Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 3, 2018

Nelson Blackstock, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 8:21 pm

Nelson Blackstock, 1944-2018

Yesterday, Nelson Blackstock, a comrade and friend for nearly 50 years, died from the complications of Parkinson’s. He was a central leader of the SWP in the 1970s, serving as the editor of the Militant newspaper and on the political committee. Under ordinary circumstances, someone with those kinds of credentials would deserve an obituary in the Militant but Nelson became persona non grata to some extent because he was perceived as my friend. But it is just as possible that his death would have gone unnoticed since there were other “offenses” on his record after he had left the party in the mid-80s having nothing to do with me. When he and his wife Diane decided to take a trip to Cuba, they were told that sympathizers were not permitted to make such an unsupervised trip. They ignored the party’s instructions just as Nelson ignored my banning.

Being ostracized from the SWP and its periphery of sympathizers has Kafkaesque dimensions. Last year, when Priscilla Ring died, Nelson called party HQ in Los Angeles to find out where the memorial meeting was being held but was told that he could not attend. I surmised that this was because he was seen as my friend. This mattered more than his close ties to Harry and Priscilla Ring who had treated Nelson like a son in many ways. More recently, when Nelson tried to contact Jeff Powers, another diehard supporter of the SWP who was Nelson’s friend even longer than me, he got the cold shoulder. I doubt that the Jehovah’s Witnesses “shunning” behavior is more inhumane than this.

Nelson was born on September 7, 1944 to a working-class mother and father in suburban Atlanta. For most of his youth, they used an outhouse. His father sanded floors for a living and could easily be reduced to the status of a “deplorable” since his racial views were like those of other Southern whites. There’s a photo of his father holding a dead snake by its tail that Nelson treasured. If you look at it, you’d conclude that he was the least likely father to raise a son who would devote many years to opposing racism and capitalism.

Nelson started out sharing the same views as his father and his peers. Always a gifted draftsman, who used to draw caricatures of comrades in executive committee meetings in the Houston branch, Nelson used to draw pictures of the Confederate flag in the margins of his notebooks during elementary school classes.

All that changed when he began to read Harry Golden’s columns in the Carolina Israelite. Golden was a Jew who had immigrated from the Ukraine and become an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow in the 1930s. For many of us who grew up in the 1950s, people like Golden and talk show host Steve Allen were the only source of liberal ideas.

Besides being a political liberal (and dogmatic anti-Communist), Allen was tuned into the beat generation, enough so to feature Jack Kerouac reading his poems while he played jazz piano as background. Kerouac was a major influence on Nelson, and me as well. Since we were a bit older than most of the people who would join the SWP in droves during the Vietnam antiwar movement, we had one foot in the beat generation. When I first met Nelson in 1969, we found ourselves talking as much about “On the Road” as Marxist theory.

Before joining the SWP, Nelson had been a leading figure in the Southern civil rights movement. He helped to found the Southern Students Organizing Committee (SSOC) in 1964, a group that was intended to be a combination of SDS and SNCC for white students. You can see Nelson’s application for the Mississippi Summer Project in the University of Southern Mississippi’s digital archives here that identifies him as an SDSer, where his political career began.

Nelson took part in an obscure initiative that was part of the Mississippi Summer. Called the White Folks Project, this was an attempt by SNCC to organize poor whites. As part of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), it sent volunteers like Nelson into Mississippi in order to try to win men and women who shared his father’s prejudices to the cause of desegregation. Nelson’s report can be read here.

It shows the prose mastery that Nelson would display later on writing for the Militant newspaper when it was of such relevance and intelligence that Malcolm X himself recommended it to a largely Black audience at a meeting organized by the SWP. I suspect that the Jeff mentioned in the report is his old friend Jeff Powers.

I entered the barber shop alone – leaving Jeff at door. I had on Levis and Jeff dressed in usual manner. One old man was cutting another bald-headed old man’s hair, No one else inside, As soon as I sit down the man getting haircut mentions seeing a man about 22 or 23 and a girl 19 “just a’eatin’ with Lem” in a “colored” restaurant. Says a couple of white restaurants have integrated last week and he expects that it is going to happen that “black and white” will eat together. The barber breaks into a wheezing, coughing tirade about how only a sorry son of a bitohin’ white man would eat with the black filthy-ass bastards. (I suspect that I have been recognized.) Barber goes on to say he would drive his car all over U.S. before he would eat in some place as a stinkin’ nigger. Bought car to get out of riding trains and busses. They take up all front seats. The other man reverts to using nigger in recounting how he has eaten with then at VA hospital but hover at same table. They have sat down beside him but he has gotten up.

