My old and dear friend Danny Schechter died last week of pancreatic cancer. Danny Schechter the news dissector, a great radical journalist, and a critical ally of the African National Congress and the South African revolution lived for 72 years. As a footnote to his life but a big thing in mine he was the first person who organized me into The Movement in 1960.
Danny’s life was and is one of non-stop dedication to social justice and the world revolution.
* Organizer with the Northern Student Movement
* Anti-apartheid activist who worked closely with the African National Congress
* News Director of WBCN in Boston, an alternative FM Station, where he positioned himself as Danny Schechter Your News Dissector
* Producer for the 20/20 news magazine on ABC and won 2 Emmy awards
* Producer in the early days of CNN
* Founder of the Africa Research Group
* Founder, with Rory O’Connor, of Globalvision, which produced the television show, South Africa Now that ran for 156 weeks on 150 stations in the U.S. reporting on South Africa through the eyes of South Africans
* Executive editor and “blogger-in-chief” at the MediaChannel.org where he wrote about media and society
* Author of 12 books, the most recent of which was When South Africa Called, We Answered, released in January 2015.
Danny had a ferocious work ethic. He was prolific, had a great sense of humor, and a relentless dedication to the people’s struggle.
I have been in the movement for 50 years. At the time of his death, Danny had been in the movement almost 55 years. He was the first “radical” I ever met. We met at Cornell University in 1960 when we were both 18. Our paths would cross so many times over those years but this last year has, wonderfully, allowed us to have a true re-union.
In June 2014 I went back to Cornell, along with my wife Lian, for the 50th anniversary of the class of 1964—yes, how the hell did that happen. I had not seen Danny for many years but fortunately we found each other and spent an evening reconnecting and reviewing history. He was deeply interested in my work with the Labor/Community Strategy Center and our Fight for the Soul of the Cities. We discussed how we could learn from the ANC and groups in the U.S. that had organized around a more coherent political program. He expressed his concern, expressed in “When South Africa Called, We Answered” that “American activists tend to be issue oriented and campaign centered, not part of a structured movement.” We talked a long time about how it would be possible to reconstruct a sense of The Movement. He talked a lot about his idea to get Cornell to construct a memorial for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, the 3 young CORE organizers who were murdered in Meridian, Mississippi and whose bodies were found June 21, 1964. Andy’s mother, Carolyn Goodman, a powerful political force, graduated from Cornell—providing the connection and in our view, the obligation of the university.
We reminisced but unlike anyone else at that re-union for me, Danny and I were still in the present together. Danny was the first person I can remember who organized me. He and I were born in 1942. He came to Cornell from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx; I came from Valley Stream Central High School in Long Island. I was elected president of my dorm. One of my closest friends was Angel Flemings who was among the 10 Black students in our class of 2,000 people. Angel got into a relationship with Ken Rubin who in turn introduced us to Danny—or at least that’s how I remembered it. This is in 1960—5 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the U.S. has already replaced the French as the occupying power in Vietnam and the year of the first sit-ins. The next year would be the Freedom Rides, the next year the Cuban missile crisis when JFK risked nuclear war—“the times they were a changing.”
I was a left liberal, a “fraternity man” with great illusions about myself and the system. Danny was back then, as I remember him, a beatnik, a radical, even a revolutionary. I did not like his scruffy appearance but he was, as I say my book, Playbook for Progressives: The 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer, “relentless” and he pushed me very hard—to great effect. He was always pushing me to be more critical of the system but more importantly he kept focusing on the need to take action. That was the compelling ethos of the times—as the Black movement called it, putting your body and your life on the lie.
Danny was the person pushing me but we were all being pushed by the civil rights and Black Liberation Movement. Cornell was in way upstate New York, near Canada, and was freezing most of the time. But it was an Ivy League School and I guess was able to pay honoraria and attract great speakers so somehow Martin Luther King. Jr, Jesse Gray, the great pro-communist rent strike leader from Harlem, John Lindsay, a charming liberal Republican who would become Mayor of New York City, Malcolm X, Gus Hall, the chair of the Communist Party U.S.A. visited and to say the least, challenged our worldviews. For me, the most transformative speaker was from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who asked us to help support the boycott of Woolworths, where the lunch counter sit-ins took place led by Black students at North Carolina ATT in Greensboro. He asked us to boycott Woolworth’s in Ithaca and to join the “Civil rights revolution.” Danny had already joined and I was not too far behind.
