WHITE MISCHIEF, BLACK POWER
Local insurgency was good, but activists didn't have much status until they left their campuses and communities and went to Mississippi to demonstrate their commitment to civil rights. Young activists, both black and white, had been going south ever since 1960; among the best-known and the bravest were the Freedom Riders, so called because they traveled by bus to challenge segregation in interstate travel. Brutally beaten by racist mobs—often while FBI agents stood by and watched—the Freedom Riders became symbols of movement courage in the wake of terror, violence, and all too often the indifference of the Kennedy administration. It wasn't long before almost everyone who went south was called a freedom rider—at least by black sharecroppers who were amazed that white people were willing to risk their lives for the cause of freedom.
Abbie took his freedom ride at the tail end of the freedom movement. He had missed the chance to be among the Freedom Riders of 1961 or the Freedom School teachers of 1964, and he was determined not to let the South slip through his fingers again. The summer of 1965 would be the last time that significant numbers of Northern whites would go to Mississippi for civil rights, and Abbie would be among them. Many of his closest friends at Brandeis, including Ira Landess and Mendy Samstein, had already been to the South, and Abbie wanted to follow in their footsteps. As Ira Landess remembered, "He told us that it meant a lot to him that we had gone down in 1964. He wanted to savor some of the experience for himself, and was resolute about going down in '65 after having missed the first summer." In fact, Abbie would continue to go south in 1966 and 1967, long after most Northern radicals had shifted political direction and had begun to look west, to Berkeley and San Francisco, for political and cultural models.
Abbie was also anxious to get out of Worcester. He was going to Mississippi, he told Father Gilgun in a letter that was full of ranting and raving, because he couldn't trust anyone anymore, perhaps not even Gilgun himself. There wasn't a genuine radical in the Worcester movement, he complained. The word "freedom" itself had been profaned, he claimed, by the phony activists who belonged to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, the Phoenix (an organization made up largely of Catholic radicals), and Prospect House, a community center. He was making his way to Mississippi for intensely personal rather than for ideological reasons, he explained to Gilgun. Moreover, he felt that he had no choice but to join other activists in the South. It was a matter of life or death. If he wasn't a part of the movement, in the thick of debate and struggle, creating a web of human connections, he would surely die. It seemed that clear to him.
On July 29, 1965, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette reported that Abbott Hoffman was going to Mississippi with Jan Selby, a minister of the Covenant Methodist Church. It was an auspicious moment in the history of the civil rights movement. In mid-June, more than eight hundred demonstrators had been arrested in Jackson, the state capitol of Mississippi, where they were protesting discrimination against blacks at the polls. On August 6, soon after Abbie arrived in Mississippi, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which led, over the next decade, to the electoral empowerment of two million African Americans all across the South. On August 11, when Abbie was midway through his Mississippi sojourn, African Americans in the Watts section of Los Angeles poured into the streets to express their rage. They smashed windows, stole merchandise, threw bottles at police cars, and talked about rebellion. The author Stanley Crouch, then an activist in a Los Angeles poverty program, described Watts as "a bloody carnival, a great celebration."
Abbie was headed south at a time when SNCC's forces in Mississippi were in disarray, when black power was displacing integration, and when many Northern liberals were retreating from the civil rights including author James Baldwin and folksinger Joan Baez) joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a historic march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama. But as civil rights historian Clayborne Carson later observed, the Selma march would be "the last major racial protest of the 1960s to receive substantial white support." Abbie hoped that white support wouldn't dwindle altogether, and on the eve of his departure for Mississippi he told a reporter for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette that he was going south because he wanted to show blacks that "Northerners are still interested in their problems." He had not forsaken the cause.
Years later, Abbie would reframe his motives for going south. On one occasion, he told Allen Ginsberg that his civil rights experience was an extension of the Beat adventure, and that on the road to Mississippi he had read Jack Kerouac's On the Road . On another occasion, during a TV appearance in Chicago in the seventies, he explained that going south was an act of emancipation from his parents. "It wasn't until I headed for Mississippi that I finally discovered that freedom is essentially stopping the enactment of your parents' fantasies," he observed.
It made good sense for Abbie to choose McComb, Mississippi, as the site for his baptism in the civil rights movement. A rough-and-tumble blue-collar town in Pike County on the Louisiana border, McComb had been a center of SNCC activity the previous year and the scene of intense Klan violence. During Freedom Summer, from June to September 1964, there were seventeen bombings of black homes and offices. Abbie's college friend Mendy Samstein, one of the few whites who belonged to SNCC's inner circle, had nearly been killed in an explosion that ripped apart the Freedom House. Years later, Abbie would claim that he was "home in Massachusetts watching a TV news story on a bombing at some civil rights center and there was Mendy crawling out of the rubble." He would add, too, that "it was then I decided it was time to head South."
In 1964, television covered almost every move of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. It shed a piercing light on bigotry and brought Mississippi's backwardness to the attention of the nation. It conferred on the volunteers a sense of their own historical importance and drew young activists into the thick of the struggle. When Abbie arrived in McComb, almost a year after the bombing of the SNCC Freedom House, he found that "things were...falling apart." The Freedom House itself was in a state of disrepair, and the organization was collapsing. Many of SNCC's leading activists had regrouped in Lowndes County, Alabama, where the median income for blacks was $935 a year, and not a single black resident was registered to vote.
Disillusioned with the Democratic Party and unwilling to invest time and energy in the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party, SNCC created the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, an independent political party whose symbol, the black panther, reflected the new militant ideology of black power. McComb wasn't on the front lines any longer, but it still had a Freedom School, and there were still dedicated teachers. Ira Landess, a close friend of Abbie's from Brandeis and a Freedom Summer volunteer in 1964, had returned to McComb, and he and Abbie conducted classes in a black church. With the exception of Ira Landess, no one in the McComb movement, and no one in SNCC or in the local NAACP chapter, has any memories of Abbie from the summer of 1965. According to Landess, Abbie spent about three weeks in McComb. "He was a veritable Pied Piper," Landess recalled. "During breaks he would bound out of the church with his kids and throw a ball around with them. He tirelessly gave everything he had to his students, and the result was a love affair between him and the kids."
