150th Anniversary Issue

More than a professor: The enduring impact of Leon Litwack

Enduring Cal connections: An occasional series by Daily Cal alumni

Leon Litwack and Gary Pomerantz at Saul's Restaurant in North Berkeley in 2015. (Gary M. Pomerantz / Courtesy)

Forty years later, I can still see and hear him at the podium. Maybe that was Leon Litwack’s plan for his students all along, to take up residence in our minds. Litwack, historian emeritus at UC Berkeley, taught at the university for 43 years. He became a cult figure on campus by bringing his leftist intellectual fire to American history. With that Morgan Freeman voice — a higher authority speaking — he cast his spell.

What I write here may seem elegiac, but at age 91, Litwack remains an intellectually vital figure. Once his student, and much later his friend, I write in appreciation of Litwack’s continuing relevance at a time when the story of the American past is being fought over — with monuments falling, school names changing — like so many mastiffs ripping at a soup bone. His life’s work was a search for the answer to the question, “Who are we?”

In winter 1981, I sat among nearly 700 students in Wheeler Hall Auditorium for History 17D, his introductory American history course, Civil War to present. Litwack was a radical who believed that every nation needed disturbers of the peace. He said dissent is high patriotism. He was in the vanguard of the postwar movement of historians who expanded the American narrative by telling the stories of working-class people and people of color. To him, everyone’s story mattered.

He would teach this quintessential UC Berkeley class from 1964 to 2007 — from Lyndon B. Johnson to the dawning of Barack Obama — to nearly 30,000 students.

Litwack was 17 years into teaching this course with a quarter century yet to go when I arrived at Wheeler. He was at the height of his powers. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he was a campus celebrity, its iconoclast-in-residence. He sometimes lectured wearing a renegade’s black leather jacket, like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, one minute before the appointed hour, Litwack walked onto the Wheeler stage. In later years, he might wear his Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd tie, and a song that fit the theme of that day’s lecture, usually rock or blues, would accompany him. In my year, 1981, as Litwack arrived at the podium, students fell silent and lights dimmed slightly. A small lamp illuminated the pages of his lecture.

All eyes on Litwack.

He was ordinary in size, no muscularity, and from the front rows, you could see that, at age 51, his hair was graying and thinning. His lectures were left-leaning counternarratives about underdogs who had been left out of high school history books. He told diamond-sharp stories about slave masters, sharecroppers and civil rights activists — all of it done with a sense of drama. For most of us, Litwack’s performances became our introduction to the lives and realities of the underlings of the American cast. His lectures were charged with passion and righteousness. They were magisterial and possessed a moral quality. His sympathies were always clear.

He dismissed his survey course only once, in December 1964, after police arrested more than 800 students who had gathered for a Free Speech Movement sit-in at Sproul Hall. Litwack supported the movement, and the next morning, he told his students at Wheeler that the day’s class was canceled. It would be inappropriate to study, and perhaps celebrate, rebels of the past, he explained, while rebels of the present were being silenced.

By design, Litwack taught his survey course, he said, “in a way that could be genuinely disturbing.” In my time as a student, in the early years of Ronald Reagan, both the nation and the campus grew more conservative. For students from conservative backgrounds, Litwack’s stories on the darkest American experiences amounted to historical shock therapy. When one student critiqued the course as “The White Man Sucks class,” a GSI playfully amended, “You mean the White Non-Working-Class Man Sucks class.” Litwack didn’t mind when students opposed his views in conversations during office hours or in their research papers; after all, he was a proponent of dissent. But he cautioned us not to blindly accept white-sanitized history.

His course drew more than 1,000 students in the early years, some watching him on televisions in adjacent rooms at Wheeler. His narrative moved from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age to progressivism to the ’20s to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal through the war years to the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and Watergate. He showed films (“The Birth of a Nation,” “Hearts and Minds,” “Berkeley in the Sixties”) and placed on his syllabus an evolving reading list heavy with John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, Betty Friedan, Studs Terkel, W.E.B. Du Bois, Horatio Alger, Anne Moody, Sinclair Lewis and Michael Herr.

Through the years, his students became more diverse and multinational. For many of those majoring in other fields, this would be their only history class, and Litwack wanted them not only to learn history but to feel it.

His lecture on the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, is embedded in my memory. The IWW, founded in 1905, was a union of trade workers and bindle-bums. Known as the Wobblies, IWW members sang their protest songs in union halls, box cars, picket lines and jail cells.

“They were free thinkers, undisciplined rebels who tried to organize workers no other union had reached,” Litwack said in lecture. “The wonder, perhaps, is that the IWW endured for as long as it did.”

