In this elegant family history, journalist Thai Jones traces the past century of American radical politics through the extraordinary exploits of his own family. Born in the late 1970s to fugitive leaders of the Weather Underground and grandson of Communists, spiritual pacifists, and civil rights agitators, Jones grew up an heir to an American tradition of resistance. Yet rather than partake of it, he took it upon himself to document it. The result is a book of extraordinary reporting and narrative.
The dramatic saga of A Radical Line begins in 1913, when Jones's maternal grandmother was born, and ends in 1981, when a score of heavily armed government agents from the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force stormed into four-year-old Thai's home and took his parents away in handcuffs. In between, Jones takes us on a journey from the turn-of-the-century western frontier to the tenements of melting-pot Brooklyn, through the Great Depression, the era of McCarthyism, and the Age of Aquarius.
Jones's paternal grandfather, Albert Jones, committed himself to pacifism during the 1930s and refused to fight in World War II. The author's maternal grandfather, Arthur Stein, was a member of the Communist Party during the 1950s and refused to collaborate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. His maternal grandmother, Annie Stein, worked closely with civil rights legends Mary Church Terrell and Ella Baker to desegregate institutions in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
His father, Jeff Jones, joined the violent Weathermen and led hundreds of screaming hippies through the streets of Chicago to clash with police during the Days of Rage in 1969. Then Jeff Jones disappeared and spent the next eleven years eluding the FBI's massive manhunt. Thai Jones spent the first years of his life on the run with his parents.
Beyond the politics, this is the story of a family whose lives were filled with love honored and betrayed, tragic deaths, painful blunders, narrow escapes, and hope-filled births. There is the drama of a pacifist father who must reconcile with a bomb-throwing son and a Communist mother whose daughter refuses to accept the lessons she has learned in a life as an organizer. There are parents and children who can never meet or, when they do, must use the ruses and subterfuge of criminals to steal a hug and a hello.
Beautifully written and sweeping in its scope, A Radical Line is nothing less than a history of the twentieth century and of one American family who lived to shake it up.
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"Thai Jones relates the lives of two families without much money or success in the usual sense but in which men and women tried to live by their political and ethical ideas no matter what the cost. Jones treats it all with sympathy and a sly irony. He has an exciting story to tell, and he tells it well." -- Marge Piercy
"A Radical Line is provocative, funny, heartbreaking, and touching in turn. Thai Jones combines a journalist's nose, an ethnographer's endurance, and a novelist's hand as he brings to life an array of memorable characters, each making his or her twisty way through the tempest of their times. The result is a finely crafted and expertly calibrated memoir of real literary merit that echoes down the decades as a fitting homage to those who lived their lives against the grain." -- William Ayers, Distinguished Professor of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of Fugitive Days: A Memoir
"'The Personal Is Political,' wrote a feminist writer in 1969; Thai Jones's beautifully rendered account of his radical family's history helps us understand the complex meaning of that oft-quoted phrase. Alternately painful and inspiring, this is a story that will help a new generation understand why memories of the 1960s still divide Americans." -- Dan T. Carter, author of Scottsboro and The Politics of Rage
"A wonderfully readable, often harrowing, story of the Americans in two families who felt compelled to defy their government and how and why they did so. In a time of war and vile deception, this is a most powerful, timely story. I loved this book." -- Gloria Emerson, author of Loving Graham Greene
"The real Running On Empty. A look back across three generations of a committed family. Full of love and drama and patriotism in the best sense of the word. You need to read this book." -- Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Running On EmptyExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1: Cobblestones
Two young women climbed the stairs to an elevated rail platform in Brooklyn during the summer of 1929. One of them walked with a cane, and the other's legs were hampered by a long black coat that was anything but stylish. Their school day had just ended, and they stood a few paces apart waiting for the train to Coney Island. On the street below, nothing stirred unless it had to. Glass, steel, stone, concrete: everything in the borough absorbed the sun and was too hot to touch. Carefully shaded groceries were rank and rotten by midmorning, while fat flies swarmed around the steaming trash piled on the sidewalk.