On August 12, 1965, two weeks after his departure from Worcester, the Telegram and Gazette published a long letter from Abbie in which he described his arrival in Mississippi, his impressions of the South, and his attitudes toward its citizens. The letter, which was dispatched from 702 Wall Street—the address of the SNCC Freedom House in McComb—was obviously meant for publication. There's nothing of an intimate nature in Abbie's dispatch, yet it's similar to the personal letters that Freedom Summer volunteers had written to family members and friends in 1964 and that found their way into Elizabeth Sutherland's anthology Letters from Mississippi. Like the volunteers of 1964, Hoffman saw bleak poverty in black neighborhoods and smug prosperity in white neighborhoods. Like the activists who preceded him, he was profoundly moved by the show of affection from McComb's black citizens and deeply disturbed by the hostility that emanated from the town's white citizens.
Mississippi struck Abbie, as it did many of the volunteers, as a dark mirror that reflected an America that seemed a Kafkaesque country. Jack Newfield reports that during the orientation session for Freedom Summer volunteers that took place in Oxford, Ohio, in June 1964, Bob Moses, the project's director, explained, "When you're in Mississippi, the rest of America doesn't seem real. And when you're in the rest of America, Mississippi doesn't seem real." Most of the volunteers would marvel at the accuracy of that observation as soon as their feet touched Mississippi soil. According to Nicolaus Mills, a volunteer named Clark Gardner recalled that "someone said at Oxford at the orientation session that once you are in Mississippi, everything outside seems unreal—there is a lot of truth in it." Abbie told readers of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette:: "Entering Mississippi is a strange experience that affects you as soon as you cross the state line. Immediately you see a huge billboard that says 'Welcome to Mississippi—the Hospitality State.' Twenty yards down the road you see a second billboard that says, 'Martin Luther King is a Communist.' You know right away they didn't mean you in that welcome."
He went on to describe what his life was like in McComb: "In the mornings I teach at the Freedom School. This afternoon I marched with some local maids and civil rights workers. We picketed an inn... It is the first strike ever to take place in McComb for anything and was completely the maid's idea. The picketing was tense, with a large crowd watching. There were no incidents...We are working on a book composed of local Negroes relating their experiences in McComb. The stories are incredible: Lynchings, shootings in broad daylight, total economic bondage, superhuman bravery on the part of those who have protested. You almost feel they are all made up, that these things just never took place. But then you remember the intense hate you could read in the eyes of the whites, and you know it happened—all of it."
Most of all, he was excited about the "complete academic freedom" that he enjoyed at the Freedom School. "Teaching here is a real joy," he exclaimed. "Creative ability is the order of the day." Like a great many Freedom School teachers, he followed guidelines that had been set forth by SNCC organizer Mendy Samstein. For Samstein the key to reaching black students was the teacher's ability to make spontaneous performance an essential element of pedagogy. "The dramatic method can permit the expression of a wide range of feelings by the students, in volve their total selves, stimulate creativity, provide the teacher with insights about the students, and, at the same time, get across content material," Samstein had written. Showing, not telling, appealed to [chAbbie's theatrical sensibility. To teach concepts of time, he persuaded his eight- and nine-year-old students to construct sundials. To convey ideas about justice, he persuaded the students to act out a courtroom drama: one student played the judge, while others took parts as the lawyers and members of the jury. "I was demonstrating the ideal of innocence until proven guilty," Abbie wrote to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. "The real thing is a long way from the experience of McComb Negroes."
By writing from Mississippi, Abbie contributed to a growing body of civil rights history that activists were writing even as they were making it. Everyone in and around SNCC, or so it seemed, was a self-proclaimed historian. In accord with the organization's democratic ideals, each person was regarded as an expert witness to his or her own experience, and no one's experience was deemed more or less important than anyone else's experience. Mary King, who was twenty-four when she coordinated the SNCC Communications Office in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, observed in Freedom Song, her "personal story of the 1960s," that "everyone who participated has a different story," and that "no one can debate what I lived." Activists who were anxious for unimpeachable historical truths were often disturbed by SNCC's insistence on the integrity of the individual experience and the primacy of the personal story. Allard Lowenstein, for example, was troubled by the spectacle of so many conflicting accounts of the civil rights movement. "One of the great problems with dealing with history is that, as with 'Rashomon,' everybody's version of what happens differs," he complained in a speech entitled "Mississippi Freedom Summer Revisited."
Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's Japanese classic, tells the story of a murder from several opposing points of view. The obvious point of the film is that there's no such thing as "the truth"; it all depends on who is telling the story. That was Abbie's perspective as well. What was essential, he believed, was to tell stories that would help transform the segregated South into an integrated community, and what better way than to make himself into a freedom rider. The South was Abbie's immense movie set, and the civil rights movement of the sixties provided an endless source of material for the ongoing fantasies he projected on the screen of history. He was producer, director, screenwriter, and star of the epic drama. He focused the camera on himself and cast himself as a beloved friend of the black community, a sworn enemy of white racist regimes, and a martyr to the cause.
The long, descriptive letter of August 12, 1965, that he sent to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette was hardly free of exaggerations and distortions. The picket line he joined was not the first of its kind in McComb as he claimed. And McComb itself was not, as he insisted, "the most dangerous spot in Mississippi, which means the South." For all the violence that took place in and around McComb, there were no lynchings there, as there had been in Neshoba County, the tragic burial ground for Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. Abbie's letter has its melodramatic moments: "The tension is always felt, especially at night when a car approaches or when you go into the white area," he wrote. There was also apprehension in broad daylight. "The picketing was tense, with a large crowd watching," he wrote. But Abbie didn't blatantly fabricate. He was level-headed enough to note that "there were no incidents." When he and several picketers had a meal at a recently integrated restaurant and there was no confrontation, he didn't make one up. "Most of the white people moved away or left, but the service was good," he wrote.
