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David R. Hoffman: The Essence of History

In philosophical circles, debate often erupts between advocates of the "great person theory" and advocates of the "great events theory."  Succinctly put, the former argue that certain people are destined for "greatness," while the latter argue that "greatness" arises when ordinary people are compelled to respond to extraordinary events
Although this article does not presume to resolve this disagreement, there is evidence suggesting that the truth may reside somewhere in the middle.

One of the greatest inspirations in my life was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His struggle for justice and equality for all Americans, and indeed for all people, motivated me not only to resume the university studies I had unceremoniously abandoned over a decade before, but also to attend law school.  During this transitional period, I also studied the history of America's civil rights movement, and was surprised to learn that Dr. King's life gives succor to both "great person" and "great events" theorists. The event that most historians agree inspired the civil rights movement of  the 1950s and 60s was one Dr. King played no role in: The landmark case of BROWN vs. TOPEKA BOARD OF EDUCATION, where, in 1954, the United States Supreme Court held that the doctrine of "separate but equal," which, for over fifty years, had given legal underpinning to the "Jim Crow" (racial segregation) laws in the American South, was unconstitutional.

Although BROWN dealt with racial segregation in public schools, its implicit message was that segregation in all public facilities was unconstitutional.  So in 1955 civil rights activists in Montgomery, Alabama decided to challenge a law that required African-Americans to surrender their seats on public buses to white people whenever the buses were full.  When a seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for violating this law, the Montgomery bus boycott was born.

Dr. King's involvement in the boycott evolved largely from the existence of two civil rights camps in Montgomery, led by two different leaders. While both camps supported the idea of a boycott, neither was certain if it would succeed--thus neither wanted the mantle of failure thrust upon them.

Dr. King became an excellent compromise.  A new minister who had just moved to Montgomery fresh from his university studies, he was unfamiliar with the dynamics of the community and could (unbeknownst to him) absolve both camps from blame should the boycott be unsuccessful.  But the boycott did not fail, and Dr. King was catapulted onto the national stage.

But to view these "great events" as the sole architect of Dr. King's career ignores the personal attributes he brought to the civil rights struggle: an education that included an astute knowledge of Mahatma Gandhi's strategies of civil disobedience and non-violence; a natural and remarkable talent for public speaking; and the courage and commitment to continue the civil rights struggle beyond Montgomery's city limits.

Yet would Dr. King's legacy have been as renowned had he lived during the era of another civil rights activist, the legendary, yet unjustly forgotten, Paul Robeson?

Robeson was a multi-talented individual: an all-American football player, valedictorian of his graduating class at Rutgers University, law school graduate, singer, actor, linguist (able to speak roughly twenty languages), and ultimately outspoken crusader for civil rights.  He sacrificed his movie career in the 1930s to protest the lack of dignified roles available to African-Americans, and he found his ability to act on the American theatrical stage incessantly limited by local laws and customs.  Finding acceptance overseas, Robeson became enamored with what he perceived to be a lack of racial discrimination in the Soviet Union, and his "pro-Soviet" remarks subsequently led to his "blacklisting" during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s.  As a result of this blacklisting, his right to travel was severely restricted, causing him to lose the substantial income he normally derived from overseas concerts. Meanwhile most concert halls in America refused to book him, his recordings were pulled from store shelves, and his songs were banned from the airwaves.  An angry mob even attempted to attack him during a concert in Peekskill, New York in 1949.

Finally, in 1958, as the hysteria of McCarthyism was dying down, Robeson was able to stage a triumphant "comeback" concert at Carnegie Hall.  But during the 1960s, when the civil rights struggle was in its heyday, age, poor health and the residual effects of the 1950s "red scare" forced Robeson into relative obscurity.

Whenever I think of Robeson's life, I recall the axiom that "prophets are not without honor, except in their own countries."  While this axiom may not apply to the life of Dr. King, whose birthday is deservedly a national holiday in America, it tragically seems to apply to Robeson's.  And, just as tragically, it also appears to apply to another American prophet whose life and legacy is often unfairly forgotten: folk musician Phil Ochs.

During the early 1960s, "rock-and-roll" music was a growing phenomenon in America. Although critics denounced rock's "unhealthy" influence, the consternation was largely centered upon the music's "beat."  Lyrics in rock songs during this era were fairly innocuous, with love songs predominating over social commentary.

