Artist, historian and rebel

April 17, 2009

Alan Maass honors a revolutionary who helped keep the history of our movement alive.

FRANKLIN ROSEMONT, a historian, poet, artist and lifelong revolutionary, died suddenly April 12 at the age of 65. He was a part of movements for justice that spanned half a century, and as a writer and artist, he helped keep alive the traditions and history of the struggle for a better world.

Franklin was born in Chicago in 1943. His father Henry was a union printer who played a leading role in the nearly two-year-long Chicago newspaper strike of 1947-1949, editing the strike newspaper and writing scripts for a daily radio show, "Meet the Union Printers," broadcast on the Chicago Federation of Labor's station WCFL. His mother Sally was a jazz musician who became president of a union local for women musicians.

Not surprisingly, Franklin was drawn to the left early on--he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) at age 7. Tiring of high school, he dropped out to hitchhike across the U.S. and Mexico, logging more than 20,000 miles by his count.

One regular stop was San Francisco's North Beach, the heart of beat culture, where he met Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the other poets at City Lights bookstore. Franklin was also drawn toward surrealist literature and art--first encountered, he said, in a high school anthology, where he came across the surrealist proverb "Elephants are contagious."

Franklin Rosemont (center) with Penelope Rosemont and Paul Buhle
Franklin Rosemont (center) with Penelope Rosemont and Paul Buhle (Thomas Good | Next Left Notes)

With U.S. society still in the grips of Cold War conservatism, the appeal of the beats and the surrealists was as a cry of defiance against the conformity of American culture. But Franklin always connected cultural rebellion to a political one, viewing surrealism not only as a form of artistic expression, but as a political philosophy.

By the early 1960s, the civil rights movement was shaking U.S. politics, and a new left was emerging. Back in Chicago, Franklin went to Roosevelt University, then a center of radical activity, and one of the few schools committed to hiring African American faculty--it was known as the "little red schoolhouse."

In the mid-1960s, he and his wife Penelope, a fellow artist, visited Paris, where they met Andre Breton, the main figure of European surrealism. Breton's Surrealist Manifesto, written in the 1920s, insisted on the connection of politics and art. Breton later visited Mexico to meet Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky--together, they wrote the manifesto Toward a Free Revolutionary Art.

Breton found kindred spirits in the Rosemonts. Franklin and Penelope came back to the U.S. and formed the Chicago Surrealist Group. Its members could be found at Solidarity Bookstore or Gallery Bugs Bunny--both places served as meeting space during organizing around the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

For the Rosemonts, exhibitions of their art went hand in hand with producing leaflets and posters for the struggle. Franklin worked with the IWW and Students for a Democratic Society. He also spearheaded the newspaper Surrealist Insurrection, which was singled out as an inspiration by radical students during the Prague Spring rebellion in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

FRANKLIN WAS a tireless writer. After Breton's death in 1966, he edited an English language collection of Breton's writings, among many other works by surrealists. He published numerous books of his own poetry.

He also used his encyclopedic knowledge of American labor and the left to become a prolific historian--all without, as one tribute to him put it, "ever holding a university post." Recently, he published his biography Joe Hill, the IWW and the Making of a Working-Class Counterculture. He also edited and wrote introductions for numerous books collecting the writings of a virtual Who's Who of American radicals.

Many of these books were connected to what became a central project of Franklin's life--the Charles H. Kerr Company, the oldest socialist publisher in the country.

Founded in 1886, the Kerr Company was a stronghold of the Socialist Party left and IWW during the first decades of the 20th century--known for a vast list of radical books, its series of short pamphlets wrapped in red cellophane called "The Pocket Library of Socialism," and its monthly magazine, the widely read International Socialist Review.

By the time Franklin connected with the Kerr Company in the late 1970s, it had fallen on hard times. A small number of older socialists who remembered the Kerr Company in its heyday had recently joined the board of directors, thinking that the company deserved "a proper burial," and that at least its stock of old books could be saved from the dumpster.

But one thing led to another, and the Kerr Company was reborn, with a steady trickle--and then a healthy stream--of reprints and new titles. Franklin threw himself into the work with all his infectious energy, giving new life to Kerr classics by the likes of Upton Sinclair, Clarence Darrow, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and many more.

I MET Franklin when I was first coming around left-wing politics in the early 1980s. With the right-wing Reagan era taking hold, Franklin's knowledge and experience were a treasured resource. He was a bridge to the struggles of the past that we knew about mainly through reading--not only those he was a part of in the 1960s and '70s, but ones that came before him.

Through Franklin, I met the Kerr Company's movement veterans--like Fred Thompson, whose days as an agitator dated back to the pre-Depression Wobblies. Or Joe Giganti, formerly head of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, not to mention opera critic for the Communist Party's Italian-language paper Il Lavoratore.

I knew about the 1930s Chicago union activist Vicki Starr (who went by the name Stella Nowicki) from the wonderful documentary Union Maids. But of course, Franklin and his Kerr Company co-conspirator David Roediger knew where she lived, and got her to an International Women's Day event where she could be questioned in person.

I should also say that I was never prouder to call Chicago my hometown than when I was talking to Franklin. He was an inexhaustible storehouse of information about the other Chicago they don't make tourism commercials about--or mention in their bids to host the Olympics.

It was enough to say you'd moved to a new place in such and such neighborhood, and you'd soon learn that you were down the block from a factory once owned by the German émigré who financed the English-language translation of Marx's Capital, or that there was a forgotten monument to Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons' widow Lucy Parsons in a park nearby, or that the 1968 convention protesters had taken refuge on that street over there where they're building the fancy townhouses.

The book of Franklin's that I always thought was perfectly suited to him was the Haymarket Scrapbook, which he edited with David Roediger--and if you see a copy for sale anywhere, don't hesitate, grab it fast.

The Scrapbook is what a coffee-table book should be--hugely oversized, and stuffed with essays, excerpts, quotes, poems, drawings, photos, reproductions of leaflets and anything else remotely pertaining to the 1886 demonstration in Chicago's Haymarket Square and the execution of the Haymarket Martyrs after that.

The book tells the story of the Martyrs and the movement for the eight-hour day that they led. But it also sets out the backdrop and associated political developments, and it traces Haymarket's reverberations through the years in shaping all kinds of people and all kinds of struggles.

This is the history of our movement that's kept hidden from us. Franklin was devoted to keeping that history alive so that it could be a part of shaping the struggles of the future. And for that, we owe him many thanks--and our commitment to keep up the fight.

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