Veteran Activists Discuss Race and Civic Justice

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Veteran activists Miguel Melendez and Steve Levin were recently invited to campus by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Intercultural Center, and History Department in a conjoined effort to provide relevant programs regarding multiculturalism and social justice in the broader community. The talk, entitled “Allies and Outsiders”, largely deviated from its advertised tag line of “How White Folks Can Work for Social Change within Communities of Color” but nevertheless discussed important issues of race, civic justice, and activism.

Both Melendez and Levin were important members within The Young Lords (YLO), a leading organization within the Latino Rights movement in the late 60s and early 70s.

Melendez, a Puerto Rican co-founder of the group’s New York City chapter, was heavily involved in the organization until its disbandment in 1974. Melendez believes the organization was largely borne out of an expression of conflicts involving race and class stating that “the Young Lords served as an important societal critique at that time.”

YLO protests and demonstrations often sought to cater to the needs of the poorer community. Levin described the group as that era’s Robin Hoods. Melendez was involved in many of the YLO’s active rebellious display including a takeover of a city X-ray van for TB testing in poorer areas, a Lincoln Hospital sit-in to solicit detox programs, and the unprecedented Statue of Liberty takeover calling for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners.

Violence was not unheard of between the YLO and the trigger-happy state police; Melendez said demonstrating was like “going into battle every morning, not knowing whether you would return that afternoon” but emphasized that learned patience and strong determination were important parts of surviving and controlling the situation during those tense times. Melendez has continued his activism up to this day, working with Dr. Levin at Mount Sinai hospital and taking part in UN’s successful protests against American naval bombing ranges in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Trained physician and Wesleyan graduate Steve Levin aptly summarized his experiences with the Young Lords by parodying Melendez’s recently published memoirs, “We Took the Streets”, saying that his upcoming book will be entitled “I Sowed Them Up”. Levin, a white native of working class Philadelphia, believed he never really realized stark class and race contrasts until he graduated from college.

He began to take a strong interest in activism as he used “political understanding to consciously cause trouble and concurrently address social issues.” As a physician now practicing occupational medicine, Levin uses his YLO experience when working with labor groups and other grass-roots campaigns that seek to challenge authority. He is now Co-director of the World Trade Center Worker/Volunteer Medical Screening program which assists those who worked rescue and recover during 9/11.

Both speakers’ stories bring up an interesting question that has been echoed across campuses, particularly at Swarthmore, many times over: are the glory days of activism over and done with?

The topic quickly turned to the push and pull between studying theory and actually implementing social change during the question and answer session following the lecture. Melendez quickly pointed out the major differences between the two eras saying that, “this is not a time where dissident caucuses just pop up everywhere like they used to”. Levin urged students not to romanticize too much but at the same time mentioned that he disliked those “academic leftists who quote but don’t do.” Both lecturers did agree that it is important to “operate professionally” when invoking significant change. The overall success of the talk was evident in the ensuing post-lecture buzz.

The IC plans to follow the talk with a workshop on how outsiders can work cross-culturally this Thursday, February 7th at 4:30 in Kohlberg 115.

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