Nelson came up to N.Y. in 1969 to edit the Young Socialist, the magazine of the Young Socialist Alliance. When we were introduced at party headquarters, we hit it right off. I found most SWP leaders back then to be aloof characters with a manner I associated with student government types but Nelson was funny, smart and warm. After I left N.Y. in 1970 to reinforce Peter Camejo’s faction in the Boston branch of the SWP, we lost touch.

We were reunited in 1973 when I was sent to Houston in order to take up the fight against the local opposition to Jack Barnes. This group, amounting to nearly half of the branch,  raised the same objections I countered in the Boston branch as well as new ones that were associated with Ernest Mandel’s Fourth International. One of the people I was sent down  to “crush” in Houston was a young man named Mark Lause, who is now a respected Civil War historian and the comrade I feel closer to politically than any other human being. Mark was allied at the time with Peter Gellert, who is also a long-time friend and comrade who was the first to send me email after hearing about Nelson’s death.

Nelson and I grew much closer in Houston. We used to spend time hanging out at Liberty Hall where we would always make sure to hear Asleep at the Wheel when they were in town. This was a Bob Wills tribute band that was led by Ray Benson, a great Western Swing vocalist and a Jew who grew up in Philadelphia. As much as I enjoyed spending time with Nelson, I began to become deeply alienated by the SWP, so much so that told people that I was boycotting the next “social” because it would be nothing but a bunch of people getting drunk as they talked about party matters. By this time, Nelson had departed to Berkeley where he was once again taking up the fight against the “Mandelistas”. Like Mark and Peter, the respected Marxist literary scholar Alan Wald was opposed to the Barnes leadership. I received this note from him just after I informed him that Nelson was dying:

Very sorry to hear this–and I appreciate being kept informed. If it is helpful to send a message of support or solidarity to anyone, I’m happy to do it.

Of course, Nelson and I fought like cats and dogs in the late 60s/early 1970s when he was Oakland/Berkeley SWP organizer and I was the YSA organizer (until I was “removed” in fall 1971). But we had a half-dozen or so pleasant exchange in the last few years.

1) Nelson was the first person who showed me a bound volume, personally owned in his apartment, of all issues of FI/NI/ISR from the 1930s-40s onward. He must have gotten them from his time in New York when he designed/edited YS. I was very jealous but only able to start collecting individual copies. (Now they are all on line.)

2) I used to hang out in a bookstore called PM in San Francisco (open only in the evening) owned by Jac Wasserman. Wasserman had been the founder of the SWP’s Pioneer Publishers–hardly even recognized in SWP history because he became a Shachtmanite in 1940. When Jac came back from WWII his marriage broke up and he moved down South, to Alabama. There he became deeply involved in sharecroppers rights and in the 1960s ran into Nelson. Jac really admired Nelson and praised him to high heaven–but he said that, after Nelson joined the YSA/SWP, he changed. I had always planned to try to get Jac and Nelson together to see what might happen, but by that time either Nelson and I were on bad terms or else Nelson had gone to Texas. Years later I went back to visit Jac with a tape recorder in hopes of an interview; he had been in the John Reed Club before the SWP and was friends with a famous Brazilian art critic (Mario Pedrosa) who lived in NYC in the 1930s and was on the International Executive Committee of the FI.. But I found Jac alone in his apartment with his memory entirely gone…

Nelson’s next assignment after Berkeley was to become the editor of the Militant newspaper. In that capacity, he began writing about the FBI’s Cointelpro program that had been used against our members (including me) as well as many others on the left, including Martin Luther King Jr. His articles were collected into “Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom” in 1975, a book that profiled victims of this attempt to create dissension in the SWP and to get people fired from their jobs as this excerpt would indicate:

In still another poison pen episode, the FBI tried in April 1969 to get Maude White (now Wilkinson) “separated from her employment” as a preschool teacher in Washington, D.C. The local FBI sent an anonymous letter signed “A Concerned Citizen,” purporting to be from Wilkinson’s neighbor, to the superintendent of the D.C. school system. The letter said that “Miss White has held weekly meetings of a socialist youth group” in her apartment.

After expounding upon the classical FBI distortions of the YSA as a group supporting “violent activities against established authority,” the letter continues, “I bring this information to your attention in order to protect the D.C. School System from the menace of a teacher who does not have the interests of the children or the country at heart.”

