The Radical Activist Who Showed Us a Path Past Trump’s Polarization

Activist, academic, philosopher, essayist; at first a man of the left, and later a man in search of common good, Julius Lester embodied what we all should seek to be.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Last Thursday, Julius Lester, a civil rights activist and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, died of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, surrounded by his daughter Lian Amaris, his son Malcolm, and other family members. The comprehensive obituary by Margalit Fox, appearing in The New York Times on Sunday, provides a review of his many accomplishments. His contribution to literature can be found in the obituary by Shannon Maughan in the trade publication, Publishers Weekly.

Julius, whom I knew since the 1960s and considered a friend, was not only a civil rights activist but a Renaissance man. In various phases of his life he was a professor, a photographer, a folk singer, and an essayist and novelist. In mid-life he converted to Judaism and served as a cantor in his Massachusetts synagogue, and later as a lay leader in his Vermont congregation.

In his final years, Lester reached out to friends and admirers through daily poignant and insightful postings on his Facebook page, where he wrote personal essays about his views on life, nature, the arts, religion, and politics. I cannot think of any individual who so opened himself up to very personal and painful memories, and who shared them so freely. To read his entries was to see into his soul and understand his life. They were a continuation of the two fascinating autobiographies he had written.

What his obituaries have not captured, however, is how Lester slowly rethought his early allegiances. In the 1960s he was one of the militant blacks associated with the new nationalism of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which played a key role in the early civil rights movement, and later of the Black Panther Party. In 1969 he wrote a book humorously titled Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gonna’ Get Your Mama! In it, he tried to explain the appeal of black power advocated by Stokely Carmichael and the militants who took over SNCC and proceeded to expel whites from its ranks. The review in The New York Times by Truman Nelson called it “a magnificent example of the new black revolutionary writing that could generate the tidal force to sweep aside all the tired and dead matter on our literary shores.” Lester was also an advocate of black separatism, arguing that “all effort should be turned to trying to find a way to establish a black nation within the territorial confines of the United States.” His goal seemed to replay the old “black nation” thesis of the American Communist Party in the 1940s.

At the time, Lester had a radio show on WBAI—then the go-to station for the New York City leftist community. He gained notoriety during the incendiary 1968 United Federation of Teachers strike in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood. The issue was the objection by the unionized and largely Jewish teachers to the action of a new “community-controlled” school board, which fired the Jewish teachers from their positions, violating their contract with the city of New York, and filled the slots with their own approved black teachers.

On Dec. 26, 1968, Julius interviewed Leslie Campbell, a militant black history teacher who was in favor of firing the Jewish teachers. He proceeded to read aloud a poem written by one of his students, which bore the title “Antisemitism: Dedicated to Albert Shanker.” It began with the provocative words, “Hey Jewboy with the yarmulke on your head/ You pale-faced Jewboy, I wish you were dead.” The poem went on to say that the young author was sick of hearing about the Holocaust, since it only lasted 15 years while blacks in America had been oppressed for 400 years. People forget that Campbell asked Lester “Are you crazy?” when Julius told him to read it. Lester replied that he only wanted people to understand the rage that one young black student had, including that toward Jews. That Lester allowed Campbell (who later became Jitu Weusi and remained active in New York black radical politics for years) on his program in the first place is what most people still remember, and still hold against Julius Lester.

In 1982, on a search for meaning in his life, he converted to Judaism after exploring different faiths including Catholicism. The catalyst was learning that his maternal great-grandfather was a German Jewish immigrant named Adolph Altschul, who married a freed slave named Maggie Carson. Commenting on this years later, Lester wrote:

Who am I? There are not enough words to describe who am I, who any of us are, because we all carry within us traces of lives going back 10,000 years and more. What a shame that there are those who would reduce the wonder of being human to such a narrow and restrictive a concept as race.

Having converted to Judaism, Lester became enraged when presiding over a lecture in 1984 by James Baldwin, whom he had invited to talk at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, when he he listened to Baldwin engaging in anti-Semitic rhetoric. He wrote about the incident and his anger at Baldwin in his 1988 book about his conversion to Judaism, Lovesong. The W.E. B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies, of which he was a part, then expelled him from its ranks and took away privileges to teach any of the courses emanating from that department. It was at that point that he moved to teach in the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies.

Lester soon began writing, not for movement magazines, but for a diverse list of publications, including The New Republic, The Nation, Dissent magazine, and yes—the libertarian Reason magazine, and even William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. In various columns, including a regular monthly one in the anti-Vietnam war activist Dave Dellinger’s magazine, Liberation, he criticized Jesse Jackson at the height of his popularity and influence, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, the problems of black-Jewish relations, and other controversial subjects that many who came from the civil rights movement, especially its left wing, were scared to address.

Writing in The New Republic in the Oct. 28, 1985, issue, Lester wrote a scathing report on Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s talk to thousands gathered in Madison Square Garden three weeks earlier. “If people get the leader they deserve,” he sarcastically wrote, “then something dire has happened in black America.” Farrakhan, and his guest of honor former SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (now calling himself Kwame Toure), attacked Israel, Zionism, and Judaism, which quickly became the main theme of all the speakers. Each anti-Semitic comment was met by the crowd “rising to its feet, cheering, arms outstretched at 45-degree angles, fists clenched.” It was Farrakhan, he wrote, who made the audience his “righteous crusaders” against the Jews, who represented Satan. To the NOI leader, Jews were “the representatives of chaos, and chaos is destructive and evil.” As a black person, Lester wrote, “I was ashamed.” Now blacks were using their suffering as a “divine right exempting them from moral and ethical responsibility to the rest of humanity.” The time had come, he concluded, “to stop making apologies for black America, to stop patronizing black America with that paternalistic brand of understanding, which excuses… the obscenities of black hatred and black anti-Semitism.”

Given his new outlook, it was not surprising to me—although it was undoubtedly to many others—to hear him giving one of the keynote speeches in the Spring of 1990 at a conference put together by newly minted conservatives Peter Collier and David Horowitz, called “Second Thoughts About Race in America.” Lester was invited to speak before the largely conservative audience because he had been openly critical of black nationalists and the tactics of some of the civil rights movement. Yet, he opened, much to the chagrin of many in the audience, by saying: “Having stood on my left foot for so many years of my life, I will not now repeat my errors by standing only on my right foot.” I recall looking at the faces of many of the prominent American conservatives there who were wincing.

He told conservatives that they had to remember that liberals and radicals were reacting “against a conservatism that opposed the civil rights movement, not because conservatives were racist,” but because they “gave the appearance… of championing the principle of states’ rights over the principle of ‘freedom and justice for all.’” On the other hand, he said, blacks now appeared to want to be “eternal victims” and are not inclined to work for the common good of all; focusing only on “their own concerns as if there were no others that also demand the nation’s legitimate attention.” He ended with a plea to abandon an “us against them mentality” now shared by all sides. Finally, he hoped, he said, that “we come together as citizens to understand what we share.”

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So many years have passed since Julius Lester spoke those words, and today, our nation has gone much further down the path he warned against. His life and message speaks to our better angels and asks that we transcend our polarization and hyper partisanship. Let us honor him by working to accomplish these goals.