Evelyn Wiener, known to her Yiddish-speaking friends as Chavy, was taking summer classes because she had flunked geometry. Only fifteen years old, a childhood case of polio forced her to walk with the aid of a wooden cane. Her father had been a charter member of the American Communist Party, and Chavy remembered well the night when the czar had been overthrown. She had been only three in 1917 and had toddled out in wonder to watch her parents and all their friends drinking vodka in celebration. She had grown up in the Party. As a girl she had been a Young Pioneer and recently, though she was not yet sixteen and had lied about her age, she had joined the Young Communist League.
Chavy and her radical friends had their own language and style. The men wore leather jackets, and the women went without makeup. Looking at the second girl on the train platform, Chavy thought she spotted a fellow traveler. Only a Red would wear that loose-fitting coat that whipped around the stranger's legs every time a train tornadoed by.
The girl in the distinctive outfit was Annie Steckler, my grandmother. She was a year older than Chavy and also in summer school. Until recently she had been a fine student, but her father, Philip Steckler, had died a few years earlier, and her mother had sent her to stay with relatives and gone looking for a new husband. Annie, not surprisingly, had developed a willful stubbornness, a temper, and a sharp tongue.
But as Chavy discovered after a brief conversation, she was no radical. Jumping at the chance to make a convert, Chavy started bragging about the fearsome strength of the Young Communist League. Finally, carried away with enthusiasm, she warned, "We are becoming a menace!"
"What," Annie asked, "a little two-by-nothing like you, a menace?"
The conversation might have ended there. Instead both girls boarded the same train, and Annie listened to stories about the Party. By the time they reached Coney Island, the girls were friends.
A year later, when Chavy turned sixteen, Annie gave her a copy of Marx's Das Kapital. "If you must be a Communist," she said a bit scathingly, "at least you should know what you're talking about."
Annie's father had a widow's peak like a ship's prow. He could comb it forward, backward, or to the side, and still it would point down unmercifully to the bridge of his nose. Philip Steckler was born in 1875 in the village of Romny in the Ukraine, which had served for centuries as a farmers' market and a Cossack stronghold against the czars. Narrow and uneven stone streets separated short and moldy stone buildings. It was a place one hardly needed an excuse to leave, but for an ambitious Jewish man, there were excuses aplenty. Violence against the Jewish communities in Russia could break out at any moment, and when Steckler was twenty-eight, it did.
Kishinev, near the Ukraine's southwestern border, was the kind of city that a young bumpkin from Romny might someday aspire to visit. It was a commercial hub where Jews and Moldavians, Russians, Bulgarians, and Albanians tolerated each other with varying degrees of loathing. In April 1903, during the Easter festival when religious zeal was at its annual zenith, the Christians of the city sacked the houses of the Jewish quarter. After two days of rapine and slaughter, the Jews of Kishinev had forty-three new graves to dig. In the telegraph age, the details of the Easter pogrom were printed in the world's newspapers without delay. International committees denounced the czar, and benevolent societies from every Western capital gathered alms for the victims. Jews living in the town of Romny, one province over, didn't think of Kishinev as a far-off place. For them, the violence was a present threat. Within a year of the pogrom, Annie's father had left the Ukraine and stood on a quay in Hamburg, Germany.
It was a late December day when he clutched his ticket and climbed uncertainly up a narrow gangplank of the steamer Patricia. The ship's great black stack burped out a breath of coal smoke, and her twin screws started churning the greasy waters of the River Elbe. Philip leaned over the rail or, unused to the motion, lay in his berth as the vessel gathered way toward two European stops -- at Boulogne and Plymouth -- and then the open ocean.
Patricia was one of the Hamburg-American Line's newest steamers, built a few years earlier with room for nearly 2,500 passengers. She offered a luxurious crossing for the lucky few who could spend at least fifty dollars for a private cabin. The remaining four-fifths, almost certainly including Steckler, settled for third-class berths on the lower decks, where they slept in bunks and ate in a common mess. At an average speed of thirteen knots, the passage, even during the rough winter months, was scheduled to take twenty days. Steckler's trip was marred by head winds and heavy seas, including a tidal wave that staggered the ship just as she was entering the Atlantic. Even Captain Reessing, a mariner with more than twenty years of salt in his blood, was rattled by the storm. "I have not known such weather for many years," he said. "The winter of 1882 was very similar to this, but none since then has been nearly so bad."
