name-calling, life-threatening violence, and everything in between. Charlie and Paul Green, the mathematicians, along with Joe Griffith, our chemist, signed on, but I declined, citing the need to keep working on my dissertation. That was true enough, but it wasn’t the real reason for my defection. Even if my dissertation had been written and fully accepted, my fear of getting attacked, badly injured – maybe outright killed – would have stopped me from joining the Ride.

After writing this story, especially for a memoir, I felt impelled to find out at least a little about the later lives of my three more courageous allies. It had been over fifty years since we traveled to New Orleans, and I had long since lost touch with them. I googled for “Freedom Riders”, and up popped a book with that title by Raymond Arsenault, that promised a listing of all those who had risked life and limb in that battle zone against racial injustice in this country. In his “Roster of Freedom Riders,” Arsenault provides several hundred short listings with some information about each Rider; much too short, but better than nothing. Here’s what I found about Paul, Joe, and Charlie:


GREEN, PAUL S. W M 22 Ithaca, NY Student, Cornell Univ. (Ithaca, NY)
Currently a professor of mathematics at the Univ. of Maryland, College Park.
GRIFFITH, JOE HENRY W M 26 Ithaca, NY Graduate student, Cornell Univ.
Born in Oklahoma City, OK, on November 11, 1934. Graduate of SMU (B.S., chemistry and biology, 1956) and Cornell Univ. (Ph.D., phys. chem., 1967). Participated in Route 40 campaign (1962), March on Washington (1963), and voter registration drives in Fayette, MS (1964). Active in anti-war movement (late 1960s). Teacher (1967–1971) and principal (1971–1988) in MA. Worked with Smithsonian’s Nat. Acad. of Science (1988–1992) and Nat. Museum of Am. History (1992–1994), and NASA’s educational outreach program (1998–2003). Currently lives in Durango, CO.

HAYNIE, CHARLES A. W M 25 Ithaca, NY Graduate student, Cornell Univ.
Began teaching experimental courses at the Univ. of Buffalo in 1969. A leader of the political left on campus, he organized demonstrations against racism and nuclear power plants. A lecturer in the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Program and affiliated with the Environment and Society Institute, he retired in 2000 and died a year later at the age of 65 following a three-year battle with cancer.

(From page 545 of Arsenault’s book, published in 2006 by Oxford University Press.)


As for me back in 1961, I took a plane home, leaving my car behind so I could say that I had contributed something to help bury Jim Crow. But the defection continued to bother me, so when a job offer came through that same summer from a university in New Orleans, I took my second journey down there to scarf it up, like a hungry beast. The university that hired me, at that time called Louisiana State University in New Orleans(LSUNO), was just three years old, and had been intentionally created as an integrated campus. (I was soon to learn that this was just one in an immense series of tactics used by the notorious Long family of Louisiana to win support from black constituents.) Maybe I could support the cause of equal rights for all from a position of (some) influence and in part redeem my cowardice?

A City that Welcomed Anarchists

I stayed in New Orleans for seven edgy and animating years, loved the city and its many cultures, and returned there often to visit friends made in the 1960s. The city was, and still is, home to many anarchist thinkers and groups. A big part of my affection for it came from how it led me away from the classical philosophy I had been trained to respect towards the wide, wild, and largely ignored world of anarchist thought and practice. It was exciting to be there, and share in experiments of both one’s own mind and the broader culture.

In 1962, I began to work with Lew Perry, a historian friend I’d met during our graduate years. Lew and I, as well as Charlie Haynie and Joe Griffith, had been part of a merry band of graduate students that somehow found time to engage in anti-establishment initiatives, including a theatrical reading performance – more like a full-scale lampoon – of the McCarthy hearings and accusations of so-called “communists” in the mid-1950s. (McCarthyism will surface again, a bit later in this chapter.)