To Litwack, the IWW was an authentic expression of American dissent and part of a grand protest tradition. This lecture was a performance piece: The lights turned off with 15 minutes left, giving way to IWW songs and a compelling slideshow. The auditorium filled with a recording of “Joe Hill,” a mournful song about an immigrant songwriter who, in 1915, became an IWW martyr after being convicted of murder and executed by a firing squad. Next came a stirring rendition of the Wobblies’ anthem, “Solidarity Forever” (to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) with the refrain, “For the union makes us strong!” As the music grew louder, I watched Litwack stand silently at the podium, head slightly bowed. Years later, I saw his written instruction for the slide projector operator. It read: “SOLIDARITY FOREVER (2:10): 19 slides at 7 seconds each. TURN UP VOLUME … STOP TAPE. KEEP LAST SLIDE ON. LIGHT ONLY ON LECTURER.”

A student once asked Litwack what gave him hope for the country’s future. He thought for a moment. Then he brightened and said, “Rock ‘n’ roll!”

I never met him as his student, never mounted the courage to visit him during office hours. It had been the same for him with historian Kenneth Stampp. As a UC Berkeley undergraduate, Litwack took Stampp’s U.S. history survey course and thought him a great lecturer, a great man. But he didn’t meet Stampp until graduate school, and he was so nervous in his office that he bumped into a chair and said to it, “Excuse me.”

I had my chance to meet Litwack in 2000, some 19 years after taking his class. A faculty colleague at Emory University in Atlanta mentioned he was scheduled to have dinner with Leon Litwack, and I said, “Berkeley’s Leon Litwack?” He replied, “Is there another?” They invited me to join. When I saw Litwack step from a car, his hair was grayer than I remembered, his facial features softer.

“It’s great to see you, Professor Litwack,” I said.

“Call me Leon,” he insisted.

“I can’t.” He smiled as if he’d heard this before. “Not yet, anyway.” And so our friendship began.

I would spend that summer in the East Bay, and by the end of our dinner, Litwack invited me to continue writing my second book in his vacant Dwinelle Hall office. I wrote from his chair, under his posters of W.E.B. Du Bois and Lenny Bruce. We met for lunch regularly, occasionally interrupted by waitresses or patrons who had taken his survey course years before and stopped by our table to thank him.

After the terrorist attack on 9/11, Litwack, over lox, eggs and onions at Saul’s Deli, seemed disgusted that a group founded by Lynne Cheney, the vice president’s wife, had made a critics list of academics and others speaking out against Bush administration policies. He wasn’t teaching that fall or he’d have been on the list — and proud of it. It hurt him to say, “All my friends are on it — except me.”

When I received word the following July that he had suffered a stroke, I rushed to his hospital. At the nurses’ station, I left him a CD player and discs of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. The stroke affected his speech and physical movements. His recuperation proved difficult. In less than two years, though, he made it back to his survey course.

I spent time with him touring Santa Barbara, where he had grown up as the only child of Russian immigrant parents. In the 1920s, Litwack said his parents had joined a hiking club whose members were Jewish, Socialist, anarchist and vegetarian, and they’d once heard the anarchist writer Emma Goldman speak. He showed me the old house on Milpas Street (now a taqueria) and the location of the hotel where his father, Julius, had worked as a gardener. Litwack pointed to the nearby hills and recalled how he had hiked there with his father, who had handed him a tattered copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass” and asked him to read aloud, and he did. We stopped at Santa Barbara High School, where, in 11th grade, he had made a presentation that challenged what he viewed as the textbook’s distortions about slavery (featuring paternalistic masters and their happy, docile slaves) and Reconstruction. His teacher told her students, “Class, you must remember that Leon is bitterly pro-labor.” That teacher would live long enough to see Litwack win a Pulitzer Prize for “Been in the Storm So Long,” his 1979 study of slavery’s aftermath.

Later, Litwack showed me the photograph of his mother Minnie that he had published in an American history textbook he co-authored with his UC Berkeley colleague Winthrop Jordan. An old immigrant babushka in the chapter entitled “Working Class,” his mother, a seamstress once active in a New York City garment workers union, wasn’t identified by name.

He also shared with me the FBI files on the young Leon Litwack that he had obtained in 1977. He knew that J. Edgar Hoover’s bureau had investigated him during the McCarthy era. As a UC Berkeley undergraduate, Litwack had participated in political groups the government later would identify as subversive, and at their campus meetings and rallies, he often saw Inspector Charles O’Meara of the Berkeley Police Department’s anti-subversive squad taking copious notes. After graduation, Litwack became a U.S. Army private at Fort Ord in 1953 and volunteered on government forms that he had been “a non-card-carrying member of a student affiliate of the (Communist Party) in Berkeley.” He also wrote that he no longer held those ideals and fully subscribed his loyalty to the United States. According to his files, the FBI observed his mail for a few weeks and discovered that he regularly exchanged letters with his mother and his wife; one friend told the FBI he would trust Litwack with the United States’ atomic bomb secrets.