His August 1965 letter from McComb was the least fictionalized account that he ever wrote about McComb or the South. For the next twenty-five years he would go on retelling the story of his experiences in McComb in 1965. Each time he exaggerated, embellished, and elaborated until the story became a myth, and Abbott Hoffman, the young civil rights activist, was barely recognizable. "They were sophisticated fictions," Robbie Osman, a Freedom Summer volunteer, observed. "Abbie knew enough of the real history to create a believable world."
In his autobiography he retold the story about black maids in McComb who were on strike for higher wages. This time, however, he made himself the focal point, and this time there was the added element of violence and the added presence of a federal law enforcement official. "I was thrown to the curb and kicked repeatedly," he wrote. "An FBI agent leaned over and asked sarcastically if my civil rights had been violated." Needless to say, there exists no witness to this event, no FBI report, and no contemporaneous account. As late as the end of the 1980s, he was still reinventing the history of McComb and recreating his own experiences there. Shortly before he committed suicide, he told Jeff Kisseloff, an editor at the Bill of Rights Journal who was preparing a special issue on the sixties, that he had faced both the Ku Klux Klan and redneck prisoners while he was in McComb. Moreover, he claimed that he had been arrested several times, beaten in and out of jail, and nearly lynched.
"There were a lot of racial disturbances, as they were called," he explained to Kisseloff. "When the maids went on strike, we set up pickets, and every day the Klan came, beat us up, and then we were arrested. We would then be taken to the police station and beaten. That happened a few times. One time an actual noose was passed in front of my head." Abbie told Kisseloff that after one arrest, "I was fed to the prisoners in the tank. Along with giving them a bottle of liquor, they said to them, 'Here comes another Jew nigger lover from the north.'" He boasted that it was in the South that he "came to terms with death."
No one ever pointed out the exaggerations, distortions, and embellishments in Abbie's voluminous stories about the civil rights movement, and no one ever cross-examined him, either, not even when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1968 or on the witness stand at the Chicago Conspiracy trial in 1969. "I went South to work in civil rights, chiefly in Mississippi, during the summers of 1964, '65, and '66. Mostly my responsibilities were in voter registration," he told the congressional committee that investigated the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In federal court in Chicago, he testified that he was a SNCC "field secretary," and that he was "in charge of organizing Friends of SNCC groups." In Woodstock Nation he claimed that in Mississippi he had taken "a medical survey door-to-door." When friends questioned him, he'd often say that these experiences "might have happened to him," or that "they could have hap pened to him." For many activists, Abbie's stories were distressing, but for others they played an important part in building the movement. Len Holt, the official historian of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, might have resented Abbie's tales. Instead, he remembered that his "exaggerations and distortions spread a message of protest." By creating a mystique about the movement, Abbie contributed to its growth and its power, Holt insisted. Indeed, Abbie's stories made the civil rights cause sound like an incredible adventure.
The Evolution of the Revolution
In the summer of 1965, when Abbie returned to Worcester from the South, friends noticed that there was "a wilder look in his eye." There was also a stronger note of pessimism in his public pronouncements. In October 1965, for example, he wrote to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette to say that "small gains" had been made in the civil rights move ment in the South, but that there had been "large losses" in the North. The American people looked at the movement and saw "great progress," Abbie explained, but in reality there was "great frustration and loss of ground." What was especially troubling to him, he said, was the white backlash in the North. However, he still had faith in ordinary people and in the democratic process.
In the fall of 1965, he started yet another organization—the Ad Hoc Committee on Poverty—and argued that poor people themselves, rather than civil servants or welfare bureaucrats, should be in charge of government poverty programs. "We trust the poor," he wrote. "We feel they should have the power to run their own programs because they know their own problems best." Abbie's language reflected his new political awareness. For the first time he used the word "revolutionary" as though he was perfectly comfortable with it. Bringing poor people into positions of leadership, he insisted, was "a revolutionary new approach to the poverty program in Worcester." And he warned that without the participation of the poor, the "democratic foundations" of the nation would crumble.
On January 6, 1966, after years of circling the issue, SNCC issued a direct condemnation of the war in Vietnam and U.S. imperialism. "We believe the United States government has been deceptive in its claims of concern for the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of colored people in such countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia and the United States itself," the SNCC statement read. Two weeks later Abbie wrote to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette to affirm his identification with liberation struggles around the world.
Almost word for word his personal letter echoed SNCC's official pronouncement. "Our work, particularly in the South, has taught us that the government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens and is not yet truly determined to end the rule of terror and oppression within its borders," he wrote. He went on to say, "We maintain that the government's cry of 'preserve freedom in the world' is a hypocritical mask behind which it squashes liberation movements which refuse to be bound by the expediencies of United States cold war policies." But he was slow to take an active part in the movement against the war in Vietnam. SDS staged its first major antiwar rally in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1965, and Abbie did not attend. His loyalty was to black sharecroppers in Mississippi, not to peasants and workers in Vietnam. "One of the more unfortunate consequences of the war in Vietnam is that public attention is no longer focused on the civil rights movement in the South," he wrote in Noww, the Worcester newsletter he edited and published now that the Drum was defunct.
Gradually, however, he did become active in the peace movement, and in March 1966 he helped to organize a march in Worcester that coincided with antiwar rallies that took place in New York, Washington, Boston, and Berkeley. With local artists he made cardboard doves and distributed them, along with flowers and olive branches, to the 250 or so protesters who gathered at the courthouse in Lincoln Square and made their way through the hostile crowds that lined the streets.
Abbie could be intently serious about antiwar activities: he helped to bring Senator Wayne Morse, who opposed the bombing of Vietnam, to speak at Clark University. But he could also be playful, if not down right silly. On one occasion he suggested that everyone opposed to the war show up at Long Island's Jones Beach on a Sunday afternoon in July with nothing on but a bathing suit.
