Hunter Bear — Maintaining ‘Normally High’ Optimism: Notes From a Street-Smart Activist

(Editor’s note: Hunter Gray (Hunter Bear, John R. Salter, Jr.) is a well-known and successful civil rights and labor advocate. He is a retired professor who enjoys sharing his stories with those who strive for equality. He recently sent out this note, and has given his permission to share it with others. Be sure to read his Organizer’s Book, JACKSON MISSISSIPPI! Hunter has been an inspiration to me, and so many others, and I hope you enjoy the following. Susan Klopfer, author, Who Killed Emmett Till)

‘Maintaining My Normally High Optimism’

This is a kind of selective mini-memoir, reaching back into the latter 1950s and the earlier part of the 1960s – embracing a number of diverse and good people of strong social justice feelings, much of this in the Red Scare epoch.  I could write much more on that and comparable periods but am keeping this within the limits stirred by a very recent letter from a long ago student of mine at a small college, Wisconsin State at Superior, in northern Wisconsin.
Hunter Bear (Hunter Gray, John Salter, Jr.), accomplished activist and professor

Many in Eastern Idaho, including our family, have been hit by the nationally notorious flu. We all weathered that, some with anti-biotics, but in my case a troubling cough persisted.  My domestic responsibilities considerably increased of late, and thus not inclined to take chances, I went to a medical outpost where I was given a chest X Ray. The doc told me I had pneumonia and, when I asked — was there anything more serious, such as COPD which had taken one my best friends some years ago, I was looked at like I was a high school kid and told pneumonia was very serious.  In the end, with an array of medicines, I threw that off handily.  I may have had it for some time.
The letter came from Mark, now retired from a long and successful teaching career.  It said, in part, “You inspired me then and although I could never be as strong and as tough as you, I have done a few good things in a life filled with luck.  The memory of you inspires me still.”
Drinking black coffee and smoking my tobacco pipe for several hours very early this morning, I traveled back into time.  I wrote Mark later this morning, saying in part:
I very much appreciate your good words – and glad to know my role at Superior, as activist and teacher, was encouraging in those challenging days and circumstances.
It’s been a hell of a challenging period for literally everyone we know. One of my major struggles these days is to maintain my normally high optimism and faith in most of Humanity.  So far, I think I’ve been successful.
The fact is, in that ‘way back time that doesn’t seem that long ago, it was “you students” who certainly inspired me!  I have always remembered you all – with the greatest appreciation and Eldri feels exactly the same way.  We handled some very tough challenges effectively and well. You, yourself, were certainly a major figure in that struggle.
The age difference between myself and you all was obviously pretty minimal. (I note you are 78 and I am virtually 81.)  At Superior, as at my one year of high school teaching in the Nebraska Sandhills country a couple of years before I got to Wisconsin, I felt no social distance between myself as a teacher — and my students – from whom I always learn much whatever the setting and times.
In fact, that’s been basically my ethos everywhere I have gone as a “professor.”  I’ve often told classes, “I’m not really a professor, just pretending to be one.”
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I wrote a long letter to the paper attacking HUAC, the film, and praising the student activists.
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I arrived at Superior State College as it was often known, as an instructor, in late summer, 1960, fresh from a few months on super isolated Bear Mountain Fire Lookout in extreme eastern Arizona and armed with a fresh M.A. from Arizona State, Tempe.  I had been hired at the last minute. I was already a reasonably experienced organizer, militant labor and student rights, and my own kind of radical, but its president, Jim Dan Hill knew nothing personal of my background, save that I was a good part Indian, a veteran and an Arizonian.
No sooner at that college, I learned it was the super authoritarian fiefdom of its president, General Jim Dan Hill, best described as a Texas Bircher. My  sociology teaching load was very heavy, fine with me. Hill and I clashed early on when, in his weekly newspaper column, “Let’s Look At The Record” he praised the witch hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, and the purely awful red-baiting film, “Operation Abolition, which attacked the student protestors and their militant organization – SLATE – who had challenged HUAC during its hearings in the Bay Area early in 1960 via very vigorous demonstrations.
(Decades later, I met the good Bill Mandel, then about 90, on our discussion lists He had played a very constructive and centrally activist ant-HUAC role in those very events.  We found we had crossed trails many times in our lives.  I was about the last person interviewed by Bill on his weekly radio program at Berkeley – KPFA – on Native concerns in late 2005.  Shortly after that, Bill was struck by a car, badly injured, and became inactive.  He remains much missed.)
I wrote a long letter to the paper attacking HUAC, the film, and praising the student activists. It was published.
And I found I was an instant celebrity in Superior where few, and certainly virtually no faculty, ever criticized General Hill openly.  I also learned there was a long extant movement against Hill out in the community – but it had lost a good deal of steam.
Early on, the college Ski Club, all male, saw me and recognized the kind of faculty sponsor they’d like – not a fussy professorial and intrusive type.  Though no ski buff – I am a snowshoes guy – I agreed to be their faculty cover.  Soon thereafter, the Ski Club had one of its big parties – no females and pretty tame by today’s standards.  But, perhaps because of my role as sponsor – I wasn’t at the affair – the Dean of Students, a classic Hill sycophant, officially abolished the Club.  We talked to Student Government which protested the Dean’s action.  The Dean and General Hill then abolished  Student Government in total.
I and a good number of students, some Ski and many others, then had a large mass protest meeting in the college auditorium.
And the War against Hill was on.  Mark, my good and very recent correspondent, was among the first to join the effort.  It was then that I learned that Mark’s uncle, a resident of Superior, was a national VP of the American Federation of Teachers – and an old friend of Bill Karnes, also a national VP of AFT, and president of Phoenix Local 1010 of AFT. Among my several active union affiliations was my at-large membership in 1010.
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We began systematically contacting potential allies – e.g., political, labor, and general community members.
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Bill was one of a great many AFL-CIO unionists in Arizona and elsewhere who politely and firmly ignored the flow of attempted mandates from the Federation’s top level – most generated by the predatory Steel Union – seeking to prevent contact with the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, widely seen by its critics as “Communist.”  My own relations with Mine Mill were very close indeed. Bill Karnes and other teacher unionists had always appreciated Mine Mill’s considerable assistance in organizing AFT locals in the mining towns.  AFL-CIO craft unions were much involved with Mine Mill in fighting the copper companies.  And, in any case, Mine Mill, with 10,000 plus members in Arizona – the largest union in the state which, in 1956 and 1957, had won bargaining rights at two major Magma Copper properties – could hardly be ignored.
One of Bill’s best high school students, Rodney, eventually went to UC at Berkeley where he immediately connected with under-grad and grad students who were forming the radical campus political party, SLATE. One of the latter was the older economics student Clinton Jencks, always a widespread and beneficial influence, and late of Mine Mill, Salt of the Earth, the Jencks Case.  They were all involved together in the anti-HUAC fight.
Back at Superior, our student movement, mostly Anglo but some Native, mushroomed fast.  We put out a regularly issued and fiery but rational  mimeographed protest journal, focused on many education issues and certainly student and faculty academic freedom – and, too, faculty and staff salary discrimination. We began systematically contacting potential allies – e.g., political, labor, and general community members. The somewhat dormant, broad and very diverse anti-Hill community movement began to stir – then came vigorously alive.
But the students, Mark and many others indeed, who often didn’t see themselves as activists, were the consistent spear-point.  General Hill attacked me as an atheist and an advocate of free love (the latter for my support, voiced in my Marriage and Family course, of the Swedish system of trial marriage.) Only a little more surreptitiously did he and his cohorts attack me consistently as a Communist.  FBI documents of concerning me, secured many years later via FOIA/PA, indicate Hill brought the willing FBI into it all as an ally very early on.
The fight went through the entire spring semester of 1961.
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Thus I met Eldri, and we were married a few months later at a very well attended wedding.
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Mark’s AFT uncle introduced me, at an AFT conference, to Governor Gaylord Nelson (later U.S. Senator).  We had a short but very productive discussion.  Soon after that, the Gov appointed a member of the Board of Regents as a kind of college overseer.  At the end of that spring term, Hill was given only three or so more years and his powers were sharply limited.  He was required to get Regents’ approval for any significant policy and fiscal appropriations decisions.
Eldri, then employed on campus by several Lutheran churches as their student counselor, had come to my attention when a member of the still functioning Ski Club (however unofficial its status) and an Irish Catholic, told me that “a Lutheran girl” had a phonograph record of SLATE’s anti-HUAC protests. Thus I met Eldri and we were married a few months later at a very well attended wedding.  We left Superior in the summer of 1961 for Mississippi teaching and organizing — and my later organizing with the leftist Southern Conference Educational Fund in the Northeastern North Carolina Black Belt. We finally left the South in 1967 and went on to many other tough campaigns, and college/university teaching – often an activist endeavor in its own right.

