When we fret over the intense polarization in our culture today; when we shrink from the shrill tones of TV news and social media; when we despair over the callousness of the White House toward issues of race, police brutality and peaceful protest ― we might gain insight from looking back a handful of decades to see how similarly divided we were in another era.
In 1970, I was a senior in high school when my mother, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, organized a fundraising gathering at our New York apartment to help 21 Black Panther members who were in jail. Stranded there indefinitely due to unfairly inflated bail amounts, the 21 men were awaiting trial for what turned out to be trumped-up accusations involving absurd bomb plots around New York City. The money my mother raised would go to the men’s legal defense fund, and would also help their families stay fed and sheltered until the trial came around. (And when the trial finally did come around, the judge threw the whole case out for being unsubstantiated and patently ridiculous.)
To most white Americans at the time, the Black Panthers were scary. The group had come into being to protest race-based police brutality, but the Panthers gained greater notoriety for being socialist; for advocating black empowerment “by any means necessary;” and for being anti-Zionist, which had particularly negative resonance in New York City.
So it was audacious of Felicia to advocate on the Panthers’ behalf. She wasn’t espousing Panther philosophy so much as she was making sure that due process was observed in a situation ripe for abuse. Her years of work with the American Civil Liberties Union had helped her see how easily certain fundamental rights could be withheld from politically controversial groups.
The louder the volume grew, the more misunderstood the event became.
Felicia understood how politicians exploited the image of a group like the Panthers to pander to white voters; she knew how the news media turned up the volume on fear to boost readership and ratings. (Does this sound familiar? It should.)
My mother pointedly did not invite any press to her fundraiser, but the society writer for the New York Times, Charlotte Curtis, managed to sneak in, as did a rascally young journalist named Tom Wolfe.
After an hour of snacks and drinks, my mother introduced the Panther representatives, and invited them to speak about their situation and solicit support from the assembled guests. At some point in the proceedings, my father, Leonard Bernstein, arrived from his rehearsal across town, and slipped into the gathering – except, of course, my father’s larger-than-life personality did not permit him to “slip in” anywhere. All eyes turned to him.
He wound up having an exchange with Panther representative Donald Cox, during which he asked questions and Cox explained the Panther position further. In the corner, Tom Wolfe was silently ingesting all of it, like a python gradually swallowing a rabbit whole.
The next morning, Charlotte Curtis’s story appeared on the society page of the Times. (The society page!) The article bristled with scorn for the Manhattan socialite wife of the Maestro, hobnobbing with Black Panthers: “There they were, the Black Panthers... and the... white liberals... studying one another cautiously over the expensive furnishings... and the silver trays of canapés.”
The day after that, the Times followed up the Charlotte Curtis piece with an editorial (an editorial!): “Emergence of the Black Panthers as the romanticized darlings of the politico-cultural jet set is an affront to... the memory of Martin Luther King Jr...”
The word “shitstorm” had not yet been coined, but that is what the situation now became. My parents were condemned and mocked in the press. Their own friends criticized them for “siding” with the Panthers. The louder the volume grew, the more misunderstood the event became.
Every afternoon when I came home from school, I threaded my way through a cluster of Jewish Defense League picketers outside my building, noisily condemning Leonard Bernstein for supporting the anti-Zionist Black Panthers.
If my parents were alive today, their tyranny alarms would be waking up the whole neighborhood.
What my parents didn’t know at the time was how intensively the FBI was inflaming the entire situation for their own purposes. Not until the 1980s, through the Freedom of Information Act, did we learn that most of those picketers outside our building were FBI plants. What was more, the hate mail piling up on my father’s desk had also been churned out by the the FBI.
A few months later, Tom Wolfe’s infamous article appeared in New York magazine, with the title “That Party at Lenny’s.” My mother’s very serious fundraiser had become her celebrity husband’s “party.” When Wolfe’s article came out soon afterward in book form with the title Radical Chic, the misinterpretation and mockery were set in stone.
It’s likely that to this day, Tom Wolfe may not understand the degree to which his snide little piece of neo-journalism rendered him a veritable stooge for the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover himself may well have shed a tear of gratitude that this callow journalist had done so much of the bureau’s work by discrediting the left-wing New York Jewish liberals while simultaneously pitting them against the black activist movement ― thereby disempowering both groups in a single deft stroke.
Today, as I observe the hysteria surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ways in which our media – and politicians – distort and inflame the issues for their own purposes, I think back to what my parents went through in 1970: the courage they had to do the right thing for a politically vulnerable group, and the dignity they maintained as they became engulfed by the hype, melodrama, and persistent misrepresentation of events. I also think about how police brutality against blacks was the galvanizing element in both eras; the lack of progress is discouraging.
Maybe the most sobering aspect of the whole sorry episode was the involvement of the FBI. The bureau had been tracking Leonard Bernstein and his left-wing activities since the 1940s. His file, when he finally saw it in the 1980s, was 800 pages long.
Democracy’s hardest job is to find that tricky balance between a government that protects its citizens, and a government that leaves its citizens alone. When we see our government inflaming the fear of the Other, and setting minority groups one against the other, all our tyranny alarms should be ringing at full volume. I know if my parents were alive today, their tyranny alarms would be waking up the whole neighborhood by now. At the very least, they would both, most somberly, be taking a knee.