Kenneth Rexroth

Three Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1961

The Attempted Assassination of Thomas Parkinson

This afternoon, at the Marines Memorial Theater, the Kenneth Patchen Benefit, two bands, two one-act plays, singers, dancers, poets — old-time vaudeville. It’s not my fault they didn’t get the Flying Adairs, Singer’s Midgets and a calculating horse. Everybody is going to be there so you be sure and come, too.

As the feller says, it’s the principle of the thing. One of the best ways a community can express its better instincts is in tribute to one of its artists or writers.

It was very moving last week to see the SRO audience at the Masonic Temple stand in ovation to Carl Sandburg. His tribute to Lincoln was dull, platitudinous, and promised for a while to be endless, but his voice was sweet and clear and he sang so simply and lucidly, not at all like a Folksinger, but like one of the folk, singing. For a man in his late 80s, he did a far better job than you or I are likely to do at that age.

The audience hadn’t come to hear him read or sing — they’d come as a tribute to him. This might be his last visit to San Francisco, and they were there to show him that they thought of him as a part, and one of the better parts, of the stuff of American life.

Kenneth Patchen writes very much in the tradition of the early, best poems of Sandburg, the old, authentic American defiance. Come to think of it, he is almost the only contemporary American poet who does. Life is grimmer, more frightening, than it was in Sandburg’s salad days before the Other War. It’s harder now to put that sort of thing in poetry. Faced with the job, most poets chicken out into the Seven Types of Ambiguity. Patchen goes on, in poverty and intense physical pain, one of the few voices that speaks to us today as the Hebrew prophets once spoke to a people lusting after strange gods.

I know that prophets are traditionally stoned, fed to lions, and crucified. San Francisco is supposed to be the place they are honored.

Unifying forces in the community — now for some divisive ones. I am sure a kind of sick revulsion went through the whole community when the news of the killing of young Stephen Thomas and the shooting of Thomas Parkinson came over the air. When the killer was caught and gave his reasons to the police, I hope an even sicker revulsion caught at the conscience of every responsible person . . . and here we are all, to greater or lesser degree, responsible.

Professor Parkinson and Professor Drinnan, who John Farmer said he planned to get if he couldn’t shoot Parkinson, are amongst the most astute, well-informed, and effective anti-Communists on the Berkeley campus, or anywhere else hereabouts. They are both totally committed to those ideas of maximum freedom and humane social order and direct, simple, human-to-human democracy, which are our heritage from Thomas Jefferson or Emerson or Thoreau.

This is the salt which savors the amorphous lump of what would otherwise be just a legal, juridical, republic. These ideas are the salt of the American earth, which, if it ever loses its savor, wherewithal shall we be salted, indeed. Bolshevism has no more effective enemies than men like Thomas Parkinson.

Yet this poor demented man set out to kill him, and in the attempt, destroyed a brilliant and totally uninvolved young life. Why? True, if one paranoia had not been available, he probably would have found another. But that paranoia was available. It is all about us. It poisons all the media of communications.

They use it to sell breakfast food to toddlers and brassieres to old maids. We have pushed it into interstellar space. The two greatest achievements of modern man, the breaking of the atom and the breaking of the confines of the earth, promise not to liberate, but to destroy us.

There is nothing like a guilty conscience to keep gnawing at a community. That riot is back in the papers again. The last defendant comes up for trial in March. I certainly hope the judge doesn’t dismiss the case out of hand. The city can afford the costs of a thorough job. The lawyers for both sides should have ample opportunity to spread all the evidence on the record.

Where does the ultimate guilt lie? I have my own opinion, but I belong to that small group of people who believes that it is not the job of the press to try cases at law in the public prints — like T. Jefferson, remember?

However, I certainly do believe that the Un-American Committee, certainly as at present constituted and operating, has outlived whatever usefulness it may ever have had. The purpose of a congressional committee is to investigate with the end of recommending legislation. We now have plenty of laws to deal with subversion of all sorts. We have duly constituted police organizations, at all levels, to do the investigating under these laws.

If the Communist conspiracy is a secret one, the most effective investigation is that which meets it on its own level. The only purpose the Un-American Committee can now serve is to hold certain people up to unfavorable publicity — to “expose” them. The social damage done by punitive publicity of this sort far outweighs the social gain.

It is not just that the wilder allegations of the late Senator McCarthy were unsubstantiatable and so had a reverse effect — many people came to believe that any accusation emanating from such a source was false. It is not just that the dignity of the Senate and House was affronted, and so its authority was subverted. It is that trial by contumely, punishment by ostracism, destruction of livelihood and persecution of families are not the regulatory mechanisms of civilized society. They may work on a school playground, in a teen-age gang, or in the jungle. Their effects amongst adults in an enormously complex and sensitive modern nation are disastrous.

