As that rare bird—a union-card-carrying, left-leaning NASCAR fan—Berry Craig brings four strong threads to his writing for the LA Progressive: Years working as a daily newspaper reporter and opinion columnist, a full career as a college history professor, strong attachment to his Kentucky roots, and deep involvement in union organizing. You can see the way these forces converge in articles such as these:
- The Winter of Labor’s Discontent
- A “Good Sign” For My Old Kentucky Home
- GOP Hopes for a Heap of Stay-at-Home Union Folks
- The New Know-Nothings
Contrary to prevailing wisdom, Berry has watched his politics shift steadily leftward since his college days. “I call myself a Hubert Humphrey Democrat,” he says. “Like HHH, I’m a big fan of West European-style social democratic or democratic socialist parties.”
When the American Federation of Teachers came calling at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, Kentucky, where Berry teaches, he was the first teacher to sign a union card, even before he had tenure, and now belongs to AFT Local 1360.
“I’m also the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and serve on the board of directors of the Kentucky Labor Institute,” he says. “I blog for the national AFL-CIO website and host ‘The Union Label,’ a show about unions, on Paducah cable TV.”
At work on his third book, Berry sells autographed copies to raise scholarship money at his school of the first two: Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War and True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon & Burgoo.
Berry credits two early influences for setting him off on a progressive path: the book “Black Like Me” about a white Texan who literally dyed himself black and took a trip across the white South of the late 1950s; and a red hot New Deal liberal named Roy Hatton, who taught history at Berry’s college and whose Southern accent sounded a lot like Berry’s as he railed against white racism.
“The more I studied history,” Berry says, “the more I became convinced that activist social democratic or democratic socialist government and unions have done more for working people than anything else.”
He is also resisting the urge to mellow with age.
“When I was a young newspaper columnist—and was skinny and had a full head of hair—my wife asked me, ‘Do you just want to make people mad or do you want to win hearts and minds?’ he says. “I got a kick out of hate mail and irate phone calls. My detractors made me want to pour it on even more with my next column.”
Melinda—his wife of 32 years, best friend, soul mate, and road buddy—has helped him shift more toward the winning-hearts-and-minds mold. “Abraham Lincoln, one of my two favorite presidents—FDR is the other one—aptly observed that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” Berry says. “But vinegar is still oh-so-tempting. I still treasure hate mail—written or sent through cyberspace—and nasty phone calls.”
Melinda and Berry love to travel, from Maine to California, from Mexico to Canada, and from Spain to the USSR. “We’re not rich, not by a long shot,” he says. “We live in a wooden, two-bedroom house, circa 1950, drive old cars and take off for parts unknown (to us) every chance we get.”
Their proudest achievement, Berry IV, is a senior at the high school where his mother teaches. Unlike his father, who was an indifferent student far more interested in car magazines and drag racing until motivated partly by what he calls “the Southeast Asian War Games,” their son is pulling down straight As and landed a spot on the Kentucky all-state concert band as a trumpet player, as he prepares for college next year.
Even with these mellowing influences, Berry pulls no punches in his articles:
“Good journalists are known as well by their enemies as by their fans,” he says. “David Lilienthal, one of the first officials of the Tennessee Valley Authority—one of the best things that ever happened to my part of the country—said ‘TVA is controversial because it is controversial.’ I feel the same way about my political musings.”
Editor, LA Progressive