Cynthia and friend at an antiwar demonstration (her button says, “It’s the oil, stupid”)
Yesterday I attended a memorial meeting for Cynthia Cochran, who died at the age of 82 on a plane flying from South Africa to Great Britain. We assume that she suffered a blood clot on the plane. Although her doctors had advised her against travel, she decided to take a world tour one more time. Everybody who spoke at the memorial meeting concurred that this is the way she would have wanted to go.
Cynthia was the widow of Bert Cochran, a leader of the Trotskyist SWP who had split with the party in the early 1950s over what he perceived as a flawed sectarian model. Back in 1971, during a faction fight in the SWP between party leaders who oriented to the campuses and a small minority that favored a “proletarian orientation”, I was asked by Peter Camejo (my branch organizer in Boston) to prepare some remarks on the Cochranites for the preconvention discussion. I said that since being factory workers did not prevent them from becoming conservatized, there was no sense sending students into factories as a kind of prophylactic.
Years later after I left the SWP I began to reconsider what the Cochranites stood for. Ultimately I decided that they were on the right track but only failed because of the difficulties facing any kind of left group in 1954, including one with a correct perspective. Using an introduction provided by the late Sol Dollinger, I contacted Cynthia Cochran with an eye toward putting selected articles from Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s American Socialist on the Internet. Over about a year I would go over to Cynthia’s, pick up a volume for scanning and chat with her.
Cynthia belonged to a generation that is now dying out, namely people in their 80s and older who had direct experience in a radicalized workers movement. Eventually I videotaped an interview with her in which she recounted her time in aircraft plants during WWII. Like Sol’s wife Genora, she was like Rosie the Riveter but with Marxist politics.
In the official version put forward by SWP party historians, the Cochranites turned tail in the 1950s and hid under their beds. When they came out, they all became solid middle-class citizens putting their radical past behind them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
During an entire lifetime, Cynthia was politically engaged until macular degeneration began to prevent her from getting around as freely as she would have liked. As a professional nurse, she felt an immediate connection with the ACT-UP activists and took part in militant demonstrations well into her late 1960s. She also took part in antiwar demonstrations until the last minute. Indeed, her latest trip took her to some of the more interesting places in the world politically. She started off in China and then to Vietnam. From Vietnam she sailed to South Africa. Speaking as somebody who is plagued by jet lag for at least 10 days after arriving in Turkey, I am in awe of any 82 year old that can get around like that, with a compromised circulatory system and 75 percent blindness to boot.
I had the chance to meet Cynthia’s niece Deidre Griswold on a couple of occasions and came away very favorable impressed. Deidre is a leader of the Workers World Party and a really likable and smart person. Deidre was the stepdaughter of Vincent Copeland, Cynthia’s brother, who was one of the top leaders of the WWP until his death in 1993. Although Cynthia and Vincent clashed politically, she nursed him tirelessly in his waning years. Every single person who spoke at the meeting testified to her big heart and her generosity, even as this was mixed with a large dollop of cantankerousness. I doubt if anybody would have preferred a more modulated Cynthia, especially me. Her outspokenness was reminder of the fighting spirit of the generation of radicals that preceded mine. It takes a lot of guts to take on American capitalism and Cynthia had plenty of that.
This is an account of my first meeting with Cynthia. I found out from her that a number of the facts were wrong, but I stand by my overall assessment:
Talk for Cynthia’s memorial, Dec. 3, 2006 by Deidre Griswold. Held at apartment of Kathy Klein Eddy, a neighbor and close friend.
We’re here to celebrate the life of Cynthia Copeland Cochran, who died in London on Oct. 21 near the end of a glorious trip. Even though she was 82 and her health was beginning to fail, she wouldn’t give in to old age and decided to travel once more around the world. She flew first to China, then went to Bangkok where she boarded a ship to Durban, South Africa, stopping in Vietnam along the way.
After spending a wonderful time with friends in Durban and Johannesburg, she took a long flight to London, but collapsed just before it landed and died the following morning in a London hospital. She died doing what she loved to do and avoided what she had most feared–being incapacitated at the end of her life.
I’m the stepdaughter of her brother Vincent, and I’ll tell you a little of the highlights of her life, as I know them.
Cynthia was born in 1923 in Buffalo, N.Y., the youngest of seven children. Her mother, Ethel, was born in England and while quite young had gone to Canada as an indentured servant–she had to work off the cost of her passage before she was free to do what she wanted. Ethel was another bold woman, who left her family for a new continent at a time when most women feared traveling alone.
Cynthia’s father, A. Stanley Copeland, was an attorney who only took cases he believed in, so that meant they had very little money, especially after the Depression started. Later you’ll hear in Cynthia’s own words about her father, who was both a dreamer and an activist in his own way.
I guess you could consider their family middle class, but they lived very near the edge, especially after her father died. Vince joined the Army in the middle of the Depression just to get the “three hots and a cot” and so he could send a little money home to his mother and brothers and sisters. But he finally was able to buy his way out and get jobs acting, and eventually joined the road company of a play called “Mamba’s Daughers,” starring Ethel Waters, where he had a chance to see much of the country.
These experiences during the Depression convinced both Vincent and later Cynthia that capitalism was a crisis-ridden, inhuman system and had to be replaced with socialism. They both remained committed socialists their whole lives.
Remarks to Cynthia’s memorial by Katherine Stapp, her grand-niece.
A couple of years ago, Cynthia started working on a book that was a combination of reminiscences about her life and a cautionary tale about the problems she was having with her sister Lois’s conservator.
I helped her organize it for a while until I had my daughter Nika, but I still have some of the files, and reviewing it recently I was reminded what a good writer she was, and what an interesting life she led.
Quotes from Cynthia’s memoirs:
It’s not big events that stick on the floor of memory so much as little things, impressions. Like the picture, framed by the windshield of [my brother] Dick’s new/old rumble-seated roadster of a broad band of sunlight, like they have in religious paintings, dust particles drifting earthward in the sunlight as it did back on Emerson Place in Buffalo where I was born in 1923, the last of seven kids. Each particle of dust was visible, not crowded together but hanging like a veil and there before me was the dustbin of personal belongings waiting for the rubbish pickup. I happily rescued high-heeled rundown shoes so untypical of my own mother, so exciting for a six year old.
I remember again that same strange light in the summer of 1942. What is that lovely place somewhere between Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs? Bryce Canyon? My brother Dick softly nudged my shoulder to wake me just as the sun rose. He had stopped the car. A family of sheep was crossing the two-lane country road quietly, softly baaing to each other with no recognition of the foreign object, us, sitting quietly barely breathing, inches from their curly shoulders.
We are the first generation of women who knew emancipation without a struggle before the inspired Women’s Movement. World War II had opened up a new world for women. But come easy, go easy. Most of us foreswore skirts for lack of time. We wore nothing but jeans and slacks from ’41 through ’45, with our hair in snoods as welders, milling machine operators, riveters. I personally spent the last year or so of the war as a shipyard welder on Terminal Island in California. My sister Lois, I remember was an aircraft inspector wandering through the huge hangars with her micrometer checking for errors. We had equal pay and the government subsidized nurseries for $2.50 a day per child so we could work. Before that we knew the depression and worked through school.