In March 1966, the same month that he took part in his first antiwar demonstration, he open the SNICK Shop at 65 Main Street, where he sold elegant crafts handmade in Mississippi: candles, handbags, hats, quilts, dresses, and dolls, both black and white. The previous summer he'd met with representatives of the Poor People's Corporation, an umbrella organization that believed that blacks would achieve political and social equality with whites only if they had economic independence. The Poor People's Corporation provided blacks with jobs and skills, but it was more than just a moneymaking operation.
Jesse Morris, who founded the Poor People's Corporation in 1965 and who had a degree in economics from UCLA, envisioned the corporation as an all-purpose entity that would teach illiterate blacks how to read and write, and thereby enable them to lift themselves by their own bootstraps. Morris saw a place for Abbie in the grand design. Indeed, with his years of experience as a detail man for a pharmaceutical company and his dedication to civil rights, Abbie was a natural for the move[chment's corporation.
Right away he put himself to work: he read books and pamphlets on the history, theory, and nuts and bolts of the cooperative movement; collected catalogues from wholesalers; made contacts with producers and distributors of raw materials like cotton and leather; hustled funds from friends; and drew up elaborate plans for a network of stores in upper-class towns all across New England. In a letter to Ellen Maslow at Liberty House, the flagship store in Greenwich Village, he suggested that movement women should give parties in their own homes and sell the Mississippi-made crafts to their friends and neighbors. He offered to give a spiel about the Poor People's Corporation and let suburban women from Philadelphia to Boston know how much Northern support meant to Southern blacks.
Meanwhile he opened his own SNICK Shop in Worcester and launched a cute advertising campaign: there was "a little bit of soul in each sale," he told customers. In addition to the crafts from the cooperatives in Mississippi, he stocked left-wing magazines like David Dellinger's Liberation and M.S. Arnoni's Minority of One. There were also political buttons like "Make Love Not War," pop culture posters of Humphrey Bogart, and (according to an article in Noww) "Greta Garbo suede hats, fruitcakes from a peace co-op, [and] Negro history books for children."
The SNICK Shop was no more of a financial success than the Park Arts theater had been; Worcester wasn't ready for chic Mississippi crafts, campy hats, or Hollywood nostalgia. But the SNICK Shop was significant as an early outpost of the "counterculture" that would blossom in the late sixties and would include head shops, guerrilla theater groups, underground newspapers, communes, collectives, food co-ops, and of course the entire drug culture—the whole amorphous entity that was connected mainly by a sense of opposition to the established culture of middle-class, middle-aged, heartland Americans and everything they consumed, from Campbell's Soup to Frank Sinatra records.
Abbie didn't realize it, but he was already riding the wave of the hippie future that was emerging on the cultural horizon. In 1965, in an article for the Nation, Hunter S. Thompson observed that within the movement there was a clustering of "social radicals," as he called them. They were "fervently committed to the civil rights movement," but they were "arty," and according to Thompson their "real interests are writing, painting, good sex, good sounds, and free marijuana." By 1965, Abbie was straddling two worlds: the traditional world of civil rights and the unorthodox world of cultural and sexual rebellion that Thompson described. At his and Sheila's home on Hadwen Road, he gave "love feasts," as he called them, where he offered home-cooked food, music, and wine to friends. He urged movement people to give "freedom parties": to "sing, dance, and drink" as well as discuss civil rights. "Abbie liked to party—to get high, to drink wine, and to chase women," a black friend in Worcester remembered. Slowly but surely he took up marijuana and delved into the world of hallucinogenic drugs, but he didn't publicize his new habits because the Worcester movement was for the most part puritanical. Once, when the police interrupted a boisterous movement party, Abbie concealed a bag of marijuana by sitting on it; he was later rebuked by colleagues for having jeopardized the cause.
In 1965, the year he took his first acid trip, hundreds or perhaps thousands of others were "turned on" by ex-Harvard professor Timothy Leary at his retreat in Millbrook, New York, and by novelist Ken Kesey and his crew of Merry Pranksters at San Francisco events called Acid Tests. Abbie's companions on his first voyage into the world of psychedelics were two college friends, Ira Landess and Manny Schreiber, and a local artist named Marty Carey, who offered his loft as the laboratory for their real-life experiment. It was fortunate the others were present because LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), or "acid," intensified Abbie's natural speediness and magnified his innate sense of unreality.
Ira Landess, who had been a Freedom Summer volunteer in 1964 and had taught at the McComb Freedom School with Abbie in the summer of 1965, remembered that after taking LSD, Abbie was "out of control." Manny Schreiber, who'd scored the drug and brought it to Worcester, remembered that Abbie had "a hard time figuring out what was real and what wasn't real." A sense of unreality was to be expected, of course, on LSD. Albert Hofmann, the doctor who synthesized LSD in a Swiss laboratory in the late 1930s, explained that acid produced a "not unpleasant state of intoxication." When he took the drug, he experienced what he described as "an intense stimulation of the imagination and an altered state of awareness of the world." But Abbie's imagination ran wild without benefit of LSD, and with acid it went berserk. According to his friends he thought that Marty Carey's loft was exerting a strange power that prevented them from coming or going. "It was like the [Luis] Bunuel movie Exterminating Angel, in which the guests are trapped inside the dining room," Manny Schreiber remembered.
Abbie was determined to escape from Carey's loft and to free his old friends. He "broke" out, roamed the streets, and stopped at a diner for hearty provisions. Returning to the loft, he gave out sandwiches and then, imagining himself as liberator, guided his friends to Father Gilgun's church, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech. It was here, while on acid, that Abbie discovered that he could give a talk without following a prepared text. Years later, Abbie would insist that it was LSD that had led him to become a full-time political activist. It probably wasn't the cause, but his first experiments with LSD did coincide with intensified movement activity. For a great many sixties radicals, taking LSD was indeed a decisive experience. Carl Oglesby, SDS President in 1965-66, explained that acid gave a sense of "powerful and explicit transformation," and that it was the psychic equivalent of "bursting through the barricades."