Lew and I found we had overlapping leanings towards anarchism, and decided to produce a comprehensive anthology of anarchist thinking; eventually this also included a whole section with nine different critiques of anarchism by the likes of Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw. By 1965, the culture was shifting, the time was ripe, and Doubleday Anchor agreed to publish the book, seizing upon what it saw as a “groundswell” of anarchist activity both inside and outside the USA. (Our anthology is called Patterns of Anarchy, a neat title that Lew came up with.)

Meanwhile, I was delighted to find that many of my New Orleans undergraduate students were already quite familiar with and drawn to anarchism, in one form or another. For example, they led me to Islandia, an early twentieth-century underground novel set in an anarchist community. And they, in turn, were happy to find a professor who did not ignore or summarily dismiss anarchist thinkers.

In the 1960s, NOLA, as New Orleans is often called by its residents, was a special place. It drew dissidents of all ages, much as the San Francisco Bay area did, but especially from the Deep South. There are many fine stories to be told about those seven years. In one of these, my friend Hammett Murphy and I used symbolic logic notations from my introductory logic course to confuse agitated enemies of our march for peace in southeast Asia. We scribbled these notations, including (x), (Ex), (v), a horizontal horseshoe, and many others, on the sidewalks of the French Quarter, and apparently misled our adversaries into thinking we were leaving coded notes for others who opposed the Vietnam debacle. They actually bolted out of their rifle-toting pickup trucks to take close-up photos of the nonsense we’d scrawled on those sidewalks! Meanwhile, we noticed with some glee that those who had gathered for the actual peace march were left pretty much alone to raise their voices and concerns.

At another time, Lionel, an African American student of mine, along with some other students and myself, decided that it was high time that Preservation Hall, the very famous French Quarter jazz venue, open its doors to people of color – especially since so many of its musicians were black. This is a story that ended well; to our complete surprise, the Hall let us all in without a murmur. Why they did so is still a mystery to me, but almost nothing in New Orleans was without mystery.

For the most part, I lived in or near the largely bohemian and otherwise non-conformist French Quarter. On many weekends, a group of anti-establishment friends gathered there to picnic and play in a small neighborhood park; it was called, I think, the Cabrini Playground. On one occasion, we noticed that within, or, actually under, our own softball game, a group of young kids had somehow inserted a stick ball game of their own. Helene, one of us, pointed out that this was a true expression of anarchy in practice, two totally separate groups harmoniously sharing the same terrain, while engaging in wholly divergent pursuits.

And a group of anarchic-leaning friends native to New Orleans made sure that I was able to distinguish the real cultural heart of the city from the tourist-overrun French Quarter by taking me to places where Zydeco and Cajun were dominant presences, and people danced in ways and talked in dialects almost as incomprehensible as those in the Scottish highlands. The group, which included John Clark and Jack Stewart, also taught me much about anarchist history and theory, and the forms it took in New Orleans. And also about anarchist philosophers such as William Godwin, an 18th century British philosopher, who wrote novels, essays, and treatises about the importance of developing one’s own private judgment, and the tendency of government and government-shaped education to undermine intellectual independence and moral boldness. I no longer live in NOLA, for reasons we’ll soon get to. But it is still one of the very few cities I feel at home in, and visit regularly. I treasure the time that I spent there, and the friends who unknowingly taught me as much as, or more than, I taught them.

Not All Was Easy in the Big Easy

But all was not fun-filled during my years in the Big Easy (yet another colloquial name for New Orleans). At one point, a maverick history professor at LSUNO, Joseph Lancaster Brent III, gave a talk there based on two films focused on Congressional hearings similar to those held earlier in the 1950s by Senator McCarthy. One was made by the American Civil Liberties Union; it condemned those hearings as witch hunts. The other film was made by the House Un-American Activities Committee, a Congressional committee; it praised the hearings as way to protect the country against “creeping communism”. Brent made the critique that both videos were “propaganda”; he claimed that neither was fully accurate or told the whole story. This angered a whole lot of very conservative folks outside the university, and they called for his resignation or dismissal unless he rescinded his critique.