On January 11, 1904, the ship, only two days late, navigated between the ice drifts of New York harbor. Steckler's traveling days were nearly done. He had just a few miles more to cross, from Ellis Island east to Brooklyn. Once settled, he married Bessie Volozhinsky, who also came from the Ukraine, and moved into a tenement on Siegel Street in Williamsburg. He and his wife had three daughters: Frieda, Sylvia, and, on March 3, 1913, Annie.
Siegel Street ran just a few blocks from Manhattan Avenue to Bogart Street, through the center of the busy neighborhood. Shop signs advertised in English and Hebrew. The streets were paved with bumpy stones and carried a stream of trucks to the local centers of industry -- Max Blumberg's Lumber Yard and the six-story factory of the New York American Bed Company -- which were the Stecklers' near neighbors. Annie was raised amid the ruction and grew as accustomed to it as her cat, Beryle, who liked to sleep in the gap left by a missing cobblestone and whose slumber went undisturbed even when the trolley car passed inches above her whiskers.
The Steckler family was poor, but Annie didn't realize it because everyone she knew lived in poverty as well. She shared a bedroom with her sisters, and the only heat in the apartment came from the kitchen stove. On Siegel Street, it was common for several families to use the same bathroom but uncommon for the faucets in that bathroom to run hot water. There were almost no parks or playgrounds in the neighborhood, so Annie would beg her mother for six cents so she could go to Coney Island. The subway ride cost a nickel, and the penny purchased a piece of gum. Then she had to find herself some boy and get him to pay the train fare home.
Annie's father was a pushcart peddler. He sold sweaters on street corners, barking his spiel and haggling with customers from sunrise to evening. During holidays, savvy vendors staked out a desirable location at night and then slept beneath their carts. But on most days, Philip Steckler left for work near dawn and took Annie with him. She watched him unchock the wooden wagon wheels, lean his shoulder-weight against the bars, and creak his rolling shop down the block. It was a delight to go along with her papa, who accented his Old World upbringing with the charming habit of stopping the cart whenever a lady passed so he could bow and doff his cap.
Arriving at his accustomed spot, Philip folded and arranged the sweaters to their best advantage; the merchandise would soon be subject to very close inspection. He could afford to carry only a few sweaters at a time. If a customer tried one on -- say, a size 36 -- and found it was too small, Philip would tell her, "Oh, don't worry, I have it in all sizes." Then he would hand the sweater to Annie, who crept down beneath the cart and found not sweaters but boxes -- each labeled with a different size. She took the same sweater the customer had just declared too small, placed it neatly in a box labeled "Size 38," and handed it to her father. He returned it to the lady, who never failed to proclaim it a perfect fit. Then Annie took the money to a nearby wholesaler and bought a new sweater.
On a summer's night when Annie was ten years old, the thousands of stacked softwood boards in the nearby lumber yard caught fire. Apartment walls along the street were stained black, and windows shattered from the heat while families fled with all their movable possessions. Soon, thousands were watching -- from rooftops and sidewalks -- as every single fireman, fire truck, and fire hose in Brooklyn pitched in to stop the blaze from spreading. "The borough enjoyed a spectacle of destruction that grew more beautiful as darkness furnished a background for an acre or so of billowing flame," a reporter for the New York Times wrote, with the placid objectivity of one whose house was far away. The fire leapt from the lumber yard to the adjacent factory. "After that there was only a seething mass of flame-scoured ruins."
It was a gloomy horde of revolutionaries that descended on Union Square around midday on May 1, 1932. Bucketfuls of rain collapsed their hat brims, warped their placards, and threatened to turn their May Day into a depressed and drippy mess. Still, 35,000 braved the weather and gamely tried to sing the "Internationale," though the words, instead of rising up to frighten the capitalists in their skyscrapers, got trapped beneath all the umbrellas.
