Pacifist/Socialist Leader David McReynolds dead at 88

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September 1, 2018 · Posted in Commentary 

David McReynolds in 2014. Photo by Ed Hedemann

 

BY MARY REINHOLZ

The first version appeared in The Villager, a downtown Manhattan weekly.

 For nearly 40 years, the late pacifist and democratic socialist David McReynolds traveled the world as field secretary for the War Resisters League on missions of peace and social justice. He burned his draft card in Union Square during a 1965 protest against the war in Vietnam when it was a felony to do so. He later became the first openly gay candidate for president when he ran twice on the Socialist Party USA ticket in 1980 and 2000.

But this courteous and kindly man, a native son of Los Angeles who had planned his own memorial, beginning with blues by Bessie Smith and ending with Beethoven’s Ninth, did not go gentle into that good night.

On the evening of Wed., Aug. 15, friends discovered him lying on the floor unconscious with a “gash to his head” inside his first-floor railroad flat in Manhattan’s East Village, his beloved Siamese cat Shaman nearby. He had apparently fallen. His friends called the police, whose officers gained entry to the unit by going into the basement, and then to the back of the building, finding an open window.

Police called an ambulance, which transported McReynolds to Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital, on First Avenue and E. 16th St. He died there around 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 17 of “multiple organ failure,” said Bruce Cronin, professor and chairperson of the political science department at City College of New York and a longtime Downtown comrade of McReynolds who was at the scene.

Cronin noted that McReynolds, 88, had refused “or forgot” to get a “lifeline” medical alert system to call for help in such emergencies and hopes the manner of his passing will prod seniors to obtain the device as a safety measure.

“He was apparently on the floor for several days — it could have been as long as six days,” mused Cronin, who had been called by McReynolds’s younger brother, Martin, to check on him. “He had been without water. The doctors said he was dehydrated. He never regained consciousness.”

McReynolds’s ailing cat, Shaman, who he had been injecting with insulin, died several hours before him. Cronin believes that it was a “fitting end” for those two, who were exceptionally close.

McReynolds’s survivors include, besides his brother, who lives in Santa Rosa, a sister, Elizabeth Gralewksi, who lives in Santa Barbara, along with their children and other relatives.

McReynolds, eldest of his siblings, was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 1929, at the start of the Great Depression. His mother was a nurse and his father, an ad man and journalist who served in the reserves as an Air Force intelligence officer.

His parents were conservative Baptists and McReynolds was once a young member of the Prohibition Party, who later would struggle with a drinking problem of his own.

He graduated from UCLA in 1953 with a degree in political science during the McCarthy era. By then he had embraced socialism and claimed to have had a “liberating” affair with the dancer Alvin Ailey. Between 1957 and 1960, he worked for Liberation, a left-wing magazine, and was openly gay, writing about his life as a gay man in 1969 for WIN, a magazine of the War Resisters League.

 

Martin Luther King. Jr., leaving the Prayer Pilgrimage in Washington, D.C., in 1957. He gave the last speech of the day, “Give Us the Ballot,” which placed him in the national spotlight as a major leader of the civil-rights movement. Photo by David McReynolds.

 

Arriving in New York in 1956, McReynolds became known as an atheist or agnostic but eventually gravitated toward Quakers and the pacifist Catholic Worker movement.

Carmen Trotta, an associate editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper who lives not far from McReynolds’s building at C.W.’s St. Joseph’s Hospitality House, said McReynolds had become increasingly frail in recent years, having fallen on the street a couple of weeks before his death. But he insisted the octogenarian was “sharp as a tack” mentally and active “to the end”; he noted McReynolds continued to join Catholic Worker events as a speaker and participated in a recent vigil outside the United Nations to protest U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen. Trotta said there would be a memorial for him in about two months.

McReynolds, who worked for W.R.L. from 1960 to his retirement in 1999, kept busy in his last years campaigning for socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign during the 2016 primary race and advocating to turn a vacant East Village Roman Catholic church into a senior citizens center, sources said. He also worked with Ruth Benn, a former W.R.L colleague, who was helping him put together his vast collection of black-and-white photos he took of human-rights luminaries like Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Day, among other subjects, including East Village street scenes.

Many of the photos, Benn said, were in a “jumble” after surviving a 2015 fire that had gutted McReynolds’s fourth-floor studio in the same E. Fourth St. building, where he had lived for more than 50 years. She hopes his photos can eventually be exhibited in a gallery. (A Web site with a selection of his photos has been set up at http://www.mcreynoldsphotos.org/. More photos are expected to be added to the site in the next week or two.)

Benn, 66, recalled McReynolds as “so articulate and smart in terms of political analysis and history.” She said he was influenced by pacifist A.J. Muste and gay civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin.

PHOTO: ROSA PARKS

Backstage at a massive civil-rights rally at Madison Square Garden on May 24, 1956, from left, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt and Autherine Lucy, the first black student at the University of Alabama. The event was billed as a call to “salute and support the heroes of the South.” Roosevelt noted in her diary: “The rally was an impressive meeting, and…I had the pleasure of interviewing Miss Autherine Lucy, the student who made application to enter the undergraduate body at the University of Alabama.” David McReynolds had just moved to New York from California to work for Liberation magazine and was asked to help backstage, giving him a chance to take many photos. Photo by David McReynolds.

