I’ve always been inspired by heroes. From family members, to close friends, to major figures in books that I’ve read, these heroes have helped shaped my values, my politics, and the way I want to live my life. As I’ve grown older, my parents have become real heroes to me. As a young man, I admired several sports stars, especially Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, for their work ethic and their ability to make their teammates play to their highest level. With this in mind, I thought I’d write a list of my heroes who are either politicians or political activists, people who inspire me and who have shaped my political views.
I’ve met many people who do not believe in heroes. They see flaws in any hero and believe that it’s dangerous to have so much faith in a flawed human being to fight for good causes. It’s never bothered me to know that my heroes have flaws. What makes a hero special to me is that they have the courage to transcend their human weaknesses to do great things that benefit humanity.
So here is my list of my favorite political and activist heroes. Some are radicals. Some are reformers. They have all inspired me. Perhaps a few of them will inspire you. Please feel free to mention your own list of political and activist heroes.
Benjamin Franklin has always been my favorite Founding Father. A genial and good humored man, Franklin seemed like the kind of person that one could enjoy a fun conversation with. A few years ago I read Joseph Ellis’ book Founding Brothers about Franklin’s failed attempt to get Congress to pass legislation to abolish slavery. It reminded me of something that is often overlooked about Benjamin Franklin, his civic activism. Franklin organized the first fire company in America helped formed the first insurance company, which introduced fire insurance, crop insurance, and insurance for widows and orphans. In 1751, Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond established the Pennsylvania Hospital, the first hospital in what was to become the United States of America. In the 1780s Ben Franklin was president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and worked to set up schools to educate free African Americans and give them employable skills and to try to pass for legislation to abolish slavery and end the slave trade. While many people become more conservative as they get older, Benjamin Franklin grew more radical as he aged. It’s one of the things I most admire about him.
Recommended books: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis, Revolutionary Characters: What Made The Founders Different by Gordon Wood, Not Your Usual Founding Father: Selected Readings from Benjamin Franklin edited by Edmund S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon Wood.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS
I didn’t know much about John Quincy Adams until I read two wonderful books, Arguing about Slavery by William Lee Miller and Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade by Joseph Wheelan. I most admire Adams’ time as a representative in the House of Representatives, during which he would become the Congress’s most influential and outspoken critic of slavery, as well as a critic of the government’s policies for the removal of eastern Native American tribes, a defender of the right of women to petition for political rights, and a critic of the 1848 war to obtain land from Mexico. His path as a champion for human rights began by accident, when he found himself in a legislative fight to end the gag rule in the Congress. The gag rule was imposed by Southern congressmen to silence any debate on the issue of slavery. This debate changed Adams, as he showed a willingness to learn and change as he was exposed to the arguments of abolitionists, to the stories of suffering of Native Americans, to the crusading spirit of women petitioners. A highlight of his later life was his defense of the mutineer slaves of the Cuban ship Amistad in the Supreme Court in 1840.
Recommended books: Arguing about Slavery by William Lee Miller, Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade by Joseph Wheelan.
Until a year ago, I really didn’t know very much about Charles Dickens or his books. Then my wife and I enjoyed watching a 1930s version of A Tale of Two Cities and it got me interested in learning more about Dickens. I began to learn that many people that I admire, like Howard Zinn, Dorothy Day, and George Orwell, were deeply influenced by Dickens’ books and the empathy they have for the poor. Charles Dickens was a great social critic of his time and he had many of the same criticisms of the capitalist system as Karl Marx. Unlike Marx though, Dickens criticized the capitalist system from a moralist point of view rather than a revolutionary point of view. This insight has had a profound impact on me. I agree with many of the criticisms that the Left has of the current economic system that we have. I’ve always been wary, though, of the revolutionary rhetoric that I read in some of radical parts of the Left. Charles Dickens’s books have taught me that a moral critique can be just as radical as a revolutionary critique, because both critiques point out that the flaws of the economic and political system lie somewhere at the root of the system. I like how Dickens was interested in saving the oppressor as well as the oppressed in many of his books. Dickens attacked the values of the economic system that influenced people to be selfish, greedy and lacking in any empathy for the poor and underprivileged. It gave me a new way to look at radicalism. I hope to emulate the example of Charles Dickens’ social criticism in my political cartoons.
Recommended books: The Annotated Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities and Great Expectations: Two Novels (Oprah’s Book Club) by Charles Dickens, Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens.
