George Rawick, Socialist & Historian

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Martin Glaberman

GEORGE RAWICK DIED in St. Louis on June 27, 1990. He had been confined to a nursing home after suffering two strokes and other ailments. He was a close and dear friend since the early 1960s, when he came to Detroit to teach at Wayne State University and later came to a be a supporter of Facing Reality and the ideas of C.L.R. James. Recently he was a supporter of Workers Democracy.

Relations with George were not always easy. He could lose his temper and blow up at friends and comrades. But friendship with George was always something special.

There was his brilliance. George Rawick knew a lot of stuff—a lot more than was involved in his academic specialties of history and sociology—but more than that, George understood a lot of stuff. Knowledge was not simply the accumulation of facts; it was understanding relationships, causes, connections.

He made massive contributions to the fields in which he worked. His forty-volume collection of slave narratives and his book introducing them, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community, significantly changed how historians were forced to view the lives and struggles of American slaves.

Interviews with former slaves, collected during the 1930s, had been left to gather dust in state and university libraries and the Library of Congress. The historical profession knew of their existence, but no one thought them interesting or important enough to assemble and rescue from oblivion After all, what could slaves know about the history of slavery? —they didn’t leave a written record.

George changed all that, one of a tiny handful of historians worldwide who pioneered the expansion of oral history and its establishment as a major element of the historian’s craft.

Communicator and Activist

George’s written works barely scratch the surface of his influence. He trained students who are carrying on his work, who learned to see history from below, who learned the importance of rank and file activity, of the revolutionary impulse from ordinary people.

Then, of course, there was his cornpulsive need to communicate with people all over the world. He would dash off a letter or note, or lift the phone to give advice, express resentment, exchange ideas.

And there was George’s humanity, expressed in various ways. He could not tolerate bureaucratic rigidity. He had run the gamut of the left—Communists, Socialists, Trotskyists, Johnsonites—and in every organization he was a maverick. He would not accept mindless discipline.

That made him difficult to work with sometimes, but there was no doubt about the contributions that George made, as a writer, an editor, an activist. Everything was always up for grabs, including his own ideas. He had as much ego as the next person, but that did not prevent him from abandoning ideas during the course of a discussion if other ideas seemed superior.

In 1988 a conference on Workers’ Self-Oranization was held in St Louis. George’s first stroke prevented him from participating. In 1990 a collection of reports and presentations from that conference was published as Within the Shell of the Old: Essays on Workers’ Self-Organization—A Salute to George Rawick by Charles H. Kerr (Chicago).

Everyone who dies is missed by friends and coworkers. Rawick will be missed by many who never heard of him, who will not hear his lectures, profit from his perceptions and his biting criticism, be encouraged to fight for their place in the world, have the blinders so common in the academic world removed from their eyes. The American left has suffered a great loss.

May-June 1991, ATC 32