But it was precisely the interests of the children and the American people that led Wilkinson to become a socialist: “Being a teacher, especially in the D.C. schools, I saw how rotten the schools were, how much money was spent on war and how little on education,” she says.

Four years later, Nelson became the organizer of the Birmingham, Alabama branch of the SWP that as part of “the turn to industry” was colonizing the coal mines. To help win workers to the socialist cause, party members would sell the Militant newspaper on the road leading to a coal mine. One morning as Nelson was out on a sale, he and a comrade were attacked by Klan members who left permanent damage to Nelson’s hip as this article from the Militant details:

You can get some more detail on this incident from page nine of the Militant newspaper dated June 22, 1979.

Afterward, Nelson walked with a cane and as a result was not able to get a job in industry. This led to his being sidelined politically and becoming willy-nilly a less than worthy party member. Within a couple of years, I had become part of Peter Camejo’s North Star Network and a fierce critic of the party. This did not make any difference to Nelson.

When I used to go out to Los Angeles to visit friends working in the film industry, I would always spend time with Nelson and his wife Diane Jacobs. He listened patiently to my charges against the party leaders even if he thought that they indicated that I “lost faith in the working class” or something like that.

Me (l) and Nelson (r) in my living room in the mid-80s, probably after drinking bourbon

In the mid-80s (I am not sure exactly when), Nelson dropped out of the SWP for personal reasons. In weighing the benefits of being the book store director against enjoying Saturday afternoon reading novels and smoking his pipe or a cigar from the terrace of his apartment in Lago Vista condos overlooking Echo Park lake, he went with the novels and the smokes. This unique modernist complex, designed by architect Allyn E. Morris, is known as the “Crown Jewel” of Echo Park and was beloved by Nelson and Diane who were both art students when young. I used to take great pleasure sitting out on the terrace with Nelson discussing music or film, even if I was rude enough to bring up the degeneration of the SWP from time to time.

I think Nelson finally figured out that there was something wrong with the party when the N.Y. Observer reported that Jack Barnes had sold his condo in the West Village near party HQ for nearly $2 million. It was literally large enough to fit two of the Lago Vista apartments into.

Nelson began to lose interest in politics by this point. His only project that could be described as political was to begin work on a documentary about SWP leaders like George Novack. Unfortunately, declining health and a failure to master the editing software that could turn the videos into a finished product got in the way. I worked with Nelson to interview some of the leading Cochranites, however. They can be seen on my Vimeo channel. My hope is to finish Nelson’s project since the videos would be critically important oral history.

Nelson’s health began to decline in the mid-80s with a series of issues that made him into a modern-day Job. First there was the hip injury that was finally overcome through an artificial hip joint. Next there was the loss of the sight in one eye because an ophthalmologist had urged him to continue using steroids after cataract surgery even though it was damaging the nerves in one eye. Adult attention deficit disorder worsened to the point that he occasionally missed plane flights because he lost track of the departure time. But the worst problem was with his spine. He underwent surgery to relieve pain from a herniated disk only to discover that a few  years later that scoliosis had worsened to the point that he needed to have a titanium rod attached to his spine if he wanted to stay out of a wheelchair. An 8 hour surgery a few years ago relieved this problem even if it meant him not having the mobility of a normal person.

And, just as the spine problems seemed to be under control, he came down with Parkinson’s. Nelson was trying hard to live with Parkinson’s but the illness made it difficult for him to function. He was hospitalized twice with pneumonia, an illness caused by the aspiration of food into the lungs—a common hazard for Parkinson’s patients who have difficulty swallowing. The finale began two months ago after a series of falls and a weakened condition led to him being cared for in a hospice a few days ago.

When I think of the kind of revolutionary party I want to belong to, it will be made up of people like Nelson Blackstock whatever their skin color, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. That was the kind of party I thought I was building in the 1960s and 70s. Maybe the tumultuous period we are living through will lead to the real thing. I hope to god that it does or else we are doomed.

 

10 Comments »

  1. “Jeff” is probably Jeff Mackler.

