The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 68/No. 31           August 31, 2004  
Event celebrates life of Almeda Kirsch
Socialist Workers Party cadre for 58 years
CLEVELAND—A meeting was held here August 8 to celebrate the life of Almeda Kirsch and her contributions to building a proletarian party for nearly six decades. Kirsch, who died July 19 at the age of 83, was a member of the Cleveland branch of the Socialist Workers Party since she joined the SWP in 1946. The 50 participants came from Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, the Twin Cities, New York, and elsewhere. Twenty messages were received from individuals who had worked with Kirsch over the years.

Norton Sandler spoke on behalf of the party’s National Committee and chaired the event. Kirsch, he explained, was born in the farming area of Ruggles Township in Central Ohio. She attended Ohio State University in Columbus for more than four years, studying music. Kirsch was a violinist and pianist. Herman Kirsch, also a music student at Ohio State, introduced her to socialist ideas. Herman had joined the SWP in 1939. The two were married in 1943. After living briefly in New York City, the couple returned to Ohio.

Almeda joined the SWP in the midst of the post-World War II strike wave that spread quickly across the country. She worked office jobs for the rest of her life. Herman was a member of the United Auto Workers at the Pesco division of Borg-Warner company for 30 years. The couple had three children.

Sandler noted that Almeda Kirsch lived through the anticommunist witch-hunt in the 1950s. The Cleveland branch of the SWP at the time threw itself into activity in defense of Black rights. In late 1955, the Black community in Montgomery, Alabama, organized a boycott of city buses after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the segregated Jim Crow bus system. Kirsch was assigned by the SWP to help raise funds to buy station wagons to be used during the Montgomery bus boycott.

The party campaigned in defense of the Cuban Revolution, which triumphed in 1959. Party branches were involved in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which spread the facts about the revolution and opposed Washington’s military moves against the revolutionary government in Havana.

“The party was deeply involved in the Black struggle of the 1960s,” said Sandler. In Cleveland one of the main fights for Black rights centered on community control of the schools. Malcolm X spoke on a symposium at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland in April of 1964 on “The Negro Revolt—What Comes Next?” The speech is widely known as “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

Dave Prince, now living in New York, explained how he was recruited to the YSA under the impact of the tumultuous events of the Black struggle, the Cuban Revolution, and the early stage of the Vietnam war. An art student at Oberlin College, he traveled to Cleveland frequently to attend political meetings and other events.

“This was important to my recruitment,” said Prince. “I saw a well maintained hall, with books and the Militant newspaper, as part of a national organization. These things are only possible with disciplined activity and attention to organization and finances. Almeda helped set the tone that was necessary. When she took an assignment, you could count on it being carried out to the end and on time.”  
Debs Hall raid
Prince told the story of how a November 1965 benefit for the Militant attended by more than 75 people at Debs Hall, the SWP center, was raided by the liquor police and the Cleveland cops. “The hall that night was packed with Black community activists, workers, and youth who had worked together,” he said. “Participants had been involved in a range of activities in defense of Black rights, including the just completed campaign by Carl Stokes, who ran as an independent Black candidate for Mayor. The attendance that night reflected how the party was right in the middle of things.”

Plainclothes cops burst into the hall and pushed their way into the event. A cop fired shots into the ceiling and some participants were beaten. Thirty were thrown in jail and charged with “disorderly assembly,” including Almeda. A broad defense campaign was waged and seven months later, in July 1966, the charges were dropped. Almeda and Herman were convicted of violating the state liquor laws, however, and had to pay a fine.

The next month, National Guard troops and cops went into the Black community of Cleveland to attack large-scale protests against a racist killing. Warrants were issued to re-arrest 29 of the defendants in the Debs Hall case, many of whom were activists in the Black community. A three-year fight led by the Committee to Aid the Debs Hall Defendants, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, and the ACLU led to a court ruling which declared the disorderly assembly ordinance unconstitutional and reversed the convictions.

“One of my favorite haunts, as was the case for most of the Cleveland branch, was Almeda and Herman’s home in Shaker Heights,” Prince told the crowd. “Whether we showed up on short notice, or no notice, we were always welcome. I was an aspiring artist. I hoped to use art to change the world. I met several cultured workers and accomplished artists in the SWP.” Prince referred to both Herman and Almeda, and also to Duncan Ferguson, a nationally known sculptor who was also a member of the branch at the time.

James Harris, now a garment worker in Atlanta who was the SWP presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, described what drew him to the party and Young Socialist Alliane (YSA) in 1968. “I was a student at Cleveland State University and president of the Black Student Union there,” Harris said. “I became interested in the fight against the war in Vietnam and was attracted to the Cuban Revolution. This brought me around the SWP and YSA. There were many other groups at the time, all contesting for youth of our generation. I was attracted by the seriousness of the party Almeda committed her life to building.”