By the spring of 1963 I had another turning point in my life at which Danny was pivotal. The Cornell student government had voted funds to support students who wanted to go to Fayette County Tennessee to register voters. A group of conservative students opposed the use student funds from student fees to be used for Black voter registration and called for a student referendum to overturn the decision. Danny approached me to be part of the organizing committee—Danny as always organizing me. I remember feeling he was a little condescending, as if he was the master organizer and I, as the Vice-President of the Inter-fraternity council was the establishment token in the united front. (Or perhaps that my own understanding of my actual role.) But I found myself thrilled at the idea of a real campaign to change people’s minds, to turn out the, overwhelmingly white and privileged student vote in the north to defend Black people’s right to register to vote. I went from a supporter to an organizer. I was chosen to make the case at a large rally in support of our cause. I challenged the white students, “You say the system isn’t racist, that the Negro can’t get a job simply because he does not have the education. But when the Negro demands integrated housing you say it’s not racism but he can’t afford it, he just doesn’t have a good job. When we say that the Negro wants political power to get those things you reply that of course they should get the right to vote—but not with our money. Why don’t you admit you are part of the system of racism? A group of students want to work with the Negro in the South to fight for the right to vote. For those with the courage to go to Tennessee the least you can do is to give them your vote to help Black people exercise the right to vote.” It was my effort to be persuasive and to learn to make political arguments. Danny told me I had arrived—his approval meant a lot to me. Most importantly we won the referendum and got the money and folks went to Tennessee, as Marge Piercy would explain it, “to be of use.”
By August 1963 Danny went to the March on Washington, along with 300,000 others, 80 percent of which were Black. As he described his experience in 2011.
“The March and the Movement changed many of our lives. After the March ended, the leaders went to the White House. I recommitted myself to the Movement and dropped out of Cornell. I moved to Harlem to work for the Northern Student Movement full time, and ended up editing the magazine Freedom North. That night, I wandered over to a big DC hotel where many of the leaders were staying and celebrating the fact that the march was consummated so peacefully and successfully. I stayed in DC and actually ran into Malcolm X who was there but did not come to the March. The movement activists were debating the March’s impact. The next morning, in a torrential rain, the hard rain that Dylan said was gonna fall, I took the bus back to Bal’more wondering how we could ever top the great March on Washington. None of this takes away from the magic of that moment and the fact that 40 years on, I am still thinking about those days and how they changed our world, at least in part.”
In June 1964 I had graduated and went to work back in the South Bronx where I had spent every summer as a “social worker” working with kids at a settlement house. On June 21 James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, civil rights organizers with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were murdered in Meridian, Mississippi by white Klansman. My supervisor at the settlement house had worked with Mickey. He told me that Mickey had been a social worker and had had a big influence in the schools of social work, telling people essentially they needed a social revolution not social work. I agreed and went to work with the Congress of Racial Equality in Harlem and the Northeast by September 1964. Perhaps a few months later I was at the Harlem CORE office and there was Danny working at the Northern Student Movement office with the fine organizer Bill Strickland. By 21 years old, Danny and I were in Harlem and never looked back.
In 1967 Danny went to the London School of Economics in 1967—what a bourgeois choice I thought but of course Danny figured out how to make anything revolutionary.
As Danny later explained it,
“Well, you know, I had the fortune of being at the London School of Economics in the ’60s, at the right place at the right time, where the ANC people had come into exile. And in my class was remarkable woman, Ruth First, who became sort of my mentor about South Africa. (Ruth First was a South African revolutionary—a brilliant scholar, researcher, and organizer. She was assassinated by a package bomb sent by the South African secret police. For a great presentation of her life read Alan Wieder’s Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid) And I was recruited by the ANC to go into South Africa. They couldn’t get their people in because so many of them were in prison and well known to the security police. So, people from England, what were then called the “London recruits,” were sent into South Africa on various missions. I was one of them—naive, perhaps, to do this, unaware, really, of the consequences that awaited me if I was—if I was caught. But I went anyway as an act of solidarity.”
