Review Essay: They Had No Voice by Denny Abbott and Working for Peace and Justice by Lawrence S. Wittner
Felman, Jyl Lynn, Radical Teacher
Working For Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual by Lawrence S. Wittner (University of Tennessee Press, 2012)
They Had No Voice: My Fight for Alabama's Forgotten Children by Denny Abbott (New South Books, 2013).
What does it take to be a life-long activist? How does it happen that a person takes on a political cause? Or does the cause take on the person? When does the political become personal enough to take action, risk harm to your family, lose all job security, and open yourself to public attack for years?
I kept asking myself these questions while reading the memoirs Working for Peace and Justice by Lawrence S. Wittner and They Had No Voice by Denny Abbott. Although their lives differ in terms of class, privilege, and higher education, both men committed themselves to political activism. While they both came to radical politics in their twenties, their paths to activism, beginning in the 1960's, were motivated by vastly different experiences and expectations.
Lawrence Wittner grew up in a middle-class, intellectual, and cultured family in Brooklyn and developed a social conscience when he was young. After finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he became an academic activist (continuing even into his seventies) with his first teaching job at the Hampton Institute, a historically black university in Hampton, Virginia. Wittner was one of the few white professors. He was immediately drawn into the 1960's struggle for civil rights and challenged the passivity of the older black faculty and administration whose goal was to assimilate into the "white" world and not make trouble. Eventually, Wittner lost his job for challenging the dominant ideology of Hampton Institute and firing up his African American students. Years later, after writing the first two of three volumes of The Struggle Against the Bomb, he became a world expert on the history of the peace and nuclear disarmament movement.
Denny Abbott grew up working class in Montgomery, Alabama with a violent and racist father who secretly may have been in the Ku Klux Klan. Abbott married his high school sweetheart at the end of their senior year. In the 1960's, right after college, he worked as a probation officer at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children at Mt. Meigs. His job was to transfer young black children to what he calls "a slave camp" (xiii) on the outskirts of Montgomery.
Typical of the time, Alabama had separate accommodations for black and white juvenile delinquents. Observing the conditions the black children were forced to live in--daily beatings, severely cramped living conditions, starvation, and filthy mold-infected bathrooms--Abbott started complaining and filing reports. In the beginning he was rewarded for his efforts to "clean up" the detention center and stop the child abuse.
At twenty-three, due to exemplary recommendations, Abbott was promoted to chief probation officer, the youngest in Alabama history. And that's when the trouble really began. According to Abbott, "Mine was the last generation of white privilege and dominance and the first with a real opportunity to change and even help it along. It was an opportunity most of the white people I grew up with didn't exactly embrace" (xxiv). When little changed, Abbott ended up suing the State of Alabama in federal court for its mistreatment of the black youth in its care. After eleven years he was forced out of his job in the probation system and had to leave the state.
He was out of work for nine months, cleaning bathrooms part-time until he was asked to run a regional youth detention center in West Palm Beach. He grabbed the chance and uprooted his family. Once settled in Florida, Abbott realized the conditions of the West Palm Beach youth detention facility were similar to those in Montgomery. He complained and was forced out of his job again. …