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If you lose hope, you lose everything

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of a series on the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book looked at was Will the Circle Be Unbroken?]

When Studs’ Place went off the air, Studs wasn’t told why. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request, he got a hold of his FBI file – and it was shorter than his wife’s (The FBI made 147 of the pages public in 2009) It lists his “suspicious activities,” including working for the Chicago Repertory Theater, which performed socially significant plays by guys like Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets. Studs also signed anti-war petitions, anti-Jim Crow petitions and pro-union petitions. He also supported Henry Wallace’s bid for the Presidency. The most disheartening parts of the file are the descriptions of him given by his professors at the University of Chicago, who note his Jewishness and how he didn’t fit with who the department wanted.

When the subject of the petitions came up, Studs was asked to sign a statement saying he was duped, and save himself a lot of trouble. “Whatdya mean,” Studs asked? “I wasn’t duped. A guy comes up to me and asks me if I’m anti-Jim Crow, damn right I am. Are you against war, damn right I am.” In later years, people would tell him about how brave he was for standing up to the McCarthyites and he would tell them he was scared stiff, he was a coward.

Studs did what he could to support the causes he believed in, much like the people in Hope Dies Last do. The people in this book have dedicated their lives to creating a better world, putting at risk their fortunes, their lives and their sacred honor. They put all of it on the line and intentionally stand up to be counted. In his books, Studs showed ordinary people standing up and being counted, and Hope Dies Last focuses on other people who do that.

The phrase comes from labor organizer Jessie De La Cruz from her interview in Coming of Age. She had organized the United Farm Workers union along with Cesar Chavez and said that even after he passed away, hope was still around. Hope for a better tomorrow, hope that their goals would be reached. Without hope, the only thing left was despair, and then death. La esperanza muera ultima.

One of the first people interviewed in the book is Congressman Dennis Kucinich. He was interviewed by Studs for American Dreams: Lost and Found and some of his story from that makes its way into the interview done here. But more has happened in the intervening 25 years. Rep. Kucinich sums up what many of the people in the book say: He cherishes the freedoms America champions. He believes they are being snuffed out due to fear, and that the best way to combat it is to be resolutely against capitulating to fear.

Studs, in interviews he did some years later, would say that Democracy is a system where “a commoner can walk up to a King and say ‘bugger off!’ And I can tell my President to bugger off!’ That is being American.” The book came out in 2003, when President George W. Bush was still quite popular. The Iraq war – a war Studs never saw finished – was about to begin.

The most hopeful day in Studs’ life was the day Germany surrendered, V-E Day. Some of the people interviewed are people who remember that day, and recall their experience as a poor person in the Depression, who rose into common cause with other Americans against the Germans and the elation of victory. But this high feeling didn’t last. Admiral Gene LaRoque was a career military man and reflects on how the country constantly went to war. It always went somewhere else to go to war, and the American people were comfortable with that. It was never the case that someone else tried invading us – we always went somewhere, to places the American people had never heard of. But they supported them anyway. And September 11th was another excuse to go somewhere else.

Studs said in interviews that he felt the “greatest generation” wasn’t the one that fought in World War II, rather it was the one that came of age in the 60s, the young people that marched in the civil rights movement and started the second-wave of the women’s movement and the gay rights movement. Some of those folks are still around fighting the good fight like Tom Hayden (one of the Chicago Seven) and Arlo Guthrie, both of whom are interviewed in the book. Guthrie says his job is to continue his father’s work, which is making people feel good about who they really are. He laments that kids today have so few options to enjoy being human, that they’re being taught that “life is bad for them,” and how we as a species have spent so much money on killing each other and so little on caring for one another.

Pete Seeger is interviewed about his Clearwater initiative to clean up the Hudson river, while another veteran of the 60s, Jerry Brown talks about what he learned when he tried his hand at the priesthood. Brown was the Governor of California for 8 years and ran three times for the Presidency. He served another 8 years as the Mayor of Oakland and is now once again the Governor of California.

September 11th, and the subsequent two wars are brought up in nearly every interview. The most often answer to it was that activists who inspire hope were more important than ever. It’s easy to succumb to despair in the wake of all the bad stuff in the world, but working for a better world and fighting for the right things keeps everyone going.

The book is dedicated to Clifford Durr and Virginia Foster Durr. Clifford was an attorney for those accused of disloyalty during the red scare and later a civil rights lawyer. Virginia Foster Durr, his wife, employed Rosa Parks as a seamstress. The two of them, along with a dozen others, helped organize the 1965 march on Selma, in which Studs participated. When the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1964 and 1965, respectively, neither of them quit organizing. Virginia Foster Durr remained politically active up until her death in 1999 at the age of 95.

The last interview in the book is with Kathy Kelly, a peace activist who would not only go to the victims of war and help them, but also put her neck out on the line to stop war in the US. She was arrested for trespassing on a missile silo site along with Joe and Jean Gump (who were interviewed in The Great Divide shortly after Jean was sent to prison). She was handcuffed and sat on her knees. She told the soldier who was watching her that she was praying, and asked if he would join her. He did. He asked her if she was thirsty, and she was. So he took out his canteen and gave her water.

Another story Studs liked to tell in his later years was of a young couple he met while waiting for a bus, which would usually go like this:

I try making conversation with them, and note that labor day is coming up. “Back in the old days,” I’d say, “We used to march up and down State Street, ‘Solidarity Forever,’ CIO!” And the man turns to me and says “We despise unions.” Well, I’ve got myself a challenge here. And I turn to him and ask “How many hours a day do you work?” “Eight,” he says. So I say “How come you don’t work eighteen hours a day?” He does know what to say. “It’s because four men were hanged fighting to make sure you got an eight hour day.” And the bus comes and they quickly get on the bus. And I’ll bet you every weekday morning the woman looks down from their 16th-floor apartment at the bus stop and the man asks “Is that old nut down there?”

The moral of that story, according to Studs, is that it’s not their fault they didn’t know. Because nobody told them about the Haymarket affair. And that’s because we live in what Studs called “The United States of Alzheimers,” and it was something he was trying to fix with his books.

[Next: Studs does a book on music and musicians in And They All Sang, The Adventures of an Eclectic Disk Jockey]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 6th, 2012.