ETHEL THE ACTIVIST: ONE SON'S PERSPECTIVE
by Christopher Owens
As the eldest son, I feel compelled to offer a personal view of my mother's "activism" and its roots. She and I shared just about as many years on this earth (61.5) as she shared with my father (1952-2013), but our experiences were obviously different.
Ethel Werfel Owens was the personification of motion; she was an activist in every sense of the world. Until her mid-90s, Mom was always doing something or going somewhere. Yes, she drove her own car -- even at night -- until she was nearly 94.
More importantly, my mother “drove” people -- sometimes very hard -- as she pursued a purposeful life. She drove her students, her friends, her family members -- and definitely her adversaries.
Mom had very high standards for everyone. Her passion for excellence, social justice and peace fortified every activist moment.
Who inspired Ethel?
Mom’s eldest brother, Louis ("Eliezer") Werfel, was a scholar who became a Rabbi. He took strong stands supporting the anti-Fascists and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain and he supported singer Marian Anderson and the nascent Civil Rights Movement (while serving a congregation in Birmingham, Alabama.)
Of greatest significance was Lou's commitment to encouraging his little sister to be the person who demanded answers. He celebrated Ethel's inquiring mind, her creative interests (music, art and literature), and, to a great extent, her rebellion against the relegation of women to limited roles within the Orthodox Jewish household.
For "Etti," activism really started when she entered college (following the death of her beloved mother). Brooklyn College was the institution that everyone aspired to attend. It was 1941; she was 18. The world was in chaos. And then Lou was killed in North Africa at the age of 27. He was a Chaplain and known as "The Flying Rabbi." (Please review the Obituary and the links there for details.)
Mom looked for other students searching for hope and peace -- students who also saw art as the ultimate expression of humanity. The Communist Party chapter on campus had many of them. Mom was radicalized and committed to educating and organizing people, but she was not yet really an activist. Moving forward in life, she identified herself politically as a Socialist.
Charting her own path
For Ethel, "radicalization" was merely the union of her moral center with her belief in the arts as the ultimate expression of our humanity -- and our capacity to love and build peace upon love. What Mom had first felt in Brooklyn was now developed to a much greater degree through her graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Her understanding of the arts grew exponentially, as did her appreciation for artists from Bach to Pete Seeger, from Pablo Picasso to Pablo Casals, from her cantor to Paul Robeson and Odetta -- artists who believed in humanity and highlighted that belief in their works.
An attractive and interesting woman, Mom dated a little, but her true lovers were the arts and their masters, and this was made possible by an outstanding program with outstanding faculty. (One of her favorite professors, Sigmund Levarie, and his wife, Norma, ended up coming to Brooklyn College and moving to Park Slope, Brooklyn, not far from where our family ended up living.)
While at the University of Chicago, Mom decided that her mission was to help bring about "the revolution" that Black people needed and should lead, despite the fact that she did not fully understand why!
Though she definitely wanted a job teaching the Humanities curriculum that she had mastered in Chicago, Mom's decision to become a faculty member at Morehouse College in Atlanta also fulfilled her desire to meet and mold future Black leaders. This may sound romanticized, but this is what she told me numerous times as I was growing up.
From 1952 to 1956, however, Morehouse College and the Atlanta University environment provided Mom with numerous eye-opening experiences, only a tiny fraction of which are alluded to here.
While at Morehouse, Ethel introduced her students to the farming commune of Koinonia in Americus, GA. Founded by Clarence and Florence Jordan, Koinonia attracted individuals seeking spirituality grounded in non-violent, grassroots work. Mom’s students, particularly Major Owens, were regular attendees. As a result, Mom would drive at very high speeds through rural Georgia in an open-top convertible ... with a carload of Black men. Many thought she was crazy; others thought she was very brave.
(Ironically, when driving west from Atlanta some 23 years later with my brothers and me, Mom was terrified of spending even one night in Mississippi – and so kept on driving all the way to New Orleans before we found a hotel.)
While at Morehouse, my mother had to confront racism like she never had before – and she did. Mom led several of her students on a "walk-in" to desegregate the Atlanta Public Library. She also took on "self-hatred", as she called it.
Mom fell in love with “Negro Spirituals,” their arrangements and the sound of the male choirs. As she tells it, she heard some of the students singing casually and was thunderstruck. She asked why such pieces were not heard during the weekly chapel service and was met with embarrassed explanations that such music was not suited for chapel service. Mom then wrote out arrangements and had them performed during a chapel service. The fact that some students and faculty members objected to her support of Spirituals as a musical form equal to that of Bach and Mozart enraged her.
When relating these stories to me decades later, Mom could not contain her exasperation with the reality that slavery and racism had created such a mindset of oppression. She, on the other hand, became a champion of Black culture in America, Africa and elsewhere. This does not mean, however, that a work of art was “good” simply because it was “Black” or crafted by a Black person. No, Mom’s standards remained high – and she found fault with painters who were not the next Romare Bearden and singers who were not the next Robeson, Marian Anderson, or Mahalia Jackson, for example. (Interestingly enough, Mom never became a fan of jazz.)