Frederick Douglass was one of the great champions of human rights in American history. A great abolitionist and a champion of African American rights, Douglass was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage, a defender of immigrants’ rights, and a critic of the anti-Chinese laws that proliferated in the later 1800s. I admire his courage and his strong will, as he was born under the worst of circumstances as a slave. I know I wouldn’t have had the strength of will to overcome the beatings that Douglass went through. His intelligence, his perserverance, and his strong oratorical skills helped inspire the abolitionists and persuade the general public of the righteousness of the abolitionist cause. Douglass’s meetings with Abraham Lincoln helped Lincoln evolve into a greater respect for the equality of African Americans. To the very end, Douglass criticized the Jim Crow laws that were emerging as the Reconstruction era ended. Douglass spoke out for the rights of all marginalized and oppressed groups, regardless of the consequences.
Book recommendations: Frederick Douglass: In His Own Words edited by Milton Melzer, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave by Frederick Douglass, Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader & a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery & Save the Union by Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes
There is not much left to say about Abraham Lincoln that hasn’t already been said by writers much better than me. The more I learn about Lincoln, the more I like him. The thing that I most like about Lincoln is his generosity of spirit and his capacity to grow as he gained new experieces and is exposed to different types of people. A primary example of his capacity to grow is in Lincoln’s evolving views on race. Though Lincoln had always been a strong opponent of slavery, his views on race before his presidency were similar to most of his white Americans. During the Civil War, however, those views changed. As Lincoln began to meet African Americans, especially in his meetings with Frederick Douglass, he began to shed his prejudices against the equality of African Americans. Lincoln was also deeply moved by the bravery of African American Union troops in battle during the war. By the end of the war, Lincoln was strongly advocating laws to insure the protection of the rights of the newly freed slaves. I personally think Lincoln is our greatest President,
Recommended books: The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman by William Lee MillerDouglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader & a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery & Save the Union by Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes
I admire Jane Addams for many of the same reasons as I admire Benjamin Franklin. They both have deeply instilled in them a strong sense of civic activism. Both of them are wealthy individuals who are deeply empathetic to the plight of the poor and the marginalized. I just admire the variety of causes that Jane Addams tackled and the various groups that she had a hand in organizing to deal with the problems of society. I am empathetic to this approach, as I tend to look to groups that have worked on issues for several years to get their insights on particular issues. Addams was one of the leaders of the Hull House movement in Chicago, where social workers lived in settlement houses in poor immigrant neighborhoods to bring education opportunities, child care, and artistic endeavors to help empower the poor. She helped found the NAACP in 1909 due to her opposition to racial prejudice. Jane Addams was also a strong women’s suffragist and a strong pacifist, joining the Women’s Peace Party in 1915. Addams became president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the 1920s.
Recommended books: Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, Jane Addams: Spirit In Action
Carlos Bulosan’s book America Is In The Heart really helped me to appreciate my Filipino heritage. I grew up in military bases most of my life, so I had little exposure to Filipino culture and never learned to speak Tagalog. During high school, I encountered many Filipinos who looked down on me because I didn’t know how to speak Tagalog and it made me very insecure about my Filipino heritage. Two things gave me more confidence in my Filipino heritage. The first thing was my first girlfriend, who was a Filipina. She was very kind to me and she accepted me for who I was. The second thing was taking an Asian American history course in college and learning about Carlos Bulosan for the first time. Carlos Bulosan was a poet and a union activist who entered the United States in 1930 and worked in the next 2 decades in various low-paying jobs: servicing hotels, harvesting in the fields, and working in Alaskan canneries. Carlos went to the public library and taught himself to read and write, eventually becoming a prolific writer determined to describe his struggles as a Filipino coming to America and the struggles of other people. I admire his leftist politics and his determination to bridge the gap between America’s high ideals and the discrimination that Filipinos and other immigrants faced while living in America.
Recommended books: America Is In The Heart by Carlos Bulosan, The American Radical by Mary Jo Buhle
Dorothy Day has been one of the biggest influences in my life. There have been times in my life that I’ve gotten into conflicts with other Christians who’ve accused me of not being a true Christian, and those conflicts have sometimes gotten me thinking of just leaving the Christian religion. My admiration of Dorothy Day is one of the things that kept me going as a Christian (the other thing is this fellow named Jesus). Dorothy Day is one of the most offbeat and interesting Christians that I know. As a young woman, she was an editor for the radical leftist magazine The Masses and she had as friends Anarchists, Socialists and Communists. She was jailed for participating in a protest for women’s suffrage. She had an abortion and eventually had a child out of wedlock. When her daughter was born, it inspired her to go to a Catholic Church and she eventually converted to Roman Catholicism when she found the same love of the poor in Catholic Social Teaching that she found in the radical politics of her friends. Day remained a radical activist, founding the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin, a movement that had Catholic Worker houses to feed and shelter the poor and to protest war, discrimination of minorities and the excesses of the capitalist system. Dorothy Day’s Christian radicalism led her to deal with the poor directly in her Catholic Worker home, developing personal relationships with the homeless, the mentally ill, the marginalized. Religious activists like Dorothy Day are always reminding us that the least of us have value too, and I admire their courage in speaking out for people who cannot speak for themselves.
