06/05/2013 10:15 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Living History

As I referenced in a post several days ago, I feel that there is a reenergized movement around the economic issues that is being fueled by the growing frustration of the power and control of the wealthy special interests. From the low-wage worker organizing we are seeing in new organizations like Good Jobs Nation; to the DOJ/Covington and Burling protests about Wall Street execs never getting prosecuted even though they blatantly abuse homeowners; to the Wisconsin protests and Occupy Wall Street protests of the last couple of years; to the electoral victories of people like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Tammy Baldwin; there is a convergence of progressive excitement and energy unseen since anytime since the 1960s. All within a few short years in that decade, mass movements inspired and sparked each other -- from civil rights to women's rights to farm-worker organizing, from the student movement to the anti-war and environmental movements. And we are living in just such a moment now.

But it is more than coincidence that such moments happen. They usually happen because of a few key people who are the connective tissue behind the different movements, people who are usually not high-profile or famous but who are incredibly important behind-the-scenes.

One of the most important of those people in the 1960s is still one of the most important progressive movement people today, a person who is not famous but whose central importance to the progressive victories over the last half century is -- in my completely biased view, as he is a friend and mentor -- as big as any living person: Paul Booth.

I am reflecting on Paul because his 70th birthday is this week, and a mutual friend of ours, a researcher named Don Wiener, sent around a note which included this rather remarkable summary of Paul's very early career as a student organizer: Paul was one of the seven people to co-author and sign the famous Port Huron Statement, which really was the launch of the student movement of the 1960s; he was the organizer of quite possibly the first anti-Vietnam War protest in the U.S.; and he was a founder and early officer of SDS. Don had been looking at some archival documents about SDS and the student movement stored at the University of Wisconsin, and found some great old information about Paul's early organizing days. Here's an excerpt:

One way you organized was attending, by bus and car, dozens and dozens of conferences on the liberal and progressive issues of the time -- a meeting in NYC on housing and you were there, a conference on department of defense spending -- this is 1960, 1961 -- and you were there, usually speaking or holding a workshop.

As you traveled the country, your papers show that hundreds of students and others wrote you, students crying out to belong to a non-sectarian, multi-issue group with a sense of direction, and, most importantly, with local activities that were part of national campaigns...

You wrote 500-1,000 page, single spaced letters to hundreds and hundreds of people. Each letter was different and you addressed each person's issue, explained a way for them to think about their issue in a broader context, told them of upcoming events, asked them to build a chapter on their campus, and talk about chutzpah, without them asking you politely assigned them reading.

Hundreds of letters, and then follow up correspondence with the same people for years to come.

To some who you met of both genders, you wrote to say you were coming through town for a conference, "can I have some floor space?" People would afterwards get letters thanking them for their floors. You were a very polite young man.

You organized one of the first workshops on Indochina in the Philadelphia area, `62 or `63, and you acted on what must have been one of the first alerts that went from a national organization to local chapters on JFK's so-called advisers in Vietnam. Madame Nhu, the de facto first lady of Diem's government, was visiting the U.S. and SDS organized to greet her where she went. First Indochina action? Maybe?

You wrote a lot about a miners strike in Hazzard, Kentucky and organized students in the northeast to go there in solidarity, probably the first time in history that northeastern middle and upper middle class university students stood in solidarity with Appalachian miners.

You weren't just an organizer, but a brilliant researcher.

Your college files have what must be one of the first breakdowns of the federal budget, not by mind numbing and untranslatable line items, but you combined the individual line items into total spending on social and economic issues, something every public sector union researcher has been doing since.

You wrote lengthy, emphasis on "lengthy," papers on how to transition to a peace time economy and what industries would benefit. You were 21 and 22. You wrote letters to the publications National Journal and Roll Call, advising them on how they could better present votes, not just chronologically, but by each single issue, and analyze budgets by activity and issue, not just how they were presented by the government. This was unsolicited advice, but eventually they took it.

You wrote what must have been the first campaign finance study on what it would cost to elect peace candidates. How you got the information, who knows?

But you broke down every congressional race in the 1962 elections, and how much was spent by the candidates, with analyses of what worked and what didn't and with examples of literature you thought effective. Again, you are 20 or 21.

You threaded a way ingeniously and influentially for others on how to create a message about the effect of war on people's pocket books, health care and housing. Your pamphlets and papers went across the country to thousands of students.

You wanted action and you didn't talk about colonialism and class consciousness and the surplus theory of value, as I'm sure you could have, but you talked in practical terms of what was an overall strategy, who were the potential allies, what were useful tactics.

And, of course, you were one of the seven signers of a paper circulated for comments in 1962 by Tom Hayden that became "The Port Huron Statement."

You saved letters exchanged with Hayden where you argue for a coalitional, inclusionary approach to working with other groups, a discussion that continued in plenary debate at Port Huron and you prevailed. You had already worked with civil rights leaders, miners and, at age 21, Walter Reuther personally invited you to be an observer at the UAW convention.

All of these things Don wrote about happened when Paul was in his early 20s, a reminder of how much someone can accomplish at a young age. But Paul didn't rest on his laurels. After his early student and peace organizing days, he joined the labor movement, and made a career helping build AFSCME into one of the country's biggest and most impactful unions. All the while, continuing to keep and grow his ties to other progressives, helping inspire and build one issue coalition after another, and -- helping to elect politicians from school boards to the U.S. presidency, making him in my book (and many others') of the country's best electoral organizers.

I love reading about history, but I love even more having friends who were (and are) in the middle of making it. Looking back on the career of Paul Booth (who is still going strong, so who knows what else he might accomplish) reminds me of how change gets made: organizers like Paul make it happen.