Abbie's LSD trips coincided with the end of his abortive career as a pharmaceutical salesman and the final break-up of his stormy marriage. Sheila refused to take acid or to smoke marijuana, and for Abbie her refusal was decisive. "Taking acid created a feeling of definite separation from those who had not," he explained in his autobiography. "To this day, on some level, I still don't trust people who have not opened them selves enough for the experience. On some anal-retentive level they are saying they fear looking inside." Sheila upbraided Abbie for taking LSD; friends remember that she reminded him that he was the father of two children and ought to be more responsible. Now, however, Abbie felt less guilty than ever before if he disappointed Sheila and much less hurt by her anger. She could disapprove all she wanted; she could try to browbeat him, but he would not stop smoking marijuana or "dropping" acid, and so the rift between them intensified.
Politically as well as personally, Abbie took on an angry and defiant identity that mirrored SNCC's new phase as a militant black power organization. In July 1966, he attended the Newport Folk Festival and, as a representative of the Poor People's Corporation, shared space with SNCC's field secretaries, who showed up en masse to publicize the organization. While Abbie was selling crafts made in Mississippi, SNCC members, including Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) and Julius Lester, sold books and pamphlets and talked about the philosophy and the strategy of black power, which he wholeheartedly endorsed.
For years, blacks and whites in SNCC had worked side-by-side— albeit uneasily—to show the rest of America that racial equality was possible and that integration could work. Inside the organization itself, however, an unequal relationship of power existed between blacks and whites. As early as 1963, according to Nicolaus Mills, some SNCC field secretaries had expressed serious doubts about the effect on the organization of the Northern white students pouring into Mississippi. "I came to SNCC, and I saw Negroes running the movement, and I felt good," Ivanhoe Donaldson said. But then whites began to exert more influence in SNCC, and Donaldson didn't feel good anymore. "I get the feeling the way students are going, in two or three years the movement will be run by white students," he complained. Mendy Samstein, Abbie's Brandeis friend, expressed similar feelings in 1964, on the eve of Mississippi Freedom Summer. "If thousands of whites come down, there is the problem of relationships between blacks and whites," he said. "Whites convincing blacks of their rights—this entrenches the concept of white supremacy."
By 1965 white lawyers and fund-raisers were wielding great power in SNCC, and many blacks didn't like it. Moreover, SNCC's new leader ship identified with African countries that had recently thrown off white colonial rule. The African paradigm of liberation ought to apply to African Americans, they argued: it was time for whites to leave the civil rights movement and organize in the "mother country"—in their own communities. Abbie echoed these ideas in a passionate letter he dispatched to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette in the summer of 1966. "We say integration is irrelevant," he proclaimed. He went on to explain, "One of the things that cannot be done is for whites to organize all-black communities. It's like trying to organize a Puerto Rican community without being able to speak Spanish." He was disturbed, he said, by attacks on SNCC and on black power that had appeared in the press, and he warned that if these attacks continued they would "lead to more black and more white violence."
SNCC's new leaders—Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown— were influenced by Malcolm X, who had been assassinated in New York in February 1965. Abbie looked to Malcolm X, too, and had borrowed from his speech "The Ballot or the Bullet?": "If Negroes cannot gain power through the ballot, they will resort to bullets," Abbie had predicted in the Drum in 1964. For the most part he was optimistic about the prospects for social change. In Lowndes County, Alabama, SNCC was running black candidates for public office, and Abbie endorsed the strategy. "Lowndes County is a key to the definition of black power and to the direction of the racial struggle in this country," he wrote. He was hopeful, too, about the new role for white radicals. In his view they ought to publicize black power, raise money for SNCC, and organize poor whites. At some point in the future, he predicted, there would be a "black-and-white coalition in a politics for the alienated."
At the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, Abbie felt at one with SNCC and its black power advocates. He smoked marijuana until he was "stoned out of his mind," and he went backstage with SNCC members to meet some of the folksingers. At last he felt that he belonged to the inner circle. He was also proud of his bravery when members of the Newport Police Department attacked SNCC members late one night. Stokely Carmichael remembered that "Abbie could have side-lined, but he in stinctively threw himself in the front. This was one of his strongest point[s]. Abbie would put his body on the line at any moment for any cause he was involved= in."
Immediately after the incident he appeared at a panel discussion in Worcester on black power, where he told the audience that he could identify the police officer who hit him. "I have his badge number," he proclaimed. With all the indignation he could muster, he accused the police officers of public intoxication and of using profanity. Moreover, he announced that he and SNCC would file a lawsuit against the New port Police Department for its abuse of "blue power." Nothing ever came of the suit. According to files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI investigated the charges and concluded that Abbie and the SNCC activists were at fault—not the Newport Police. According to the FBI report, the officers had "prodded and pushed" Abbie and his associates, but only because they had refused "to leave the grounds after the evening performance."
Six months earlier, in the winter of 1966, he had tried to break out of Worcester and into big-time movement activity. He had written to Saul Alinsky in Chicago and applied for a job with the Industrial Areas Foundation. Alinsky, who called himself a "professional radical," had a national reputation as a rambunctious organizer who got results. Born in Chicago in 1909 and raised in a family of Orthodox Jews, he had followed an unconventional path through the working-class battles of the 1930s. Neither a Communist nor a Trotskyite, but rather a Midwestern populist with an abiding faith in "the people," he believed that the poor would succeed in political struggle only if they formed their own pressure groups. Unlike the staid old leftists, he wasn't afraid to use obscenity or to be irreverent, if not downright crude. Among his legendary tactics were the "piss-in" and the "fart-in." At "piss-ins" thousand of demonstrators would invade bathrooms to urinate and flush toilets simultaneously. At "fart-ins" demonstrators would eat massive amounts of beans and later break wind together at corporate head quarters, forcing executives to evacuate offices. By merely threatening to use these tactics, Alinsky often won his demands, making himself highly in demand as a community organizer.
