I Worried

2018 National Poetry Month PosterA Poem selected for National Poetry Month by June Hirsh. Here is what June wrote about “I Worried” by Mary Oliver:

I’m new to Poetry–I love the sensibility, the ordinariness and the decency of this poem–it’s sweetness and kindness touches my heart. It gives me my humanness and an honest way to be in the world.

junehirsch soloAs a life long political activist–to be kind and forgiving–to have compassion for myself and for others–to have our lives and live our lives as giving human beings is everything.

Otherwise, the growing poverty, the pain in the world we live in, would be unbearable. Lets sing together and cry together–and together, change the world.

I Worried
by Mary Oliver


I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?


Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?


Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,


Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?


Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up.  And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.




Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is our new Politics for the People Book Club selection. 

Hope you will pick up your copy of the book today. 

We will be talking with author Lois Leveen on Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.





To My Pen Pal About Poverty in America


To My Pen Pal About Poverty in America

By Frank Fear

A Review of $2.00 a Day:

Living on Almost Nothing In America

By Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

My critiques of America are misguided, so my pen pal tells me. I underestimate America’s greatness and overplay its challenges. He is dedicated to helping me “understand.”

Yet another of his missives arrived a few weeks ago. It came at a time when I was reading, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (by Kathryn J. Edin and H. 836ad-2-a-dayLuke Shaefer. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

It made me think about an omission in our discourse. My pen pal has never brought up the topic of poverty in America, not even once. Perhaps he thinks we’ve solved it. Maybe it’s not a priority for keeping America great.

Either way, he’s not alone in looking elsewhere. Poverty has fallen off America’s radar screen. We hardly even use the word these days. We prefer talking about tax cuts or referring to “working Americans.”

What a difference from the days of my youth! In 1964, President Johnson Lyndon made his intent clear and expressed it directly. He declared “A War on Poverty.”

What changed? Starting in the 1970’s, Governor (later president) Reagan had a bee under his bonnet for the “evils of welfare.” He promulgated his angst visually with the image of “The Welfare Queen.” Later, President Clinton signed a bill ‘reforming’ the welfare system.

Well, America got reform. And it American changed … for the worse.

“How so?” my pen pan will certainly ask. I’ll respond by quoting $2.00 a Day (p. xxiii).

“America’s cash welfare program that caught people when they fell—was not merely replaced with the 1996 welfare reform (note: Clinton’s reform); it was very nearly destroyed. In its place arose a different kind of safety net, one that provides a powerful hand up to some—the working poor—but offers much less to others, that is, those who can’t manage to find or keep a job. This book is based on what happens when a government safety net is built on the assumption of full-time, stable employment at a living wage combines with a low-wage labor market that fails to deliver on any of the above. It is this toxic alchemy…that is spurring the increasing numbers of $2-a-day poor in America.” 

That’s why (I’ll tell my pen pal) it’s precisely the right time for poverty to re-emerge as a public policy priority. $2 a Day should be the rallying call for that movement. “There can be no exceptional America (an image that my friend believes in so thoroughly) if that circumstance remains a reality,” I’ll write.

Misguided public policies need to be corrected, I’ll continue. We need to name, and then proclaim, those policies for exactly what they are … heartless. What we need today, I’ll write, is for American patriots to step forward—just as Marian Wright Edelman did in 1995 when she chastised President Clinton in an “open letter” published in The Washington Post. In that letter, Edelman quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s powerful admonition: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omission of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

I’d then remind my pen pal of a conversation that I had with another colleague nearly thirty years ago. The colleague had been invited by then-President George H.W. Bush to serve on the commission to plan the Points of Light Foundation. “Points of Light?” I asked emphatically over dinner one night. “It sounds like a bait-and-switch, a flowery label used as a ploy – a ploy to reduce government support for those who need it most–to get people “off the government dole.”

My pen pal will bristle at that assertion, just as my other colleague did that night. But I’ll be prepared to bolster my argument by drawing on another passage from $2.00 a Day (p. 102).

“Private charity in America is often viewed as the little engine that could. It chugs along admirably, providing billions of dollars in aid to the poor each year…. Yet, even in America—and even for those who are adept at gleaning all that private charity has to offer—it can’t even begin to replicate, much less replace, what the government does. Private charity is a complement to government action, something that bolsters the government safety net.”