Through our talks, I came to understand the baseline truth of Litwack’s lectures in Wheeler Auditorium. He had not only taught us American history. He had taught us his own history.

Today, at 91, Litwack lives with Rhoda, his wife of 68 years, in a Berkeley Hills home they bought in 1965. We have shared some of our most meaningful conversations in his study, a magnificent room that features one of the nation’s premier, privately held collections of books of Black history and literature. I saw Litwack pull from his shelf a first edition of “Twelve Years a Slave” from 1853, and another time a used hardback of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” that he bought long ago at Moe’s Books. Inside its cover was the printed name of Bobby Seale, the former Black Panther, along with Seale’s Oakland address.

I asked him to show me a book that resonated with him personally. He pointed to a two-volume set of “The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine.” “Second shelf down at the end,” he said. I handed him the boxed set he’d purchased in 1948. “Oh, my!” he said. “Look at that! I remember loving the fact it was in a box like this.” He said he plans to give his prized collection of books to Bancroft Library. But the idea of giving up his books pains him. “I wish that I could take them with me,” he said.

Once, I asked him why history matters. He reached into his files and pulled out his introductory lecture from 2007, the last time he taught his survey course. “American history is more than an exercise in self-congratulation and nostalgia,” he began, lecturing now to me alone. “This course focuses on the human consequences. … It is a history of how people felt about what was happening to them, not merely a study of the institutions that served, frustrated and repressed them. … It is a story of common people.”

“Did you teach the survey course with an agenda?” I asked as we sat in his study. Yes, he said, all teachers teach with an agenda, or at least, a set of objectives. “I wanted to make students think more deeply about this country,” he said. I asked, “Was there a rainbow at the end of your objectives for the course?” He nodded. “The eradication of poverty,” he said.

I’ve watched him age from 70 to 90 and fight against the inevitable physical infirmities. I saw him walk with a cane and then push a metal walker. Now, he requires a wheelchair.

A few years ago, I helped him walk down the steep steps in front of his home. At Wheeler, he had been an archetype, an outsized figure on stage. Now, Litwack was an old man — and my old friend — who, needing help, gave me his hand.

In fall 2006, his 43rd and final academic year of teaching at UC Berkeley, Litwack suddenly turned pale while lecturing on African American history. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He paused to gather himself. Twenty minutes still remained. Amy Lippert, a GSI, pulled a chair to him. Litwack wouldn’t sit. A few students tried to help. He was adamant: He only needed a moment. Lippert feared he might faint or, worse, suffer another stroke. She hurried outside to call 911. An ambulance appeared just as several students dashed outside the lecture hall to say, “He’s started lecturing again!” The paramedics said they could not take him against his will. After a brief wait, they drove off.

Litwack would die teaching before he’d let himself be carried out on a stretcher in front of his students.

Lippert wiped away tears and went back inside until he finished, about 15 minutes past the hour. The class rewarded Litwack with a standing ovation. A student who had parked nearby drove him home soon after he finished.

Television cameras and old friends packed inside Wheeler for his final survey course lecture in May 2007: one more standing-room-only performance. Out of respect and devotion, many of his former teaching assistants and students showed up. Some sat in the aisles. He arrived on stage in his black leather jacket to the sound of the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power.” Students stood and took photos. At 77, Litwack’s voice was gravelly with age. As he lectured, he used the podium for balance. For this course, he had delivered a lecture a thousand times and more. To David Johnson, then a GSI and now president of Merritt College, it was an emotional end-of-an-era moment. Johnson looked at his watch repeatedly, thinking, “Only 20 minutes left; only 10 minutes left.” Litwack received a standing ovation at the start and finish, the latter lasting several minutes. A tape played of Litwack’s friend Tracy Nelson, formerly of Mother Earth, singing “Joe Hill,” the IWW song with the refrain, “ ‘I never died,’ said he.”

Litwack’s teaching impact is writ large in the many teaching assistants who, through the decades, became professors at colleges and universities across the nation. They’ve become branches on the Litwack teaching tree. He forever shaped the way they teach, write and think about history. He remains the voice inside their heads.

I count myself as a branch on that teaching tree. Litwack is inside my head, too. He often revised his lectures, first with a typewriter and years later with a computer, tweaking here and there as he sat in his study until 2 or 3 in the morning on the day the lecture was to be delivered, listening to classical music as he worked, usually Beethoven or Sibelius. Why do revisions on a lecture he’d delivered more than 30 times already? This group of students had never heard it. “Yes,” Litwack said. “But I have.”

The first day of each quarter I teach, I give myself a pep talk. I stand outside the classroom. Silently, I say, “Make Litwack proud.” Then I enter.

Gary M. Pomerantz ’82 lectures at Stanford University’s graduate program in journalism and has written six nonfiction books about history, race and sports. Follow him on Twitter at @garympomerantz.