And Mom could talk. It’s almost as if “the spirit” made her open her mouth and speak her mind – and brilliantly use the words of the world’s greatest writers to support her points. This usually created problems, even if there were also beneficial outcomes. One particularly controversial act was Mom’s public denunciation of a Morehouse administrator's decision to cancel a student art show -- an act that earned her both a standing ovation from her students at a weekly chapel service AND a forced departure from Morehouse. (One eerie parallel: Mom shared with me that her brother Lou had insisted on flying on the day his plane crashed, despite warnings about the weather.)
"Marriage and Parenthood Don't Slow Me Down"
During the 1960s and 1970s, Mom was involved with various organizing efforts -- everything from the local block association and Parent Teacher Association to Women's Strike For Peace (in Brooklyn) to the short-lived Martin Luther King Coalition to the Presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, the Congressional campaigns of James Farmer and Allard Lowenstein, and the 1969 "miracle" re-election of NYC Mayor John V. Lindsay.
With each organization or initiative, Mom immersed herself in writing and designing materials while doing all the other activities expected of "field personnel" on campaigns. And her children were right there working with her! I first learned how to be a “retail candidate” for office by distributing literature and making calls with Mom, not my father. We were always giving out something on our block or at the subway stations. In 1969, at the age of 10, Mom had me stay at the Bergen Street station alone until 8:30 pm on General Election night promoting John Lindsay for Mayor. She knew I would give out every last flyer – and I did.
Mom attended the 15th Anniversary March on Washington in 1978 with my brother Mitty. In the early 1980s, Mom and my brothers participated in anti-war protests with the Berrigan brothers -- and they were all arrested!
Mom was a teacher, first and foremost. She believed that teachers deserved respect, better pay and administrative support. When a teacher’s strike occurred in NYC at the start of the 1967 school year, Mom was supportive and kept us home. One year later, however, she strongly opposed the controversial teacher's strike. Mom supported “community control” of schools (a concept that I believe she grew more ambivalent about in her later years) and the efforts to reduce racism in schools and to educate Black children about their heritage.
At that time, the United Federation of Teachers had much to learn about systemic racism and acted to protect its members by striking. My mother was outraged. She organized fellow parents at P.S. 208 in Flatbush to cross the picket line and open a "freedom school" in support of "community control.” (She used her expired substitute teacher's license as leverage!)
I only saw Mom get into a physical altercation once, and it was during this episode: a white school crossing guard outside of P.S. 208 made a racist remark about my mother and the three of us, as we were leaving the school building, and Mom slapped her face. A few years later, having become Quakers, we all admitted that initiating such violence was the wrong thing to do. But I can tell you that, as a 4th Grader, watching my Mom literally fight for me and my brothers did give me a bit of a thrill!
Trials and Tribulations
Please note that my brilliant brother Geoffrey celebrated one of Mom’s recent birthdays by penning a one-act play whose recurring refrain was "Ethel, some truths are better left unsaid!"
By her own admission, Ethel did not consider herself to be a "great leader" -- mostly because she found that her standards of performance, so to speak, were hard for others to fulfill. Many times Mom found herself doing the required work herself rather than delegating to others -- or she was at odds with people she thought were creating impediments to success.
Mom definitely did not consider herself to be a politician and she acknowledged that diplomacy was never her strength. She preferred the role of gadfly, debater, super volunteer and motivator to that of logistician or "coordinator."
Her commitment, tenacity and undiplomatic approach to issues earned her many admirers … and also many enemies. This was a theme that ran through her life from her time at Morehouse right through her time working with Head Start in Brooklyn as well as with the newly-founded Medgar Evers College, where she was an adjunct professor and clashed with administrators regarding the operation of her classes.
Mom could be heavy-handed or overbearing sometimes, and that did not sit well with people – particularly Black folks who had little patience for what they perceived to be a “patronizing white liberal.” Mom had to wrestle with the reality that often a problem lies not with what one has said or done, but with how it was said or done.
In truth, however, Mom’s motives and efforts were sometimes unappreciated. I remember vividly her Herculean work as President of the P.S. 9 PTA, particularly the creation of a wonderful “International Arts Festival” that was interesting and raised many dollars for the PTA. Everyone was buzzing about it. Nothing like it had been done before. What a success!
I also remember, however, how Mom was reduced to tears when other PTA Board members complained that the event was “too big” and “too complicated” and then wrongly insinuated that she had acted improperly when she requested that some of the event expenses she covered be reimbursed. Mom thought she had done everything right, and she had, but her premise that people always recognize good and embrace truth was thoroughly tested in this instance and during her entire life.
My mother had served as campaign coordinator during my father’s very first political campaign in 1965, which was unsuccessful. She came up with the idea to refinance the family home (multiple times) to help Dad support his State Senate campaigns between 1974 and 1980. Mom was active as well in his first campaign for Congress in 1982; I was very familiar with all of her work in that campaign.
