Remembering Steve Kindred (1944-2013)

Against the Current, No. 168, January/February 2014

Jesse Lemisch

[On December 9, we received this note from Ellen Goldensohn: “Dear Steve died at 7:09 this morning. To him, all were equal — even those society had cast out.” We present this tribute by his longtime friend Jesse Lemisch, Professor of History Emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. — ed.]

DECEMBER 5, 2013 — Steve Kindred, my friend, brilliant SDSer, organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a leader of the struggle to keep the Stella d’Oro factory in the Bronx open — all this, and a thousand other causes — Steve is, for lack of a better word, “gone,” in a New York hospital, suffering from abdominal cancer, which has spread.

Having been close to Steve and having admired and loved him now for 50 years, I am very sad. Other people’s deaths have reminded me of my own mortality. This one focuses me on what we have all lost with Steve gone.

Two clichés come to mind: it violates the laws of nature that students should die before their teachers. This applies: I was Steve’s teacher at the University of Chicago in the mid-‘60s. The other cliche, that teachers often learn from students, also applies. Steve was my student, and contributed to an electric classroom atmosphere which took me from classroom to typewriter to “Jack Tar in the Streets” and “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up.”

I had grown up left, but Steve was my instructor in the first larger struggle that I experienced in the ’60s, a struggle in which we had to anguish over directions and strategies.

In the early 1960s, the University of Chicago was trying to remodel itself as less Jewish, more sports-oriented, etc. My students sat in on the 50-yard line, perceptively understanding what big-time football would do to the place.

In my first ecstasies at finally coming “home” to the U of C after ten years at Yale, I had warned them of the horrors of becoming like Yale. As for the Jews: the typical undergraduate was exemplified in the invented character of “Aristotle Schwartz.” To cure this condition, the U of C instituted a euphemistically named “Small Town Talent Search.”

Steve Kindred seemed to fit: the son of a Methodist minister in Iowa. Under the control of a friendly coalition of Hutchinsonians and Straussians (followers of Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of the university, and conservative philosopher Leo Strauss — ed.), U of C knew nothing of their capacity to make radicals of sons of ministers.

With the draft and the Vietnam war, U of C Students for a Democratic Society looked  to address these issues in ways that fit the undergraduate culture. In this quest, Steve was a central thinker. Chicago had never compiled class ranks; now Selective Service wanted them to do so, and to hand over the lists to the feds as a kind of a death list.

U of C SDS brought out the many ways in which this was at odds with the university’s often repeated shibboleth, ”the life of the mind.” (Chris Hobson gave SDS’s newsletter that name.) As in so much of Steve’s politics, this focus addressed a passionate belief held by the constituency and connected that belief to the war as well as to the life of the university.

For several days (in spring 1966 —ed.) we occupied the Administration Building: Staughton Lynd and I taught “history from the bottom up”; Naomi Weisstein and Heather Booth taught Women’s Liberation. It was a memorable and ecstatic time. The entire sit-in debated strategies and directions in long meetings of the hundreds present, brilliantly chaired by Jackie Goldberg (just out of Berkeley and later a state legislator in California).

Noted professors came to the building to tell us that we reminded them of Nazi storm troopers. (Hannah Arendt had earlier responded to my public question in Mandel Hall that she would not state a position on the war.)

I said, in words that turned out to be prophetic, that I would feel myself more honorably treated were I employed by the people in the sit-in rather than the administration whose building we were occupying.

The time came in the sit-in when it looked as if the Chicago police would evict us if we stayed in the building longer. Steve, Chris and the others wanted to stay in. But we were losing our constituency. Left faculty members came before us with the “you’ve made your point, now go home” speech. A beloved dean wept crocodile tears, expressing his love of students. Always seeking to lead their constituency in more radical directions, but also always seeking to stay with them, we came to the difficult decision to leave. We were outvoted, and obeyed.

Today the building is called Edward H. Levi Hall. It was Provost Levi, later Nixon’s attorney-general, who had told our little faculty group that we could not resist the government’s demands because of what he saw to be the “unlovely” consequences of having to receive a federal subpoena.

I write all this from memory, having run up against a stone wall in seeking to get the U of C library to establish an archive on student protest parallel to the Savio Archive at Berkeley. Really, U of C, and its present corrupted historian dean, want to erase all memory of that time. Students were so badly treated — 40 or 50 were thrown out in 1969 — that the Alumni Office refers to the classes of ’64-74 as the “lost classes.” No wonder.

The outside world knows the place as the home of rotten economic theories; I know it as a place where the Straussians who ruled Sosh I and Sosh II (Social Sciences survey courses —ed.) could apply their retrograde views to the snippets of U.S. history that the remnants of Hutchins presented to them in such compendia as The People Shall Judge.

When I was fired (1967), it came about through a coalition of the Straussians, who despised me for having sought to teach history and historical context, and the History Department, ruled by Daniel Boorstin, and by William Hardy McNeill, who contributed to the political neutrality of the place by running an on-campus military intelligence unit. “Your convictions,” McNeill told me, “interfered with your scholarship.”

(Chris Hobson recalls that at one point, Steve — near to graduation and not wanting to risk expulsion — formed with others a “Chickenshit Liberation Brigade,” which would undertake an occupation through three warnings and then “throw themselves on their faces and back out of the office chanting, ‘Grovel, grovel, who are we to challenge power?’”)

For a time, Naomi and I lived more or less together with Steve, Chris  and other SDSers next door to 5331 South Dorchester. What a time it was! Later, when we lived in a Buffalo suburb, Steve would appear without notice (this was before cell phones) in block-long trucks that he was driving across the country, signaling his presence with what sounded like a tugboat horn, resonating through lawns and hedges.

From an enormous treasury of memories, two stand out. In the spring of 1966, I handed over my car to Steve for distribution of literature and sit-in preparations. It was a Saab, which made a distinctive noise. While these things were going on outside, I presented to a History Department seminar in the Faculty Club the paper that I had presented at the Organization of American Historians and that was on its way to being published as a pioneering positive study of the mob in revolutionary America.

Boorstin responded, “Jess, those are nice sea stories, but why do you have to talk about class?” At that moment, outside, Steve drove past in my Saab. Hearing the Saab and Boorstin at the same time, I knew which side I was on.

Steve often quoted his father’s almost last words: “We were euchred.” Steve made the error of trying to repeat the 1966 sit-in in 1967. Naomi, Heather and others argued against it. But Steve bulled ahead. It turned out to be a catastrophic failure.

The Administration of that sewer sent the teachers of Sosh I and II to take down the names of those sitting in. So much for the life of the mind. Deeply and passionately principled, and fully understanding the implications of this, Steve cried out, again and again, “You hacks, you hacks!”In my head I hear his voice and see his face.

I think, in the end, Steve and the rest of us were euchred by a medical profession that often deserves contempt and not the deference that they are usually given. Steve spent six weeks in intensive care at a classy New York hospital. Despite the heroic and resourceful efforts of his wife, Ellen Goldensohn, they found no cause for his condition, came up with no diagnosis.

When Ellen had him moved to another hospital, they did the same tests and came up with the grim diagnosis in two days. Steve, and the rest of us, were euchred by hacks.

January/February 2014, ATC 168