Charity is important. Self-help efforts are vital. But government support is the cornerstone. It’s not the cornerstone now – and that needs to change in a responsible, progressive way.

How so?” my pen pal will certainly ask. In response, I’ll offer three steps as proposed in $2.00 a Day (see Conclusion: Where, Then, From Here? Pp. 157-174).

The first step is to scrap the term, “reform.’ Welfare needs to be replaced. That’s not a new idea, I’ll tell my pen pal. It was the cornerstone of David Ellwood’s influential thinking from twenty years ago. It needs to be resurrected.

The second step is to ground a replacement strategy in four American values: 1) autonomy of the individual, 2) the virtue of work, 3) the primacy of the family, and 4) a desire for community. Basing policies on those pillars will go a long way toward integrating the poor in society, rather than separating them from society – the unfortunate reality that exists today.

The third step is to put in place policies that accomplish three outcomes: 1) provide opportunities for all to work, 2) enable parents to raise kids in a place of their own, and 3) strengthen the financial safety net so that people never go without.

I have faith in what Eden and Shaffer propose, I’ll say, because I believe it’s the foundation of good public policy.

He’ll scoff at that declaration! I know he will. Why do I think so? One reason is what I learned from reading a provocative article written recently by Kevin Quealy, published in The New York Times. Quealy talks about how political elites influence public opinion, especially with regard to topics that are complex, technical, or off-the-radar screen.

The political elites to whom my friend pays attention don’t talk about poverty. They talk about cutting taxes, bolstering corporate America, reducing government regulations, managing budget deficits, correcting trade imbalances, curbing terrorism, bolstering defense … but never, ever about poverty.

Poverty has been handled. It’s being dealt with by non-profits, churches, and philanthropists. “We in America are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poor-house is vanishing among us.” Herbert Hoover, August 11, 1928.

I’ll tell my friend that he’s misguided, that America needs to respond in a prudent, humane way. America can’t possibly be great if people are living on $2 a day.

Don’t you agree?

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University. Frank is a frequent contributor to the LA Progressive and also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column at http://www.thesportscol.com/category/frank-fear/  He is a long time independent and active with Independent Voting.


A Letter from a Friend in Response

Hi Frank,

What can I say?

I think your article is brilliantly written in the most honest, clear and down to earth way. A humane and compelling format/conversation with “the other”. No demonization. No negating. Very intimate and political, touching and smart-a powerful personal/political organizing piece!

You locate poverty (the unspoken and criminally ignored white elephant in our country and in the world) structurally and not as a new phenomenon that we can just blame on one party – or the other – or on one leader or the other.  Poverty is institutionally located within a quagmire of ongoing unjust, inhumane policies that have and are destroying millions of lives, families, children, every day. And as you say, which must be thrown out and replaced-not reformed.

As a longtime political activist, I see the – up from the ground -National Independent Political Movement (IV.org) -working in concert with the many groups and individuals nationwide to build together to bring about this change!

Between your distribution networks and ours, I hope your piece reaches endless numbers of people hungry for a humane and sane direction to follow in this period.

Thank you Frank.

Kindest regards,


junehirsch solo

June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org. She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.


 Please Join the Politics for the People Conference Call

With Kathyrn Edin

We will be discussing:

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Sunday, December 3rd at 7 pm EST

Call In and Join the Conversation

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#


From the Highline


Zoe Leonard’s installation along the High Line, Manhattan. Photo: Timothy Schenck

June Hirsh sent us today’s selection– a poem written by the artist, Zoe Leonard.

Here is what June wrote about the poem:

I saw this poem as an installation posted on the side of a large brick wall on the High Line – it was weather beaten and all tattered. When I first read this poem, I was very touched and also disturbed.  Disturbed when it seems every regressive policy, every cut back, every attack on human rights, growing hunger, the abandonment of poor and working people – nationally and internationally – is being blamed on Trump and on the Republican Party. Then I saw this poem was dated 1992. Bi-partisan complicity – history and food for thought. The time is ripe–build the independent political movement! “



National Poetry Month 

At Politics for the People


Do you have a favorite political poem that you would like to share? Is there an original poem you’ve written?  Please email me at cathy.stewart5@gmail.com with your suggestions for consideration.

Little Men

A Review by June Hirsh

[If you cannot view the Little Men trailer above, you can see it here.]

