In the interest of full disclosure, I have long admired Elaine Elinson, co-author with Stan Yogi of Wherever There's A Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California (Heyday Books, 2009, $24.95).
Elaine was the communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California for over twenty years and we served together on the board of Breast Cancer Action (www.bcaction.org). She is open minded,regardless of her personal politics, and better yet, has a great sense of curiousity and a great sense of humor.
My husband, George, who views any activist on any side of the fence with raised eyebrows, admires Elaine. And my father has regaled Elaine with his borsht belt jokes. The fact that she laughed uproariously, clearly proves (at least to him) her discerning mind.
This book came to my attention because Elaine co-wrote it. But I would not review it if I hated it. Actually, I loved it and maybe you will too--although it may become a reference book for you, rather than something to read cover-to-cover as I did. To put it another way, I will compliment the book in the way that my mother complimented my marriage to George,
"I am so glad I did not have to force myself to like it!"
But I digress. Now on with the review:
The title of this book , Wherever There's A Fight, comes from the speech made by Tom Joad, the itinerant, downtrodden, Jesus-like farmworker in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. Just as he flees into the night, pursued by the law, Tom tells his saintly mother where she can find him:
"Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there...I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'--I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build--why, I'll be there."
But Tom is a fictional character and this well researched, well written "alternative history" book, highlights real people. Some are famous and some are lesser known--but all of them worked to change social values and the legislation of social values a.k.a. the American legal system.
The book is divided into chapters covering issues including the rights of workers, the rights of immigrants, the right to free expression, gay rights, and the rights of people with disabilities. This is a mostly chronological history of civil liberties in California--starting with Chapter One--Staking Our Claim--the law in early California. Guess what? The law in early California was vigilante law.
As a librarian, I loved that Chapter Seven, "Mightier Than the Sword" opens with the lines, "When Kern County librarian Gretchen Knief returned home for her vacation in August 1939, the familiar landscape was attracting national attention. The rich agricultural San Joaquin Valley, where Knief lived, was the setting of John Steinbeck's best-selling novel The Grapes of Wrath."
On Gretchen's desk was "an August 21 resolution from the Kern County Board of Supervisors ordering the book removed from the library shelves because it "offended our citizens by falsely implying that man of our find people are shallow, ignorant, profane and blasphemous types, living in a vicious filthy manner."
Knief fought the ban in court, but it was upheld until January 1941. Still there is her letter to the board of supervisors that says, "If the book is banned today, what book will be banned tomorrow? And... the day after that?"
Go Gretchen. I think there should be an entire book--just about you! Where did you go on that vacation back in 1939? What happened to your library career after you took a stand against the banned? Did you get to meet John Steinbeck? Did you get married? What did you think of the depiction of Marian the Librarian in The Music Man?
But I digress.
Wherever There's A Fight made me want to know more about Knief and other outspoken citizens who took on a wide range of civil rights issues.
For example there is state (and later national) Senator David C. Broderick (1820-1859), who spent much of his career fighting the extension of slavery into the new state of California. He died in a duel and got Broderick Street in Pacific Heights named after him. There are also some books devoted entirely to him:
A century later, we have gay rights activist Harvey Milk-- who thanks to Sean Penn has now become a household name (sorta).
But this book taught me about Del Martin and Phyllis Martin who met and fell in love in the 1950s when each was editing a different building trades magazine. Phyllis wrote for Pacific Builder and Engineer and Del wrote for daily Construction Reports. With concrete (excuse the pun) careers like that, I would not have expected what happened next. In Chapter Nine, entitled That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Elinson and Yogi tell us that Del and Phyllis, "returned to San Francisco and on Valentine's Day 1953, moved into an apartment on Castro Street in a largely Irish-Catholic working class neighborhood." Soon after they founded the Daughters of Bilitis, "the first U.S. organization for lesbians, at a time when being openly gay could result in arrest, harrassment and job loss."
Del and Phyllis married in June 2008, under the brief window of opportunity provided by the California State Legislature. Newlywed Del died later that summer at the age of 87. There's a book here! Heyday are you listening!
I actually found myself reading Wherever There's A Fight, with a notepad, so that I could write down the names of so many extraordinary brave citizens--and learn more about them later.
By now, you can tell that there are a lot of people, places, issues and resolutions covered here. As a result,you can use this as a reference rather than as a book to read in a few sittings. But I did read it in sittings on my Caltrain commute, lugging it all over town! There is free trade coffee spilled all over this book--perhaps the finest tribute I can give it.
My hope is that this will be an assigned text for college and law school classes--or at least placed on a host of reserve reading lists. California history and civil rights issues come alive here, because of the emphasis on THE PEOPLE!
In closing, in the interest of full disclosure, I also will tell you that 35-year-old Heyday Books is the damdest finest publisher in all of California. http://www.heydaybooks.com/index.html
Art, history, culture, nature, and yes....community organizing--whatever your interest in California--Heyday has it! And you don't have to be a lefty to love Heyday!
Causes Lauren John Supports
Keplers Bookstore Circle of Friends (Menlo Park)
Friends of the Menlo Park Public Library
Book Group Expo
Marin Agricultural Land Trust...