It is eerie to find myself writing, again, about death. In April, my long-time friend, Manning Marable, passed away. A few weeks ago, Gil Scott-Heron passed, followed the next week by Geronimo Pratt. In each case I decided that I needed to write something.
On Saturday afternoon, at 5:19pm, after a brief illness, my father – William G. Fletcher, Sr. – transitioned. One week and a day prior to Father’s Day, he moved to the other side. I decided that I needed to write something about him.
My father was a very interesting man. A working class guy from Reading, Pennsylvania, the youngest of a family of eight children, whose father was a barber and got into trouble for being a “race man.” My father dropped out of high school, went to work in a shipyard and thought that he would lead the cool life. Uncle Sam had other plans for him and he was drafted into the Navy. This experience, during World War II turned him around. He left the Navy, relocated to New York, completed high school, went to college at Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte, North Carolina) on the G.I. Bill. He graduated, started grad school, but the GI Bill ran out. He went to work as a clerk for the US Army and then began a long career in the liquor industry, first as a salesman in a store, and later as a salesman for a company with a jurisdiction of the New York metropolitan area. In between, he married my mother and had two kids.
My father, like so many veterans, was a beneficiary of the GI Bill. Government intervention in the economy, where going to school was treated as a legitimate activity. My father was lucky, however. Many Black veterans of World War II were denied access to the GI Bill through various racist schemes, including dishonorable discharges. The GI Bill became a central means to stabilize the economy and to offer – mainly white – veterans the chance to get on their feet. My father, who was not white, was able to access this. The GI Bill, and his experiences with it, which he frequently discussed, always reminded me of the importance that needs to be placed on government involvement in the economy and a society’s decision that it has to engage in long-term planning.
My father had great faith in me. He was prepared to speak with me about any issue I brought to him. He never said or implied that any issue I raised was something he would not discuss or that I had to wait a few years. His philosophy was, if I was old enough to ask, I was old enough to hear. I appreciated this because I, as a result, never felt like I was being treated like an idiot. There were times when I did not ask something but he told me in any case, like when he discussed with me sex and condoms. He just decided that it was time to talk.
There are two very important memories I will always hold onto. At some point when I was knee-high to a duck, my father gave me my first lesson in trade unionism. Growing up in New York City, you knew about unions at an early age. So, I guess I asked my father something. He instructed me that there were two different types of unions. On the one hand, he said, there were the corrupt and racist unions, such as most of the building trades. On the other hand, he noted, there was the union of Harry Bridges and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast. He said, Bridges represented real unionism.
I had no idea who Bridges was, though in 1985 I would have the honor of interviewing him, but my father’s lesson was very clear. As committed to unions as were both my parents (and as my mother remains), they were also clear that unions were not panaceas. The distinction he offered was and is very important because it pointed to a historic divide in trade unionism in the USA that goes back to the early 19th century. My father hit it on the head and this lesson deeply influenced how I approached and continue to approach unions and unionism.
The second memory took place sometime around 1961 or so when I was about 7 years old and was at the home of my great grandparents, the pre-Harlem Renaissance anthologist and poet, William S. Braithwaite, and his wife, Emma Kelly Braithwaite. My great grandfather was sitting on a stool in the kitchen and there was a heated discussion underway regarding US foreign policy and, specifically, the Laos crisis (the US was in the midst of getting involved in the national liberation war in Laos on the wrong side). My great grandfather looked at me and asked: “Well, Billy, do you think that we should go into Laos?” Well, I had no idea where or what Laos was so I had no way of answering. My father was standing next to me. I cannot remember his face. But I remember these words: “Give him a few years and he will have an answer for you.” Would that most parents placed that level of confidence in their children.
My father was a solid father, husband, brother and friend. He was deeply loyal to his friends and always went the extra mile to help them, while at the same time being deeply skeptical that most people would ever actually help him if he needed it. He was the sort of person everyone turned to for advice, and had a level of skill that he could have built or repaired a starship. Yet for all of that, he never thought of himself as particularly important and never thought he had made much of a contribution.
Before I find myself unable to write, let me end this by noting that my father did not seek glory and fame. He sought to lead a good life, take care of his family and be a great friend. He was very progressive in his ideas, but never an activist. Yet his contribution, probably more than anything else, was that he was a rock, a person everyone depended on and in whom people saw great wisdom. He was one hell of a guy, and fortunately, he transitioned with great dignity and in peace.
[Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the proud son of William G. Fletcher, Sr.]
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president ofTransAfricaForum and co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA.