Saturday, January 15, 2011

Interview with David McReynolds

David McReynolds has been one of the leading voices in progressive politics since the 1950s. He has been affiliated with the War Resister's League, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the Socialist Party of America. In his lifetime, David has run for president twice, once in 1980 and again in 2000. He has twice placed bids for the U.S. House of Representatives, once in 1958 and again in 1968. In 2004, he ran against Chuck Schumer to represent New York in the U.S. Senate. I met David through our mutual affiliation with Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). Recently, I asked David if I could interview him for JuliusSpeaks. This is what transpired.

1. How long have you been active in Socialist organizations?

I've been active in the Socialist movement since I joined the Socialist Party in 1951 in Los Angeles.

2. Where are you from?

I was born in Los Angeles in 1929 and lived there until leaving for NYC in 1956.

3. What is your social and ethnic background?

My ethnic background is Scottish, English, Welsh, Dutch, French, German. The class is middle middle.

4. What would you say most influenced your political ideology?

Hard to say what "most" influenced my political ideology. Certainly reading The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffans while in High School played an important role. Also the influence of friends at UCLA, and hearing Bayard Rustin speak in 1949.

5. What was Liberation Magazine?

Liberation magazine, founded in 1956, was a monthly publication committed to a radical nonviolent viewpoint. I served, from 1957 to 1960, as the editoral secretary (which really meant the guy who bundled the magazine for the post office, handled the mail, etc.)

6. How did you become involved with the War Resister’s League?

I became involved with WRL before leaving California, as I moved toward a CO position in relation to the draft.

7. When did you become involved with the Peace and Freedom Party?

My only involvement with the Peace and Freedom Party was as their candidate for Congress in 1968 here in New York City.

8. What is your political philosophy?

My political philosophy is democratic socialist, with libertarian leanings, and of course with a pacifist underpinning.

9. What compelled you to run for president on the two occasions that you posed a bid?

Nothing compelled me to run for office, but Maggie Phair encouraged my bid in 1980. I was, in 2000, more genuinely drafted (but happy to accept).

10. What was the platform you ran on in 2004 against Chuck Schumer in the New York Senate race?

The main platform in 2004 in New York was the Iraq War - plus the general Green Party platform.

11. What was your association with Bayard Rustin?

My association with Bayard was his impact on my from 1949 on. He was my boss at WRL from 1960 until he left in his "turn to the right" in 1965.

12. You were the first openly gay man to run for president. You also wrote one of the first exposes on life as a gay man in 1969. What was it like to be one of the lone openly gay public voices before Stonewall?

I did not become an "open gay" until the article in WIN magazine in 1969 - though I had not, with friends and associates, made any secret of my life. And my piece in WIN came just after Stonewall - not before. If the question is what was it like to struggle with "gay identity" that is complex. There was a combination of guilt, confusion, etc. and one must realize that when I "came out" in 1949, and admitted to myself that I was homosexual, that was a period when the whole gay community was - without exception - "underground".

13. Bayard Rustin was both political and openly gay in the 1950s. Do you see your life as parallel to his in any way?

Bayard's life and mine are not parallel. He was not, by the way, "openly gay" in the 1950's, despite his arrest in 1953. Everyone in the movement knew Bayard was homosexual but he himself never made any public statement about it (of course, given his morals charge arrest in 1953 he hardly needed to make a public statement!). His
first response on reading my piece in WIN magazine was to call Ralph DiGia and urge I be fired. I did NOT take offense at that, and understood it very well - Bayard was one generation earlier than me. Later in his life he was open about his homosexuality.

14. Did you know James Baldwin?

I met James Baldwin once when I got him out of the Community Church after a talk he had given for WRL there. I got his cab and went down to the Village with him to Folk City. That doesn't constitute knowing him. His writings are very important.

15. It has been said that you were in a long term relationship with the choreographer Alvin Ailey. What was the nature of your relationship with Ailey?

I did NOT have a long term relationship with Alvin and as noted earlier I've got to write this up before I die and Alvin's own life history gets in any way confused with mine. We were friends from May of 1949 on. But I saw him rarely after he came to New York. I had seen him often in Los Angeles, visited him in San Francisco and in New York, and saw him in London when he was there and we met by accident on the Underground.

16. What are your thoughts on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

I think the repeal of DADT is a very good thing but the more important thing is getting rid of the economic draft which forces youth into the military.

17. How would you grade President Obama on the job he is doing? How would you advise him?

I think Obama has been somewhat of a disappointment but I think he was always part of the establishment- he'd never have gotten the nomination otherwise. He has accomplished more than those of us on the left realize, but he has not met the challenge of the economic crisis and his foreign policy, while better than Bush
(marginally better), is basically very much the same. One has to judge Obama in the context of how he has been "bounded in" by the right wing of the Democratic Party and the fierce (and incredible) attacks on him from the Republicans, driven by racism. Aside from advising him to be tougher with Israel and getting out of Afghanistan, I am not in the business of advising him but of shifting public opinion so that whoever is President has new pressures to face.

18. What do you say is the most pressing issue for progressives and activists today?

There are so many pressing issues. I don't even begin to know what should be done to get the economy moving. I don't think socialists have quick answers to this. Certainly the military - its budget, its role in the culture- is a major (really very major) problem, but so is the environment, and so is the problem of how to get the US to adjust to the fact our role is "sliding downward" in the world.

Thanks, David!

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