Brent, however, was not easily intimidated. He also lived in the French Quarter, and we would often meet at the Napoleon House, a restaurant that played great classical music and, allegedly, had offered the French emperor a safe refuge after he had escaped from captivity on the isle of St. Alba. Joe loved a good intellectual battle, and his conservative, and confederate, family credentials were impeccable, dating back to the American Revolution. He offered to meet with his critics, and to more fully explain his position. And those of us who admired him agreed to be right there, wherever that meeting took place.

Hammett Murphy and I arrived at what I now think was most probably a White Citizens Council hall, filled with perhaps two hundred or more people who greeted us with venomous looks and whispers. (White Citizens Councils were aligned with the Ku Klux Klan, as white supremacists, mostly throughout the South, but also in the North.) Moreover, we were quickly told that we could not choose our own seats, as a row of chairs – right at the very front – had been selected for us and any others who looked like they might support Joe. My then wife, Eleanor, remained outside circling the block with our car, in case we had to run for our lives.

It was, to say the least, a scary scene. But Joe cut through the angry and poisonous vibrations like a ray of sunshine can illuminate a dark or musty room. He began by mentioning a bit of his own conservative and confederate lineage, and then told his audience that they did not understand what real conservatism, real American conservatism, meant. It had nothing to do, he continued, with left or right doctrines, communism or capitalism, for those are just idols, someone else’s dogmas. Rather, it had to do with a having a critical consciousness, of keeping an open, flexible, and independent mind, and not being the slave of this or that ideology others had come up with.

Joe gave a few specific examples, took some questions, and we then walked out together, he and his small row of allies. The rest of the room was now almost entirely silent, no longer simmering with anger, its remaining inhabitants struck and more than a bit baffled by a genuinely new way of thinking.

But in 1967 I was denied tenure, which amounted to my being fired. “How come?”, I asked the administrators, citing my many publications and excellent student evaluations. They refused to say, alleging only that it was “something in your file” which, out of a very deep concern for my reputation, they felt bound to keep secret. Of course, I challenged them to release whatever it was immediately, and to honor my decision to keep things open and public; they never did. I tried to get support from our local AAUP, the American Association of University Professors, but was told that they could only help if I had been fired after receiving tenure.

I did my best to stand my ground, and as the semester ended I gave a final talk at LSUNO, at the request of several student organizations, on the beauty of non-violent anarchism. But in the end, I had to leave the New Orleans friends, students, and community I loved. There were no winners: the administration forced me out, but no one believed its phony story, and its credibility took a direct hit.

Leaving NOLA was hard: as Dan Anderson, my philosophy colleague at LSUNO put it, we had set down deep roots, both in the city and at that university. NOLA had been an ideal place for me, fresh out of several years of graduate school, to come alive – in ways that I could not have predicted. It brought me in touch with the wide world outside the academy, surrounded me with allies and friends I still cherish, and gave me a myriad opportunities to become more courageous, to oppose, resist, and attempt to transform what I saw as inhumanity, injustice, or illegitimate authority. When I left in 1968, I didn’t feel quite so ashamed as I once did of bailing out of that Freedom Ride in 1961.

And in the spring of 1968, I accepted a university position up north at the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs, where a previously small department of Philosophy had begun to hire generously, doubling its former size.
 

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About the author: 

Len Krimerman lives, works, dances, and dreams in rural eastern Connecticut, and has helped build bridges between the many varieties of grassroots democracy over the past five decades. In this, he has invariably been mentored by his amazing GEO colleagues, by the imagination and support of his lifelong partner, Marian Vitali, and by the courageous activism of so many of his students and community partners. Marian and Len are now engaged in helping develop the Windham Hour Exchange, a community barter initiative in and around Willimantic, CT.

Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: Len Krimerman (2015). A New York Yankee in Louisiana. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO), http://www.geo.coop/story/new-york-yankee-new-orleans