As Wieder frames the story,
British dock workers, some of them communists, packed leaflets into ships destined for Cape Town, and fairly crude bombs were devised to shoot pamphlets onto city streets from the roofs of urban buildings. They invented a way for tape recordings of ANC messages to be played in the central business districts of South African cities. Besides arriving by ship, leaflets were carried by recruits, in false bottom suitcases. Schechter described and reflected on the experience. His task was to deliver some messages, send some postcards, and to publically set off a leaflet bomb in downtown Durban. He described the last undertaking.
“It took a real effort to get it right; I had to place it in the appropriate location which would give the very subversive (and certainly illegal) flyers the most public visibility. That required reconnoitering and finding a point of entry and egress. I found a parking structure over a busy street… Once I found the right place, I had to arrange the device, set the time, turn the clock-like meter, and then disappear. In short order the leaflets would be dumped out in a public street, picked up by some, noticed by pedestrians and probably the police and demonstrate that the ANC was in the country and appealing for anti-apartheid activism and denunciations of the government.”
In 1968 I moved to Cambridge Mass to work as the New England regional organizer for the Students for a Democratic Society. At the same time Danny moves to Boston and becomes the news director at an alternative, radical FM Station, WBCN and the News Dissector was born. My work involved working closely with the Boston Black Panthers and their charismatic leader Doug Miranda. Danny and radio host Charles Laquidera were part of the movement. When the police would raid Miranda’s apartment we would call Charles and Danny. Charles would just announce over the air, “The police are in front of Doug Miranda’s apartment arresting him on trumped up charges. Everybody go over there to help.”
Later, when I was in prison for 18 months for militant demonstrations against the war the prison movement was exploding. We would smuggle notes out to Danny about our organizing work in the joint and he would announce, in his very news director way, “Today, a group of prisoners at Concord State prison have organized a hunger strike over conditions in the prison. They are calling for public support” and the system’s efforts to create a wall of silence around the prison were thwarted and we had some sense that we were not alone.
So, years and years and decades go by. Danny and I stay in touch. I am in Johannesburg at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2001 and there is, of course, Danny doing interviews. Hey Eric, what are you up to and we end up doing an interview about our efforts to challenge the United States to stop its imperialist ecological practices. I haven’t seen Danny for years but it is just part of the work—as if nothing has happened, just happy to see each other—we are long distance runners so every time we reconnect it is as if it was just yesterday when we talked.
So, we leave Cornell is June 2014 and agree to stay in touch. Then, about 6 weeks ago I get an email from Danny.
“Hey Eric, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that in going over my papers I found a review I wrote in 1975 of Comrade George. (My book, Comrade George: An Investigation into the Life, Political Thought, and Assassination of George Jackson). The bad news is that I have bad news is I have pancreatic cancer.” (I think, what is this, some type of bad Jewish joke?) “If you happen to be in New York please come by and visit.” Obviously Danny would not say, “Please come to New York to see me—but I was so happy he had contacted me. A few weeks later I got an invitation from Christine Doudna and Ham Fish to come to a party in New York to honor Danny. I had already planned to visit so this was a perfect context. The party was wonderful. Danny had a great loft apartment, an entire floor on 23rdstreet, that he had just had painted to raise his spirits and to create a good space for the next stage of his battle. More than 100 people showed up in the freezing cold to honor him. Danny expressed a lot of appreciation that I had come from Los Angeles. I told the group, “Danny, you said, ‘If you happen to be in New York’ Well Danny, I don’t “happen” to be in New York. I am in New York to honor you.”
The lessons from a life so well lived are so important to a new generation of organizers.
For those who denigrate revolutionary politics let’s be clear—it is only the revolutionaries who have ever won anything from an imperialist system. Danny, among millions of others, helped defeat U.S. apartheid and the end of Jim Crow, worked for the defeat of the United States in Vietnam and the victory of the Vietnamese people, and helped to defeat South African Apartheid. We understood then and now that apartheid and genocide in the U.S. South and North, in Vietnam, and in South Africa are all reflections of a world system of U.S. and European imperialism.
Today in South Africa, a brutal neo-liberal politics is shaping the present horizon. There are some who argue that the struggle against apartheid has proven shallow, even inconsequential, in face of the continued and persistent capitalist domination of the South African masses and the development of a Black, pro-corporate elite. They argue that the failure of the ANC, South African Communist Party, and other Black led forces to radically redistribute wealth, after 21 years of Black majority rule, are an indictment, perhaps negation of the hopes of the South African revolution.