I wish to make it clear that I have no sympathy with the people who compare Senator McCarthy with Stalin or Vishinsky, and the Un-American Committee with the Moscow Trials and the Great Purge. Such people are either excessively ingenuous or disingenuous, either gulls or rascals.

On the other hand, Congressman Willis, after his visit to San Francisco, was the guest of the Louisiana Legislature at the beginning of the shameful riots in his own state. One redneck legislator asked him if his committee couldn’t investigate the Supreme Court. He answered in substance that if they got a complaint they’d be glad to act, but that as for himself, he wasn’t prepared to vouch for the color of the members of the Supreme Court of the United States, white, red — or any other color. Who is Un-American?

[January 29, 1961]
NOTE: In January 1961 the poet, critic and literature professor Thomas Parkinson was shot by a young man who had been inspired by McCarthyite rhetoric and wanted to “get someone who was associated with Communism.” He barged into Parkinson’s office on the University of California Berkeley campus and shot Parkinson and a student who happened to be there talking with him. The student was killed and Parkinson was left with permanent injuries.

The Assassination of Lumumba

Years ago I wrote an article for New American Writing called “Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation.” It was, I hoped, a sober, although slightly partisan, analysis of the plight of my juniors who had come of age in the period of the Korean War. Unfortunately, it and a somewhat similar article in the Times by Clellon Holmes, launched a vulgar fad, now burnt out. The Beats are gone, but the young artists and writers of permanent worth, never Beat in the first place, are still with us. Some have matured into important writers indeed.

I just thought of this similarity — really only a verbal one — as I sat down to write. Would God I could launch another fad this time, even if only a fad, something might be gained. I am afraid that in this case the odds are too great. This time I want to talk about a far more important kind of disengagement.

As I sit writing this, the papers are full of the news of the assassination of Lumumba. By the time it appears, who knows into what shambles the Congo may have fallen.

For almost a year now, through, as they say, no fault of their own, the USA and the USSR have been maneuvering, seeking to outwit each other in the Congo. The sudden, totally unprepared “liberation” of the Congo was another, unrelated maneuver — a trick of Belgian internal politics that miscarried. It created a so-called power vacuum into which the Big Two Powers were immediately drawn, neither of them prepared to cope with the situation, and neither with any life or death interest in the country.

True, there are immense uranium deposits in Katanga, but there is plenty more uranium in both Russia and America, and all over the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Anyway, we’ve both got ample stockpiles of bombs, quite sufficient already to wipe out both civilizations and everybody else too. The issue is a political one, in the widest and vaguest sense of that word, and in the most dangerous sense.

Russia and America have been playing a chess game on a board not of their own choosing and with pieces which are not, by any manner of means, obedient to the will of either the State Department or the Kremlin. The native leaders of the Congo may be estimable men. It is only too obvious that behind them do not stand the ghosts of Machiavelli, Talleyrand, Ben Franklin — or even Maxim Litvinov.

You can’t play chess with pawns that move hither and yon over the board on their own volition, ignoring all rules and clobbering one another without warning. You can’t play chess when the pieces constantly threaten to set fire to the board, especially when the board is attached to fuses which lead straight to two arsenals of nuclear weapons.

In a barroom brawl, the innocent bystanders first of all try to separate the combatants. The great service which the neutralist nations like India, or the Afro-Asian bloc, can perform, is to help along the process of systematic disengagement wherever possible, of the Big Two of the Cold War. The less we have to quarrel about, the less likely we are to quarrel. The further we are held apart, the less we will be able to get at each other.

What we most need at this juncture is a secretariat for peace, a whole diplomatic and technical cadre devoted to the one-upmanship of systematic disengagement. There exist, all over the world, and in all departments of life, points and areas where, if we can take the initiative in breaking free, we will have gained more than if we were to continue the struggle. There are steps to be taken in well-publicized unilateral disarmament, in the terms of atomic agreements, in aid to the underdeveloped nations, in countless other fields, where the moral advantage, and in the long run, the physical advantage lies entirely with the power that takes the initiative.

Such moves must be carefully prepared and well explained to the world. Of course they cannot represent the unretrievable abandonment of a so-called position of strength, either. But certainly, if we applied some of the skill of our Machiavellian heritage to this kind of disengagement, we could, through the pressure of world opinion, force the Russians to reciprocate in kind. In the course of time, large neutralized areas would begin to open up, on the map and in the minds of men.

It is a strategy like this, applied as a matter of general policy, which in fact will win over the “uncommitted” peoples. At the present moment, the Russians have been allowed to pose, at least in their propaganda, as being against sin. Verbally, they have seized the initiative. We have the resources to take the initiative in fact. But just saying “Yah, yah, yah, you don’t mean it!” doesn’t do any good. We have to act.