    Comment by John B. — February 3, 2018 @ 8:40 pm

  2. Thank you, Louis! What a wonderful remembrance of a marvelous, generous, brilliant and gifted human being! I knew and worked with Nelson in the YSA National Office and then again later in the Birmingham Branch of the SWP. Nelson was the branch organizer in Birmingham when I left the SWP, and it was Nelson I met with to make my formal exit from the party. (Not long afterward Nelson left Birmingham and the new branch leadership very quickly shifted my status from sympathizer to enemy of the people. Declaring that I had become a racist and an anticommunist, the branch leaders instructed the members to have nothing to do with me. Robin David was the only branch member who defied these orders to shun me.) After that I saw Nelson and Diane only a couple of times during the two decades I lived in Southern California, and even though by then I had come to hold the the SWP in utter contempt, Nelson was still as friendly as ever. I loved the stories Nelson would tell about his childhood and youth in rural Georgia. One of my favorite of his stories was this one. Early in his college days, during a semester break, Nelson brought his roommate, who was Jewish, home with him. Years earlier, when he was in elementary school, Nelson had befriended a boy whose family were migrant workers stopping in the area to work harvesting peaches. The boy claimed to be Apache. Impressed, Nelson introduced the boy to his mother and told her he was an Apache Indian. When Nelson introduced his college roommate to his mother years later, she said, “So you’re a Jew, eh? Nelson, didn’t you have a friend in grade school who was a Jew?” Nelson chuckled, “That was my mother … Jew, Apache … they were the same thing to her. They weren’t from Valdosta.” He had hundreds of other stories about his granny, his Uncle Griefer (whose name had nothing to do with video games that had yet to be invented) and other colorful members of his red-dirt farming family. I treasure the times I listened to him tell these tales. How grand for you to have been his friend and to have spent so much time in his company.

    Comment by elderlee1blog — February 3, 2018 @ 9:25 pm

  3. Many thanks for this thoughtful piece about our old friend. I got to know Nelson when we both went to Birmingham in the late 70’s. He was the branch organizer and I was the YSA organizer, so we saw each other every day. He was a real and true friend to me- so real and true that when I started having deep reservations about Barnes and the SWP in 1979 I was able to discuss it with him openly and freely. He disagreed with me, of course, but never treated me like a class enemy. After I left the SWP and was still living in Birmingham, Nelson never shunned me. I still remember discussing books, movies and history with him. He was my mentor, my friend, and someone who- to paraphrase you- was exactly the kind of person I would want to be in a revolutionary party with. Thank you for being such a real and true friend to him throughout life and for writing this great farewell. He deserved both.

    Comment by Jeff Blackburn — February 3, 2018 @ 9:27 pm

  4. On second thought, you’re probably right.

    Comment by John B. — February 3, 2018 @ 9:30 pm

  5. Great appreciation. Thanks. Both Nelson and I came to New York in 1969 to join the YSA executive committee, and for a few months, he and I collaborated on the design of the Young Socialist magazine, while Larry Seigle was editor. I was very impressed with Nelson’s creative illustrations, including heavy block designs that he said were reflective of modern design, about which I knew nothing. You knew him much better and longer than I did, and your comments are laudable.

    Comment by David Thorstad — February 3, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

  6. Great article Lou. I have fond memories of Nelson, despite the SWP scorched earth style faction fight.

    Comment by Pedro Gellert — February 3, 2018 @ 11:42 pm

  7. Thanks for this Louis.

    >

    Comment by garrett43 — February 4, 2018 @ 3:52 am

  8. Good piece. I knew Nelson only in various national party activities, but he always seemed very human. Jeff Powers introduced him to me, when we were roommates in Cambridge around 1967, along with another of his friends, Jon Rothschild. I’m surprised and feel sad for Jeff, about what is reported, that, in recent years, Jeff shunned his best friend, the one he called his “ass-hole buddy” in the 1960s.

    Comment by John Barzman — February 4, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

  9. Thanks. I always thought Blackstock was different than the other SWPers when he was the organizer in Berkeley and I was a kid who was trying to sell the Workers League’s Bulletin. He was the only SWPer who actually took the time to talk to me rationally and who seemed to actually think. I couldn’t figure him out.

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — February 4, 2018 @ 8:31 pm

  10. Louis, Thank you for this thorough, fitting remembrance. I didn’t know Nelson very well on a personal level, but I remember him well. I think I met him on Day 2 after joining the YSA–you, I met on Day 1. I commented elsewhere that Nelson was probably the second person I had ever met who spoke with a Southern accent. (My 3rd Grade teacher was the first). I remember him as being smart, sharp, a true leader–but I also distinctly remember that he had a real quality of kindness to him, and that really made him stand out. I didn’t know about all of his health struggles through the years. I did know that you had maintained a friendship with him through all this time, because you mentioned it in various posts.

    You’ve filled in a lot of details I either hadn’t known, or hadn’t known with such specificity. What a true mentsch he was. I’m so glad that you and he remained committed to your friendship and that you could honor his memory in this way.

    Comment by David Keepnews — February 4, 2018 @ 9:59 pm


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