From “Lincoln Republican” Roots, an SDS Organizer and More (Chuck Hunt — Part 1)

Sylvia:  This is March 3, 2017 and I’m interviewing Chuck Hunt. I know that you’re a retired sociology professor who seems to have been an activist on the left for much of your adult life. So you want to talk about what you’ve been doing all your life? Or much of your life?

Chuck:  The problem with that is I’ve had about seven lives. There’s the one where I grew up in Claymont, Delaware. Then, there’s a whole life at University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate student, and then as an SDS activist. Claymont, Delaware from age 1 to 18. In 1965 I go as a student to University of Wisconsin, so that’s the second life and that lasts for five years, from 1965 to 1970. The last two years are working with SDS in the anti-war movement. And then ’70 to ’73, I was a paralegal in Seattle, working in a law collective. And we were a political law collective. In fact, took the first gay rights cases in the state of Washington. From ’74 until ’85, I lived in Alberta, Canada and was a beekeeper and a farmer.

Was that because you were trying to avoid the Vietnam war?

No, I had beaten the draft a long time before that. I was restless. I wanted to try something different. And I was basically urban raised and decided I’d be a farmer. Crazy, but it was really fun. During a good part of that I was also a teacher. Because in this little remote town where I lived, I was the only person with a college degree except for the teachers in the elementary school. So, I did high school upgrading for folks and we got a lot of people to graduate from high school.

When you say “high school upgrade,” what does that mean?

Once you got through 9th grade at Dixonville, which is a little community that I lived in, you had to get up at 4:30 in the morning, catch a bus by 5:30, travel 50 miles by bus, go to school and get home at 5 or 6:00 at night, having done the reverse.  People didn’t go to Grade 12. So, they needed high school upgrading. The farms didn’t make a living. They needed a winter job, and if I could get ‘em a high school diploma, they got better winter jobs.

So, did they take something like a GED or something?

It’s kind of a GED, although they took courses. I taught 76 different high school courses.

[Laughs] Amazing! A man of many parts.

Oh, yeah. You had to learn ‘em all. We used correspondence booklets which were designed for high school classes. So, I did that until ’85. From ’85 until ’90 I came to University of Oregon and got my PhD. in Sociology. Worked on African AIDS and the distribution of the disease in Africa and its relationship to social structures and history. From ’90 until ’96 I was at the University of Utah as a professor. Didn’t like it. And came back to the University of Oregon and taught from 2006 until 2013, when I retired.

Now is there anything in your background before you did all these things that tended to make you an activist?

I guess you’d say family, place, and time. I was born in 1947, so I’m growing up in the fifties and sixties. So it’s the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. And the place, interestingly enough, is Claymont, Delaware—which is part of Brown vs. Board of Education. There’s seven schools in that decision. One of ‘em is Claymont High School which is the school I went to.

My family was Midwestern. Dad was from Minnesota, Mom was from Illinois, and they were small business Republicans, but certainly kind of Lincoln Republicans. My dad was a chemist for the DuPont Company. And my dad ran for the school board before Claymont High School integrated. And he ran cause the guy down the street ran as a segregationist. My dad ran as an integrationist. And they tried to kill him. People from the community. Guys went after him with a knife. My dad lost the election. He came in third out of three. Segregationist came in second. The guy who didn’t say anything about segregation won. And it was the last time my dad ever went into politics.

And how old were you then?

I would’ve been three or four. I heard about it as I grew up. In the fifties at dinner table the civil rights movement was what was talked about. That’s mostly what we discussed. My family was very very pro-civil rights. In fact I was, on my way over, thinking about my eleventh Christmas. It would’ve been just after the events in Little Rock. They were trying to integrate Central High School.And, of course, there were white folks rioting.

That was the moment. I was only ten or eleven years old, and all of a sudden I realized what was going on. And of course, in the environment of my family which was, you know, very pro those  eight or ten students, it was stunning. I mean, I just was appalled. They would show it on TV.

You’d see all these white folks.

These vicious, angry people.

Yeah! Trying to attack black people and these students going to school. One of the girls almost got killed! I guess she got separated. And [Governor] Faubus, you know, put up the National Guard and tried to prevent the blacks from going in. And then Eisenhower finally nationalized the National Guard and the African American students got to go to school!