Recommended books: By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, Voices From The Catholic Worker edited by Rosalie Riegle Troester, The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day
FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR ROOSEVELT
I always think of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as a unit. It’s sad that their marriage wasn’t more fulfilling to them both, but as a political team they were a powerful force for good. Franklin Roosevelt was the consummate politician, able to use his charm and political savy to ease the fears of a nation going through the Great Depression and to pass legislation that would help the unemployed, the aged, the laborer, and the uneducated. Eleanor was the determined civic activist, highlighting civil rights issues, women’s right issues, economic issues, and worker issues through her travels across the nation and through her daily newspaper articles. Together, they gave the average American the feeling that the First Couple cared for them.
FDR’s New Deal helped out its most vulnerable citizens from the worst effects of the calamitious economic collapse by such programs as the Works Progress Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the United States Housing Authority. It empowered workers by putting the rights of collective bargaining into law through the Wagner Act. The elderly were given some measure of security through the Social Security Act.
Eleanor Roosevelt worked to include women in the New Deal programs. She spoke out against Southern segregation laws, organized a concert for African American singer Marian Anderson, and lobbied for anti-lynching laws in Congress. She made personal appearances to labor meetings to show her sympathy to workers. Eleanor held 348 press conferences during the Roosevelt administration, limiting attendence to female reporters and addressing issues like unemployment, poverty, education, rural life, and the role of women in society.
Recommended books: No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands, My Day: The Best of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Acclaimed Newspaper Columns, 1936-1962, Courage in a Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt
When I first attended the Episcopal Church I wanted to find an Episcopalian who has the same radical Christian vibe that Dorothy Day has. I found a few contenders. Sara Miles is the author of the book Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion and is a lesbian leftist journalist who covered poor communities in Latin America and the Philippines, and started a food pantry for the poor people who inhabit the neighborhood of her church in San Francisco. Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian who was killed while participating in the Freedom Summer civil rights campaign to register African Americans in Alabama. The Episcopalian whom I am most attracted to is Pauli Murray, Pauli Murray was a historian, attorney, poet, activist, teacher and Episcopal priest, and she spoke out her entire life for economic and racial justice. A member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Murray worked to end segregation on public transportation and she went to jail in March 1940 for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Virginia. She helped found the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, and she received a law degree in the University of California Boalt School of Law. In 1977 Murray became the first African American woman to become a Episcopal priest. The more I learned about Pauli Murray’s accomplishments, the greater my respect became. I also grew more baffled as to why such a woman of accomplishment isn’t better known.
Recommended books: Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet
Bayard Rustin is one of the great forgotten heroes of the civil rights movement. I had not heard of him until a couple of years ago, when I wrote a blog about Grace Paley and Grace’s daughter commented that Bayard Rustin was the greatest influence in bringing Grace Paley over to nonviolence. Political cartoonist Jules Feiffer noted in his book Backing Into Forward: A Memoir that a lecture by Bayard Rustin taught Feiffer about the importance of the African American struggle for civil rights.
Rustin was a Quaker, a socialist and a gay man. His radical politics and his homosexuality were constant sources of problems Rustin, as mainstream civil rights leaders would try to minimize Rustin’s involvement on civil rights campaigns due to fear of a backlash of more conservative supporters who had problems with both socialism and homosexuality. Rustin briefly was a member of the American Communist Party in the late 1930s. He quit in 1941 because of its autocratic nature, but he learned a lot about organizing from the group. Bayard Rustin learned about nonviolent tactics from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian pacifist organization, and he used those lessons with the group he helped found, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1947, Rustin organized the Journey of Reconciliation, a percursor of the Freedom Rides, where 8 whites and 8 African Americans rode together on a bus in the South to protest segregation in interstate travel. Rustin taught the Reverand Martin Luther King Jr. about the tactics of nonviolence during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and helped him organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), though the SCLC would eventually force Rustin to leave the group because of his homosexuality. Rustin’s most famous feat was to organize the March on Washington in 19, where Martin Luther King Jr. had his “I Have A Dream” speech. I am deeply influenced by an essay that Rustin wrote titled From Protest To Politics, which described how the civil rights movement must shift from protesting on the streets to creating coalitions with unions and liberal religious groups to fight the economic disparities were deeply embedded in the structure of the economic system.
