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The Radicalization of Ned Nerdy
copyright 2004 by H. Paul Shuch

In the cynical seventies, we taught our kids that nice guys finish last. Not that many years earlier, the rule was that nice boys finished their chores, and then started on their homework. And I was a nice boy, most of the time, coming of age in suburban San Jose, CA, back when the Valley still grew grapes and prunes and walnuts, and Silicon was but a twinkle in the eyes of the Stanford nerds. For my part, I was the ham radio geek who was president of the Spanish club, a member of the honor society, and concertmaster of the high school orchestra until I realized that girls were more attracted to guitars than to violins. But even with the girls, I really was a nice guy.

My one brush with the law, which involved liberating radio parts from the local war surplus store, nearly broke my mother's heart. Mom was an elementary school teacher who preferred to call herself a Reading Specialist. She even started a graduate program in that esoteric specialty, but quit one thesis short of a Masters, around the time my Dad divorced the more worldly and educated Berkeley woman for whom he had left Mom a decade prior. When that marriage (my father's third of four) dissolved, I guess Mom felt she had nothing left to prove. Besides, by then she had remarried, to a blacklisted socialist Physicist who ended up programming IBM machines (none called them computers back then) for the local bank. "Don't sign anything," is what I learned from them. "Never get your name on any lists."

The summer of '63 found me back East, at Carnegie Tech on an NSF scholarship. A seething cauldron of conservatism, Tech stood for the status quo. Except for Ceilidh, the folk music club that met once a week in the basement of the Skibo student union building, Tech was the place where never was heard a disquieting word. Campus unrest consisted of running to the john in the middle of the night after too much beer at a frat party.

A mile down the road at Pitt was another story. The University of Pittsburgh seemed to me what Berkeley had been during my high-school days: a true microcosm of society. Pitt kids came over to Ceilidh, and they brought new ideas along with their new songs. They also brought word of what was going on down South, into an otherwise isolated and well insulated Tech campus. I guess it was the protest songs, rather than social issues, that first galvanized me politically.

"Are you going down to Washington?" Rhee, one of the Ceilidh regulars, asked after summer session had ended. What for, I wanted to know. "The March," she responded as she turned away to tune. "Zimmerman's going to be there."

Even though Bobby Zimmerman had already changed his name to Dylan, we all knew who she meant. And, yes, if he was going to this March, whatever that is, so was I. That's how, guitar in hand, I ended up on the staff of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Headquarters for The March was at WUST, a DC radio station. I felt right at home there, having somehow stumbled into WRCT, the campus station at Tech, a couple of months earlier, and not wanting to leave. And what better place than a radio station for the radicalization of a nerd? In the WUST studio, as I nailed together hundreds of picket signs, I hardly noticed that I was one of only a handful of white kids there (all of whom had names like Zimmerman).

"Hey, kid, you wanna meet the Lawd?" one of my fellow volunteers called out a week before The March, and I looked up into a solemn face, familiar from the evening news. Dr. King asked me about the signs and my studies, gave me a word or two of encouragement as he shook my hand, and was gone before I had a chance to borrow a camera. But I figured we'd meet again. I figured right.

So I sang along with Zimmerman, and Baez, and Pete Seeger, and Odetta, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, just before Labor Day of '63. I don't think any of us realized then that we were changing the world, but we sure had a great sound!

Those songs served me well during Christmas Break of '64. I went back to California, where my sister Robin was a student at Cal's Santa Barbara campus. Further North, at notorious Berkeley, student demonstrations had broken out, and my guitar and I hung out there, trying to pick up new songs and girls. Though I was by far more successful with the former, the latter were surprisingly responsive; by now I was an Exotic Easterner, and seemed more urbane. Or so I imagined.

Robin went on to co-found the Santa Barbara branch of the Free Speech Movement. The first organizing meetings were held in her tiny Isla Vista apartment, when Berkeley ringleader Mario Savio came South on parole, to share his several weeks of accumulated life experience. Mario stayed a night in Robin's apartment, I recently found out. Mom still doesn't know. Robin is, after all, a Nice Jewish Girl.

One nice thing about Tech is that, for the first time in my life, I was not the only Jew in class. But the bookish New York City Jewish intellectuals there were too busy with their studies to do much socializing, let alone social activism. Pitt was different, with its burgeoning student population and towering Cathedral of Learning. There was an active Hillel Foundation chapter there, and the rabbi who ran it was decidedly a radical. It was from he that I first heard about Selma.

Dr. King and a cadre of clergy were conducting a voter registration drive in that small central Alabama town. They and a couple of hundred activists were attempting to march the 54 miles from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, when three of their number were attacked from behind by local thugs. Jim Reeb, a Unitarian minister turned Quaker activist, was clubbed in the head. He died two days later. Like 450 rabbis and ministers from around the country, our Hillel head mustered his troops, and within less than a week, four busloads of Pitt students, joined by one lone Techie, were headed for Selma.

I was already a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (which met at Pitt, certainly not at Tech), somehow forgetting my stepfather's admonition against names on lists. The Carnegie Tech campus newspaper lampooned my activism, with a sarcastic front-page article about the thousands of Tech students who marched in front of Skibo, chanting "We Shall Undermine," before heading out by the busload to visit "Aunt Thelma," under the leadership of one "Dr. Martin Calvin Lutherstein, Jr."

March of 1965 saw a rift forming in the Civil Rights movement. Younger, more edgy and militant leaders were challenging King's philosophy of passive resistance. They were justifiably angry at the indignities they had endured. One of the more outspoken among them was SNCC executive secretary Jim Forman, an Air Force veteran who had seen a different kind of action in Okinawa. Forman considered nonviolence a tactic, not a way of life, and believed it was sometimes appropriate to fight back. (This was perhaps a year before he was edged out of the SNCC leadership circle by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who considered him insufficiently militant.)

By the time the regrouped Selma marchers made it to Montgomery, a movement started in January by 100 skittish schoolteachers had grown to 25,000 determined demonstrators. If a crowd so large were to taunt the police into attacking, some reasoned, their cries would echo all the way to Washington. I heard Forman confronting King in front of the Baptist church on Jackson Street that served as temporary lodgings for the Pittsburgh contingent. King, still favoring totally nonviolent means, insisted that he wouldn't lead the planned march up the steps of the Capitol Building unless they first applied for a parade permit. Foreman assured King that the permit had been secured.

But, in fact, it hadn't. It has been suggested that perhaps Forman knew that; I'm not sure. In any case, the press got just what it wanted: a bloody confrontation between demonstrators and State Police, right there on the streets of Montgomery, complete with dogs and billy clubs and fire hoses, airing nationally on the evening news. That day, my guitar absorbed the blows intended for my head. My mother and stepfather had been watching TV, and shortly after the buses returned North, they flew to Pittsburgh to pull me out of college.

Only, the damage had already been done, both to the Civil Rights Movement and to me. Student deferment lost, Ned Nerdy, now 1A for the draft, had been radicalized. No longer the nice guy, he went home, soon to join the anti-war movement the only way he knew how.

By enlisting.

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