Monday, May 29, 2006



Today's NY POST has a cute paragraph about how ex-South Carolinian Stephen Colbert once voted for Strom Thurmond ("excellent constituent services"). I don't know if it's true or a joke but it reminded me that I once had a Strom Thurmond experience too.

It happened in the mid-60s. I was stoned the whole time until 1969 so forgive a couple of imprecisions here and there. I was Chairman of the Student Activities Board at Stony Brook on Long Island. I wandered into my faculty advisor's office, dear Miss Couey, who was very sweet but did work for a dean who hated my bearded, longhaired, pot-smoking dealing self. Her job was to keep me as under control as was humanly possible. (I had already been expelled from the dorms for being a bad influence.) Anyway, I turned up at Miss Couey's to let her know I had booked a radical young Georgia African American who had just been elected to the state legislature, to speak at Stony Brook. It was Julian Bond, the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and white folks used to think the "non" before "violent" was just a ploy.

"Howie, don't you think it would be a more interesting program if it were balanced?"

Ughh... I saw where she was going. I had no interest whatsoever in balance. "Are you telling me, you want me to get the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan to speak as well?"

We had such a nice relationship. She asked me to please find someone appropriate. I couldn't find a number for anyone from the KKK but I came close enough. I found a Senator Strom Thurmond, a former Democrat who bolted the party when they finally started to abandon apartheid, who then ran for President (of the United States) on the Dixiecrat Party and eventually found a more than comfortable home at the new racist party, the party of Abraham Lincoln. I agreed to pay Thurmond $5,000, just like I was paying Julian Bond.

About a week before the event I was higher than usual and I had a flash of an idea. I called the senator's office and explained to his aide that we were a poor state university and that the budget was cut drastically-- something they would heartily approve of, of course-- and that I was forced to have to beg the senator to speak for a paltry $2,500. The aide agreed, making me think I should have offered $1,500 but I let it slide. Then I called Julian Bond and told him there had been a mistake in the contract and that I'd have to pay him $7,500. He agreed.

The day of the event I asked one of my closest friends-- a kind of Perle Mesta of the Student Activities Board, the chairman of the hospitality committee, the gayest person I had ever met at the time-- to please meet Senator Thurmond at the station and take him to dinner where he could meet lots of students. I suggested a pizzeria a short walk from the campus and asked Perle not to spend over $10. I then went to the waiting stretch limousine and had the chauffeur drive me to meet Julian Bond. We went to the fanciest, most exclusive restaurant on the North Shore of Long Island. All the waiters were African-Americans. All the dinners were white. I may have been the only Jew eating there but we soon found out that Julian was the only African-American who had ever eaten there. As we were leaving two elderly waiters approached us in the parking lot to thank us for doing something that they never thought they would ever see-- eating in their restaurant (which was like 55 miles from Manhattan). I still tear up whenever I tell the story. (And a few days ago Julian was nominated to be on the Board of Directors of a Civil Liberties Board I'm on. I got to second the motion.)

We drove back to campus. Julian Spoke first. He fired up the audience. When he was finished 1,200 people walked out, including me. Could it have been spontaneous? Things like that happened in those days. Perle and Miss Couey and a couple dozen weird people had Strom all to themselves. I never did meet him. I loved sending the check to his office though.


At 11:53 PM, Blogger Michael Snook said...

This story is fucking amazing.

At 11:59 PM, Blogger Michael Snook said...

Did I mention I'm taking Julian Bond's seminar this fall, History of the Civil Rights Movement. It's supposed to be the last one he ever teaches at UVa. Can't wait.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous teach said...

How delightfully ingenius Howie!! I love to hear stories like this.

At 9:09 AM, Anonymous jp said...

Jesus H. Christ on a cracker. I think you are my new hero.

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Sue Woo said...

That is so great! And I live in SC! Right on!

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Sue Woo said...

That is so great! And I live in SC! Right on!

At 1:42 AM, Anonymous E.P. said...

Yup, Howie is my hero! Strom Thurmond is probably rolling in his grave over this one! I sure hope he enjoyed his $10 pizza....

At 12:56 AM, Anonymous p said...

This is such a great story!


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