Politics & Prejudices
Farewell to a hero
Al Fishman never gave up the fight
Published: May 25, 2011
For generations of peace activists, Al Fishman seemed somehow indestructible. It was easy to sort of imagine that he would always be on the job, trying to make this a better, more just and less violent world. Two years ago, I remember chatting with him as his main cause, Peace Action of Michigan, prepared for another commemoration of the anniversary of Hiroshima.
Fishman was a stubborn sort who had always held the curious idea that it was a bad idea to incinerate people with nuclear weapons, and that melting the eyes and skin of innocent women and children isn't acceptable.
Worse, he had the bad taste to point out from time to time that we were the only nation that had ever done this. That was dangerous back in the day. Less than a week after the Korean War broke out, he was arrested outside what was then Briggs Stadium, seeking signatures to ban nuclear weapons. The Detroit cops tossed him in jail, where he spent the Fourth of July weekend. To give you some perspective, George W. Bush was then 4. Barack Obama's mother was 8.
There weren't many peaceniks in 1950. Most of the few who were sold out long ago — gave up, tuned out and went off to grow vegetables or watch survivor shows on television.
Not Al Fishman. "Fifty-nine years later, and I'm still working for nuclear abolition," he told me with an amused chuckle two years ago. He never got cynical, or if he did, he never gave in to it. He kept fighting to make this a better world. What else could he do? What else could any of us do?
So he kept fighting, damn it. He and his beloved wife, Margaret, played a role, almost by accident, in bringing down Joe McCarthy, long before President Obama was born.
Fishman had fought a million battles, winning a few but losing most, but kept on keeping on. He had known disappointment and big-time political betrayal, but he kept on. What else could he do? What else could any of us do?
Frankly, I don't think he ever considered doing anything else. So I was stunned last Thursday when I got a call from his niece, the lovely and talented Nada Radulovich, a cellist in New York. Uncle Al had dropped dead from a massive heart attack in a doctor's waiting room, where he had gone to see about a troublesome knee. He was 82. I couldn't believe it. Only days before, Al had called me. He wanted to put together a big debate here in Detroit over the national budget.
I told him I thought people here were more preoccupied with the state budget now, with the efforts to cut education and rob the poor to give to the rich, etc.
"I know that," Al said. "But state and local budgets reflect the spending priorities of the national government."
True enough. What he wanted me to do was suggest some TV personality who might be willing to moderate such a debate, in the hope that a big name might draw more of the curious.
That was significant. What Al Fishman never ceased to believe was that if you could somehow educate enough people, make them aware of what was really going on, they would finally get it, and work together to make this a better world.
He made mistakes. He carried one around with him for more than 40 years: He was a secret member of the Communist Party. Yes, that party, the one that took orders from Moscow. He admitted that to me after things fell apart.
Told me it was all right to write about it, in fact. Why had he joined? He was a Jewish kid from the South Bronx who was drafted and sent to Italy right after World War II.
Al believed in racial equality, and was disgusted by the reaction of his fellow soldiers to President Truman's decision to desegregate the armed forces. Fishman was also appalled that the Allies were reinstalling former fascists in power in Germany and Italy. The Communists were the only political party to speak out against these things.
So he joined. Not to sabotage anything, not to spy, just because he thought it was right. He paid dues, went to meetings, as did his wife, a Serbian girl he met after he came to the University of Michigan to study architecture.
There, they became bit players in a major historical drama. Partly because of Margaret and Al's radicalism, the Air Force tried to throw her brother, Milo Radulovich, out of the service and take away his GI benefits.
That was so unfair that Edward R. Murrow did an entire TV program on the case. The reaction helped Murrow go after the main demagogue, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, five months later. Radulovich, who was then apolitical, was reinstated, but the pressure resulted in his dropping out of school.
Fishman just kept on working behind the scenes. Once, I asked him how he could have been so nave about the Communists. His answer brought me up short.
"The people I knew who were Communists had proved themselves as honorable and honest to me."
He didn't believe what he read in the papers about the purges, the Gulag, the mass executions, etc. "Whenever I saw something in a Detroit paper about a labor struggle here, a struggle I knew about, it was usually wrong and sometimes nothing but lies.
"So I assumed they lied about the Soviet Union."
Fishman left the party in disgust in 1992 when those in charge resisted efforts to make it more democratic, and the scales fell from his eyes.
But he hadn't given up on humanity. He had worked in shops and became a computer programmer before computers were cool. He had run for office, but lost. However, an old radical buddy of his did get elected mayor — and made Al Fishman a deputy police chief, so he could take his computer skills to the force.
They gave him a tour of the jail then. "Looks a little familiar," he muttered when they reached his old cell. For a time, he had trouble winning the cops' cooperation.
That is, till Coleman Young showed up one day, pointing a finger at large blue bellies. "Don't fuck with my man," he said.
> Email Jack Lessenberry