Clarence Kailin, a son of the Midwest whose lifelong commitment to social and economic justice led him to become one of the first Americans to take up arms against the fascist forces that swept across Europe in the years before World War II, has died at age 95.
Kailin was one of the last survivors of the 2,800 American volunteers who fought from 1936 to 1939 as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in defense of the elected Spanish government against a coup engineered by Generalissimo Francisco Franco with the backing of Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. His role in “the good fight” of the international volunteers — as it was immortalized by Ernest Hemingway and W.H. Auden — gave Kailin, a scrawny kid from Madison, Wisconsin’s multi-ethnic Greenbush neighborhood, a place in an essential chapter of 20th century history.
Yet, for Kailin, “There wasn’t any choice. If you were against totalitarianism, if you were against injustice, you had to care about what happened in Spain. Spain was where the fight against fascism was focused in 1936. So Spain was where I knew I needed to be.”
The years that Kailin spent fighting in Spain prior to the start of World War II would eventually earn him international recognition and praise as an iconic figure on the American left – his courage and commitment were recently celebrated in song by folksinger Si Kahnand a section of the latest book by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman is devoted to him. The Spanish government made Kailin a citizen of the country, where his visits in recent years have been greeted with hero’s welcomes.
But Kailin never wanted to be an old soldier telling stories of distant battles.
He remained politically active to the last days before his death on Sunday, one day after he suffered a stroke.
On August 23, hundreds of family members and friends celebrated Kailin’s 95th birthday with a party at Madison’s Gates of Heaven Synagogue that featured a hip-hop performance, international visitors and, of course, political speeches calling for an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for single-payer health care and for a reordering of the U.S. economy that would tip the balance away from Wall Street and toward Main Street.
Quick-witted and passionate to the last, Kailin laughed with his friend and comrade Bob Kimbrough — as only old socialists could — at the notion that a centrist Democrat from Chicago named Barack Obama was somehow turning the United States hard to the left. “If only Obama was a socialist!” Kailin mused. “But, you know, real change never comes from the top. It comes when people get organized and decide that they’re going to make the change happen – no matter who the leaders are.”