I recently saw “Little Men”, a film by Ira Sachs, whose storyline revolves around an impending eviction.

Although initially my empathy was with the family being evicted, the story did not convey a good guy – bad guy scenario. That would have been too easy. It was a tragedy, a disastrous train wreck from start to finish.

The impending eviction hovered over everyone – the audience included – like a dark, dark cloud. It chipped away at all the player’s relationships, their humanness and dignity. There is the working class Hispanic woman – a seamstress, and her family. They were being evicted, not only from their apartment, but from the tiny storefront situated below their apartment, which housed the woman’s dress shop, her livelihood. And then there is the   “landlord” and middle class family, dealing with the failure of the traditional family breadwinner, the husband, an unsuccessful actor, and with this, the family caving in to financial pressures.

And as disturbing, the 2 family’s young sons – the 2 “Little Men”, whose fragile and budding friendship was undermined and destroyed by the eviction.

Multiply this story by the thousands, millions – many stories so much more desperate – and obscene in how the laws are written and enforced, and you have “Evicted – Poverty and Profit in the American City”. 

A terribly painful book, which I found difficult to read, “Evicted” indicts the powerful landlords, and our legal and legislative system, which perpetrates injustices against our most vulnerable populations – the poor – and in some instances impacts families living stable lives, who through unexpected circumstances beyond their control, are evicted, destabilized, and thrown into poverty.

It’s an expose and indictment of those who perpetuate, maintain, and benefit from the lucrative eviction business and the laws and institutions that support them. It has become clearer than day that poor and low income people have been abandoned in America, the land of plenty. Poverty, an unspoken word, is frighteningly on the rise.

As an independent activist in NYC, I see first hand how the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is selling units in the projects, and adjacent public land to private developers.  This will result in mounting homelessness. Along with hundreds of activists around the city and throughout the country, I am dedicated to building a political grass roots movement with the clout to end poverty by empowering and giving voice to the millions of disenfranchised and abandoned voters across our country who have no voice – to address the daily issues that prevent us from living in dignity, be it lack of decent housing, the lack of employment opportunities, or access to free and quality education.

As we come together, from the ground up, and open up and reform the corrupt bi-partisan political process, we can make a difference. We must be able to not only say – no more – but to back it up with action.

junehirsch solo

June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.orgShe lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.


Politics for the People Conference Call

 With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#




National Poetry Month–Rethinking Regret

Today’s poem was chosen by June Hirsh:

junehirsch solo

Elaine Sexton is a contemporary poet who I’ve had the opportunity to meet. 

“Rethinking Regret” expresses that living life is not about order and being safe. Its passionately taking risks, falling on your face. It’s says to be human and alive is to be messy, awkward, not polished and perfect, but open to possibilities, open to impacting the other. 

Sexton says our “perfect mistake” is “keeping the heart awake—open and stunned, stunning.” 

Rethinking Regret

by Elaine Sexton

Let’s thank our mistakes, let’s bless them
for their humanity, their terribly weak chins.
We should offer them our gratitude and admiration
for giving us our clefts and scarring us with
embarrassment, the hot flash of confession.
Thank you, transgressions! for making us so right
in our imperfections. Less flawed, we might have
turned away, feeling too fit, our desires looking
for better directions. Without them, we might have
passed the place where one of us stood, watching
someone else walk away, and followed them,
while our perfect mistake walked straight towards us,
walked right into our cluttered, ordered lives
that could have been closed but were not,
that could have been asleep, but instead
stayed up, all night, forgetting the pill,
the good book, the necessary eight hours,
and lay there—in the middle of the bed—
keeping the heart awake—open and stunned,
stunning. How unhappy perfection must be
over there on the shelf without a crack, without
this critical break—this falling—this sudden, thrilling draft.

Reader’s Forum–June Hirsh, Rick Robol and Tiani Coleman

As part of our viewing and savoring The Notion of Family Together, several Politics for the People members are selecting a favorite photo and sharing their thoughts about that image.  Today we hear from June Hirsh, Rick Robol and Tiani Coleman.



The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Pg 45 Mom Holding Mr. Art, 2005

When I first saw the photograph “Mom Holding Mr. Art” I saw sadness, stoicism, hopelessness – defeat. I saw a loss that was palpable to me. Yet I also saw resoluteness and strength. In The Notion Of Family Mr. Art appears more than once. He is part of the fabric of Latoya Ruby Frazier’s life, her mother’s and her family’s life.

