Tag Archives: Welfare Rights

Nick Kotz, left, greets Upton Sinclair at the White House in 1967 (Photo: AP)

A Passion for Equality

Pearl River     The other day I read a belated obituary on Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Nick Kotz.  He had passed away at 87 on his cattle farm in Virginia of a freak accident involving a vehicle.  The obit celebrated his work, while an investigative reporter based in Washington for the Des Moines Register and the Minneapolis Tribune, in winning the prize through his reporting on unregulated meatpacking plants, that were escaping inspection, because they were not involved in interstate commerce.  This reporting in the mid-1960s, led to the passage of the Federal Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson with Kotz, Ralph Nadar, and Upton Sinclair, the notorious muckraker who had exposed conditions in meatpacking a generation earlier, in the White House ceremony.

I knew Nick, and his wife, Mary Lynn, in another context as the authors of A Passion for Equality:  George A. Wiley and the Movement, published in 1977.  George Wiley was the founder and director of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) from 1966 to about 1972, and earlier had been deputy director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) I had met them when I was an organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1969 and 1970 in Massachusetts.  They were reporters obviously, and that meant that as organizers we were hardwired not to trust them, but it was hard to deny their support for welfare rights, which was never a highly populated crowd.

George Wiley died in a boating accident in August of 1973.  The Kotz book wasn’t published until 1977.  Nick interviewed me for the book, so a passing mention was included and some note of the Springfield riot in 1969 and my arrest.

I always wondered what George would have thought of Nick’s book, if he had had the opportunity to read it.  Like any biography of someone you knew personally and respected greatly, you underline the parts that seemed right and chafe at the parts that seem wrong.  Any inaccuracy rubs like a cocklebur in your shoe.

Nonetheless, I liked the fact that Nick and Mary Lynn had written the book and were serious people who took George and NWRO as seriously as those of us did who worked there or were leaders and members of NWRO. Their love for George matched that of so many of the rest of us, and it shone clearly throughout the book.  That counted for a lot.

The book’s title alone was a gift.  I always felt I owned Nick a debt, along with Mary Lynn, for doing their part in making sure that George Wiley, his life, and his work would not be forgotten.  They served his memory and legacy well.  It’s hard to ask more.  We all do our part, each in our own way.

Thanks again, Nick.

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Remembering Springfield Years Later

Springfield   I haven’t been back in Springfield, Massachusetts since 2009.  Driving from the airport in Hartford, nothing looked that different at 1 AM in the morning, but that’s pretty faint praise.  The Basketball Hall of Fame is prominently located along the expressway.  Mass Mutual Insurance company is still large enough to have its old highway sign, as is Springfield College.

I’ll be at Springfield College this evening to answer whatever questions students and others might have, pro or con, after watching “The Organizer.”  Today, I sing for my supper by working three classes on everything from social movements to the value of volunteers to how music is used in protests, and then I have dinner with some of the profs and the student stars.  I lugged 50 pounds worth of my new book, Nuts & Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing,up with me.  It’ll be fun!

Compared to my last visit almost ten years ago, this schedule seems like a walk in the park.  Last time I spoke on campus there was more drama.  This was the heyday of the Tea Party surge in the wake of the Obama election.  They were still galvanized in their anger.  They picketed outside of the auditorium where I was speaking.  Some of the signs protested the election.  Some were racist, which Tea people organized apologized for later.  Local activists organized a counter protest to support ACORN and organizing, which was quite an honor in its own way.  Several Tea Party leaders tried to disrupt in the question and answer period after my remarks.  It was all pretty tame, but titillating for some of the students and professors to be a part of the controversy.

This time will be interesting in a different way.  The documentary has good archival footage of the Springfield riots that broke out October 15, 1969, almost 49 years ago in the wake of welfare rights demonstrations I had organized where the members demanded winter coats for recipients.  The quality of the great leaders of Springfield WRO comes through in the documentary with clips of Barbara Rivera, Carmen Rivera, and Simone St. Jacque.  The welfare officials refused to cave in as hundreds of welfare rights members sat in the office at the top of the Hill, as it was called.   There was a bus strike so students were walking back up the hill and watching the police wagons and cars surround the center.  It was Vietnam Moratorium day and Barbara had spoken at the rally in Court Square.  Fifty students from Springfield College’s Black Student Union joined the sit-in at the welfare office.  All hell broke loose.

I will be very interested in the questions students ask as they watch their alumni on the screen, and what they will note about how things have changed.

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