Well, that was in September, and I have to say I had a very privileged childhood. We were an upper middle class family. Dad was a chemist for DuPont Company. We did really well. I never wanted for anything. And life was pretty easy. I was eleven years old, and all of a sudden, I realized that wasn’t what everybody had. And it was absolutely shocking. And I remember going to my parents that Christmas and just saying, “I don’t want anything for Christmas. I’ve got everything I need and I just don’t want you to give me anything.”

Now, how many children in your family?

There were three. There was an older brother and an older sister. And of course, my folks were horrified. You know, “What is this?” And I didn’t fully understand and they didn’t really fully understand what was going on. Cause they kept saying, “Well, we have to. Come on.”

Well, it turned out there was a Signal Corpsman from the Second World War across the street. He was a ham radio operator. And so I said, “Look, if you’ve gotta get me something, why don’t you get me a shortwave radio. And I’ll listen to the shortwave.” And they did. They gave me a beautiful, I still remember it, NC-60 Special, and I strung a wire out and I listened. And I collected cards. And I made the mistake of writing for a card, which I got, a beautiful one, from Radio Beijing China. And a letter from them, I was 12 years old. They sent me these beautiful hand-painted watercolor Chinese calendars. And later would send a whole lot of other stuff.

But, anyway. The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover sent me this letter which said, “We know you’re a good American. This is coming to you without your request and you don’t want it. Please check the box below and we’ll interdict it and keep it.” Well, I didn’t want to.

My father, however, by this time, had a top security clearance. And there was no choice. And it was the first political argument he and I ever got into. I just said, “No. I will not.” And he said, “Well, you don’t have to. I’m checking it and sending it.” So, the FBI kept all my stuff. The nice thing was about four years later the Supreme Court ruled that they couldn’t do that. And so from J. Edgar Hoover, I got the entire collected works of Mao Tse-tung, two volumes, two Little Red Books. two separate, small plastic Red Guard badges, and all the calendars that they’d sent.

They had to give ‘em to me cause they couldn’t keep ‘em anymore. I was surprised when I went after my FBI file from the sixties, they had no record of that. But they definitely gave me an education at the age of twelve about what freedom really meant in this country.

Now the other kind of mistake which is sort of funny is that my dad was a technical person, a chemist, and so I’m a junior in high school, going into my senior year, trying to figure out where I’m going to college and dad said, “Well, you know. The University of Wisconsin in Madison has got a wonderful chemistry department. I know it’s an excellent school. Why don’t you apply there?” So I applied at Northwestern and University of Wisconsin. I had an interview with Northwestern. I don’t think they were impressed with me. I was really not impressed with them. I wrote ‘em a letter and withdrew my application. And was admitted to the University of Wisconsin.

What my father didn’t know was that he was sending me to this school which would become the center of the anti-war movement in the 1960’s. Berkeley was civil rights, some anti-war. But Wisconsin was the anti-war movement and that’s where I ended up.

[laughs] We had the first tear gas, first billy clubs, you know, all that. I mean it was kind of funny in a way. My dad was not very happy about it. Although, in 1966 just after my sophomore year, my dad pulled me aside and said, “Listen. We don’t need to argue. I’m totally opposed to this war.” I think by 1960 he’d voted for Kennedy. My mother was still for Nixon. By 1966 my father was a left Democrat. And by 1968 they both would be contributing to the [Eugene] McCarthy campaign.

My mother no longer was on the Democratic scale. She was far too left. So there was this transformation in them as well as myself. Within a month of being at Wisconsin, I was at anti-war demonstrations. And the funny thing, too, was years later when I told my dad I was coming back to graduate school at University of Oregon [laughs] he looked at me, “Now, Charles,” he said, “You’re not going to get involved with those people again.”

And I looked at him and I smiled and I said, ‘Dad. I AM one of those people.” And I was surprised. He actually laughed. He got quite a kick out of that. So, I mean, it was a time. It was chance I ended up at University of Wisconsin.

Like I ended up in Berkeley!

Right, exactly! You just sort of happen to be there. I embarrassed fairly easily so I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own. But, there were loads of other people. I graduated in three years. Then spent two years just organizing for SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] in Milwaukee and Madison and I was at the Chicago convention of SDS where it split. And all those sorts of things. And then I stayed at Wisconsin for another year, and we tried to hold SDS together at Wisconsin, not being subject to the Progressive Labor, Weatherman 1, Weatherman 2, all that crazy factionalism. Eventually, SDS just fell apart at Wisconsin, too. And that’s when I went to Seattle.

