A memoir by New Left veterans Mickey Flacks and Dick Flacks.
By Robert C. Cottrell | The Rag Blog | January 20, 2022
As a historian who has concentrated extensively on American radicalism, I attempt to keep abreast of newly released volumes on the subject. The book I explore below is one that skated past me upon its release in 2018 but should be of interest to followers of The Rag Blog due to the radical pedigree of its co-authors. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to point out that one of the authors, Richard Flacks, a longtime professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, served on my graduate committee when I initiated doctoral studies there in the fall of 1977.
Before I would meet with Dr. Flacks, I had to make an appointment, a practice he evidently adopted after an incident at the University of Chicago, where he previously taught and where he might have himself become a victim of the politics of assassination I recently wrote about in this forum. That pattern followed a vicious beating he had endured on May 5, 1969, at the hands of an assailant who had gained entrée by posing as a newspaper reporter. As the New York Times subsequently indicated, Flacks experienced a pair of skull fractures and the near severing of his right hand, which never fully recovered from the attack. Flacks later learned that he was among several SDS leaders whom the FBI tracked through its infamous Counterintelligence Program, better known as COINTELPRO.
I was excited about the chance to work with Flacks at UCSB because I was somewhat familiar with his earlier history. Flacks was among the first leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the two preeminent New Left organizations; the other, of course, was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was involved with the crafting of SDS’s foremost initial documents, The Port Huron Statement (1962) and, more fully, America and the New Era (1963).
‘America and the New Era’ offered a more systematic
analysis of American society.
While The Port Huron Statement articulated the ideal of participatory democracy, which drove the SDS founders, America and the New Era offered a more systematic analysis of American society. Exalting human freedom, Flacks envisioned “the construction of a society in which men have, at least, the chance to make the decisions which shape their lives.” Influenced by the historian William Appleman Williams and other radical academicians, Flacks denounced “corporate liberalism” seemingly favored by the Kennedy administration and liberal reformers. Similarly, he found fault with the New Frontier’s foreign policy, favoring one instead that relied more on “peacemaking” and headed toward disarmament.
In Making History Making Blintzes: How Two Red Diaper Babies Found Each Other and Discovered America (Rutgers University Press, 2018), Flacks and his wife Mickey, a social activist herself, explore their engagement with both the Old Left— itself most significant during the 1919-1956 era–and the New Left the Flacks participated in so fully. They were, as their subtitle suggests, the children of American communists who happened to be Russian immigrants.
What they drew from their parents was a fierce belief in social engagement, a dedication to righting wrongs, and a commitment to peace. Each tenderly delivers warm memories of immersion in a communist-inflected childhood that included attending Jewish summer camps in the Catskills—they met at the Union Square office of Camp Kinderland–and recognition of red-baiting hysteria. The richness of the radical milieu in which they grew up enabled them to meet such friends and allies of their parents as Woody Guthrie, Dorothy Healey, Paul Robeson, Earl Robinson, and Pete Seeger.
Having completed her degree at CCNY, Mickey joined her new husband in Ann Arbor, where Dick was attending graduate school after finishing his undergraduate studies at Brooklyn College. While at the University of Michigan, Dick became involved with a group of campus radicals, among them Tom Hayden and Al Haber, two SDS founders. Remained dedicated to his graduate work, Dick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology in 1963. After Dick was hired by the University of Chicago, both of the Flacks found life difficult in the Windy City, where SDS subsequently moved its national office. Meanwhile, SDS was heading into its Prairie Power phase, which catapulted Carl Davidson, Greg Calvert, and Jeff Shero—the latter two, at different times, key figures in the Austin Movement—to national prominence.
Dick and Mickey present their stories individually
but the tales are interwoven.
