I can’t imagine a life without heroes. Personal heroes, who care about the odds, calculate the outcome, and then do right because it’s the only thing to do. True bravery, someone once explained to me, comes when you’re scared to do it, but you do it anyway. Anybody can take action when they are sure they will succeed.
There have been a few heroes in my life: men and women whose deeds have affected me deeply. Knowing even one is a milagro. To be blessed by more than one is a treasure beyond measuring. I’m not saying I want to do the things my heroes have done: they were who they were, and I am who I am. I am saying that they have given me hope and energy for my own struggles, however personal and however mundane. Now, in the fourth age of my life, they are, one by one, slipping away.
It’s especially hard to say goodbye to those who were, aside from their teachings – Utah Phillips, one of my heroes, once said “The purpose of my life is to learn what I can from my elders, and teach it to my youngers” (paraphrase) – personal friends, as Marvin was, for over fifty years. Our history together wasn’t always smooth. We had some political differences that kept us apart for brief periods of time; one time we fought bitterly in the midst of an organizing effort. It was a bad time. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and, grumbling and glaring, we managed to set our differences aside and get on with the work.
When I met Marv, in the waning years of the 1950s, he was a bohemian itinerant art salesman. He was older than me, by 6 years, sharing an apartment near campus with my best friend (see “For example Bentley” ) and a pretty young woman, straight off the farm, who was working as “publicity girl” for a local night club. He was a total goof, and one night there was a knock on the door. Marv, who was standing on his head in a corner of the living room, naked, called “come in”, and the visitor, who had come to pick up Gayle for a date, took one look at Marv and headed for the staircase, never to be heard from again.
Imagine my surprise when Marv chose to ride the first Freedom bus with five younger white radicals. I don’t doubt that he, too, was a little surprised. I remember standing on a corner in the off-campus neighborhood of Dinkeytown, watching them leave. Eventually, they wound up doing time in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison, for sitting down at a “colored” lunch counter in a segregated bus depot. The experience was a game changer for Marv. It set him on the course that he was to travel for the rest of his life.
It was the solidarity and the camaraderie that captured Marv. In several interviews over the years, he says as much. Peaceful defiance of unjust laws and regulations opened him up to “otro modo de ser”; another way to be. He often recalled joining other political prisoners in forbidden songs of protest. Parchman authorities punished them by removing their bedding, but could not stop their singing.
From imprisonment to Freedom House, a retail outlet he founded in Minneapolis to sell craft goods from southern collectives; to anti-war work ( a draft-resistance office in Los Angeles where he worked was fire-bombed); to the Honeywell Project, an organization dedicated to forcing the Minneapolis corporation to stop making anti-personnel weapons; to enjoying the access to young people afforded by his gig as adjunct professor at St. Thomas College in St. Paul, where he taught peaceful civil disobedience, Marv stayed in the groove.
A book he wrote is called “You Can’t Do That”. In it are instance after instance where he said “Oh, yeah?” and went ahead anyway. That’s how I remember him: gentle, tough, defiant, compassionate, resolute. Marv Davidov, friend, hero, whose life taught me much, takes with him a big chunk of my history.