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Student Activism in the 1930s
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SLID Essays (Summer, 1935)

Publishing Information

    Autobiography of Lewis Morton Cohen

    Louisville, Ky., Univ. of Louisville

  1. Norton Infirmary in Louisville, Ky., was suddenly disturbed by a raucous cry one afternoon in the middle of November 1915. It was the first assertion of your author.

  2. My parents are both Jewish, both middle-class, and both native Americans. My mother, a native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., graduated from Peabody College in Nashville and taught kindergarten in Louisville for one year before she was married. My father's education was limited to one year in high-school work and what he could pick up for himself after that. He owned, as did his father before him, a merchant tailoring shop, which catered to the moderately wealthy.

  3. Surrounded by family and friends of staunch middle-class psychology I naturally remained imbued with their philosophy of things in general throughout childhood and early adolescence. My grade school education was of the conventional type; I was duly elated when I skipped a grade, when I reached junior high school, and when I crossed the threshold of the high school for the first time. I held various positions on school publications, and believed—as does everyone at some time or another, I suppose—that I had the gift of writing.

  4. The one outstanding fact in my past life, as it appears to me now, is that until only a short time ago, it was absolutely devoid of social consciousness. I was content to amuse myself with the standard middle-class diversions, not unduly upset or even aware of the misery of the world. It is easily explained, however. My family, while far from wealthy, had been able to live comfortably until the downward swoop of the business cycle in 1929 and 1930. We lived in a "nice" neighborhood, rarely if ever' saw slum sections or observed them carefully, and most important probably, were citizens of an extremely conservative city. The last strike in Louisville, I believe, was in 19ll. I was surrounded by a network of bourgeoisie, with their ideals and psychology forming an ample smoke screen against radical or liberal thought. My first conflict with the established order was the inevitable religious conflict of adolescence. After weeks of contemplation and trepidation, I came to the conclusion that I was an agnostic, and felt that I had made a most remarkable step to the goal of independent thought. Incidentally, I'm still a religious agnostic, but I didn't regard the achievement with quite so much pride in my intelligence as I did then.

  5. Much of the middle-class smoke-screen was dispelled by the depression. Business reverses set our family's ship of rugged individualism on the rocks, with the rudder sadly bent. Still however, I did not look in the direction of liberal thought. I pursued my college education at the University of Louisville more or less diligently and worked as reporter and news editor on our college weekly. I thought about politics in terms of Republicans and Democrats, about economics not at all. Then came the dawn!

  6. But it came pretty slowly. Two of my college friends invited me to attend a meeting at the house of my psychology professor, Dr. Ellis Freeman. It was a radical discussion group, meeting every week and known as the Pen and Hammer Club; radicals of every creed were there. The meeting was just a little over my head, but I was interested, and went back again. "I Went to Pit College," read at this time, probably influenced me more than any other book I have ever read.

  7. A young economics instructor named Charlie Orr decided to attempt to organize a chapter of the L.I.D. in the University, and seeing my awaking interest in social problems, contacted me, as well as five or six others. It is he whom I have to thank for being at the summer school today. I was elected vice-president of my chapter, which now numbers about l5. We have had little chance to do any work off the campus in our short existence, but we believe we have a chapter that is capable of very good work. It was our chapter—as yet in a very early stage of development—that made our April 12 meeting against war a success. We brought into the open prize examples of dirty politics in the International Relations Club, and stand a good chance of placing L.I.D. members in its offices next fall. I have been appointed editor of our college paper for next year, and will wield quite a bit influence.

  8. I do not hesitate to admit that when I joined the nucleus of students which formed our L.I.D. I did not know very much about it or about socialist theory in general. I joined to learn; but I firmly believe that it has influenced my life and will influence it more than any other factor I have ever encountered. Possibly without the L.I.D. I would have eventually reached the point where I could accept Socialism as my real religion. With the L.I.D. I have attained it much sooner.

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