A Passion for Politics

A Passion for Politics

Allard Lowenstein was a liberal insurgent at the heart of the civil rights protests and the antiwar protests of the sixties. His gift was for organizing and speaking, and he had command of the great ability a reformer needs—of turning indifference to interest, and showing that fear has a common ground with hope. An impressive plurality of the democratic left who entered politics in the sixties and seventies owed their political awakening to him, and some of their names have become familiar: Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, Bill Bradley, Barney Frank. Never was there a more passionate recruiter; yet Lowenstein made his conversions by fair means. He asked his audience to think—to imagine vividly the abuses of power and to work out practical remedies from the open indignation that is the surest motive of reform. His message was always the same. In a system like ours, the exertions of individuals who band together can make a difference.

Here is the way he talked extemporaneously, to a crowd at Stanford University in 1963:

I couldn’t honestly be optimistic now about Mississippi except that I think you know, and I know, that we are going to win in Mississippi, that the feeling that somehow there is no progress is wrong. And that from the perspective of the United States and of the world, this little island of embittered people, shooting and beating and turning to brute force to terrify, are in the backwater of civilization and are going to be lost. Mississippi is not a foreign country in our midst—it’s the foreign part of all of us in our midst. And we help ourselves, I think, as we help Mississippi.

The voice was clear and it covered the range from declamation to the gentlest testing of a thought. It was not expert or orotund; the speaker seldom coined a phrase.