May Day had begun in America fifty years earlier. Originally held in honor of the anarchists executed in Chicago after the Haymarket riots of 1886, the date was adopted and embraced by the world labor movement. By 1900, the world's assembled Marxists, anarchists, Proudhonistes, Mensheviks, and Bakuninites urged workers in all nations to put down their tools each spring and march in a massive demonstration of unity. While it grew in Europe, the tradition wasted away in America. The previous parade, in 1931, though held in perfect weather, had drawn fewer than ten thousand workers. Only now, with the Crisis -- as the Communists called the Great Depression -- lengthening and worsening, were the crowds beginning to demonstrate again in force.
The gray and dismal day dampened their enthusiasm, but still they looked formidable trudging past William Z. Foster, the leader of the Communist Party, who watched from a reviewing stand. The country's capitalists had taken only token steps to ease the economic crisis and by their unconcern had given the Communists the means to make a movement. They had, in effect, written these signs -- these sodden placards heavy with damp -- that named the demands that workers were suddenly willing to march for: free rent, free coal, free food, unemployment insurance, pensions, work.
The crowd showed its first spark when it passed by the rival gathering of Pinks in Rutgers Square. The only thing a Communist could tolerate less than a capitalist was a Socialist, and as they passed by the headquarters of the Jewish Daily Forward, the Socialist newspaper, they whistled and jeered. "Down with the yellow press," they shouted. "Down with Socialism!"
Otherwise, the procession's only outward vigor came from the students who marched under banners from Columbia, New York University, and City College. The women wore red dresses and kerchiefs; the men had blue shirts and caps. They were happy and fervent despite the slick streets and heavy downpour. Every so often they shouted, "We Confess Communism" and then burst into self-conscious laughter or looked around to see who was yelling loudest.
For Annie, a sophomore at Hunter College, and Chavy, who had never completed high school, May Day was the highlight of the year. Entering from any of the narrow streets into the open space of Union Square, they could see crowds of people packed in, craning and peering at the speakers. The square had been the site of protest rallies for Emma Goldman in the 1890s, and though it was actually named for the intersection of the Bowery and Broadway, the name Union Square had an irresistible attraction for the labor movement. Walled in by fading stone and brick office buildings, the square had movie theaters and discount department stores that were popular with working-class crowds. Standing side-by-side-by-side on Fourteenth Street were the offices of the city's three progressive newspapers: the Forward, the Daily Worker, and the Yiddish-language Freiheit.
After a few hours of marching, Annie and the other students arrived at the rally point. There they learned that the adults had thrown in the towel and cancelled the speeches. Still in a holiday mood and with the sudden gift of a free afternoon, they dispersed noisily into the subways. May Day was over; leaflets and signs littered the sidewalks. The city's capitalists were safe for another year.
The Depression was an exhilarating time to be young and radical. Annie had rarely been outside Brooklyn -- a trip to Coney Island had been a holiday -- but in long discussions about international affairs or abstract economic questions, she widened her world far beyond the boundary of Kings County. There was a range of political opinion available: one could be a Socialist or a Communist. The Democratic Party was for the Irish. As for becoming a Republican, neither Annie nor any of her wide acquaintance could ever recall meeting one.
New York was the center of it all. There, young workers and young students could read dozens of newspapers or listen to soapbox street speakers. Unlike other cities, New York also had two free institutions for higher learning. City College, in Harlem, was overrun with Jewish radicals who scorned their tired old professors and skipped class to hold rambunctious debates in odd corners of the cafeteria. Hunter College, with campuses on the East Side and in the Bronx, provided the best, and usually the only, chance for New York's poor but promising girls to attain their degrees. The students came from workers' families that could spare the extra paycheck that a girl could bring home from the typing pool or shirtwaist factory. Hunter women were acutely aware of the opportunity they had being given and remained impeccably respectable in their marcelled hair and V-neck sweaters. But by the time Annie arrived in 1931, even they were dabbling in politics.
In a questionnaire given to Annie's class of 750 incoming freshmen, only one girl reported that she intended to marry. Most of the others planned careers in medicine, journalism, teaching, and the law. Between cigarette advertisements for Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields, the Hunter Bulletin was crowded with their intellectual activity: from debates on the "Present Economic Status of Woman" or the "Prospects of British Empire" to reviews of the college production of The Mikado. These refined attai...
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