Jack Weinberg, center, shown in 1964 participating in a demonstration and sit-in at the Sheridan Palace Hotel in San Francisco. It was a civil rights demonstration against racially discriminatory hiring practices by hotels. He was later arrested. | Photo by Howard Harawitz submitted by Jack Weinberg.
Updated: September 5, 2013 6:15AM
“...Well, they passed a law in ‘64
To give those who ain’t got, a little more
But it only goes so far
‘Cause the law don’t change another’s mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar...”
— Bruce Hornsby
Jack Weinberg lives with his wife of 36 years, Valerie Denney, on the east side of Gary’s Miller neighborhood near the county line about a beach ball’s toss from Lake Michigan.
Weinberg was 24 and attending the University of California, Berkeley when he told a reporter, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” That quote soon made the headlines of most major newspapers throughout the country. Today, at 73, he assured me he does trust himself.
Where were you born?
“Buffalo, N.Y.,” he said. “I lived a very sheltered life as a boy growing up in the 1950s.”
Are you Jewish?
“Yes, but not religious. That’s my ethnicity, at least. I grew up in a religious, Jewish immigrant family. They were Polish Jews. Fortunately, my family came to the United States before Hitler. We have no relatives left.”
Berkeley in 1964?
“I studied abstract mathematics at that time. Berkeley was probably the top school in the world in mathematics. Then, I got caught up in the civil rights movement. From there, the free speech movement.
“I was the chairman of the campus chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality Corps for the Civil Rights organization. We were involved in demonstrations around the San Francisco Bay area over discrimination against African-Americans.”
The beginning of a volatile period in U.S. history.
“I had already been active and was involved in demonstrations and arrested a number of times at sit-ins. The summer of ‘64 was called Freedom Summer. Many of the students went to the Deep South. That’s when (James Earl) Chaney, (Andrew) Goodman and (Michael) Schwerner were murdered. They were there to register voters.”
“Correct. Our campus was very active. During the fall semester, the university announced new regulations saying that you were no longer allowed to pass out leaflets or do anything that advocated any type of activity that was social or political in nature.
“Some of the businesses that we had been targeting for discrimination told the university, ‘You must stop the students from attacking us.’ So the university announced rules that would prohibit students from protesting and demonstrating on or off campus.”
“The student groups got together and said, ‘We’re not going to obey these rules. We’ll try to negotiate with you, but we have a right to free speech — we’re citizens.’ So, we started systematically violating those rules.
“I was arrested and put in a police car which immediately was surrounded by students.”
Thousands of students.
“Yes; I sat in that police car for 32 hours. I was eventually released after I was booked. The charges were dropped. That’s when real negotiations began. After four months, the negotiations broke down and the university started expelling students. We had a sit-in at the administration building where 800 students got arrested. It was the largest mass-arrest in California history.”
“The students went on strike. That’s when the faculty voted to support the students’ demands. It became an international story. Many people consider that the starting point of the activist ‘60s. Vietnam escalated right after that.”
You hung around Berkeley until the end of the ‘60s. Then what?
“I took an interest in unions. In ‘69, I worked on the assembly line for (General Motors) in Los Angeles. I was very interested in the history of the (United Auto Workers). I moved to Detroit and lived there from ‘70 to‘77. I worked for a number of auto plants, mainly Chrysler. I got involved in some activities and was fired during a wildcat strike at Chrysler.”
How long have you lived in Miller?
“Well, we first moved to Miller in 1977 when Valerie and I worked at U.S. Sheet & Tin. Valerie was a millwright and I was in quality control. We worked there for about eight years. We were members of Local 1066. I was an assistant griever for a while.
“Things got bad in the early ‘80s and we moved to Chicago and pursued other careers. About 10 years ago, we missed Miller so we bought this place. We also have a condo in Chicago, but we spend most of our time in Miller. Living in Miller is what made us become environmentalists.”
Not a lot of rank and file steelworkers from Northwest Indiana are Berkeley grads.
“While I was a member of 1066, they were building a nuclear power plant right next to Bethlehem Steel. I was one of the key organizers of what was called the Bailly Alliance that was in opposition of building the plant. After five years, NIPSCO pulled the plug.
“We started that in 1977, which was before Three Mile Island. People didn’t know that much about nuclear power plants back then. That all changed after Three Mile Island.”
Where did you work after U.S. Steel?
“I was fortunate enough to get a job with Greenpeace International. I worked for Greenpeace for 10 years. I started out working with chemical pollution in the Great Lakes. I coordinated a program that was international because it included Canada.
“After that assignment, I began working on a global treaty which dealt with a class of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants. The same chemicals that were affecting the Great Lakes had become an international concern.
“In 2001, the treaty was adopted. Today, it’s called the Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants. About 130 countries ratified that treaty.”
When did you leave Greenpeace?
“In 2000. Then, I went to work for another organization that basically just gave me a paycheck, a credit card, gave me office space and let me go wherever I wanted to go in the world to promote the implementation of this treaty and to build this network.
“In 2008, I retired but kept volunteering and consulting. The last couple years, I’ve gotten really involved again. That conference call I was on when I let you into the house was somebody in Geneva (Switzerland) from the United Nations Environmental Program and some people from California. We were negotiating funding for a project in Africa. In the last six months, I’ve been to Asia four times.”
“In 2014, it will be the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement. It was a landmark event.
“I think back to when I was 24 and about the things that happened 50 years before that. And I realize how ancient 50 years ago is. With that said, I’ve done all the things I’ve wanted to do and I’ve been all over the world. I was active in the civil rights movement, the free speech movement and was involved in the anti-war movement, unions and I’m still involved in environmental health.”
Jack, you’re a warrior who has had a multifaceted career to say the least.
“I couldn’t have dreamt of a more fulfilling set of experiences in life.”
The freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the right of people peaceably to assemble... .
Lest we forget.