 

“But he was terrible with deadlines,” she added with a laugh, referring to the W.R.L. publications to which McReynolds contributed while on staff at the group’s former offices at 339 Lafayette St. which was known as the. the “Peace Pentagon.”

“He was funny and quirky,” she recalled. “Once, after Easter, he made colored Easter eggs for everyone on the staff. He was a fun friend and it was just fun and a privilege hanging out with him.”

She noted that McReynolds had a “lot of friends” and held an “open door for them” for years, with Friday night gatherings at his co-operative apartments for low-income residents which he filled with exotic plants and thousands of CDs, mostly of jazz and classical music. The apartments are managed by the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association across the street. McReynolds was one of the association’s first board members, said Valerio Orselli, its former executive director who now directs the Cooper Square Community Land Trust.

Orselli, 70, first met McReynolds when the older man was involved organizing “draft resistance and helped to mobilize against the war in Vietnam,” he recalled. “He was a leader in the antiwar movement and very inspirational and ethical. He was a humanist. He believed in the goodness of the human race more than I believe,” Orselli said with a chuckle. “He was great. I remember a quote of his about being gay in Liberation magazine. He said, ‘There’s nothing gay about being gay.’ He was in the forefront of that fight, as well. He was a fighter and he knew it was an uphill fight.”

Longtime New York gay activist Bill Dobbs said McReynolds came out as a gay man as early as 1949, but claimed that L.G.B.T. issues “were not a priority for him. They were times when he was ambivalent and even confounded by community concerns,” Dobbs noted.

In 2015, this reporter interviewed McReynolds after he had been censured by the national office of the Socialist Party USA for purported “insensitive and potentially racist” remarks he had made on his Facebook page about the Islamic terror attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and for using the word “thuggish” to describe conduct in a store by Michael Brown, the black teenager who was later shot dead by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. McReynolds told me he was “stunned” by the charges, which he denied, and later sent a lengthy resignation letter to SPUSA, saying he would never “demonize” Muslims, and had never called Michael Brown a thug.

Bruce Cronin, who first met McReynolds when he volunteered with him on the steering committee for an immense 1982 nuclear disarmament rally in Central Park, drawing an estimated 1 million people, believes McReynolds will be remembered for his “Gandhi-like” belief in “interacting with adversaries, people he disagreed with. He didn’t demonize,” Cronin said. “He would invite people on the other side to come to his apartment. He believed in the mass mobilization of people and individual acts of resistance, which is very Gandhian. He was one of the first people to burn his draft card.

“His real contribution is that he combined pacifism and socialism in a way nobody else has done,” Cronin said. “He said you can’t have one without the other. And it’s not just [passive] nonviolence. It’s very active when you resist the state. And if you look at his writings, his is a very American philosophy, like Thoreau’s. Gandhi adapted [Thoreau’s] philosophy and [so did] Martin Luther King. David was not religious but he was very spiritual.”

 

At the Hiroshima Day antinuclear protest in New York City on Aug. 6, 1957. Photo by David McReynolds.

 

When word got out in major national media that McReynolds had died, Facebook friends around the country flooded his page with tributes, and leftist comrades mourned his passing with messages posted across the Internet. One came from the New York Green Party, sponsor of his unsuccessful 2004 antiwar run for Chuck Schumer’s seat in the U.S. Senate. (Years earlier, McReynolds campaigned for a House seat on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968.)

Bill Weinberg, the left-wing anarchist author and former WBAI host, e-mailed me a statement about the passing of a radical iconoclast who had been his neighbor.

“Our lives overlapped pretty significantly, both because we were neighbors and because of my activist involvements with War Resisters League over the years,” Weinberg wrote. “We had our political differences, but he never held them against me, as so many do over lesser matters in New York City activist circles. He was a fundamentally humane, decent fellow. And when I saw him around the ’hood there was always a sense he was a piece of history walking among us — not only one of our most important veterans of the movement against the Vietnam War, but the country’s first openly gay presidential candidate. I give him creds for being a true groundbreaker in that sense.”

McReynolds also made an impact as an author. His writings included the pamphlet “A Philosophy of Non-Violence,” which was widely quoted in leftist circles, and his 1970 book, “We Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century.” Phyllis Eckhaus, manager of foundation development and donor communications at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), compiled passages of his writings for McReynolds’s 80th birthday, apparently when she was on the W.R.L.’s executive committee. She sent along a few to The Villager, mostly from his book, among them his following observations:

“If I told my friends in Scandinavia that I walked down the street yesterday and saw a man fallen upon the sidewalk and that I did not stop to see if the man were ill or drunk or dead, they would recognize me as a moral monster, for they would be applying the standards of civilization to Manhattan.”

“Revolutions are not tidy things.”

“Patriotism is not measured by blind loyalty to the state, but by determined loyalty to values that transcend even the state.”

R.I.P., Sweet Prince of Peace.

 

Mary Reinholz
reinho4@aol.com

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