That brings up the Russian Venus probe, “peaceful competition” and what William James call the moral substitute for war. Here, too, we have in actual unpublicized fact, or have the resources, to take or regain the initiative, but that is the subject of another column.

[February 19, 1961]

The Black Muslims

Some people may wonder why I give so much space to discussion of the problems of the emerging nations of the former colonial empires, and to questions or just plain news involving the American Negro. It’s quite simple. This is the most important news of the day.

Nobody could accuse the New York Times of being sensational, or even editorially unbalanced. The issue of Sunday, March 12, gave about 60 percent of the news section to Africa, Southeast Asia and the American Negro. The entire magazine section was devoted to nothing else.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece is a long feature by James Baldwin, in which he says of the riots in the United Nations that he had planned to be there himself but got his date book mixed up. In recent months, in articles in Harper’s and elsewhere, James Baldwin has suddenly emerged as one of the most militant and certainly one of the most articulate spokesmen for his race.

Now I know plenty of well-educated, professional-class Negroes who have always considered James Baldwin pretty hincty — a bit of an Ivy League Booker T. Washington, if not an Uncle Tom. He was not, but his success as a writer and his social success in the white world, his urbanity and polish, made them suspicious.

It is highly significant that he, a well-adjusted, “assimilated” Negro if ever there was one, should criticize Martin Luther King, the leading militant of just a short time ago, for if not compromising, at least running the danger of getting himself trapped in compromise unintentionally.

The people who are speaking up today are not outcasts. They are people like Harry Belafonte, John Lewis, James Baldwin, on whom white America considers it has showered every bounty. It is precisely the people who can stay in any first-class hotel out of the Deep South, who can eat in the best restaurants, who can marry outside their race if they so choose, with a minimum of conflict, who now say, “If it comes to a showdown, I am more on the side of the ‘extremists’ than on the other side. I am more with Elijah Muhammad than I am against him.” Me too.

White Americans simply have no conception of the degree of hostility their centuries-long mistreatment has engendered amongst many American Negroes, and by no means all of them ignorant and “maladjusted.”

Time is not just running out. It has run out. Bear in mind that even Malcolm X, the spokesman for Elijah Muhammad’s “Nation of Islam,” was born in Nebraska, where racism is about as weak as anywhere in the United States.

How silly it is to write off “black chauvinism,” as the Communists used to call it, as the expression of “the maladjusted.” What Negro in the United States is not maladjusted?

The sanest white man, if he suddenly turned black and was subject to the disabilities of the most assimilated American Negro, would certainly have a nervous breakdown in short order.

Nothing shows the strength and intelligence of the Negro race better than the fact that, from Lena Horne to the man who delivers my mail, most everybody does rise above all the terrible disabilities and make a valuable contribution to society — white society.

There are now about a dozen “extremist” groups functioning in New York with programs of African nationalism and/or “black chauvinism.” They make a pretty startling impression, soapboxing on the streets, Saturday and Sunday evenings, but most of them have only a handful of members, a minimum of 25 or 50, a maximum of a couple of hundred.

The group that has captured the public imagination, and that is certainly, right now, recruiting the largest membership, is Elijah Muhammad’s “Nation of Islam,” the so-called Black Muslims. Their press talks about “America’s 250,000 Black Muslims,” but sympathetic qualified observers put the actual membership at about 50,000. The movement is spreading rapidly. Lambskin caps and maroon shirts are more common on Fillmore Street every week.

First off, it is important to understand that they are not orthodox Muslims. There is a small mission of Islam in Harlem, with scattered members throughout the country. They repudiate the Nation of Islam in no uncertain terms.

There are without doubt a few undercover Communists in the Nation of Islam, cautiously fishing in troubled waters. The organization itself is strongly anti-Communist. Its propaganda repeats the prevailing opinion amongst American Negroes, that the Communist Party used and then betrayed the American Negro.

Are the Black Muslims a menace? Will they mislead the American Negro into pointless violence and dissipate his militancy in a struggle for unfulfillable demands?

I doubt it. I don’t think there is ever going to be a separate all-black State in the South. Although, to tell the truth, they can have Mississippi for all I care.

The organization has officially repudiated the violence in the UN galleries. They forbid their members to drink, smoke or live “immoral” lives. In fact, like the orthodox Muslims, they are pretty puritanical by the standards of Fort Dodge, let alone Harlem.

I’m pretty anti-puritan, but I know Harlem. Better that the hostility engendered in that hell hole is taken out in maroon shirts, modest dresses, teetotalism, than in high school heroin and switchblade rumbles.

The movement, like a benign disease, is self-limiting. Marcus Garvey’s failure a generation ago demonstrated that the American Negro does not want to become African, much less a Muslim. He wants to become an American. He came here with the Stuyvesants and the Fairfaxes and the Cabots, and he wants just the same status they have.

[March 26, 1961]

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