Abbie couldn't have created a more perfect role model if he'd wanted to. In his book Reveille for Radicals, Alinsky explained that he aimed for what he called "cool anger"; his political actions and his theatrical demonstrations were "calculated" rather than spontaneous and were "designed primarily to induce certain reactions based on an analysis of circumstances." For Alinsky "truth" was "relative and changing," and life was "an adventure of passion, risk, danger, laughter, beauty, love." Then, too, he envisioned the organizer as a "free man" without ideology or party, "a creative person" unconcerned with "reputation." [chAlinsky was impressed with Abbie's credentials, and would have liked to hire him—so he said—but unfortunately didn't have a position for a white activist. Abbie was not easily put off. In the spring of 1966, he and Father Gilgun, Worcester's radical priest, drove to Boston to hear Alinsky speak, and then to drink Scotch together in his hotel room.
Once again Abbie asked for a job, and once again Alinsky turned him down. Father Gilgun remembered that Alinsky said, "You're just what I want, but you're the wrong color. I don't need another Jew. I need a black." Years later Abbie would boast that he "picked Alinsky's brain clean that night." Alinsky's advice, he recalled, was "Never respond to criticism or else you'll be doing everybody's thing but your own." What he learned from Alinsky—whom he called a "fantastically great artist"—was that "artists never 'need' love." In Revolution for the Hell of It, Abbie explained that "when you're an artist, your art is the point as well as the reason you keep going. Applause, boos, analysts, critics are all irrelevant."
Throughout the early to mid-sixties, Abbie zigzagged from art to politics and from politics to art: from the Park Arts movie theatre to H. Stuart Hughes's campaign for the U.S. Senate; from the Drum to the SNICK Shop; from the McComb Freedom School to the Newport Folk Festival. Though he never managed to merge these worlds, he was attracted to the idea of a grand synthesis. It wasn't surprising, then, that in the summer of 1966 he had jumped at the offer to become the National Sales Director for the Poor People's Corporation, and to manage a shop where Mississippi crafts would be sold in a low-key, noncommercial atmosphere. Working for the Poor People's Corpora tion would enable him—he argued, with some justification—to make the grand synthesis. As Sales Director of the corporation, he could serve as a vital link between poor blacks in the South and affluent whites in the North. There were practical advantages of the job, as well: he could get out of Worcester, away from Sheila, and make a living while work ing for the movement. To Abbie the Poor People's Corporation seemed like the answer to all his problems, and he began preparing to relocate in New York.
Ironically, just as he was leaving home, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette finally ran a glowing account of Abbott H. and Sheila Hoffman. Reporter Julian Grow described them as "atypical SNCC workers: married, parents of two children, long out of school." Abbie repeated what he'd been saying for years: "Learn something of the Negro culture," he told readers of the Telegram and Gazette. "Recognize, above all, that a Negro culture does exist." Moreover, he told Julian Grow that "by doing nothing either for or against civil rights," Worcester citizens would only "help perpetuate a racist society." As far he was concerned, there was no such thing as an "innocent bystander." In the pages of the Telegram and Gazette, Abbie and Sheila looked like a happy movement couple, the proud parents of two happy children. The black-and-white photograph showed Andrew nestled against his father and Amy, holding a baby bottle, in her mother's arms. The SNCC poster on the wall behind the Hoffman family depicted an old black man holding a young black girl on his lap.
Surely Abbie was delighted to see himself in the paper, yet the upbeat story and the idyllic photo must have troubled him, too. Sheila had filed for divorce on grounds of "cruel and abusive treatment," and he was waiting for a court ruling that would order him to make alimony payments of $72.00 a month, $22.50 of which was to go for child support. On November 4, 1966, just three weeks after Julian Grow's glowing story was published in the Telegram and Gazette, Sheila and Abbie were no longer husband and wife. Looking back at the divorce from the vantage point of 1980, he tried to sound flip about it, and yet there was an underlying tone of bitterness in his voice. "Sheila got the house, the kids, the books, and the lawn mower," he wrote, as though he'd been martyred. "I got two suitcases filled with clothes and my candlepin bowling balls." The Worcester Probate Court granted him the right to "receive reasonable visitation" from Amy and Andrew, but that was small consolation. Now at last he was a free man, yet his newfound freedom was bittersweet. Suddenly he felt that he had nothing to show for his life: no career, no real home, no great accomplishments as a movement activist. He didn't even have his youth anymore.
On November 30, 1966, he turned 30. To celebrate the occasion, as well as to mark his departure from Worcester, his friends threw a party that turned into a roast. Johnnie Hoffman was in rare form and addressed the gathering with characteristic wit. "My son Abbott—" he began, then paused for a moment before adding, "I don't know him well enough to call him Abbie."
Margery and Daniel Dick remembered that they presented Abbie with a going-away gift: a homemade crown of thorns. It acknowledged the Christ-like persona he'd adopted and seemed to say that, like Christ at 30, his apprenticeship was over. It was time to make his place in the world. Going to New York felt like a momentous occasion, and he envisioned the journey from Worcester to Manhattan in highly symbolic terms, as a rite of passage. Entering the city by bridge, he saw himself as an initiate crossing from one realm into another. At last he had ascended from the provinces to the metropolitan center.
In Manhattan he found an apartment on the Lower East Side and a new location for Liberty House at 343 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Abbie was suddenly a landlord with tenants—the building had several rent-controlled apartments—as well as a shopkeeper, with an inventory to maintain and customers to serve. But first he had to clean the floors and windows and plaster and paint the walls. He applied himself to all the details, but his mind was on a lot more than the store. Abbie had a practical solution to the political impasse in the movement, and he presented it in an article entitled "The Craft of Freedom," which was published in the October-November 1966 issue of Catholic Worker, the radical newspaper edited and published by Dorothy Day. "The Crafts of Freedom" was undoubtedly the best single article that Abbie Hoffman ever wrote under the name of Abbott Hoffman. It was also his last article published with that byline. A month later, he would appear in print, for the first time, as Abbie Hoffman. Never again would he use Abbott Hoffman in print, and never again would he use the serious intellectual style that he had used as editor of the Drum.