Each time I re-visit the photograph, each time I see it, new feelings and thoughts emerge. I see intimacy and love – a strong bond between Mr. Art and Frazier’s mother. Yet this is not an embrace. How “Mom” is holding Mr. Art says to me – I care for you. Somehow I will protect you. We are in this together. There is sustenance here. Frazier’s mother’s expression is sad, it’s resigned; yet it also says to me – we will make it through.

Frazier’s family had migrated from the South and lived in Braddock for 4 generations. They “escaped” along with 6 milion other blacks from the early 1900’s to the early 1960’s  from the brutally racist Jim Crow south. They re-settled in Braddock, PA to build a new life. But with the close of the steel mills, life as they knew it – the life that they had built –was ripped away from them.

To quote Frazier,

“Some people remember, Braddock was the place that had all the theaters, had all the bars, had all the shopping centers. That’s why people came here. They came to shop and for entertainment in that period.

The steel mill was the center of the town, and most of its residents worked there and lived in Carnegie-built row homes. That area, the way I see it historically, was the right of passage for black and white steelworkers. At one point we all lived there. But as the steel industry declined in the 1960s and 1970s, the area lost much of its vitality. White residents moved away from Braddock, leaving behind communities of color who were frequently barred from getting loans to buy homes elsewhere.

Through discrimination and racial and systemic oppression, you see how black people were entrapped in that area — through redlining, and not being able to get loans from banks to move to the suburbs, how they were left behind.”

When I see Mr. Art in the photo I chose and in others he is depicted in, I also realize that the look in his eyes and his demeanor bring to my mind and heart my Father, Irving Hirsh.  He was a loving man, angry, depressed, sad. He saw himself as a failure because he couldn’t provide more for his family. He had a hidden shame that he shared with me when I was grown about the abuse he experienced from his father, a seemingly pious man, who brutalized him, his mother and his sisters.

Mr. Art and my Father come from very different histories, cultures, races. Yet there are threads – a commonality of

Irving and June Hirsh

Irving and June Hirsh

exclusion and persecution and a humanness too – that bind them. My father was a working class Jew, first generation of a family that emigrated from Romania in the early 1900’s to escape the murderous pogroms against Jews. We lived in New York – in Brooklyn. He worked his whole life in the garment district in Manhattan, which produced women’s and men’s blouses and shirts. Long hours – backbreaking work, bending over the massive cutting and pattern making tables in a unionized sweat shop – freezing in the winder – and broiling hot it the summer.  One day he brought me to work with him in the factory. We always called it the Place – “Daddy’s at the Place.”  He was introducing me to the other workers –some dong similar work, some hauling in fabrics – and women  – many women working at the sewing machines. I remember how proud my Father was to introduce all of us to each other. Suddenly his boss plowed into the space and began berating and yelling at him. I have no memory of why or what was said but I knew that my dear Father was so humiliated – devastated. I was frightened and ashamed.  We never spoke about it after that.  My Father never took me back to the factory.

When my Father was older he studied a lot. He became proud, stronger – less beaten down. He urged me to stand up for what I believe in – to not turn away from injustices. There were times that he talked to me about how blacks and Jews were oppressed people and how both fought back against the terror of oppression.  He learned about the great migration of blacks out of the South, how courageously blacks fought and died to abolish slavery – he likened the anti-black murderous acts in the south to pogroms. He showed me how Jews were not cowards who walked meekly into the gas ovens – they were fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and in the face of death fought back in so many other valiant ways  – and that blacks and Jews walked and organized side by side during the Civil Rights movement.

I have been an independent political activist, a progressive Jew, for close to 45 years now. I do my best to stand up for what I believe in. Organizing with Cathy Stewart and with many, many others, my commitment is to building community, to creating a more fair and decent world, so that all peoples can live in dignity and to do all that we can to bring an end to poverty. I thank and have  a lot of respect for Latoya Ruby Frazier for what she has co-created with her Mother and by using her “camera as a weapon” against injustice. I share a kinship with her, with her family, with her community – with all poor and working people, white and of color who were left behind in Braddock – for people of color, of all nationalities, races, and religions, Jews, Muslims, people who were and are at this very moment being destroyed or left behind in all the Braddock’s in the US and around the world.

junehirsch soloJune Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org

She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.