Over the years, Eldri and I kept in touch with as many of our old friends and fellow combatants as we could.  In the fall of 1965, I carefully wrote the basic draft of what became the first edition of my book on our massive Jackson Movement of 1961-63.  When that was finally published in 1979, it did OK sales-wise – but I also sent over 100 copies as gifts to as many of our old fighting friends I could locate.
During the civil rights period, I went on a few speaking junkets. Bill Karnes, in Arizona, played a key role, along with Harry Stamler, a veteran radical, in setting up speaking engagements for me in Phoenix metro.  Aware that my only life insurance was my GI/VA policy which I had continued, and that I couldn’t get one in Dixie, Local 1010 quickly provided a good one for me.
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In the old days – going back in time a good ways – it has always seemed to me that friends and foes alike were much more candidly open in their positions, often duking it out, mostly nonviolently but sometimes not.
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The Arizona Mine Mill Council was as pleased to have me as its major speaker on the civil rights movement as I was to appear before that very large gathering of its many Arizona local unions.
General Hill returned to Texas.  In 1981, a good friend, Duane Hale, Creek Indian and an academic historian, ran across Hill at the West Texas Historical Conference.  He reported that the Old Dragon was old and frail.
Many years after all of this, I learned from our good friend, Stephen Zunes, who we have known since he was a precocious seven year old, that Bill Karnes was his cousin on his mother’s side.  Not surprised at all.
In the old days – going back in time a good ways – it has always seemed to me that friends and foes alike were much more candidly open in their positions, often duking it out, mostly nonviolently but sometimes not.  Nowadays, all sorts of disingenuous stuff, often covert back-biting and back-knifing, seem much more common on the part of our adversaries, and occasionally even a few of our ostensible allies.
The people I have mentioned fondly and well were, and those who remain still, are very fine people.  I wouldn’t try ideological analysis on any of them and their productive contributions — or their multitude of interesting inter-connections.  As my old cowboy/artist and radical mentor, Frank Dolphin, was sometimes prone to trenchantly note:
“Like pulls to like.”
Hunter Bear
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR] Mi’kmaq / St. Francis Abenaki / St. Regis Mohawk
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