Recommended books: Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John Demilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’ Emilio
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
I have always respected Martin Luther King Jr. because of his “I Have A Dream” speech. The PBS documentary series “Eyes On The Prize” showed me a King who was in the middle of a larger Civil Rights movement that was challenging society’s legal and economic oppression of the African American community. It showed me the activist Martin Luther King Jr., the courageous religious subversive who was willing to say the unpopular thing about economic injustice, about the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. is such an icon now that we forget just how radical and subversive he was in the later part of the 1960s. Like many religious activists that I admire, King combined a strong moral standard with compassion for human weakness. With this compassion, King was able to empathize with those who are most opposed to him, to seek the redemption of the oppressor as well as the oppressed. I think if a strong moral standard is not combined with compassion for human weakness, that strong moral standard can go to extremes and a person could wind up like Torquemada or Robespierre. King’s compassion helped him to avoid that fate, and his humility is one of the most appealing things to me.
Recommended books: I Have a Dream – 40th Anniversary Edition: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World, April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, JR.’s Death and How It Changed America by Michael Dyson, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 by Branch Taylor, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 by Taylor Branch
THE KENNEDY BROTHERS
I’ve always been a fan of the Kennedys. I remember the documentaries and television specials that came out during the aniversary of Kennedy’s assasination, and I was deeply inspired by John F. Kennedy’s charisma, wit, and his clarion call for for all Americans to ask not what our country can do for us, but to ask what we could do for our country. And then his brother Bobby became a hero of mine, first from watching a chapter in the documentary “Eyes On The Prize” and then from checking out the book “RFK: The Collected Speeches”. And gradually I came around to Teddy Kennedy, after looking back at his career and seeing all of the great legislation that he passed that really helped ordinary Americans. At first I admired John F. Kennedy the most. As the years have passed, I’ve grown more partial to Bobby and Ted, as they both seemed more passionate about fighting social injustice, and more committed to speaking out for the voiceless in our society.
My favorite Kennedy is Bobby. Bobby always seemed to me this shy ackward man who felt ill-at-ease on the national stage, but forced himself to speak out to champion the ideas of his martyred brother. Bobby was the one who reached out to the African American community, he was the one who supported Cesar Chavez and the farm workers strike, he was the one who changed his mind about Vietnam and became a critic of the war. What I most admire about Bobby is his ability to inspire others to get involved in our democracy, to get people to believe that they can make a difference, that they are a part of this American society too.
It’s taken me a while to like Ted Kennedy. When I was young I felt more sorry for him than anything else. With Chappaquidik, with his marital problems and his alcohol problems, Ted seemed to me to be struggling with deep emotional problems stemming from the trauma of so many violent deaths in his family. As the years have passed, though, I grew to admire Ted as I saw the many legislative achievements that he had to helped the poor, the elderly and the marginalized. While John and Bobby had the ability to inspire us, Ted gave the Kennedy legacy its substance. Ted Kennedy authored over 2,500 bills, of which 500 became law. During the 1960s, Kennedy supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and the 1965 Immigration Act. Kennedy’s amendment to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1966 led to many community-based health clinics throughout the nation. Kennedy sponsored the 1975 Education for All Handicapped People Act, and the 1980 Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act to protect the constitutional rights of the elderly, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the incarcerated. In 1990, Kennedy cosponsored with Orrin Hatch the Ryan White CARE Act to fund cities most hit by the AIDs epidemic. In 1990 Kennedy wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1993 Kennedy co-authored the Family and Medical Leave Act, requiring businesses to provide unpaid leave for emergencies or births. In 1996 he cosponsored with Kansas Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, which allowed employees to keep health insurance for a time after losing job. He worked for passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to restore a fair rule for filing pay discrimination cases. He worked for the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, which gave public safety workers the right to form a union and bargain for wages, hours, and working conditions. Kennedy supported the Mathew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 which added violence against people due to sexual orientation to the federal hate crimes list.
Recommended books: RFK: The Collected Speeches, Let the Word Go Forth: The Speeches, Statements, and Writings of John F. Kennedy 1947 to 1963, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America by Thurston Clarke, Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy by Peter Canellos
I first encountered the name of Muriel Rukeyser from Grace Paley’s book “Just As I Thought”. I became interested in learning more about Rukeyser and was fascinated by what I discovered of the life of this very interesting woman. Muriel Rukeyser was a a poet, a journalist, a pilot and a political activist. She was determined to blaze her own path, and she took a lot of flack for her independence. She was a poet who was regularly criticized by literary critics for consistently commenting on political matters in her poetry. She was a leftist, but was regulary criticized by other radical leftists for not towing the party line. Her radical leftwing politics led her to be harassed during the McCarthy era during the 1950s, which caused her difficulty in finding work. She bore a child out of wedlock in the 1940s and chose to be a single parent, causing her to be shunned in many social circles. I most admire Rukeyser’s strength of will to live the life that she wanted to live and her willingness to pay the price for her artistic integrity when it would’ve been easier to conform.
