Half a century ago, I steered onto Route 80 in Paterson, New Jersey and headed West to my future in graduate school in American history at the University of California in Berkeley. I was one of the occasional grad students who arrived at Dwinelle Hall not simply because of the outstanding scholarship of those historians of the burgeoning field of African American history – Kenneth Stampp, Winthrop Jordan, Lawrence Levine – but to study labor history with Leon Litwack who had published a thin volume on the subject before focusing on the impacts of slavery and Reconstruction for which he would become so celebrated.
For years afterwards, when I would brag about having Leon as a dissertation advisor, I explained I must have been one of the very few who did not contribute in any way to his research for Been in the Storm So Long (for which he won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize) or Trouble in Mind. Instead, I was hibernating in the Bancroft Library researching the San Francisco socialists and nascent labor unions of the 1880s, although I did have the opportunity to TA for Leon’s celebrated introduction to American history class.
Ironically, it was as part of that experience that my doubts about a career in academics intensified. As illustrated by his being given the Golden Apple Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2007 by Berkeley students, Leon’s course was not merely a class, but an experience: focused on issues of limitless inspiration to Berkeley undergraduates of the 1970s – the American left, Black history, the underclass, the struggle for civil, human and labor rights; filled with music, photographs and film; emphasizing culture as much as the traditional guidelines for historical scholarship. Inspired by his eclectic style, I worked hard to give the students in my section some atypical readings to fire their imaginations, including period books like Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890), a fictional story about the struggle against rising American fascism. (Might be worth a re-read.)
When my best efforts seemingly failed to inspire the students who looked blankly at me during our discussion sections, I went to talk with Leon. “What inspires you as a teacher when it is so difficult to engage the students?” I asked. “Every once in a while, you change the life of one, and that makes it worthwhile,” he replied. That percentage of success was not sufficient for me, and so I left Berkeley, dissertation still incomplete, for the equally (if not more) exasperating world of Capitol Hill, where I would spend the next 38 years (before finally beginning a teaching career at UC’s Washington Center).
Fortunately, I not only finished my degree but remained in touch with Leon over the years, though not nearly as regularly as I wish. Unlike other former professors, he never questioned my decision not to pursue a career as an academic historian.
Periodically Leon and I would visit in Washington or Berkeley; his disinclination to use email invariably complicated what might have been more regular communications. I recall one visit in 1993 when we were walking through the Capitol only to be halted by a police officer as the new speaker, Newt Gingrich, strode past. Involuntarily, Leon took a step towards the venomous Gingrich (himself a history Ph.D.). I patted his shoulder in discouragement.
A decade and a half later, I called him after Obama’s election. “Leon, can you believe we lived long enough to see an African American elected president of the United States?” I asked. “Yeah,” came the gruff reply, “I wonder how long it will take me to be disappointed in him.” I laughed. “In your case, not long,” I predicted. Leon was no sentimentalist on such matters; his analysis of American history overrode any romanticism about a Black American in the White House. And, of course, he was right; the political system is far too complex for one person to reverse centuries of favoritism and oppression.
Several years later, I called to ask if he might be willing to deliver the keynote address at a conference I was organizing in Concord, California to commemorate the 1944 Port Chicago disaster and mutiny trial. I wanted to put the long-ignored events at Port Chicago into a broader context of Black Americans during World War II and Leon leapt at the opportunity, delivering an extraordinary talk that participants extolled.
That night, other conference speakers (including my graduate school friend Carolyn Johnston, and Maggie Morehouse, also a Berkeley Ph.D.) gathered at Leon and Rhoda’s home on Cragmont for one of their famous dinners and discussions. It was a great evening with old friends and as we left, Leon handed me a book from his legendary library as a gift and said he was proud of me. He didn’t say why; I assumed he was referring to my role in promoting the Port Chicago story, including my work creating the National Historic Site at the location of the explosion as well as the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Homefront Park in Richmond, CA and the Paterson NJ National Historical Park. Needless to say, that compliment, coming from Leon Litwack, was appreciated beyond measure. I’d like to think he believed I had found a way other than the classroom to help to elevate the richness of American history
And as it has turned out, during my eight years teaching a research seminar on Congress, I have had several students tell me the course had changed their lives and that they would pursue very different careers than they had planned before their internship in Washington. I appreciate today, far more than I did nearly a half century ago, why such comments were so meaningful to Leon. Changing the life trajectory of a student in your class is far more tangible than writing public policies that, you hope, will affect the lives of millions you never meet.
Of course, Leon had more students in one of his classes than I have taught over the past eight years, and there is no way of estimating how many lives he changed with his scholarship, his unique lectures, his counseling and his encouragement. The outpouring of sentiment that followed his passing this month at the age of 91 is a testament to an exceptional career of which I will always be grateful to have been a beneficiary and illustrates how many lives he positively influenced. As several speakers at his memorial service in Berkeley noted, Leon will continue to teach and inspire students and readers for generations to come.