To find such social commentary, one had to turn to "folk music."  This music's enduring power, as songwriter and labor activist Joe Hill explained, resided in the fact that "[a] song is learned by heart and repeated over and over."  Therefore it was not surprising during the "protest" era of the early 1960s to see folk music playing a prominent role, and, for many fans of this music, the popularity of Phil Ochs was second only to Bob Dylan's.


Although Phil's early protest songs explored profound, and often controversial, social issues, they nevertheless reflected a subliminal optimism.  "It is wrong," he once stated, "to expect a reward for your struggles.  The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win. Even though you can't expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt.  That's morality, that's religion, that's art, that's life."

Oftentimes, however, no matter how great the intention or how noble the cause, idealism can succumb to disillusionment.  The demise of Phil's idealism began in 1968. Dr. King and Robert Kennedy had both been assassinated, and Phil had witnessed first-hand the police response to anti-war protesters, who had gathered in Chicago, Illinois during the Democratic National Convention.  Several leaders of these protests, collectively known as the "Chicago Seven," were put on trial for "conspiracy to start a riot, and crossing state lines with intent to start a riot."

After these events, Phil would tell an audience in Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada) that in Chicago "something very extraordinary died, which was America." Later he rhetorically asked this same audience, "What can you do when you're a helpless soul, a helpless piece of flesh, amid all this cruel, cruel machinery and terrible heartless men?"

But Phil's disillusionment had not entirely consumed him. He decided that in America, where the "cult-of-celebrity" dominates both the media and the populace, the only way to make protest songs palatable to a larger audience was to transform "mainstream" singers like Elvis Presley into revolutionaries like Che Guevara. So during a 1970 concert at Carnegie Hall, Phil donned an Elvis Presley outfit, becoming perhaps the very first Elvis impersonator.

Unfortunately, as Paul Robeson's life demonstrates, celebrities who desire to remain celebrities often have to remain non-controversial.  Thus there was little chance of Elvis becoming Che.

Disillusioned by his Carnegie Hall experiment, Phil traveled to Africa, where misfortune seemed to follow him.  He was attacked and left for dead in a mysterious "mugging."  Although he survived, his vocal cords were permanently damaged.  During his final years he suffered persistent "writer's block," and often turned to alcohol for comfort.  Ultimately, on April 9, 1976, Phil Ochs chose to die.  He was only thirty-five years old.

One explanation often offered for Phil's journey from fame to obscurity is the topical nature of his songs.  Like a musical news reporter (one of his albums, in fact, is entitled ALL THE NEWS THAT'S FIT TO SING), Phil often sang about the events of his day:  the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama, the United States invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, and the war in Vietnam.  But to forget these songs is to forget that the underlying social problems addressed in them--racism, classism, unjustified warfare, greed and hypocrisy--still endure.

Many of the ancient Greeks believed it was logical, perhaps even noble, to end one's life instead of submitting to the evils of the world.  While this proposition continues to be the subject of debate, one cannot help but ask, "If Phil were still alive, what would he think of today's world?"  After witnessing the nation, almost forty years ago, giving Lyndon Johnson the ability to escalate American military involvement in Vietnam based on exaggerations about the "Gulf of Tonkin incident," how would Phil respond as this same nation was again led into war based on exaggerated claims about "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.  How would he feel to see the courageous legacies of Dr. King, Medgar Evers and countless others replaced by sycophantic sell-outs like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Clarence Thomas?

During the past few years there have been discussions about making a movie depicting Phil Ochs' life.  But the box office failure of "Steal This Movie," a film about the life of anti-war activist and "Chicago Seven" defendant Abbie Hoffman, appears to have made the profit-driven Hollywood machine reluctant to transform this vision into reality.

But it should be remembered that movies are not only made to entertain, but to immortalize.  One of the tragedies of humanity is the failure to recognize greatness until it is too late.  But the worst tragedy is to not recognize greatness at all. The legacy of Phil Ochs belongs not just to the "protest" generation, but to all who want prophets honored, not only in their own country, but throughout the world.

David R. Hoffman, Legal Editor of Pravda.Ru

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