The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Pg

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Pg 113: Grandma Ruby on her Bed, 2007

“Grandma Ruby On Her Bed” (gelatin print, 20” X 24”), 2007, is a striking image of a magnificent woman, Grandma Ruby, in her golden years. The brass bed frames the stunning beauty of this strong, wise, courageous woman who has seen many decades of joy, pain, humor and love. The play of light on her face and body bathes the goodness of her entire being. Pillows, soft sheets and a velveteen pleated bed skirt enthrone Grandma Ruby with regal warmth and comfort. Through it all, she has endured– and is symbol of the strength and hope of her family, of her people and of humanity.

Rick Robol is an attorney and activists for the Independents movement. 

Rick Robol at a Voting Rights are Primary informational picket outside the Ohio Secretary of State's offices, 2014.

Rick Robol at a Voting Rights are Primary informational picket outside the Ohio Secretary of State’s offices, 2014.

He currently serves on the National Electoral Reform Committee of independentvoting.org, as well as Vice President of Independent Ohio.


The Notion of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Pg 36-37: The Bottom (Talbot Towers, Alleghany County Housing Projects), 2009

The Notion of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Pg 36-37: The Bottom (Talbot Towers, Alleghany County Housing Projects), 2009

Feeling profoundly transformed in a short period of time, I honor LaToya Ruby Frazier’s ability to capture through photography and only a few words, a vivid story that paints a compelling declaration – personal, familial, historical, sociocultural and political!

With a book entitled The Notion of Family, I was caught a little off guard as I opened the pages, and the family I was beholding had very little in common with my own.  I’m number eight of nine children, where faith, family and community were always interwoven, and we never felt alone or alienated.  Though my family’s gender roles were traditional, my father and mother had a genuine, loving, respectful relationship, and my father was fully engaged in our lives.  My childhood memories are only positive, bright and joyful.  I spent some of my childhood in sheltered, predominantly white communities in Utah, and some of my childhood in Mexico and Colombia.  I went to high school in Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, where at least 80% of my graduating class was Hispanic.  So while I had interactions with poverty and some minority cultures, my home was always a haven from the storm outside.  Though I was accepting of everyone, my young innocence internalized very little of the difficulties that people outside of my home were experiencing.

Going through the book, I focused on the art of the photography, appreciating the exposure I was getting to something different.  Grandma Ruby was intriguing, and I was feeling sympathy for LaToya and her family – but I wasn’t really personally connecting or empathizing . . . until everything changed at page 36.  When I read the words at the end of page 37, “Day and night, BOC Gases emits an industrial hissing sound that reverberates throughout the borough,” my mind returned to a conversation I recently had with a member of my community.

I’ve spent most of the last year fighting a proposal by Kinder Morgan, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, to construct a huge, high pressure natural gas pipeline from the fracking fields of PA to Dracut, MA (most likely for overseas export).  We found out last December that it was slated to cut right through my neighborhood, with our home in the “incineration zone” if there were to be an accident.  It will permanently clear-cut many forested areas; cross numerous rivers, streams, conservation lands and residential properties; and bring in compressor stations and other unsightly noise and pollution-producing facilities that will destroy the beauty, cohesiveness and way of life of numerous communities along its path.  It’s been a living nightmare of sorts for all of us impacted; we’ve had to spend all of our excess time researching, writing reports, attending meetings, waving signs, writing letters to the Editor and to public officials, informing other members of the community — doing anything and everything to fight a system that rubber stamps the agenda of the big corporations and gives them the benefit of eminent domain for their profit-making ventures.  We can feel so helpless as common citizens against the collusion of big money and elected officials.  My street has doctors, lawyers, respected businessmen, renowned scientists and involved members of the community.  We got the attention of our Board of Selectmen, and they formed a pipeline task force comprised of many of us, including a member of our conservation commission.  We raised such a stink, and understood where the most effective ways to put our energy were, that we were able to make a small change for the better.  If we had not gotten involved, the pipeline would have surely torn across our neighborhood and the river behind us and other town conservation land.  We haven’t been able to stop the pipeline yet, but we’ve influenced them to move the route enough that it won’t come through our neighborhood or the conservation land, and will be far enough away that we won’t be so deeply and personally impacted by its negative effects.

