White people rarely recognize, let alone process and contend with, the effects of white supremacy on our own selves. These effects are in fact multifarious, and if we could only learn to recognize and consciously feel them, we’d be even more hellbent on destroying whiteness.
The one effect I want to mention here is that of white supremacy on the notion of our white ancestors. We have so few to cherish and emulate that it seems they can be counted on ten fingers easily.
To be a white American ancestor worthy of respect and remembrance, you had to have committed your life in some way to anti-racist praxis—it’s that simple. Marilyn Buck did just that, and it’s critical for the health of our own lives that we study hers, and that we internalize her thought and never forget her.
How I Met Marilyn Buck
DAVID GILBERT, 1985
The year 1967 was a hothouse for rapid and intense changes in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, the main radical student organization that allied with the Black struggle and spearheaded the anti-war movement). The guiding slogan of the day was “move from protest to resistance,” and we were in the midst of a soon-to-be-successful struggle to get the organization to define the system as U.S. imperialism. It was also the year that SDS held its first national workshop on women’s liberation. The way women’s liberation was put on the agenda for the national convention was almost accidental (there had been almost no explicit struggle within the “New Left” about male supremacy at this point). At a spring planning meeting, a long list of workshops was proposed for the summer convention; women’s liberation was added to the list without discussion or much thought about its significance.
But as the women-only workshop was meeting at the convention in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it became clear to everyone around that something very significant was happening. When their report was later presented to the organization as a whole, the plenary session was chaired by a representative from the workshop – Marilyn Buck.
The reaction in the plenary to the mere announcement of a report on women’s liberation was the most disconcerting experience of my years in SDS. Men hooted and whistled from the floor, threw paper planes at the chair, and shouted things like, “I’ll liberate you with my cock.” Some men and most women were supportive of the report, but the initial response was defined by this raucous attack.
The memory of that scene is still vividly with me some 18 years later. I was sitting in that plenary session (trying to get called on to speak), shocked and chagrined by the reaction. SDS was supposed to be an organization defined by siding with the oppressed against the oppressor; even with little previous struggle, one would have hoped for at least an initial openness to and support for women’s issues. Clearly there was a lot of struggle yet to go.
Another strong impression was of the dignified and determined way in which Marilyn chaired the session. She never lowered herself by responding in kind to the catcalls and snide remarks hurled at her, nor did she ever retreat an inch in the face of this unruly attack. She calmly and firmly insisted that the report be completed and seriously discussed, and this goal was achieved despite the disruptions.
The report from the women’s workshop at the 1967 convention was an important watershed for our movement. It was the first major salvo to open up the issue of women’s liberation within the New Left; it also exposed the appalling depth of male supremacy within our ranks; it was the beginning point for a tremendous amount of struggle, struggle on which we still have a long way to go. For me personally, it was also a very striking introduction to the extraordinary and deeply committed comrade who chaired that session.
Later, while underground in the 1970s, I occasionally spotted bits of news about Marilyn. Given that first encounter, it came as no surprise (but this is certainly never a given) that she became our movement’s finest example of a white person fighting in solidarity with Black liberation, someone whose commitment and consistency we all needed to emulate … But now, with more recent common work as political prisoners, I have the pleasure to add that—along with her visible political practice that is so thoughtful and principled—Marilyn Buck is a wonderfully warm, caring and creative human being.