Harris described how the 1965 campaign of Carl Stokes as an independent candidate for mayor of Cleveland grew out of the struggles of the Black community. When Stokes ran for reelection in 1969 as a Democratic Party candidate, the SWP ran Syd Stapleton for mayor. Harris ran for East Cleveland Board of Education. “Syd was 24 years old. I had been a YSA member for six months,” Harris said. “The Communist Party criticized us for opposing Stokes. But we put forward a revolutionary perspective against that of the Democratic and Republican parties. We ran a bold campaign. Only the intertwining of generations made this possible.”

In a message to the celebration Syd Stapleton wrote, “Almeda was always in the center of these events. She had a lot of responsibilities, between work and maintaining a household, and being a mother and an active member of the branch. But she was always ready to take an assignment, and never lost her cool. Almeda opened her home at the drop of a hat, never missed a branch meeting or executive committee meeting, and was always ready for a Militant sale or petition drive.”  
Movement against U.S. war on Vietnam
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Cleveland was a center of the movement against the war in Vietnam. Several conferences that drew thousands of youth and other activists were held here, where strategy and tactics for opposing the war were debated and an action course to oppose the imperialist war was charted.

Almeda’s son, Fred Kirsch, who attended the meeting with his wife Sylvia and their two daughters, was among those shot at by Ohio National Guard troops when they opened fire on a student demonstration at Kent State and killed four students on May 4, 1970. The Militant ran a front-page article authored by Fred, who then went on a speaking tour to explain the truth about what became known as the “Kent State massacre.”

“In 1977-78 the party decided to organize its members to work in basic industry and carry out political work in the trade unions,” said Sandler. “We made this decision following the defeat of the U.S. government in Vietnam, and the 1974-75 worldwide recession that intensified international capitalist competition and drove the employers to make fresh assaults on the trade unions.”

“Some members split from the SWP over this perspective,” the SWP leader said. The course the party charted at this time is detailed in the book The Changing Face of U.S. Politics, by SWP national secretary Jack Barnes (see centerspread ad). Among those who left, Sandler said, were some party members of Almeda’s generation with whom she had collaborated for decades.

“Her grounding in revolutionary theory, internalized for decades, and her practical experience in building the party convinced her that the party was right,” Sandler noted. “She knew in her bones that this was the correct course, and never looked back. It’s easy to underestimate a person like Almeda because she didn’t speak often. But she would speak up when something didn’t seem right or needed clarification.”  
Defense of abortion clinics, avid reader
Sandler described how Kirsch, already well into her 70s, was part of the daily mobilizations that chased the right-wing anti-abortion group Operation Rescue out of Cleveland after their failed campaign in July 1993 to shut down abortion clinics in the Cleveland area.

“From 1993 until she moved to Judson Manor Home she came to most of our monthly counter-protest gatherings on Shaker Boulevard,” wrote Marilyn and Mike LaQuatra of the Cleveland Pro-Choice Action League (CPAL), in another message. “We all knew she had attended more protests than any of us would ever achieve so we listened to her opinions and experiences.”

Helen Meyers, chairperson of the Cleveland SWP, spoke about the last two years of Almeda’s life. “She always took her membership in the SWP very seriously,” said Meyers. “After she had a stroke in 2003 that left her blind in one eye and caused other health problems, she decided to retire from weekly activity in the party. This was a difficult decision for Almeda because she took her vote in weekly branch meetings seriously. She didn’t want to raise her hand in favor of a decision that she was not in a position to carry out. But she never changed her political conviction of the need for socialism and for a revolutionary party.”

“Almeda loved to read,” Meyers continued. “While in college she got tuberculosis and spent 9 months in a sanitarium. She read the whole time there. Rules forbid patients from reading after dark, but Almeda used her heat lamp under the blanket to read the Militant. She followed the trial of 18 SWP leaders and trade unionists in Minneapolis who were convicted for conspiracy against the government for opposing World War II.” She read until the end of her life, including Pathfinder’s recent book Aldabonazo, Inside the Cuban Revolutionary Underground, 1952-58, which she took time to discuss with Meyers.

Schooled in classical music, “Almeda also loved reggae and jazz,” wrote Omari Musa, now in Miami, who worked with her in the early 1980s. “We saw Miles Davis, Peter Tosh, Yellow Man, Grover Washington, and several others at concerts.”

“I didn’t know Almeda Kirsch,” said Ryan Scott of the Young Socialists, who was the final speaker. “But from what I’ve heard about her today, she led the kind of life I’d like to emulate.”

Scott has been part of the national effort to win ballot status for the SWP candidates in recent weeks (see front-page coverage). The meeting was the grand finale for eight other young socialists from around the country who have been on the national campaign team. Scott ended by inviting all young socialists and other campaign supporters to go to New York City to campaign for socialism at the protests leading up to and during the Republican national convention, beginning August 20.

Participants contributed $1,000 to an Almeda Kirsch Pathfinder fund announced at the meeting. Anyone wishing to contribute to this effort can send a check to Pathfinder at 306 W. 37th St., 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018.  
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