Studs at 100

Memories from the Ground

Studs Terkel died on Halloween night in 2008, just before his fellow Chicagoan, Barack Obama, was first elected President. When asked about Obama, Studs, who would have turned 100 last year, advised that the incoming President read FDR’s 2nd inaugural address and added: “The free market has to be regulated. And the New Deal did that and they provided jobs. The WPA provided jobs. We have got to get back to that.”

Studs Terkel was an iconic figure for those who met him, listened to him, and even read him – but of course that we already know. I only met Studs once, at a conference in Chicago in 2003. We sat and talked as he waited to join Rick and Bill Ayers on stage for a conversation about his political life. Knowing his writings, it was not a surprise that throughout our fifteen-minute conversation, he focused on my oral history work in South Africa and questions on life in that country at the time.

While Studs is mostly known for the American stories he told in his books – Division Street America, Hard Times, Working, The Good War, Race, and more, he also wrote two memoirs, Talking to Myself and Touch and Go, where among other topics he reviewed his experiences with the United States’ House Un-American Activities Committee — the sordid creation of Senator Joe McCarthy and his band of thugs.

This part of Studs’ life is of great importance at the present time, because since the attacks of 911 and through Obama’s first term as President, it again appears that the rights of everyday American citizens are not only endangered, but also even entrapped by government surveillance and other actions that are falsely labeled National Security. Studs Terkel was blacklisted by the government in 1951. It cost him his Chicago television show, Studs Place, as well as other broadcasting and journalistic opportunities. Studs recalled his experience with HUAC in Talking to Myself.

I had been visited by an FBI pair a number of times in the 1950s. I’m confident they had a fairly rich dossier on me, because during the 30s and 40s I appeared at many subversive gatherings and made quite a name for myself as an effective collection speaker for The Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and the Civil Rights Congress to name only two. I had supported Henry Wallace for president in 1948. And in that same year, I was master of ceremonies at the celebration of Paul Robeson’s birthday at the Chicago Opera House.

The occasional FBI visits to my house were not always pleasant. My wife, usually the most gracious of hostesses, was for some unaccountable reason inhospitable. There were at least two occasions I recall when she showed them the door. She manifested contempt. I was of course terribly embarrassed. I myself was hospitable at all times. I offered them choices of Scotch or bourbon. Invariably, they refused. Once, I suggested vodka, making it quite clear it was domestic. I thought I was quite amusing. At no time did our visitors laugh. Nor did my wife.

Studs also wrote about his stand against HUAC and his decision not to name names:

People thought the stance I took was a brave thing to do. Well, I don’t go along with that. I was scared, so I did the only thing I knew how to do, not to show it — playing the clown. I was advised the thing to do to avoid being listed for signing a proscribed communist organization petition was to say I’d been duped into signing it. Well I wouldn’t do that, I just said, Yeah, I signed it. So that was how it was: it wasn’t a case of me being heroic or anything. I’ve always described myself as independent politically and that’s what I am.

But Studs’ definition of independent was always working for people on the ground. There were 146 reports in Studs Terkel’s FBI file – it was 503 pages. Humor aside, Studs knew very well that people suffered greatly because of McCarthy era repression. He also knew that he was very lucky. In spite of some economic hardship, friends stood by him both personally and professionally. When Mahalia Jackson was offered a network radio show at CBS, she not only demanded that Studs host the show, but when Studs refused to sign a government loyalty oath, she told the network, no Studs, no Mahalia. Concurrently, Studs was offered a variety radio show by WFMT radio – a show he did for the next 40 years. At the time, not surprisingly, the Chicago Tribune deleted the show from their daily radio listings.

Most importantly, Studs Terkel’s brush with McCarthy era fascism did not temper his political activism – both words and actions. He initially learned his politics as a teen-ager working in his parents’ rooming houses and attending soapbox political speeches at Chicago’s version of Hyde Park – Bughouse Square. He showed early admiration for Gene Debs as well as the Wobblies. And his entry as a performer was through the Workers Theater where he entertained people on picket lines and at union halls. After Joe McCarthy self-destructed, Studs’ radio interviews, 9,000 of them, as well as his subsequent oral histories, honored people on the ground. His heroes included Virginia and Clifford Durr, Martin Luther King, Myles Horton, Rosa Parks, Paulo Freire, and Paul Robeson; but also the teachers, social workers, activists, laborers, and just plain people on the ground, who are never really plain. He was highly critical of government and media abandonment of poor people: and he advocated against class disparity, racism, nuclear arms, and the Viet Nam war.

Studs Terkel, through political action and his 2003 book Hope Dies Last, continued to give voice to “ordinary” people until his death in 2008. In addition, he simultaneously spoke back to power as he challenged inequality, racism, media and corporatism until the day he died and beyond. He juxtaposed the title of Hannah Arendt’s book, The Banality of Evil, for Studs, it was The Evil of Banality. That’s how he viewed the present time and we can envision him, if he would have lived through his hundredth year, both listening and speaking at Zuccati Park, or at an Occupy Chicago rally on West Cermak Street, or even speaking to 10,000 occupier’s at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland.

Alan Wieder is an oral historian and the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press, 2013) He can be reached at: alanwieder@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alan.