As we reflect on our tumultuous times, I have been remembering my mentor, Freda Ameringer. Given the battles in Wisconsin and elsewhere, I think her lessons for students and teachers are doubly important. Certainly, they put our challenges in context. For instance, Freda's earliest memory was of her father, with a Winchester rifle, shielding a black man from a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob.
Freda and her husband, Oscar, were ideological allies with their friend Eugene V. Debs, but they worked closely with more moderate reformers in Milwaukee. They led America's largest socialist movement in the unlikely state of Oklahoma, and saw it crushed by the most intense campaign of political repression in U.S. history. Afterwards, Freda formed an alliance with her friend Eleanor Roosevelt to pioneer early education efforts in Oklahoma City.
At a time when President Obama is being labeled a socialist, what can a real socialist teach us?
In addition to courageously leading a nonviolent battle, Freda and Oscar were known for their acts of personal kindness. Due to one such gesture, reactionary Daily Oklahoman ran an obituary for Oscar entitled, "He Hated No Man."
Freda continued the good fight into the 1980s, volunteering for Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition." But she also defused tensions with the xenophobic Governor "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, and cooperated with the conservative OKC Chamber of Commerce. Freda often quoted Martin Luther, "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree."
Freda loved to paraphrase the title of Oscar's autobiography. Her version was, "It's a damned great life, 'If You Don't Weaken.'"
Even in a time of the Tea Party's scorched earth politics, we must teach our children that "compromise" is not a dirty word. Especially at a time when liberal education "reformers" have borrowed the rightwingers' vicious tactics in pursuit of a righteous (or self-righteous) goal, educators must embody the principle of the "loyal opposition." My opponent is my opponent, not my enemy.
Our kids need to "learn how to learn" the lessons of history, and educators need to remember them. We must first defeat the Scott Walkers and Michelle Rhees. But, America has survived much worse. As we grit our teeth over President Obama's compromises, we should not forget that they are not as bad as those that President Roosevelt had to make. And America always rises to the occasion after we exhaust all other possibilities.
John Merrow, and other good-hearted liberals, have been challenging educators to articulate a compelling educational program. Others with more of a talent for slogans will create a better soundbite, but here is my proposal. Oscar coined the term "Industrial Democracy." The 20th century was a battle for "Industry of the People, by the People, and for the People."
The 21st century needs "Educational Democracy." We must provide our children, "Education of the People, by the People, and for the People."
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