I raise this not to explain Danny’s life but rather because the entire anti-apartheid movement is being caricatured and slandered and it is the sacrifices of millions of Black Africans whose historical legacy requires at least a defense in the face of white and ultra-left chauvinist negation.
We live in a world shaped by the most grotesque racism and national oppression in which in particular not just “the darker races” in general but the Black race in particular is subjected to the most grotesque and brutal suppression of its intelligence, humanity, physiognomy, culture, history, labor, family structure, in which genocide way beyond economic super-exploitation is the driving force. Obviously some of the root of this is “economic” but that does not explain the white, Christian barbarism on which European/US capitalism has been constructed a true savagery in the name of “civilization” and its profoundly misogynist, racist, misanthropic character. Certainly “slavery” as an economic category has existed throughout history but nothing purely economic can explain the barbarism of the Transatlantic slave trade, along with genocide against Indigenous peoples upon which the United States was constructed—in which 10 million people or more were murdered in the process.
In that context, the South African revolution was one of the great achievements of the 20th century as part of the world anti-racist, anti-colonial revolution. It was led not just by the African National Congress but the majority Black South African Communist Party and its great leaders—Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeke, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, and their close ally, Nelson Mandela–who provided organizational and ideological leadership to the struggle. It must be remembered that Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo were the leaders of Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’) a brilliant armed guerrilla form in which, again, the South African Communist Party played a critical role, thousands of Black Africans led the armed struggle, and yes, a kid from the Bronx who went to the London School of Economics played his small but important part.
The present counter-revolution is working to negate the amazing accomplishments of the world anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements and the critical role of communists who helped to provide critical leadership in those victories. In the world fight against white supremacist imperialism the Vietnamese defeat of the French at Dien Bin Phu, the Vietnamese defeat of the United States, the Black defeat of the Klan and the white Dixiecrats and the South African people’s defeat of apartheid are essential building blocks for any possible revolution in our lifetime. In that context, Danny Schechter and millions of others were wonderful soldiers in that world army and his life is an example for a new generation of organizers and revolutionaries of all races.
I think we all know that U.S. society is falling apart at the seams and yet, the police and surveillance state of the U.S. ruling class is preparing for the revolution that most people do not yet know is coming. Today, the lifelong challenges remain for all of us. Do we know which side we are on? Are we willing to put our bodies on the line? Are we ready to make revolution a lifelong commitment that is passed from one generation to the next? That is the challenge to people of all races and classes, women and men, and each of us has to stand up and be counted. There is a world to change and a world to win.
At his party just last month Danny was showing me boxes of his papers that he had been organizing—hoping someone would provide them for an archives. Somebody should grab that project and make it happen.
Danny showed us his latest book, When South Africa Called, We Answered, by Cosimo Books. Get a copy.
He showed me his self-produced 3 CD set “A News Dissector’s Greatest Hits and Bits: Danny Schechter’s Partial Soundtrack of Life and Struggle.” Wonderful music, Rhythm and Blues, South African, Irish, Black, Appalachian music along with the Internationale and Danny’s monologues about his role as the News Dissector. Get yourself a copy.
Bill Schechter—Danny’s brother, also a Cornell graduate, and others are working to get Cornell University to build a memorial for James Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. At the 50th Re-union of the Class of 1964 Cornell President David Skorton announced that the class had contributed $16 million in one week-end to the University. Bill said that Cornell has indicated an interest in the Mississippi project but apparently has asked others to raise the money instead of contributing it from university funds. Needless to say that is unacceptable. Let’s convince Cornell to use some of that $16 million and its $5 billion endowment to make the memorial happen.
So Danny Schechter. An amazing life so well lived. You were part of the great wave of world history and world revolution—part of the great victories of the Black, Vietnamese, and South African Liberation movements. You achieved more in a lifetime than could have been imagined.
Mao said when a person who has done nothing for the people dies their death is light, but when a person has dedicated their life to the people their life is heavy. For me, to be sure, Danny’s death is heavy.
Buddha said, I am told, that a person dies twice. Once when they leave the earth and once when all the people whose lives they have touched die. For those of us who cared and care so much about Danny we can keep his work and his memory alive for a long time.