New Left Convention in Chicago, 1967

Martin Luther King Jr.BY ED FELIEN

Before driving out to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., I stopped at Chicago for the New Left Convention.  I went to Old Town, met some lovely people and we decided to bring a little bit of the Summer of Love to Chicago.  We talked a liberal church into letting us use their kitchen and we started the Free Bakery.  We made chocolate chip cookies and gave them away at North and Wells.  We assured anxious parents there wasn’t anything in the cookies other than the normal ingredients, but some were still a little nervous when we offered them to their children.
When the Convention started I suggested to the Arrangements Committee that we should have a free lunch for everybody.  They liked the idea and got me hooked up with some very progressive brothers from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union, and we set up a kitchen a few blocks away from the Convention.  It was a great success.  We stopped allowing take-out orders, however, when some of the more entrepreneurial conventioneers started selling the trays at the Convention.
The Convention was taken over by the Westside Organization.  In an effort to incorporate progressive black voices, the organizers reached out to groups like the Westside Organization and the Blackstone Rangers.  These groups practiced a kind of Gangster Marxism.  They understood how to use anti-capitalist rhetoric, and they used it to guilt-trip liberals who would then excuse their thievery, thuggery and bad behavior.
One afternoon I was looking for some people in the hotel, and I got off the elevator (which had Black Power etched into the brass doors) and walked into a group of about 10 young black men who gathered around me, and one of them said, “One of the brothers got his money stolen and doesn’t have any way to get home.  We’re hoping you can help.”  I did not want to open my wallet and risk losing everything I had.  At that point a group of older black men started walking down the hall in our direction.  I shouted out, “Hi,” as if I knew them.  They looked up.  The young guys said, “Oh, is he one of yours?” and grabbed me by the shirt and threw me over to them.  I went with the older guys down the hall until we found a back stairwell, and we went down a couple of floors before we dared get back on an elevator.
The organizers of the Convention probably wanted to begin the development of a third party, one that was clearly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, but, as the chaos of the Convention showed, the objective conditions were not ready for a national third party.  The candidates that would have run for President and Vice President on this third party ticket in 1968 would have been Martin Luther King and Benjamin Spock.
At another time when I was walking down the halls of a floor in the Hilton Hotel, I turned a corner and there was Martin Luther King sitting by himself behind a table outside a conference room.  He had given his famous Riverside Church speech just a few months before in April when he finally spoke out against the war.  I couldn’t resist, and since he was right there in front of me, I thanked him for speaking out against the war.  Everyone on the left knew the price he had paid for that speech in terms of access to President Johnson.  It was heroic and an inspiration.  He nodded.
There were supposed to be   plenary sessions where the Convention discussed some kind of platform and issues, but the Black Caucus decided they wouldn’t participate.  They insisted on meeting separately (this was during a big period of black separatism in the Civil Rights Movement).  They said they would decide on what the important issues should be and let us know.  We couldn’t very well sit around and twiddle our thumbs, so I proposed a White Revolutionary Caucus.  We got a room and we met to discuss political ideas, programs and strategies.  The Black Caucus sent people over to see what we were up to, and we assured them that we recognized that black communities were the most oppressed sector in America, and we knew there could not be any solution to the problems of capitalism without leadership from the black community, but we wanted to be prepared to help.  It was good to talk to like-minded people, and it was the most fun of any part of the Convention.
That night there was a special evening of entertainment: music, singing and a speech by Martin Luther King.  The Black Caucus insisted that whites sit in the balcony and blacks only could sit on the main floor.  It was interesting and a little unnerving to be a part of a racially segregated event.  The white liberals who paid the bills and organized the event excused the segregation as reparations for a history of segregation that had victimized blacks.  The rest of us just put up with it, with one exception.
Eddie Fassbinder was a wondrously crazed character who frequented bars around the University of Minnesota campus on the West Bank.  He loved to dance to music on the jukebox.  A couple of times I was standing at the bar, and Eddie came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, I turned around and Eddie grabbed me and started waltzing with me up and down the bar.  He was a good dancer and it was a lot of fun.  But I was shocked to see him at the entryway of the main floor of the auditorium that evening in Chicago.  My shock turned to horror as I saw him start to dance and waltz his way up and down the center aisle to the cadences in Martin Luther King’s speech.  To everyone’s amazement, he made it up and down the aisle twice before two very large guys grabbed him by the arms, lifted him up with his legs still moving to the rhythm of the speech and walked him out the door.  He survived the event, got a job with the Minneapolis Fire Department and retired on a psychological disability.
The Convention adjourned on Sunday with a plenary session that concluded that the immediate goal was not to form a national party but to work locally.
For me, the Convention was the spark that lit the fuse.  I felt I was a time bomb ready to explode my academic career.  So, I started off to Smith College confident that I would be fired for agitating against the war, and I wasn’t disappointed.

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