Gus Horowitz remembers Harry Ring, longtime columnist on the US Militant, who has died after 71 years in the movement.
I had the privilege of working with Harry Ring for several years in the latter part of the 1960s, during the height of the anti-Vietnam-war period.
The first of the really big national demonstrations was called for April 15, 1967, to be held in New York City and San Francisco. This meant that the local area antiwar group, the New York Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, would become a key part of the national effort, and that we in the SWP needed extra help, both on the national and local levels.
Fred Halstead was our main person on the spot. But it was sometimes difficult and awkward for Fred to play a dual role – as both a full-time antiwar movement staff person and also as the SWP representative to the coalition meetings.
In that first persona Fred had to be solicitous to everyone. He had to take care not to be seen as tendentious, even though there were often sharp disagreements within the coalition over what to do. Fred was so towering physically, with fists like grizzly bear paws. He would stand over you and shout when he got excited. If you didn’t know how gentle he really was, Fred could be intimidating. We didn’t want Fred to be seen as too hard in a political fight. It would detract from his effectiveness in the coalition. We wanted Fred to be fully accepted as a movement person and someone else to play the second role exclusively, someone who would always be seen as speaking on behalf of the SWP.
That’s where Harry came in. Most of the rest of us in the SWP’s antiwar leadership were only in our early or mid-twenties, a little too young to be fully effective in dealing with the mostly middle-aged coalition leaders from other groups. Harry, who was about fifty, could convey the gravitas we needed.
I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about Harry at first, before I really knew him.
Would he be too mild mannered, I wondered? How would he carry it off at the next big antiwar planning meeting, all our adversaries present, some with sharp claws, just waiting to pounce? Harry Ring, after all, spoke quietly, and he was short, bald, bespectacled and roly-poly round. He seemed the very opposite of Fred Halstead in physical appearance and demeanor.
But then Harry Ring got up to speak. A booming voice filled the room. No doubt about what Harry Ring stood for. No doubt at all.
From that moment on, Harry was indispensable. When Harry spoke against some proposal, when Harry with his booming voice stood up to fight, the others all knew that the SWP could be counted to fight too. And when Harry went along with a proposal, when Harry with his booming voice spoke in favor, the others all knew that the “hard line” SWPers would also go along. I think that Fred Halstead, especially, appreciated Harry’s role in the antiwar coalitions, not the least because it let Fred off the hook to some extent, let Fred play to his great strength as a general movement leader. Harry and Fred complemented each other perfectly.
Harry wasn’t really hard-nosed, even though he may have seemed so to some people in the antiwar coalition. In fact, over time Harry developed personal rapport with some of the others, in particular a friendship with Abner Grunauer, the representative of SANE (Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy), which was generally considered one of the most politically conservative groups in the antiwar coalition. Harry and Abner would spend time outside the meetings, getting together for a drink and conversation. (It didn’t hurt that Abner also tended to move leftward over time.)
As far as I knew, Harry had not previously been called upon for much public speaking or outward oriented mass movement activities. He had been a newspaperman primarily, had been for years, since the early 1950s. And he still was a newspaperman throughout the 1960s and afterwards. I got a chance to work with Harry on the Militant side of things as well. He was a real pro.
Harry would spend hours hunched over a proofreading desk or the layout table or looking over a photo with a magnifying glass, straining to see with his poor eyesight. Yet he loved it. Harry Ring had printer’s ink in his blood.
In the 1960s, though, Harry would find a way to slip away from his writing desk of an evening, put on his street fighting clothes, tune up his booming voice and march into the next antiwar event.
Years later, after I had left the SWP, I landed a job for a company with offices in the old Daily News building, a place where Harry, in a different life, might have once worked. It is a landmark building, with a huge rotating globe in the lobby, and was made famous by Superman, who also worked for a newspaper there at one time. Superman, we all know, would leave his desk and change into his street fighting clothes whenever the occasion called. Walking through that building one day, I couldn’t help thinking of Harry Ring changing into his antiwar deportment. Harry did not look much like Superman, not even like Clark Kent. But he had a political punch of steel.