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Leon Wofsy, the Organizer

With Leon Wofsy’s death last month, we lost a scientist and organizer who spent his near-century on earth fighting against racism and war and for free speech — and embarrassing Ronald Reagan to his face at the height of his attacks on student activism in California.

Leon Wofsy, with a 1930 newspaper clipping from the Daily Worker featuring his father Isadore Wofsy and other demonstrators who were beaten by police on May Day that year. (Berkeley Historical Society)

When Leon Wofsy died at age ninety-seven on August 25, progressive movements throughout the United States lost a champion. Leon accomplished many things in his long life — he was an innovative scientist, and a fine writer and teacher — but above all, he was a patient and peerless organizer.

He honed those skills during the Great Depression and the political repression that followed in the wake of World War II. The child of a radical working-class family, he gave his first political speech at age eleven in 1932 at a rally for the presidential candidate of the Communist Party. He threw himself into organizing just two years later, cohering a high school group that affiliated with the radical American Student Union. As a college student at the City College of New York from 1938 to 1942, he became president of the Marxist Cultural Society and then leader of the Young Communist League.

Drafted into the US Army and focused on the “Double V” (victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home) effort during World War II, Leon had his nose broken by a military police officer when protesting the treatment of black soldiers. Heading the Communist Party–linked Labor Youth League from its founding in 1949 to 1956, Leon was called to testify before the Subversive Activities Control Board during the height of McCarthyism.

After leaving the Communist Party in 1956, Leon began his journey as a scientist, earning a PhD in 1961 and conducting pioneering medical research on the use of antibodies to deliver effective therapies directly and specifically to the site of disease. Denied faculty positions at several universities because of his political views, Leon was finally hired as a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964. He immediately brought the organizing skills he had developed over the previous thirty years to another round of the good fight.

In the fall of that year, the university was embroiled in a battle over free speech and the rights of students to organize politically on the campus. It was a critical moment: students had gone into the South during Freedom Summer to help register black voters and challenge Jim Crow laws. When Bay Area students came home in the fall, they joined the growing northern civil rights movement that was confronting racial discrimination in San Francisco and Oakland.

The ability to use campuses to organize boycotts, picket lines, and sit-ins was essential to the civil rights movement, and the university was determined to choke off that venue. It failed — in part because of Leon.

There were many reasons the university was forced to retreat from its efforts to muzzle political activism, but a key moment for the Free Speech Movement (FSM) was when the Academic Senate, a faculty governing body, supported the student’s demands. That might not have happened without Leon.

At the time, the FSM’s nickname for the Academic Senate was “the hutch,” a body composed of rabbits that would bolt for their burrows at the first hint of trouble. But Leon could organize anything, even rabbits. He didn’t do it alone, and many other faculty members contributed, but Leon knew how to get people who spook easily to hold their ground.

He built up a core of people and began to push the Senate — gently, because rabbits are timid — to act. This was not something he did out front. He was a formidable debater, but his style was small meetings, phone calls, breakfast gatherings, persuasion. He got people to move at their own pace — and then to go a bit further.

Good organizing means dampening one’s ego, particularly in academia, where high self-regard is part of the job description. But Leon always knew that the people being organized, not the organizer, were the point. It was frustrating and at times painful, but the Senate majority stood up to the university in 1964, even if its fortitude later diminished.

On each issue — the war in Southeast Asia, the Third World Liberation Front strikes, the women’s movement, Latin American intervention, the anti-apartheid movement — Leon pushed that rock back up the hill. But unlike Sisyphus, the rock never rolled all the way back down, because Leon knew how to change people’s minds. And he shrugged off the losses and retreats, because he was in it for the long haul. As long as you made some progress, that was enough, because it laid the groundwork for the next fight.

He was individually brave, but he knew that serious politics was not a matter of singular courage. What was important is that you stood with thousands and tens of thousands. Leon thought serious politics were mass politics.

If he had to, however, Leon could play Horatius at the bridge. When then-governor Ronald Reagan tried to turn a so-called “meeting” with the UC faculty into a photo opportunity to denounce “radicals” at UC, Leon pushed himself into the middle of the cameras and challenged the governor directly. Since Reagan couldn’t talk without a script, things did not go well for the governor.

It was May 21, 1969, during the crisis in Berkeley over People’s Park. Bayonet-wielding National Guard units had surrounded the UC campus on Reagan’s orders. One person, James Rector, was killed and another blinded by police gunfire. A delegation of seventeen professors left for Sacramento that morning to press legislators to use their influence to get the Guard withdrawn. Not wanting to further inflame tensions, the delegation did not seek publicity or a meeting with Reagan.

But Reagan had a different idea. Forcing a meeting with the professors, he arranged for nationwide TV coverage and sought a confrontation with “liberal eggheads” that would be to his political advantage. But in the middle of his “You professors are to blame” rant, Leon interrupted Reagan and said, “That’s a fine political speech, Governor, but we are here to talk reason so as to avoid further violence.” Not used to being interrupted, Reagan got angry and exclaimed, “Who are you?” When Leon identified himself, Reagan said he wouldn’t be surprised by anything Leon said.

Leon replied that Reagan was responsible for the atmosphere of intimidation pervading Berkeley and for trying to run the campus by bayonet. With cameras running, the two men exchanged words for several more minutes. When Leon declared that Reagan was firing and threatening to fire any university administrator who was willing to negotiate, Reagan completely lost his temper and shouted “Liar!” The whole drama was broadcast on network television and was seen by audiences worldwide.

Recognizing that it was one of the few times the “Great Communicator” had been out-argued in public, Reagan’s team spent the next several days feeding reports to the press about Leon’s communist background. But the dominant public response was summed up by Charles McCabe in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Whatever Mr. Wofsy’s background, or foreground, his question was proper, and his charge correct.”

When Leon retired, he organized retirees into discussion groups on domestic and foreign politics. He wrote a blog to persuade people about issues like Israel and the Palestinians, racism, and the importance of historical events like the Spanish Civil War.

In short, he never stopped organizing, thinking, rethinking, and reconfiguring. His co-authored essay in 2015 on the necessity to rethink US foreign policy accurately predicted many of the current international crises and challenged Americans to examine basic assumptions about the world. In 2017, he offered his unique firsthand reflections on the history of socialist struggle in the twentieth century in a series of interviews with the Berkeley Historical Society that are available for viewing here.

Just a month before he died, Leon gave a presentation on Spain and the fight against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s to a class of activists mostly in their twenties and thirties studying ways to combat today’s racist right. He then posted the text of his remarks, “Looking Again at Spain,” on his blog. It was his final post. Having given his first political speech when he was not yet a teenager, Leon at ninety-seven worked to pass on the wisdom gained from decades of organizing and deep thought to a new generation.

Leon Wofsy will be missed as a parent and a grandparent, as a scientist and a friend. But he will also be missed as an organizer, as someone who deeply believed that it is possible and imperative to persuade and move human beings to build a kinder, more equal and more peaceful world. For almost a century, he did just that.