Continuing to relate their passage through the 1960s and beyond, Dick and Mickey present their stories individually but the tales are interwoven. They discuss the need to merge the personal and the political, as other New Leftists strove to do so. The Flacks write about the Chicago Movement, which included engagement with labor leader Jesse Prostein and the iconic muckraker Studs Terkel, who offered a daily radio program. During the summer of 1967, Dick joined with other leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Vivian Rothstein, Carol McEldowney, David Dellinger, Ray Mungo, and The Rag’s own Thorne Dreyer, in meeting representatives of the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese government in Bratislava. That fall, the Flacks, again like Thorne, participated in the March on the Pentagon.
By early 1968, Dick became more involved with an attempt to establish “a Left organization for those working in academia.” Both Dick and Mickey were drawn to Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, as he adopted a number of decidedly progressive stances. Consequently, similar to Hayden, they were shattered by his assassination. All three were present, as were Thorne and Rag veteran Alice Embree, while police operatives engaged in assaults on demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention held later that summer in Chicago. At one point, Mickey, who had just nursed her six-week-old child, screaming at National Guardsmen, “Here, d’you want my baby for your bayonets? For shame!”
Dick recalls battles within his home department at the University of Chicago, furthered by his antiwar and anti-draft activities, the attack he endured, and the eventual decision to accept a tenured position at UCSB. By that point, Mickey had become involved in the feminist movement but, proving uncomfortable with the “strident militancy” of Chicago feminists, felt compelled to craft a “defense of motherhood” essay. In the seemingly idyllic setting of Santa Barbara, the Flacks continued to make their mark, becoming leading activists in southern California, sometimes with one or both of their sons in tow during protests. Joining a group of “Jewish radical feminists,” so named despite the fact that all of the women weren’t Jewish, radical, or feminist, Mickey nevertheless enjoyed its consciousness-raising sessions. She also soon acquired a position as a staff research associate for UCSB’s biology department.
Increasingly, the Flacks participated in community-oriented politics
Increasingly, the Flacks participated in community-oriented politics, adopting the slogan “think globally, act locally.” They also pitched in to assist the presidential campaign of George McGovern in 1972 and various electoral efforts by Hayden, including through the California-based Campaign for Economic Democracy. In Santa Barbara, the Flacks and their allies sought to usher in “socialism in one city,” which seemed to be happening in Santa Monica, Berkeley, and, a bit later, the small college town of Chico in northern California, where I long served in the Department of History. In a chapter titled “Confessions of a Tenured Radical,” Dick discusses “radical sociology,” troublemaking, writing about the American left, and seeking to diversify the university.
Near the conclusion of their book, the Flacks indicate, “Most of us on the left act politically a good deal of the time because we want to do the right thing . . . . We act out of conscience—to speak out, to bear witness, to ‘speak truth to power,’ to fight the good fight.” They emphasize their commitment to nonviolent direct action, in addition to their belief in the need for another New Left to “counter the appeal of racist authoritarianism with vision, plans, and strategies.” That led, not surprisingly, to their backing of Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, which followed from a conviction that the Left had “to work systematically to try to transform the Democratic Party.”
“Last Words” contain Mickey’s declaration that “Our entire life has been lived . . . in the spirit that our parents bequeathed us: among Yiddish secularists . . . [seeking] ‘a finer and better world . . . in the New Left,” through the spirit of participatory democracy. The future, she asserts, should feature “democratic control of just about everything”; in other words, “‘participatory democracy’ writ very, very large.” For his part, Dick insists that activists need to have personal lives. Indeed, “Those bent on making history without honoring the values embedded in ordinary life become dangerous to living things.”
On April 20, 2020, Mickey Flacks, died, leaving behind a legacy of working for progressive causes and entities, including the ACLU, affordable housing, a University-Community Day Care Center, grassroots environment and social justice organizations, a tenants’ union, the Jewish Secular Humanist Society, and the Santa Barbara News & Review, the predecessor of the Santa Barbara Independent, both alternative newspapers.
[Robert C. Cottrell, professor of history and American studies at Cal State Chico, is the author of All-American Rebels: The American Left from the Wobblies to Today and Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Rise of America’s 1960s counterculture..]