Marvin Schachter celebrates 90 years and reflects on his ‘accidental’ life as a liberal icon
On the cusp of 90, Marvin Schachter reflects on a life that has inspired countless people around the world, but especially in Pasadena, where his soft voice commands attention and his ideas continue shaping public policy on a litany of crucial issues.
Schachter’s hearing may be a little fuzzy at times, but his mind remains razor-sharp. Memories of events like the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthy Era hearings of the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, the anti-war demonstrations of the ’60s, the nuclear freeze movement of the ’70s and ’80s, and the most recent peace actions over the wars in the Middle East are at his fingertips.
And to think, if not for being fired from one job after his boss learned of a dossier prepared on him over his leftist activities as a student, then taking an even more lucrative job in retail sales, which led Schachter and his family to California from Chicago, none of it might have ever happened.
“It was totally accidental, thanks to the FBI,” Schachter said during a recent interview at his home in Pasadena.
Schachter has been an influential part of most of the major social causes of the past 60 years. He even dabbled in owning his own newspaper, part of a group of investors who founded and owned the Pasadena Weekly in the early 1980s. From student activist in the 1940s to involved senior citizen in the past three decades, Schachter’s affiliations have been many, among them in recent years the International Criminal Court Alliance, the United Nations Association, the California Commission on Aging and the Center for Healthcare Rights, to name just a few. But the organization that he’s maintained the longest relationship with is the American Civil Liberties Union. In fact, Schachter is a lifetime member of the ACLU of Southern California board of directors.
From his student activism, Army service and business and political careers to his loving family, Schachter has lived an extremely full life. He and his wife Ester have two grown daughters, Pamela and Amanda, both of whom are successful in their own right. And he is currently documenting his life through the Pasadena Historical Society’s Oral History Project, run by Ann Scheid.
“Marvin Schachter is the kind of man you want on your team,” wrote Pasadena Weekly columnist Ellen Snortland. “Eyes twinkling, formidable brain whirring, Schachter is a force for good. If you don’t know Marvin — and I’m sorry if you don’t — you are missing out on a role model for yourself and your children.”
The youngest of four children, Schachter grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. He said the tough times of the ’30s were influential years for him in determining the direction of his life. He remembers his father, who was in the furrier trade, being unemployed a good deal of the time.
“The 1930s was the period of the rise of fascism, the war in Spain, the rise of Hitler in Germany, the beginnings of the anti-Semitic laws that were passed there,” he said. “We lost substantial members of our family during the Holocaust. The ’30s were also the period of the Depression and the rise of the New Deal. I would say that those years were decisive years in determining what I wanted to do.”
He was drafted into the Army in February 1943 and served in military intelligence until his discharge in February 1946.
“I was a so-called Russian-German expert at 19 years old,” said Schachter. “Sort of ridiculous. That’s what they trained me for. They sent me to University of Chicago and University of Minnesota in uniform.”
Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, Schachter soon became very involved in the rising student activism during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. He became active in the American Student Union, a national left-wing organization of college students best known for its protests against militarism. Although he was still in high school, Schachter became a member of the ASU’s national board at the age of 15.
A little more than a year after the war, he received his bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, due in large part to the credit he received from the courses he took through the Army. He began his graduate work in economics at Columbia University in fall 1946. That year he married Doris Donnally, who he met when he was at the University of Chicago.
He helped organize and participated in the march on Albany, opposing quotas for Jews, women and African Americans in graduate courses. He spent six months visiting both African-American and white schools in the South. He attempted to establish statewide student organizations against segregationist Jim Crow laws that were pervasive throughout the South. He served on the preparatory committee for the National Student Association.
He finished his master’s degree in economics at the University of Colorado and was admitted as a graduate student at Cambridge University in England in 1951. While at Cambridge, he worked under Joan Robinson, who was John Maynard Keyne’s assistant and a prominent economist who wrote a major work on the theory of imperfect competition.