Yet, back to the conversation with the member of my community.  A retiree, she and her husband’s property was directly in the line of fire.  The new map now has their property out of the direct route, but they will still be in the “incineration zone,” may likely have a new gas-fired power plant erected by their home, and will be close enough to feel many of the negative effects of the pipeline.  Our taskforce had lobbied the company to move the route further away from them as well, but to no avail.  My friend said to me, paraphrasing, “We live closer to the industrial area, on the other side of the tracks; we’re not as affluent as your side of town; nobody cares about what happens to us.  Now the rest of town will go about their life and let our neighborhood and lives be completely destroyed.”  I felt for her, but I had already lost so much of my time, fighting.  We did what we could, and it could be worse . . . most of the other towns didn’t even accomplish that much.  But when I saw that picture on page 36, and read that line on page 37, “an industrial hissing sound that reverberates throughout the borough,” the whole book took on a personal meaning, and I knew clearly that I have a moral obligation to keep fighting on her behalf, and on behalf of all of the others in neighboring communities.

To me, BOC Gases on page 36 is a symbol of the nature of political change . . . when enough political pressure builds up, change happens, but because it’s done due to pressure and not out of a deeply rooted inner change and moral desire to altruistically improve human lives and create greater equality, the change is really a façade.  It may put out a temporary fire, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem, and creates new problems or even greater problems for others, usually those without a voice.  We must use our power to bring about real, systemic change that gives everyone a meaningful voice.  I thank LaToya Ruby Frazier for what she’s doing, and for influencing me to keep fighting, too.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.

Dr. Lenora Fulani (l) with Tiani Coleman, recipient of a 2015 Anti-Corruption Award by the New York City Independence Clubs

Dr. Lenora Fulani (l) with Tiani Coleman, recipient of a 2015 Anti-Corruption Award by the New York City Independence Clubs


Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST


641 715-3605

Code 767775#


Readers Forum–June Hirsh

When I first began reading Gateway To Freedom, I was struck by many historical facts that were little known to me, which debunked assumptions I had, in particular, New York City’s role in the experience of fugitive slaves and the leadership role played by fugitive slaves in concert with the Underground Railroad (UR) that was the “gateway to freedom” for millions of slaves.

Gateway To Freedom brought to mind Isabel Wilkerson’s phenomenal book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was an earlier P4P Book Club choice.  Like Wilkerson’s book, which showed how the migration of six million blacks who left the Jim Crow South from the 1920’s to the 1960’s planted the seeds for the nascent Civil Rights movement, in Foner’s account the UR and the fugitive slave movement set the stage for the Civil War and the end of institutionalized slavery in the US. They each carried out heroic acts that aided immediate survival and reflected dreams of living life with dignity, playing seminal roles in future efforts to end slavery and fuel the Civil rights movement.

Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015

Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015

Foner’s compelling narrative has changed my understanding of the UR. Both the historical content and his beautiful writing style transport me, giving me new ways of seeing an enormously significant, painful and heroic piece of American history that I had not fully imagined or appreciated.

Looking back I realized that the very first sentence of this book “The 19th century’s most celebrated Black American tasted freedom on September 4th, 1838 when he arrived in NYC as a 19 year old fugitive slave” did not stay with me as I proceeded on. This Black American’s name was Frederick Bailey.  Upon arriving in NYC a free man, he changed his surname to Johnson. When he subsequently realized that enormous numbers of Blacks took the last name Johnson, he chose once again what was to become his final surname – Douglass.  “The 19th century’s most celebrated Black American” as it turned out was Frederick Douglass – even retelling this now gives me goose bumps. Douglass spoke of fugitive slaves as “freedom’s swift winged angels” and said that “knowledge was the pathway from slavery to freedom”.

Foner re-visits and debunks another popular myth about the UR. It was not a formal institution but in fact a network of abolitionist groups – sparse in some areas, in others highly organized. Although in some cases it did aid dramatic escapes, the UR was primarily focused on assisting fugitive slaves who had already escaped from their bondage and reached the north on their own. Many fugitive slaves developed detailed plans of escape, at times were captured, escaping again and again. Many had friends and relatives waiting for them and had arranged jobs in different cities, in Canada and elsewhere.

