John L: Something of a Man

John L: Something of a Man

 On the life, death and legacy of labor union leader John L. Lewis


History is written in the enigma of the paradox. To survive physically the time of life itself — the years of passion, adventure, creation, conflict and the changing of the world — is in itself tragic, It can be fatal to one’s place in history. Gandhi came perilously close to crossing that chronological threshold when already his Satygraha was being undermined by his approval of the armed invasion of Kashmir. He knew the importance of his last words to his assassin, "You are late."

John L. survived his life by a full generation. If he had died in 1939 or 1940, history wodd have recorded him as a great champion of the oppressed, our folklore would have included the saying, "If the great John L. Lewis had not died, this would never have happened." Lewis was idolized by the oppressed and the have-nots of the world. In South America his name was revered by the peons and peasants, feared and hated by the Establishment. He was battling, invincible gladiator fighting for all workers. Unfortunately — and I choose the word carefully for I loved him not only as my teacher, my close friend but literally my political father — unfortunately he survived his life. He survived his life and that of his enemies and with few exceptions his friends, his allies and in a significant sense, his union, and the world he had known. It is sad that John L. Lewis physically leaves at a time when his enemies are not here to exult or his friends to grieve, and when the younger generation is saying, "We thought he died years ago." And because of this he is bound to suffer historically. It is the paradox of history that has great difficulty making a valid judgment if one goes on too long. One’s place in history is decided not only by when one dies but by how one dies, so in a real way the assassin becomes the friend and historical ally of the gladiator. The inner unspoken prayer of the gladiator in the arena is that he will die in battle and that his very physical act of dying will carry a meaning and a force to the eternal struggle.

Of course, the John L. Lewis I knew was different in human quality from the towering, grim, belligerent pontifical public figure whom the public saw. He loved life, loved the laughter and the joy and the danger of it. He had a habit with his personal friends of punctuating humorous anecdotes by jabbing you in the stomach with his forefinger, and many a time late at night I would ruefully look at the bruises on my stomach and ribs and then break up in laughter, recalling the stories. When he laughed, he laughed with every part of his body.

I remember his anger and hurt when we left the White house after the stormy bedroom scene with Franklin Delano Roosevelt which came to a climax when Lewis wheeled on the President and said, "No one can call John L. Lewis a liar and least of all FDR!" There was fire between us as Lewis stormed out of the White House muttering, "plague on both their houses," and I insisted that if he was not going to support my political hero, FDR, he would have to declare for Willkie. He could not stay neutral without playing into the hands of complete Communist domination of the then C.I.O. He could not strengthen the claim of the American Communist Party that Roosevelt was a warmonger and Willkie a "barefoot Wall Street boy," that it was an imperialist war and the hell with both of them. There was that moment when Lewis charged me with being more with FDR than with him. But then he knew that it was not being more with FDR than with John L., but being totally against Adolf Hitler which transcended every other consideration, and so our friendship continued.

If I speak here in personal terms it is because it is the best way to see and understand that man, John L. Lewis. There was an afternoon a few weeks after I had experienced a shattering personal tragedy and was in deep mourning. I went to Washington and did what I had done every place else — walked alone. As I passed the White House the gate swung open and a big Cadillac came out. It braked to a sudden stop and out came Lewis. He had just left the President and suddenly saw his friend and knew of the ordeal. Without a word he put his arm through mine and we walked for some hours in utter silence except for the frequent reassuring squeeze from the hand of the man. Tenderness he possessed and compassion and love. One had to dig for it as though he were a deep mine, but the deposits were rich and beautiful.

He cared and felt deeply beneath the impassive mask of seemingly cold unapproachable ruthlessness. I saw him weep at the plight of others.

Human to the inner atom, a master of power on a mass base, he would constantly make the mistake in his personal life of not abiding by the lessons of power he so brilliantly formulated and propounded. When I would criticize him for permitting personal relationships to confuse and cloud his own understanding of power, he would grin and say, "Sometime you’ll understand." In later years I found myself making the same mistakes. Of all my teachers in power and mass organization, he was the greatest.

What else is there for me to say except to quote him from the last page of the biography I wrote: "The doors of history swing on tiny hinges. Nothing is more barren and futile than speculation on what might have been. I care not what might have been … I care only for today and the wonder of life itself, the sunrise of tomorrow and the new dawn. For this and in this I live."

His defiance of every power from the White House out was a note of reassurance for the security of the democratic idea, that his dissonance was part of our national music. He was and will always be to me — as history will eventually make him to all men — in the words which he had bellowed at his miners, "Something of a man."

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