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Witness to history, and a teacher of it: the Daniel Pope interview [part one].

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I am really pleased to bring you an interview with a fascinating man on some really fascinating subjects. Professor Daniel Pope recently retired as a professor of history at University of Oregon, having taught there and elsewhere for almost 40 years. In that capacity he has researched and written about radicalism and the history of business in the 20th century. That’s the “teacher” part of the title. The “witness” part is just as interesting: he was a student at Columbia University in the late 60s, including the pivotal year of 1968, where student activists (among other things) occupied Columbia’s administration building. I interviewed him recently about his fascinating career. This is the first part of the interview–there will be at least one more section to come later.

This material does not appear anywhere else, so it’s an exclusive to this blog! To give you some background and context on some of the things Dr. Pope mentions, I have included some links where appropriate.

Without further ado, here we go!

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Professor Pope in 2012.

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Professor, you’ve done a lot of interesting research on American history in your career—advertising, business, radicalism, nuclear power, etc. What would you say is the single most interesting thing you researched, discovered or wrote about in the course of your career? What’s your “favorite?”

Not the most significant, but the most interesting to me right now is a project I’m still working on, largely because I have tangential personal connections and fragmentary childhood memories of it. It’s about a McCarthy-era battle. Rev. William Howard Melish was a left-wing Episcopalian priest at a venerable old parish in Brooklyn Heights, New York. In the late forties, the bishop of the diocese embarked on what proved to be a decade-long effort to kick him out of his ministry. This went on for a decade and involved such events as Rev. Melish and a rival preacher sent in by the bishop conducting rival services simultaneously in the church. It was a big story at the time. Melish’s defenders included Arthur Miller, who wrote a pamphlet supporting him as he was writing The Crucible, his anti-Red Scare play. Melish was also a good friend of W.E.B. DuBois and delivered a eulogy at his funeral. I was a kid in the neighborhood, knew one of Melish’s sons slightly, and my parents, though definitely not Episcopalians, were Melish supporters.

You entered academia in an extremely tumultuous time—the late ‘60s—and you were in graduate school at Columbia University at the height of what some have called the “protest era.” What was it like being at Columbia in the late 1960s?

Not to put too fine a point on it, I hated Columbia and nearly half a century later if I meet someone who liked being a Columbia grad student in the late sixties, I’m immediately distrustful of the person. There were 500 grad students there in the History Department alone, a faculty who seemed more interested in establishing their credentials as New York intellectuals (or in some cases reliving their youthful days as Columbia College undergrads). The administration was conservative and arrogant in dealing with students but also in relations with the surrounding community and Harlem.

That said, though, I met some wonderful people there, mostly through political activism and during the big student strike of 1968—including my wife. When grad student in History formed a group in the aftermath of the building occupations and arrests, it brought a lot of us together and made friendships that have endured for 45 years.

What was your connection to activist groups in the late 1960s? Were you a “radical?” Did you know others who were or were considered “radicals?”

I’ve been politically active on the left (whatever “left” may mean now is a complicated question, admittedly) since I was a teenager. My parents were Old Left New Yorkers. Our daughter is a radical public defender in New York. It runs in the family. I went to Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia, in the mid-sixties in part because I knew of its reputation for student activism and was involved in various efforts there, mostly civil rights movement support. At Columbia I was active in opposing Columbia’s urban renewal plans and its scheme to build a big gymnasium in Morningside Park—with a small back door for Harlem community residents to enter during restricted hours. Like more or less everyone I knew at the time, I also participated in anti-Vietnam War protests.

I knew lots of radicals, a few of whom earned fame or notoriety, almost all of whom have kept the faith to a significant degree and have been involved for decades in movements for peace, racial justice, labor, feminism, etc.

You must have rubbed shoulders with some famous or important people at Columbia at that time. Any you remember meeting? Weren’t you roommates with someone famous? Can you tell us about him?

Rubbing shoulders would be a major exaggeration, but I think I actually shook hands with Malcolm X once. I was at a meeting in Chester, Pennsylvania not long before he was killed. He walked up a center aisle of the hall and people stuck out their hands, and I have a memory (I hope not an invented one) that he shook mine along with others’. Who else? Various Weather Underground people whom I knew from Swarthmore or Columbia (or in one case from high school)? I knew Tom Hayden slightly. My “famous” roommate isn’t really famous. His name is David Gelber, who moved from radical journalism to being a producer for CBS’s Sixty Minutes and is now involved in producing documentaries about climate change.

My own greatest fame isn’t really my own. My high school friend Naomi Foner, former wife of Eric Foner and mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, [Sean’s note: if you’ve seen “Donnie Darko” you know who they are] wrote the script for a movie called Running on Empty in the mid-eighties. It was based loosely on our mutual friend Eleanor who had been in the Weather Underground. The plot was about a couple who had been underground but who had a teenage son who was a piano prodigy who won a scholarship to Juilliard, which required them to consider surfacing. Naomi named the son, played by River Phoenix, “Danny Pope.” That probably ate up my allotted fifteen minutes of fame.

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I want to thank Professor Pope for his time and his wonderfully interesting responses. In the next section, we will (hopefully) get into the Columbia demonstrations of 1968 and other weighty topics. Also, in the future I’m going to have an interview with another professor, George Sheridan, who saw a different side of 1968.

To Be Continued!

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