A number of eastern newspapers labeled abolitionists and fugitive slaves as “dens of negro thieves and fugitive protectors”.  Southern papers wrote that associations of abolitionists “first business is to steal or cause to be stolen, seduced or inveigled, slaves from southern plantations; to steal him from an indulgent master – to carry him to a cold, strange and uncongenial country and there leave him to starve, freeze and die in glorious freedom.” The same periodicals even proclaimed that slaves “escaped” and fled back to their plantations and masters. The outrageousness of these claims was exposed by slaves themselves who at great risk to their lives and newfound freedom, spoke eloquently and forcefully at public meetings of UR supporters and potential donors, even baring their physical scars.

Between 1830 -1860, 1000-5000 slaves escaped slavery per year. In fact, this was not a substantial number given that by 1860 the US slave population was 4 million.

Not long after escaping to NYC, Frederick Douglass was urged by abolitionists to leave. Unlike upstate NY, New England and parts of the Midwest where the anti-slavery movement flourished, NYC was not a safe place for fugitive slaves. A port city, it had economic ties to the cotton industry and to the slave south. Especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, few blacks could safely remain.  This law created an environment where fugitive slaves were more easily rounded up, and sold back to their former slave owners. This law also led to an epidemic of the abduction of the children of Free Blacks. Kidnapped right off of the streets of NYC and other states with southern ties, they were sold into southern slavery – never to be seen by their families again. Pro-slavery circles saw this as a necessary business venture. A NYC abolitionist named Ruggles was a prime mover in the NYC Committee of Vigilance that was founded solely to combat this epidemic of child kidnapping.

Organized slavery did not come to an end in NY until 1827.  Following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act thousands of Black Northerners fled to Canada. Ironically this was the same period when thousands of immigrants entered the US via NYC to escape religious and political persecution and seek economic opportunity – their gateway to freedom. This heinous and draconian law exposed the lie of the US as an asylum for those denied liberty in other countries. Following its enactment Northerner’s with no ties to the UR were forced to face and question the relationship between their conscience and obligations to the law. Many, even those who hated slavery, felt they must respect the law and override sympathy for fugitives.

Foner shares a telling quote of Abraham Lincoln as an example.  Lincoln hated “to see the poor creatures hunted down” but out of reverence for the rule of law “I bite my lip and keep quiet.” Later, in 1861, Lincoln devoted a portion of his first Inaugural address to the question of fugitive slaves and proposed changes in federal law that would secure greater legal rights for accused runaways. The fugitive slave issue, the crucial leadership role that fugitive slaves and free Blacks played, the Abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, all played key parts in leading Americans to face the moral and economic issues of slavery and opening the door to the Civil War.

As an organizer who has been immersed for many years in building a national grass roots movement of independents for political reform (IndependentVoting.org) I’m moved by the many past organizations, movements, and courageous individuals who fought to end slavery, for civil rights, human rights, for fairness and democracy; for the rights of all people to live in dignity.

I particularly appreciate Foner’s focus on a crucial aspect – base building. He highlights a significant activity of the UR. It carried out the unglamorous day to day grass roots organizing; fundraising, political and legal actions, writing, lecturing, not always underground – sometimes organizing in full view. As a matter of historical fact, says Foner, the UR’s strategic perspective was devoted to bringing about the end of slavery – rather than assisting fugitive slaves, and by its work, created a basis for organized resistance.

The ways in which Eric Foner has laid the groundwork to share this history is a measure of how his book continues to impact me. I’m glad to offer some of my initial impressions. I’m excited to hear from other P4P Book Club readers and of course, I look forward to our conversation with Eric Foner, led by Cathy Stewart.

June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org.  She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.


Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST

I Am Abraham Readers Forum

I’m both a reader and organizer of the Politics 4 the People Book Club – so this club is near and dear to my heart! I’m particularly moved by our latest selection. Thank you Cathy Stewart for introducing us to “I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War” by Jerome Charyn. It’s a lovely book, chock full of vignettes–tragic, funny, and ordinary–that you could imagine Abraham Lincoln experiencing.

