Throughout much of the 1950s and early 1960’s, my father depended on a string of low-paying jobs, where the owner wouldn’t care if their employee had once been “a dirty commie.” According to him, every time he finally found a more responsible, middle-class job, the FBI had been quick to visit his new employer and let them know what kind of security risk they were taking. Most of their income came from his wife’s Evelyn’s job as a high-level administrative secretary in the L.A. music industry. When I stayed with them in the summer of 1962, he was driving a delivery truck for a men’s clothing chain.
By the next year, he was hired to be the manager of a small art gallery in West Hollywood whose profits would go to support the community’s listener-supported radio station – KPFK-FM. It was from this place that he would gain his second lease on life: within five years he would be traveling the entire county hauling a trailer containing a 300 pound wooden carved mural, four slide projectors and screens, thousands of glossy full-color handouts, and hundreds of audio cassettes telling the story of “Freedom Now: African-American History from the Middle Passage to the March on Washington.”
The Freedom Now Mural was a labor of love by a white craftsman, Robert Ames. Bob was the son of an Army surgeon stationed in the Philippines, had attended law school, lived in Illinois, but found his home in the Hollywood studios as a carpenter and set-builder, working on many of the models that would be used in the 1937 film Lost Horizon. Blacklisted in the 1950’s for his Communist leanings within his union, Bob found work as a free-lance woodworker, and in his free time took up watercolors and also began to carve large wooden bas-reliefs. As a supporter of KPFK, he offered to loan it to their new gallery. It was at its opening reception that my father met the woman who was to be his professional guide and mentor and friend for the rest of her life: Sue Bailey Thurman.
Sue was a doyen of the 1930’s, 40s and 50’s African-American women’s community – a former chair of the national YWCA, a writer and editor, and the organizer of the first Afro-American delegation to meet Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1936 – and the wife of one of the great Christian mystics of his time, the Reverend Howard Thurman. Sue saw the mural, and made it a personal project. She convinced her husband to endorse it and write an introduction; she found a few thousand dollars in startup funds, and asked my father to bring it to the rest of the country. Here was J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s worst nightmare scenario: the Jewish Communist and the Black Christian teaming up to challenge the racial status quo!
From 1965 to 1971, Dad, often accompanied by Bob Ames, took the mural to nearly 60 cities and towns, often sleeping in the back of his rental truck when cash ran short. It appeared at the Statehouse in Boston, at City Hall in Los Angeles, Pasadena and San Francisco, at the NAACP National Convention, at dozens of colleges and churches. It helped cement relationships between LA’s liberal Jewish community and the campaign of Tom Bradley, who became that city’s first black mayor. It was the centerpiece of the 1967 Watts Summer Festival, and in some communities it was guarded by the Black Panthers!
But by the early 1970’s it was “old hat.” The Black community was no longer interested in having its story told by two old white guys – no matter how good their civil rights credentials. The younger leaders were not as deferential to the FDR-generation of leaders that had embraced Dr. Thurman and his wife. The invitations stopped coming. In the end, the growing radicalism of the Black Power movement on one hand, and the “mainstreaming” of civil rights on the other eclipsed the mural’s relevance. It eventually found a home at the DuSable Museum in Chicago, where it is the centerpiece of the education center gallery.
Years later, when Dad was moving to the Jewish Home, his wife asked me to clean out their basement storage locker. In a dusty corner, my brother and I found boxes and boxes of those beautiful color brochures. Today, school groups still get a commemorative copy with their museum tour.