What are the most interesting or satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist?

You have to be careful. Because a lot of the experiences are very frustrating.

Actually, I’m gonna backtrack because I left something out. What issues have you worked on? Now, obviously, the whole anti-war thing.

Civil rights too, certainly. Actually, in January of 1969, I was put in jail because we were demonstrating about an African American Black Studies program at the University of Wisconsin. Which they didn’t have. By the way, when I went for my interview for my NEXUS card to get into Canada a year ago, they mentioned that. And we had quite a talk.

NEXUS is easy admission into Canada, where you don’t have to go through customs. You just show ‘em the card. You’ve been pre-approved. And this American border guy brought up this arrest in 1969. The mistake is that I have the file too, which I told him. I said, “Did you read down and see where the charge was dismissed?” And he sort of was quiet. And I said, “Do you really want to talk about a dismissed charge here? Cause if you do, I’d like your name and I’d like to speak to your supervisor.”

. And he said, “No.” And I said, “You don’t think that’s gonna prevent me from getting a NEXUS card?” No, he didn’t think so. But it’s still on the FBI record. Which I got from the 1960’s. I was wrapped up in COINTELPRO and all that stuff. It’s a 477 page file. And they used to call up my folks and harass ‘em, you know, nasty stuff.

I was active in Boston and the Boston Draft Resistance Group. There was a brief time when I was a research assistant at Harvard. And I was a conscientious objector against the draft in 1965. And there was some thought, when I graduated in 1968, I was gonna have to do alternate service. I was not going to do it. I started but then I decided I wouldn’t do it. And that’s when I was at Harvard for a brief while. So, they had a record at Harvard, Milwaukee, Madison, Wilmington, and Washington, D.C. Everywhere I’d been. The issues, of course, are civil rights. That’s where you began in the fifties. But anti-war, certainly.  But, of course, you got involved in the women’s movement, which grew in 1968, ’69. And that, I thought, was very interesting.

What role did you play in that?

Well, just in SDS. And probably most women would think, you know, “O golly. He was opposed.” I wasn’t at all. I was very supportive. But, it was hard to know how to do that then. I remember one time in a paper I wrote for SDS, I criticized the women’s movement because they were having consciousness raising sessions but they were not going out and talking to people. And I caught hell for that. You know, I was a man telling ‘em what to do. I still stand by that critique.

But, anyway, then I went to the law firm in Seattle and we picked up gay rights, which of course, had happened at Stonewall in 1969. At least one of our attorneys was gay and we had a little storefront law firm. And there was the Gay Activist Center right across the street. So, we went over and took classes. I had a binary sexual concept, you know, men and women. That was all there was to it. And slowly I got awakened from that. And so we began to take cases.

We also were the first firm, state of Washington, that won custody rights for lesbian mothers. We took a marriage case between two folks [two men]. And I still remember one client in that marriage case. We were in Smith Tower by that time. That’s a big tower in Central South Seattle. And we’re up on the 21st floor, and they had elevators that had operators. People operated them. And so I walked in with one of our clients for gay marriage who had a habit of wearing a pleated dress. John. He was a wonderful guy. Awful lookin’ legs. Terrible lookin’ guy in a dress. And wearin’ a skirt, a pleated skirt. And I’ve never seen anything like the fear on the elevator operator’s face.  This elevator operator was a guy. He was terrified.

And it was very surprising but it really gave me an indication, I mean, I’m not totally liberated either, but this guy almost left an impression in the side of the elevator. He was squeezing over, he was terrified. And then one time John and I were walking down the street together, going into the law firm and some guy started screaming from across the street, I mean, it was scary!

How big of a person was John?

Very small, a good deal smaller than I was. I figured I’d be the first one to get belted if the whole thing broke out. Which by the way matched another experience of mine when I made a friend with an African American guy when I was working on the boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland, 1963. He was working across the way behind the scenes. You couldn’t work out front if you were African American. We both had a break. We were good friends. His name was Will. And we walked down the Ocean City, Maryland boardwalk together and just about got killed.

Because you were an interracial

Yeah, we were integration. They thought we were there for some kind of trouble and boy! Stuff started flyin’! Will and I had to take off and run down the street. And it was wild. We never tried to walk down the boardwalk together again.

About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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