Years later, despite her growing distaste for electoral politics, she hit the streets in 2006 on my behalf when I sought to succeed my father in the House of Representatives. During that contest, Mom did voter outreach in Park Slope. Initially, she was upset because she thought we were sending her there because the Slope is overwhelmingly white. She totally overlooked the fact that she had been a neighborhood piano teacher for some 20 years and had taught numerous Slope residents. We wanted her to bring back good memories to those people and the people that they know!
In general, the strategy went well. But in this Congressional race, there were originally four Black candidates and one white candidate – who could raise a big chunk of money. My father had made comments in the press about the Voting Rights Act and the concept of a “donocracy” that were more sophisticated than the reporters who covered them.
As a result, Mom had to endure white people accosting her and, ridiculously enough, calling her former husband (as well as her son) “racist” – sometimes very aggressively. This upset her very much, needless to say, and she continued questioning the role of electoral politics in her life.
One Activist's Marriage
Mom was keenly aware that race was a challenge in her marriage to Dad. Certainly, the volatile 1960s and 1970s created racial tensions that may have tested my parents' relationship. From my perspective, my father's "Blackness" and my mother's "whiteness" were not ills requiring a cure. They were, however, two realities that placed an added strain on a relationship that started when my father was very young and impressionable, when my mother was used to being “in charge” of her own life as well as the lives of others (as a teacher), and when neither my Dad nor my Mom utilized couples counseling to nip certain problems in the bud – or at least to manage them better.
In fact, Ethel's years at Morehouse and her involvement with Major's work did not soften her hard edges when dealing with certain political and social realities. Mom hated political cowards, mostly because she could not fully grasp the ripples created by certain sacrifices. She saw most politicians as a bourgeoise class unwilling to take the strongest stands to pursue change but willing to cut deals to get a dollar. This was more than unfair, of course, but, as the “outsider” looking in, Mom often arrived at conclusions less nuanced than necessary.
Mom went to war against individuals or organizations that she considered to be racist, but she, herself, could not fully internalize the meaning of "self-determination" for the Black community. Where shades of grey were dominant, Mom usually saw black or white. Platonic "goods" ruled the world of Ethel Werfel Owens. She repeatedly found, unfortunately, that most folks are not Plato. But it was often hard for her to adjust.
Whatever personal issues existed within and between my parents, they were enhanced by Mom’s stubborn search for perfection and Dad's diminishing desire to "negotiate." For Dad, the tension was enduring and stressful -- and he was also not at his best when dealing with Mom and other family matters. Both of them were not in good places and not good for each other. Separation and divorce were the consequences. Stuff happens.
Retrospectively, Mom boiled this complicated stew down to “race.” From my perspective as a witness and participant, race was the forum in which marital challenges played themselves out -- but it was not "the cause" of my parents’ failure to remain married.
Not Going Gently Into That Good Night
During the last 30 years of her life, Mom became increasingly radical politically and she embraced the arts even more as the greatest expressions of our common and progressive humanity. She traveled to the World Fellowship Center in New Hampshire, and embraced the artists and work of the People's Voice Cafe (NYC) – particularly Bev Grant and Judy Gorman -- and the Peoples Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle, along with other organizations and initiatives.
Ethel was always a fervent supporter of Cuba. She visited twice -- once having accompanied an ambulance to Mexico for delivery to Cuba in violation of the U.S. embargo. Mom admired Barack Obama, but was equally supportive of Cornel West's criticism of the President. She despised Donald Trump, and was a fervent fan of fellow Brooklynite and Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders long before 2016 came around.
Mom cherished her Jewish heritage and made Passover the most important holiday in the household. For Mom (and many others), Passover is the universal acknowledgement of the evil embedded within oppression and exploitation, and the right of a free people to end such oppression – whether they be Jewish, Black, Native American, South African, or whatever.
As she aged, Mom held herself to high standards when it came to supporting peace with justice. Accordingly, despite the fact that her beloved brother Lou had recently been buried there, Mom refused to visit or support Israel because, to her, the Israeli state has repeatedly violated the dictates of tikkun olam ("do something with the world that will not only fix any damage, but also improve upon it" or "heal the world.")
In summary, wherever she traveled, whether far or near, Ethel Werfel Owens was an ambassador for humanity. She was not a “Flying Rabbi” like Louis Werfel, but, in her own way and on her own terms, she emulated him. Mom was an extraordinary person trying to connect with ordinary and extraordinary people -- usually through the arts or education.
My mother definitely had her insecurities, faults, moments of failure, and some deep regrets. She also had incredible gifts that allowed her to share knowledge, beauty and passion in a unique way. Like her self-sacrificing mother, Mom did "without" many things she wanted in her life for many years. Like her brother, she passed on her passions and abilities to others -- her sons and her students. Because of her gifts, Mom left an indelible and uplifting impression on everyone she met and came to know.
There was no mold, Mom. We will miss you forever.