"The Crafts of Freedom" remains a glowing testament to his identity as a moderate movement organizer and a reasonable radical in a sea of heated ideological debate. In the pages of the Catholic Worker, he presented himself as a financial wizard who knew the ins and outs of the business world. And he cast himself as a political craftsman who could weave together a sense of wholeness from opposing factions. It was far too late in the game to put the old civil rights movement back together again, but that was precisely what he set out to do. On one side, he pointed out, there were the integrationists; on the other side, the advocates of black separatism. It was still possible, he insisted, to create an economic program that would "find acceptance by almost all theoretical positions." Moreover, the Poor People's Corporation was the vehicle in which all factions and parties might ride together.
Marxist terminology doesn't crop up in the article—indeed, it's remarkably free of left-wing jargon—but the article is informed by Marxist ideas about labor and about alienation. What emerges, however, is a utopian socialist view. Abbie argues for "worker-owned cooperatives," which he describes as a natural outgrowth of "rural, Negro communities." He admits that there will be major problems ahead for the cooperatives. "The project is plagued by a variety of difficulties which revolve around the lack of financial support," he writes. "In order to produce the goods at competitive prices, raw materials have to be purchased in large quantities, and this cannot be done at the present time." But he feels reasonably sure that the project will be a success, and that it may "provide the model for more ambitious economic programs." In a not-too-distant future, there might be a whole network of worker- controlled banks, factories, supermarkets and even investment houses. The article is upbeat and concludes with the image of the Poor People's Corporation as a beacon that will "light the way."
Here Comes Abbie
In a matter of weeks, however, Abbie's mood changed radically—ostensibly as a result of momentous changes inside SNCC. Almost six months earlier, in May 1966, Stokely Carmichael had replaced John Lewis as the chairman of SNCC, and black power had became the official ideology of the organization. Then, at a staff meeting in Kerhonkson, New York, that lasted from December 1 to December 8, 1966, SNCC voted 19-18, with 24 abstentions, to exclude all whites from the organization. It was the single most important meeting that SNCC ever held, and political reverberations were felt throughout the movement.
Abbie did not attend the staff meeting, but he heard about it immediately and was instantly offended. Setting aside his immediate responsibilities at Liberty House, he drafted a long article which he showed to friends like Jeremy Larner, a Brandeis graduate who'd published a first novel, Drive, He Said, about a crazy college radical who resembled Abbie. Larner remembered that Abbie was "conflicted about what to write, that he held back some of his criticisms and that he toned down others." In the first draft he accused blacks in SNCC of raping white women and robbing white men under threat of violence. But those remarks seemed too explosive, and he took them out.
The final version of the article, which was entitled "SNCC: The Desecration of a Delayed Dream," was published in the Village Voice on December 15, 1966. It caused "a shit storm" in the movement, according to one SNCC organizer. The byline identified the author as "Abbie Hoffman"; it was the first time that "Abbie" had appeared in print. Moreover, it was the first time that Abbie had used the writing style which would become his trademark. He was cool and he was hip in a New York kind of way, and he made sure that his readers knew it. Abbott Hoffman of Worcester rarely wrote in the first person and rarely if ever referred to his own immediate experiences. Granted, in the letter he'd written from McComb to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, he had described his daily activities, but that was unusual. For the most part, Abbott Hoffman appeared in print as an impersonal spokesman for the movement at large. Now, as Abbie Hoffman, he used the first-person pronoun "I" and discussed personal experiences.
He had a long history of movement activity, he explained in the Voice, "generally as head of a Friends of SNCC group, but also as an organizer in the South." He mythologized his radical past, insisting that he'd been "connected with SNCC from its beginning in 1960." No where in the article did he mention Worcester, and nowhere did he indicate where he'd organized in the South or precisely what he'd done. Leaving large areas of his life blank, he left it to readers to imagine what he might have done. He had been at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, he explained, and claimed that he and a Boston activist named Martha Kocol "had the unique distinction of being the last whites beaten in SNCC." After the festival, he wrote, he'd served as the chairman for a panel discussion on the war in Vietnam. Stokely Carmichael had embraced him, he claimed, and had said, "Abbie's in SNCC, he's white and he's beautiful."
Perhaps what was most significant about the Village Voice article was that Abbie talked candidly about his sense of anger and betrayal. The opening sentence of the article read, "One thing that has always been present in the Movement has been the attitude that if you feel some thing is wrong you say so regardless of the consequences. I feel SNCC is wrong and now is the time to say what has been bothering me for the past few weeks." He went on to say, "Now I'm mad. Emotionally and intellectually I'm mad." His anger toward SNCC, he explained, was "the kind of anger one might feel in, say, a love relationship, when after entering honestly you find that your loved one's been balling with someone else, and what's worse, enjoying it." The expulsion of whites from SNCC made him feel naked and ashamed; indeed, he felt "like a schmuck." Abbie had grown up listening to his relatives speak Yiddish, and among friends he would toss out Yiddish expressions, but this was the first time he had used Yiddish in print. In years to come he would introduce Yiddish expressions into the movement at large, injecting a Jewish identity into radical politics.
As Abbott Hoffman, he'd written about race and class. As Abbie Hoffman, he showed an awareness of gender, as well, and consciousness of the conflict that existed between black men and white women in the civil rights movement itself—an issue that had become of great concern to women. In the fall of 1965 Casey Hayden and Mary King, two white SNCC activists, had written a manifesto entitled "A Kind of Memo" in which they'd argued that a "sexual-caste system" existed in the ranks of SNCC, and that women were treated as second-class citizens and were systematically exploited. Whenever they raised the issue of "personal relations" in movement circles, they had found, men felt threatened. Abbie borrowed their ideas and wove them into his own personal account of his relationship with SNCC. He made feelings a crucial part of his politics, and he made subjectivity his rallying cry.
For Todd Gitlin, one of the old guard of SDS, "an 'analysis' was a ticket to the elite world of movement cadres." For Abbie, analysis was obsolete. "SNCC: The Desecration of a Delayed Dream" shows that what was important for him was to communicate feelings. In this crucial respect he was outside the movement elite, but closer to everyday movement experiences.