I also deeply admire the many political causes that Muriel Rukeyser was involved in during her life. At the age of 19, Rukeyser reported on the second trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Decauter, Alabama in 1933, in which 9 black defendants were accused of rape, and were unable to have a fair trial due to racial prejudice. In 1936 Muriel reported on the antifascist Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and reported on the Spanish Civil War, writing various articles supporting the Spanish Republicans. Rukeyser wrote poems of the industrial disaster in West Virginia, where African American and migrant workers died of silicosis poisoning due to inadequate precautions taken by Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. In 1972, she traveled with Denise Levertov to South Vietnam to protest the Vietnam War. Muriel traveled to South Korea in her capacity as president of the PEN American Center to hold a vigil outside the prison cell of the South Korean poet Kim Chi Ha.
Recommended books: The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser edited by Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman
I became interested in Grace Paley because of the unusual cover of her on her book “The Collected Stories”. In the back cover, Donald Barthelme described Paley as a wonderful writer and troublemaker and that our country was lucky to have her. That hooked me. I started reading all that I could of Grace Paley, her short stories, her poems, her essays. I admire her role as a writer/activist. In her books, there is this wonderful sense of humor and this great love of family and friends that makes her seem so human to me. I’ve met a few radicals who seem so angry and righteous, and Grace Paley seems to be a radical of a very different cloth. She seems like the kind of person I’d enjoy the company of.
A description of her political activity. In the early 1960s, Paley helped organize the Greenwich Village Peace Center. In 1969, Paley went to Hanoi to free prisoners of war. In 1973, Paley traveled to Moscow as a delegate of the World Peace Congress. During the Carter administration, Paley was arrested along with other peace activists for unfurling a peace banner on the White House grounds.
Recommended books: The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, New and Collected Poems by Grace Paley, Just As I Thought by Grace Paley
Howard Zinn has been a shining light for me for the past couple of years. His “People’s History” is a wonderful book of the struggles of African Americans, women, Native Americans, immigrants, workers and those Americans that you normally do not hear about in regular history books that focused only on great political leaders. I learned for the first time about the Wobblies, the Populists, and many grassroots movements by people fighting for a more just community. My favorite book of Zinn is his autobiography “You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train”. In this book he chronicles his time as a teacher in the African American school Spellman College in the 1950s and how that led him to be involved in civil rights. He described his work in the anti-war movement in the 1960s. And he described his consequent activism against the Iraq War and against the power of corporations in our national life. What I like most about Zinn is his reverance for history, and for his faith in the power of people to join collectively and create social change. All protests, even the smallest public demonstrations of a handful of people holding picket signs, are meaningful to Zinn. While I met a lot of leftists who are disillusioned and pessimistic, I like Zinn’s optimism that with patience and persistence, the average people have to power through protest and civil disobedience to make great and positive changes in this country.
Recommended books: You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train by Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy by Howard Zinn, Voices of a People’s History of the United States edited by Howard Zinn, Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics by Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present
I discovered Ralph Fasanella from an article in Smithsonian magazine in the early 1990s. He has become a role model for me of what an artist activist should be. My two favorite artists, Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera, were also leftwing artists, but Fasanella was more intimately tied to the working class of his time. At various times he was a garment worker, a truck driver, an ice delivery man, a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, and a union organizer. During the 1950s, he was blacklisted and harassed by the government for his progressive politics. He took part in a strike by Portuguese fishermen in 1986 and a strike by the Newspaper Guild in 1990.
These life experiences gave Fasanella a deep sympathy for the working man and he used his art to chronicle the history of the workers’ struggles for economic justice in America. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, Ralph worked by day at a gas station that he owned and at night he would work at his paintings. These are wonderful paintings of labor marches, protests, workers assemblies and union meetings. After he was discovered and became famous, Fasanella made paintings critical of the Reagan era of big business and decried the decline of union power. All the while, Fasanella remained a good family man who went to his favorite restaurants and enjoyed conversations with the workers who regularly dined there. He stayed in touch with his roots, something I deeply respect.
Recommended books: Ralph Fasanellas America by Paul S. D’ambrosio