By Mark Levy
What does it mean to be a Pink Diaper Baby? A bit more than just having parents who were on the Left but not members of the CP. Our parents were independent and cantankerous. They had a lot of trouble following the Party Line and accepting the whole concept of democratic centralism. To give you a taste, I’ve outlined my family story below.
My parents met in the Henry Wallace campaign in 1948. My mom, Harriet Levy, came from a observant Jewish family. Her uncle, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, was a US Army chaplain who conducted the first Jewish service for survivors at the Buchenwald concentration camp on the day after its liberation in 1945. Her brother, Rabbi Jack Schacter, marched with Dr. King in Selma. My mom was always fiercely independent and politically left. My dad, Bennett Levy, was a UE shop steward in a war factory. We were the “commie cousins” of our family. Although many of my parents’ friends were CP members and lived in the Coops in The Bronx, their feisty independence and outspoken attitudes led them to the American Labor Party. In the ALP they campaigned for Vito Marcantonio, a fiery ALP Assemblyman from East Harlem.
Many of my parent’s CP friends were so devastated and felt so betrayed by the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin that they abandoned politics altogether. My parents were flexible or realpolitik enough to seek political action where they could find allies, even if they were more centrist than CP members could tolerate. That’s why they got involved with the UFT and the Bronx Democratic Party, which my parents’ friends shunned as reformist and not revolutionary.
My mom was an incredible, dedicated teacher in the Bronx. She was a Teacher’s Union (TU) stalwart until the left-wing TU lost to the centrist UFT in a pivotal certification election. She quickly saw which way the wind was blowing, jumped on board and was a long time UFT rep in her school. My dad, a small businessman, also got involved in UFT politics. He regularly and loudly attended UFT conventions, where he was just assumed to be a member.
One of my earliest memories was attending Hands Off Cuba demonstrations at the UN in the late 1950s.
My parents were essential in organizing a civil rights group in the Bronx, which my Dad named UNITED (United Neighbors for Integration Through Education and Democracy). Out of UNITED and other progressive organizations, including the Bronx NAACP, founded by Harold Dicks, grew the radicalized Bronx Reform Democratic movement, which was part of the citywide liberal effort spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt and others, including young liberal Ed Koch, to oust the old-line Democratic bosses, like Bronx Democratic Charlie “Boss” Buckley. I became an ardent Boy Scout when Dad and Harold also organized an integrated Boy Scout Troop. Dad bought red berets (a la Ché Guevara) that we wore instead of traditional boy scout caps. We were the first Boy Scouts in the US with those berets.
The Bronx was one of the most thoroughly Democratic counties in the entire country, ruled with an iron fist by Charles “Boss” Buckley, a ward heeler of the old school. But liberal and civil rights winds were blowing into the Bronx from the left in the 1960s. My Dad was one of the founders of the Concourse Claremont Independent Democratic Club and from this club emerged ambitious politicians in the Ed Koch mold. Some were elected to office, including Sy Posner to the NY Assembly and Harrison Jay Goldin, noted for riding around in the back of a Chevy convertible on a loudspeaker with his booming “Goldin Voice.” He did have an impressive voice and he reached NYC Comptroller via the NY State Senate but was pretty pro-Wall Street by then.
My dad was a more behind-the-scenes operator. He was designated a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention, only to be shuffled aside when Village Voice political cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s celebrity trumped my Dad’s Bronx roots. Dad’s fervent support for Eugene McCarthy didn’t help in a delegation largely behind NY Senator Bobby Kennedy or the centrist Hubert Humphrey. McCarthy was the Bernie of his day, not openly socialist, but insurgent against the party establishment, supported by young Dems and much more left wing than Kennedy or Humphrey. One of my fondest memories was heckling Humphrey at a rally on Fordham Road in 1968 with chants of “Dump The Hump!
My mom focused on the local level and ran for Democratic State Committee, the second rung on the long ladder of politics. The State Committee’s sole role is to certify the party’s delegates. She and I traveled up to Albany for what seemed to be ramming through mostly Humphrey delegates. My mom, furious at this, snapped at me: “Quick, write me a speech!” She was something else! All 5 feet of her, with curly red hair and righteous anger. She demanded to speak and was shouted down. Percy Sutton, as elegant a gentleman as ever graced Albany’s sordid halls, intervened. In his smooth baritone, he said, “This woman is a State Committeewoman, and she has every right to speak!!”
We moved from the Bronx to the Upper West Side in 1969. My parents focused their energy and passion on the Mitchell Lama Co-op where they lived for over 40 years. As Board and Committee Members they fought privatization, became involved in the West Side Campaign against Hunger and were always gathering family, friends and neighbors for parties in their apartment.
Dad’s gravestone reads, “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” Mom’s legacy lives on at Jefferson Towers, where my sister is leading the fight against privatization, for continued affordable housing in NYC.