In Memoriam: A Tribute to a Cloud of Witnesses

Our community of peace-and-justice-makers has lost several beloved members in the past few weeks. This is a small but heartfelt personal tribute to a half-dozen people whose lives have touched mine and who have passed from this earthly journey in recent days.

Next week I will fly to Ithaca, New York, to attend the August 11 memorial service for Dorothy Cotton, who died on June 10th (New York Times obituary here). One of the least recognized organizers of the Freedom Struggle, Dorothy was an inspirational educator and I was incredibly privileged to serve alongside her from 2003-05 on the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s National Council. Last week, en route to Denver, I watched King in the Wilderness, which features Dorothy as one of the civil rights leaders interviewed about MLK — and also appearing at his side in historic footage of mid-1960s SCLC strategy meetings. What a life. Pick up her recent memoir If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement (2016, Atria Books) and join me in Ithaca if you’re able.

Last week I learned of the July 20th death of Ron Young, tragically of a virus infection. Ron and I met just a few years ago, but we learned our lives had intersected in multiple ways in the decades previous. Ron attended Wesleyan University in the early 1960s (a quarter-century before me), and abandoned school (he got his degree two decades later in 1986) to go work in Memphis alongside Rev. James Lawson, who MLK called the world’s greatest strategist for nonviolent action, and then to support the Selma movement. In 1965, he found himself working at FOR as a national organizer in student and youth movements. As the Vietnam war expanded, Ron coordinated C.O. and draft resistance efforts and ultimately playing a central role in two national anti-war marches that drew half a million participants. He recounts those amazing events and others in his 2014 memoir Crossing Boundaries in the Americas, Vietnam, and the Middle East (2014, Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock), which I reviewed for Fellowship magazine in 2015. Ron and I maintained a regular correspondence, and connected a few times this year about both the new Poor People’s Campaign and Middle East peace issues. I published a couple op-eds Ron wrote on FOR’s blog, including this piece on Syria in May.

Last week also brought the sad news of Elbert “Big Man” Howard’s death in Santa Rosa, California (New York Times obit here). While we never met, I was privileged to connect with Elbert, one of the original founders of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, three years ago, at the time George Houser died. They had become good friends, and Houser was of course a massive influence on me due to his extraordinary legacy at FOR (especially as co-founder of CORE) and as founding director of the American Committee on Africa. Upon Houser’s death, Howard wrote a tribute that I published, which included these words: “I believe we had an affinity for each other, a comradeship and a bond, because of our common interests and experiences in the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world.” At Wesleyan I’d been one of about 8-10 undergrads who co-organized a tutorial course on the Panthers, so the work of Howard and his BPP cofounders was important to my thinking about justice-making and community organizing. A celebration of his life will be held on August 25th at 1:00 p.m. in West Oakland (Bobby Hutton Grove inside of DeFremery Park, 18th and Adeline); one of the speakers will be Kathleen Cleaver, who I was blessed to meet alongside Bobby Seale through one of my mentors, the Rev. Earl Neil, in 1996 at the front door of the now-long-gone Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles on Broadway in downtown Oakland.

The word of Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s death earlier this month from her life partner Leslie Cagan was not unexpected, as Melanie had been living with Parkinson’s Disease for many years, but deeply sorrowful nonetheless. I only met Melanie a few times, but our moments together were deeply meaningful and centering. In part this was due to her important legacy of organizing for social justice; she was founding director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (Jewish Currents obit here). When my spouse Rima and I moved from East Harlem to the Catskill mountains in 2008, we knew no one in the tiny village of Chichester where we lived. Our goal was to slow down our lives, at least somewhat, and grow a family. A year or two later, we discovered via Leslie that she and Melanie had a summer cabin just 1/2-mile up the road — it had been in Melanie’s family for decades. After the birth of our first child, we often made it a practice to walk up alongside the Stony Clove Creek toward their home, whether or not Melanie and Leslie were around (as they were typically in NYC), just because the vibes around that property were so good for our baby and family.

For six decades, FOR members in the Pacific Northwest have gathered in early July for a family-centered conference known as “Seabeck.” Paul Pruitt had likely attended a majority of those events, along with his spouse, children, and grandchildren, so his July 2nd death (during the 60th annual conference) felt to me timed to that long-time commitment. My first trip to the Seabeck conference was in 2007, and it included being away from my family and close friends during my birthday. But I was well cared for by the regional FOR community, and I recall leaving Seabeck in the company of Paul and his spouse Mary — and how their warmth and human dignity that represents to me the very best of FOR members. Paul was both an ordained UCC minister (here is a tribute obit from the denomination’s Global Ministries office) and an elected member of the Washington State House of Representatives (1977-85), symbols of his professional acumen in many arenas.

Dick Voigt’s life was filled with music and service to the community. I was only able to hear him perform once or possibly twice, each time in small informal settings at FOR’s former Shadowcliff headquarters in Nyack, accompanied by his friends George Houser (harmonica) and Richard Deats (clarinet). Little did I realize, before seeing his Journal News obituary this month following his July 4th death, how prolific his talents were: a Dixieland pianist, Dick founded & ran the Big Apple Jazz Band, and he toured nationally with other bands throughout his life. I knew him better as the former treasurer of FOR’s National Council; although he served in that capacity years before my time at FOR, he continued to be in touch with the Fellowship — while simultaneously offering his support to countless other nonprofit and social service agencies, especially in the lower Hudson Valley where he lived.

In memory of Dorothy, Ron, Elbert “Big Man,” Melanie, Paul, and Dick, I say with gratitude, “Presente!”


Photos: (1) courtesy of Dorothy Cotton Institute; (2) courtesy of Ron Young; (3) courtesy of Carole Hyams; (4) Jews for Racial & Economic Justice; (5) courtesy of the Pruitt family; (6) Journal News.

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