David Montgomery, A Life Well-Lived


David Montgomery, the prominent left-wing historian, just passed away. Substantial obituaries were carried by The New York Times, The Nation and elsewhere. David had initiated a school of labor historians who studied the lives of workers, especially in the work place and from that perspective they dealt with the labor movement and the big corporate interests and the class struggle. His outlook was always pro-worker, pro-labor and anti- big capital.

David taught labor history first at the University of Pittsburgh and then at Yale. He retired a few years ago as Emeritus Professor of History. At one time he served as national president of one of the two associations of college historians. At the same time, Eric Foner, also a left-wing historian, served as the president of the other assoiation of college historians.

David and I became close friends in1949 while we were students at Swarthmore College, the Quaker school that long has been rated one of the three top liberal arts schools in the country. He was captain of the football team (no wins), President of the Student Government, and graduated with highest honors. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the college Young Progressives of America (YPA). The YPA was one of only a few from the Progressive Party of 1948, still functioning. YPA dominated the political life of the school, with a membership of about 50 in a school of 900. It was viewed as a pro-Soviet, pro-communist, Marxist-led group, and no one denied it. At that time, David thought very well of Marx and the Soviet Union, but also of the Austrian School economist Joseph Schumpeter.

I came to Swarthmore as a participant in the Communist Party youth movement and committed to communism. Another freshman was Eddie Fujima who became one of my roommates and best friend until he returned to Japan in1962. Eddie’s politics and mine were very close. David, Eddie and I became close friends and remained so throughout our lives, though we saw little of each other in recent years. We kept in close touch after David graduated and moved to NY and Eddie left Swarthmore after two years and got a job in NY. We got together a couple times a year in NY. Eddie and I were
surprised when David turned down a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, became the first of us to actually join the Communist Party, USA and went into a UE organized machine shop in NY. David married an African American woman, Martel Wilcher (Marti), who was politically active and whose politics were similar to David’s, Eddie’s and mine. Their first of two sons was named after Eddie.

When my wife, Dorothy and I moved to NY from Phildelphia in 1960 for me to head Party youth work, David and Marti had moved to Minnesota at the request of UE so he could work at organizing machine shops David had a hard time holding a job because of McCarthyism, even though he had dropped out of the Party after the revelations about Stalin in 1956. David remained friendly and sometimes worked on projects

with the Party. In Minnesota, David cooperated with Betty Smith, the current head of International Publishers, who was then the Minnesota District leader of the Party. While travellling to Minnesota, on one occasion I visited the Montgomery family.

The Montgomery’s moved to Pittsburgh so that David could return to academic life, teaching history at the University of Pittsburgh. I visited them once there and talked with David about his thinking on approaching labor history from the standpoint of the lives and conditions of workers at the workplace. I enthusiastically agreed with that approach. When we talked about Poland and the rise of the Solidarity Movement there we did not see eye to eye but did not let that disrupt our friendship.

I saw David only twice after that. He had moved to New Haven to teach history at Yale. It was 1980, I believe, when the huge demonstration of a million people for nuclear disarmament took place up one of the avenues to Central Park. I was marching with the Communist Party contingent and helping carry the Party banner. Suddenly I heard someone from the many on-lookers, some waiting to join the end of the march, called out, “Danny” When I looked in the direction of the call I saw David running toward me and we embraced. He was there with his family. We could do little more in that setting than acknowledge each other and the excitement of the huge demonstration.

After that, I heard from Joelle Fishman, the Chair of the Party in Connecticut, that she saw David from time to time and they cooperated on various projects and struggles, most notably, the organization of workers at Yale and their fight for a contract. David was very active in gaining faculty support. Also, Eddie returned from Japan and was married and had a son. We visited each other several times and Eddie brought me up to date on David, Marti and his godson, Eddie, and the second son. Eddie was no longer a Party member but his politics remained similar to mine.

In 2010 before the elections, I heard about a conference taking place at New York University on the subject of how universities were becoming profit-making machines tied in with big capital. David Montgomery was to be the keynote speaker. Despite health problems I decided to go so I could see David, after so much time. As usual his public speaking style combined academic expertise with populism in content and manner of delivery. He was a huge hit. I got there early but decided to wait till after he spoke and the meeting was over. When I approached him and he saw me, as usual he screamed my name and ran over and we embraced. We then found a quiet spot and sat down and caught up on our families. He acknowledged his health was not too good and the family planned to move back to rural southeast Pennsylvania where he grew up, and where he earned the nickname, “Zeke”, which was his sole name at Swarthmore. Then we talked politics about the country and world and then about how
the Party was doing. He expressed appreciation for the work of the Party in Connecticut under Joelle’s leadership. We had similar points of view on everything we discussed.

David was a very good listener and questioner and did not speak much in social settings. He laughed easily with a big hearty laugh. He was a nice guy. But whenever he spoke everyone took notice, as he was a person who always had something to say. What he said was full of unique information and took definite sides. The side was always that of the working class and labor, the fight against racism and for full equality, for peace and democracy, and was pro-socialism. He was a dear friend and he left his mark not only on his friends but on all of US labor historiography. The very best to Marti and his family.

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