June Hirsh

June Hirsh

This book has given me a window into the heart and soul of Abraham Lincoln, a beloved figure in US history.  On the face of it – this may seem like an odd statement, since the book is not factual. It’s a novel. And in a magical way, it’s autobiographical! I also thank you Cathy, for introducing us to Charyn. I think the book speaks to the author’s character as much as it does Lincoln’s. It is likely that you can find a sense of an author in every book they write. But I particularly thought about that, with this book. I really look forward to meeting Mr. Charyn on our conference call. Here we have a colorful glimpse of Lincoln, not as an icon, an abstraction, an untouchable, but instead, how he just might have been in the world, A kind, decent man – a man with integrity and great ambition, with an abundance of human frailties and flaws, In his inner most thoughts, how could he not have imagined himself with Ann Rutledge, as he did? This was as real as it gets. To me, this is not a neurotic Lincoln, and not a liberal man. He’s a down to earth working man who does what he sees needs to be done. He is touched by the other. He makes mistakes and he owns up to them. The author brings Lincoln to life whimsically, irreverently, and always with respect. He questions – actually he throws out the window – the worn out label “Honest Abe” along with all the homilies that have kept Lincoln away from us and long buried in his grave, a one-dimensional figure. A common and extraordinary man, yet so untouchable to us, the common men and women who love and admire him from afar, with this book, we get up close and personal! So again, thank you! June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org.  She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

P4P Conference Call

with Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST

June Hirsh, Emmett Till and George Swanson

I asked June Hirsh, a P4P regular, key organizer of our book club, and long time progressive independent activist to share some of her thoughts about the book.


June Hirsh at the NYC Independence Party Spring Chairman's Reception, June 2014

June Hirsh at the NYC Independence Party Spring Chairman’s Reception, June 2014

“It’s both brutal and beautiful in the telling of the history of Jim Crow and of the Southern Black migration. An intimate and painful, sad and poignant account of the lives of 3 ordinary people – their friends and families, whose stories represent millions of blacks who migrated, with courage and dignity, unheralded at the time, making this historic move out of fear, anger, vicious racism, desperation, a yearning for a decent and meaningful life – and for it – changed everything.


I found the book, heartrending, frightening, horrifying, educational. As a progressive, and an activist, you would think that I had this history seared into my mind and heart. But – not so. Until reading this book, I hadn’t had a full understanding of what Jim Crow actually was. And as this intertwined history unfolded, it became alive and real to me.


Just remembering how and what I knew of Emmett Till can give you a sense of this. Yes, I knew he was brutally murdered. I remember it as an unspeakable act. It was a horrific piece of news, but also removed from me – an isolated event.  Now, through this book, really experiencing what happened, what it meant in the fabric of the migration of blacks – a time in our country where blacks were systematically and arbitrarily trampled upon, seen, treated and legislated as less than human, transformed my experience. The account of Emmett Till is an example.


Emmett Till, was a child, 14 years old, visiting his aunts and grandmother in the south in the summertime, sent down south by his family, so that he could have a sense of his roots, and have the loving, intimate, honest southern black ways of being, which was missing for southern blacks who migrated to the anonymity and harshness of the north.


He was told by his family to be careful how you relate to white people – it’s different than in the north. One needs to understand that Emmett was brought up in the north, by no means a place where blacks were treated as equal, but by and large, not a place where violence towards blacks was a pervasive, and daily occurrence as was the racism of Jim Crow.


Who knows what really happened? An innocent gesture, an “uppity” child? What we do know is that Emmett Till was horribly murdered, his body mutilated beyond recognition. At his funeral, where thousands came to pay their respects, Emmett’s mother kept the casket open so that everyone, could see what happened to her child – to “everyone’s child”. Not one of the killers paid for the crime. There were thousands of children mothers, aunts, and uncles, fathers whose stories mirror Emmett Till’s – more. And millions more who suffered all levels of indignities and degrading treatment under in the name of Jim Crow.  I am including a video about Emmett Till that is from the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize”.




In The Warmth of Other Suns, every poem, every phrase quoted in the book deserves to be in a book by itself. Each chapter tells an entire story – and together each adds richness to the other.  That said, for me, “Harlem 1996″ in PART FIVE: Aftermath captures the whole book. George Swanson Starling. The way George evolves – paints the picture of a race of people stunted and denied every freedom, yet holding on to their dignity and humanity as best they could, growing and giving in whatever way they could and for others being destroyed by the deadliness of it all.  If you are short on time before our call on Sunday, read this section of the book.

And we continue to build…”



Politics for the People

Book Club Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson

Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm EST

The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#.


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