Co-editor Anna Marie Taylor
Course of Action: A Journalist’s Account from Inside
the American League Against
War and Fascism
and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE)
Q&A with Anna Marie Taylor, co-editor of Course of Action
1) How did you come to be involved with Course of Action?
James Lerner, the author of this book, is the father of my partner of more than 30 years, Richard Lerner. We frequently traveled from California to Brooklyn, New York, to visit his parents and I got to know them well. After Jim retired in his early seventies, Richard encouraged him to write his memoir because of his involvement in some of the most critical events of the 20th century. These included the anti-fascist movement in the U.S. of which little has been written, and the surge of the industrial labor movement during and after the Second World War.
2) Why is this book important? Isn’t it just old news by now?
This book is important if it is true that we can learn from our history. It is especially valuable because Jim documents how on-the-ground, persistent and fearless commitment by broad-based movements for social justice matter during times of great political change and conflict. Jim conveys this history with personal stories of everyday, often behind-the-scenes events. This history still has meaning today for social justice movements in the age of Occupy, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
3) When you came upon James Lerner’s manuscript, what kind of shape was it in? How did you pull together the narrative?
I saw Jim's drafts in many forms over a number of years. We used to all sit around the kitchen table in Brooklyn for hours on end, reviewing the ongoing writing, and listening to Jim embellish stories for our benefit. Dick especially would often ask probing questions and make suggestions. Jim was very aware that the work needed more editing, and gladly accepted when I decided to offer to work directly with him as a co-editor with Dick. During his lifetime, at his request, I was able to organize and edit some specific chapters that he wanted to give to family and colleagues. My goals in editing the manuscript became defined over time. They were to keep the narrative accurate, flowing and readable without changing the feel of Jim's wry commentary and sense of humor. This meant eventually reorganizing some of the material into fewer chapters and adding a certain amount of transitional writing. It also required moving some very detailed material into notes and adding an index.
4) Tell us a few of the (many) highlights of Lerner’s career.
Jim was one of the original students at the Experimental College at The University of Wisconsin, Madison. The college was known for its innovative teaching model.
In 1933, when he was 22 years old, Jim joined a new organization called the American League Against War and Fascism and became one of its principal organizers. He traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada to form local chapters of the League.
In 1936, Jim was part of a U.S. delegation of young people who attended the World Youth Conference in Geneva. He then clandestinely crossed over into Spain with a group who had been invited by fighters for the Spanish Republic to observe the front line against the Franco's fascist army. As a journalist, he reported on the war for the U.S. press and spoke at meetings and conferences held to support the Spanish Republic defenders.
5) Lerner reports on suspect and frequently criminal activity against workers by major corporate entities and groups such as The American Legion, RCA and GE – why were these misdeeds so underreported?
The mainstream media saw movements for change from the same perspective as the industrial corporations. Their coverage of peace and labor union organizing, court cases, etc. was therefore highly selective and clearly conformed to their own economic and political interests.
6) What do you feel are some of Lerner’s great achievements as a journalist?
As an activist?At UE News, Jim began by reporting on stories of interest to union members, often reporting on-the-ground at work actions and strikes, or writing about people's everyday lives. Jim also started the pithy and often humorous column called "It Happened This Way" that ran from 1948 to 1986. The column became well known for its barbs at corporate actions and misdeeds that affected workers.
Jim had the gift of crafting broad coalitions of people into the anti-war movement before the outbreak of World War II. This included bringing into one movement national organizations of all kinds, including political and religious organizations, student and youth groups, farm organizations, and pacifists, who felt it was important to work in antiwar coalitions even though their philosophies differed.
7) What kind of a person was he in his private life?
Jim was a modest, down-to-earth person. Despite the fact that his work required a lot of travel, he was basically a homebody. He loved his hobbies, which included carpentry, and photography and raising bromeliad plants. He was married to his wife Gertrude Fisher for 65 years and kept in frequent touch with his parents, children, and extended family. Above all, he loved to tell stories.
8) What are your favorite chapters in the book? Is there a particular one you feel exemplifies his life and work particularly?
For me personally, my favorite chapter is "I Cover the GE-Krupp Conspiracy Trial." because it reveals an important trial in U.S. History that was ignored by the mainstream press and whose lessons of profit over national security should never be lost.
I also love the last chapter, "Vietnam is Union Business" because it describes the courage that UE consistently showed to openly oppose the Vietnam War long before it was popular to do so.
9) What do you think James Lerner would think about the state of investigative and political reporting today?
He would have been encouraged by the proliferation of progressive news sources and the international access to communication that is now available to people all over the world through the internet. He would have thought that it would especially be of immeasurable value to youth activists, something close to his heart. He would have compared its effectiveness, often instantaneous, to how he traveled by ground from place to place as a young man, lucky to have access to a telephone.
10) Journalists supposedly try to be objective in their reporting – yet Lerner has a genuine political affinity with much of his subject matter. What do you think he would say about this issue?
Jim never thought of himself as "objective" in the sense of purporting to present all sides of an issue. He considered himself a labor journalist, whose job it was to truthfully provide and analyze local, national, and international news in a way that would be relevant to working people, and that would advance their welfare.