He came back to the United States at the height of the McCarthy Era, also known as communist witch hunts led by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Schachter thought his career path led to academia, but he soon learned there was an FBI file on him because of his student activism.
Rebel with a Cause
At that time, Chicago was the center of the television manufacturing industry. Practically every TV in the country was made there. Schachter took a job doing market research for a company called Hallicrafters, which built electronic equipment for the Air Force. However, he was fired when an executive vice president of the company learned about Schachter’s activism in leftist organizations.
“I decided that retail might be a place where they wouldn’t bother me,” said Schachter. “My wife needed medical care and I needed to support her.” So he took a job in a department store, beginning a long and successful career in retail and merchandising.
“I did things that were unusual, like running a single dress advertised in color, which people could buy by mail or telephone and be delivered,” he said. “In those days, department stores had their own delivery systems. I sold thousands of dresses.”
Then tragedy struck. His wife Doris died in 1954 of a collapsed heart. Two years later he met Esther, who was a copywriter in the department store where he worked. The couple married soon after they met.
The May Department Stores Co. offered Schachter a job in Los Angeles. Soon after arriving, he saw a notice in a “throwaway newspaper, sort of like the LA Weekly” of an American Friends Service Committee meeting in Pasadena. The local chapter of the Quaker organization was run by Catherine Cory, a leader in social action organizations who was well connected with the California Democratic Council.
“It was the beginnings of all kinds of things,” Schachter said of his friendship with Cory.
Eason Monroe, executive director of the ACLU California, invited Schachter to join the board of directors of the ACLU in 1958, and Schachter has been a member ever since. In that board’s bylaws, he is written in as the only lifetime member. He became president of the ACLU of Southern California in 1971 and served on the organization’s national board for 17 years. He played a key role in having the ACLU adopt civil rights as a major part of its program.
“My membership on the ACLU board always continued,” he said. “That’s always been my anchor organization.”
Back in the ’80s, Schachter also hosted a weekly 15-minute radio program on KPFK that dealt with domestic and foreign policy issues. Also around that time, he joined the board of directors of a company that founded the Pasadena Weekly. He wrote an occasional column for the paper on current affairs, as he does to this day.
After leaving May Co., he continued his lucrative career as a successful retail executive for other department stores. But, “Around 1978 I decided that this accidental life,” one created by coming under suspicion by the FBI, “that I had established in the retail business was not where I wanted to spend my life,” he said.
Schachter left retail and set up a real estate company that built homes and condominiums in Pasadena. But his social and political activism continued. He became vice chair of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, which was headquartered at All Saints Church, and played a leadership role in the California nuclear freeze movement. He served as chair of a steering committee that organized all of the state’s disabled communities, making their cause a common one.
In the ’90s he became involved with the senior community, serving as a governor’s appointment to the California Commission on Aging, and he has served as chair of the Senior Advocacy Council of Pasadena and president of the LA County Agency on Aging Advisory Council.
‘The Issues Continue’
After a lifetime of fighting the good fight, one would be justified in taking it easy and enjoying retirement. Schachter, however, isn’t ready for that.
“As long as I can I’m going to stay as active as I can,” he said. “It really stems from the issues. Unfortunately, issues don’t disappear. War and peace issues are always with us. Nuclear arms issues, unemployment, hunger are always with us. The issues continue.”
Looking back, Schachter said it’s as if everything in his life happened yesterday. He also said he was flabbergasted at how many meetings he’s attended.
“I’m happiest with the fact that I’ve been involved,” he said. “I think I did make significant contributions to important movements at crucial times.”
Kris Ockershauser, former president of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter, has known Schachter for 40 years.
“Marvin has been the steady, knowledgeable helping hand,” said Ockershauser. “The great thing about working with him is that, in addition to his historical knowledge of and participation in civil liberties issues here and nationally, he’s right there in the trenches with you … and at 90 he still is. He’s been a real gift to hundreds if not thousands of Southern Californians working to advance social and economic justice over the last half century. Not only has he created a legacy that inspires the next generations to continue the work, he’s also a dear and fine person to know.”