For years there had been rumors about the intense sexual activity that had taken place in SNCC's Freedom Houses throughout the South. Mississippi politicians like McComb mayor Gordon Burt had dismissed the Freedom Summer project as nothing more than a "damn screwin' orgy." To forestall those kinds of attacks, SNCC leaders had insisted on strict codes of behavior between blacks and whites. Ivanhoe Donaldson, the SNCC field secretary in Holly Springs, Mississippi, explicitly warned white women not to become involved with black men. "Interracial relationships will provide local whites with the initia tive they need to come in here and kill all of us," he said. Even if the whites don't find out about them, the people will, and we won't be able to do anything afterwards to convince them that our primary interest here is political."
Despite all the rules and regulations, black men and white women did engage in sexual relationships. Now, in the pages of the Village Voice, Abbie turned the organization's private affairs into a matter of public concern. For years, he had remained silent on the subject, he said; he had been a loyal "revolutionary" whose main concern had been "the over-riding injustice that exists in this society." In the past, he had "accepted a lot of crap," but that was no longer possible, he claimed. Not to speak out would be a betrayal of the movement's ideals. It wasn't only what Abbie said about SNCC that created a stir, but also the way he said it. His language was frank, and it conveyed his personal anger and resentment. "I feel for the other whites in SNCC, especially the white females," he wrote. "I identify with all those Bronx chippies that are getting conned out of their bodies and bread by some darkskinned sharpie." As the writer Abbott Hoffman, he had never used words or phrases like "chippies" or "darkskinned sharpie." And as Abbott Hoffman, he had idolized black men in the civil rights movement. Now he was accusing them of taking advantage of white women, both sexually and financially.
He was profoundly disturbed by SNCC's fund-raising activities and strategies—probably because he'd been a SNCC fund-raiser, and now felt that he'd been used. Black power would be fine if it was financed by black money, but SNCC used guilt to go after liberal white money, he complained. That was "sick money"; he wanted no part of it, and he hoped no other white radicals wanted a part of it either. Indirectly, Abbie was calling for an economic boycott of SNCC.
Abbie's harshest attack was leveled against Stokely Carmichael, SNCC's new chairman, whom he had gotten to know and admire at the Newport Folk Festival. Now he accused Carmichael of perverting the organization and betraying its ideals and goals. It took courage to criticize Carmichael, who was then at the height of his fame. For years SNCC had been run democratically, Abbie argued. Now, with Carmichael at the helm, SNCC had become a "one-man show." He insisted that as long as Stokely Carmichael "says he doesn't trust any white people I personally can't trust him."
"SNCC: The Desecration of a Delayed Dream" was one of the very first published articles by a movement activist that criticized SNCC. Following the December SNCC meeting at which whites were expelled, there was a great deal of anger and resentment, but with the exception of Abbie's article little of it was openly expressed. After the article appeared in print Abbie talked with Mendy Samstein, who had worked for SNCC throughout the sixties and had attended the heated meeting in Kerhonkson, New York. Though they'd been friends for a decade, their friendship was now over. "We left each other, each convinced that he was right, knowing that we could never speak to each other again," Abbie wrote. Black power had come between them, as it would come between a great many movement friendships and relation ships, ending marriages between blacks and whites.
In SNCC and in civil rights circles generally, those who read the Voice article viewed Hoffman for the most part as a crybaby. Jerome Washington, a black activist, remembered feeling that Abbie had taken SNCC's decision to expel whites too personally. "He just felt that they kicked him out," Washington said. Bob Zellner remembered that the article was "self-serving." Dottie Zellner remembered that Abbie Hoffman "exaggerated his participation in SNCC" and "took it upon himself to speak for many of us when he had no right to do that." She also suggested that writing the article may have expressed "a kind of resentment" for his rejection from the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project two and a half years earlier. It seems likely that Abbie's anger toward SNCC was also fueled by his anger toward Sheila. Sex and money—his issues with Sheila—were also his issues with SNCC. Sheila had divorced him; SNCC had expelled him. He felt wounded and betrayed, knocked down and kicked out, both by his ex-wife and by the organization to which he'd been emotionally and psychologically linked. When both blacks and Sheila took power into their own hands, he had neither a marriage nor a political life.
After the article was published, Abbie was afraid that he would be killed—or so he claimed. He phoned Howard Zinn, who had been a trusted SNCC adviser and whom he had met in Worcester in 1965, and claimed that Ivanhoe Donaldson had threatened him. Howard Zinn later remembered telling Abbie that he didn't think Abbie was in physical danger, "but if he felt insecure, he should let things cool off for a while." So Abbie went into hiding on the Lower East Side with Marty and Susan Carey, who'd recently moved from Worcester. Marty remembered that Abbie was afraid that "SNCC members were hunting him down." From his hiding place at the Careys' apartment he dispatched a follow-up article, which was published in the Village Voice on December 22 under the title "Another Look at the Movement." In it he told readers that he was "in exile" and had "a fear of dying." Clearly, he enjoyed the irony of the situation. In Mississippi he had been afraid that whites would kill him on "some dark road" because he was a civil rights worker. Now he had "a "fear of dying" for all the wrong reasons, "at the hands of one of my black brothers," he said. He had been pre pared to give his life for the movement, and now the movement was unjustly preparing to take his life. In his scenario, he was the white martyr on the cross of black power.
For a least a year Abbie continued to express a fear of blacks and of black power. In a short essay for a colloquium on black power that was published in the Partisan Review in 1968, he told a story—highly exaggerated no doubt, and perhaps completely untrue—about a "black militant" who was "bringing a truckload of guns" to Roxbury, Massachusetts. "What about me...are you going to shoot me?" Abbie wanted to know. "Yes, even you," he was told. "Maybe if I saw your SNCC button I wouldn't but when the shit hits the fan it's hard to see buttons. I'd just shoot anything white." The moral of the story, Abbie explained, was that it had convinced him to become a hippie, or, as he put it, a "new nigger." Indeed, a year after the Village Voice article appeared in print, Abbie shed his skin as a civil rights activist and SNCC supporter and emerged as a marijuana-smoking dropout on the Lower East Side. If only other white radicals would become hippies, too, there might be a real movement, he believed.