(December 1, 1897—June 18, 1975) December 1 was George T. Altman, My Father’s BirthdayBy Ross Altman, PhD
Papa Had to Start All Over is my best song for my father. It was about the blacklist, and Dad’s refusal to name names when he was subpoenaed by HUAC—the House Committee on Un-American Activities. That was back in 1952—and he was subpoenaed for representing the First Unitarian Church—whose minister was Rev. Stephen Fritchman—a suspected Communist—as was my father. It takes one to know one—or represent one. This case is in the history books—it went all the way up to the Supreme Court—in the days when it was still the Supreme Court—and not a bunch of recently appointed hacks. William O. Douglas was on the court then, and Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Abe Fortas, and Earl Warren. They decided in favor of the First Unitarian Church, Fritchman and my father, George T. Altman.
And who was the plaintiff? My father was a tax attorney—so the plaintiff was none other than the IRS. You see, those were the days when the government went after left-wing organizations—including churches—and if they couldn’t shut them down directly by suing them for violations of civil liberties they had a backup plan—suing them for tax evasion. All they had to do was get them declared a Communist Front, and they would become ineligible for their tax-exempt status as a religious body.
That was how they planned to shut down the First Church, which couldn’t afford to stay in business without their religious standing and tax exemption. As I mentioned in my Memorial for my beloved Linda, that was where I first heard Paul Robeson sing—Spirituals and Freedom songs—so they were clearly religious songs—as well as songs of protest. While the Court decided in favor of the Church—which remains open to this day—and thus preserved their tax exempt status, the case generated enough publicity that my father was blacklisted and lost his law practice as a result. Only one client stayed with him throughout—and it wasn’t movie star Burt Lancaster. It was a used-car salesman—in deference to whom I have bought nothing but used cars ever since.
The anticommunism directed against the Old Left during the McCarthyism of the 1950s was virulent and destroyed many careers—my father’s among them. As I wrote in my song for the Old Left:
Papa Had to Start All Over:
When Senator McCarthy Put you on his list It was up to you to prove You’re not a communist Black folks and the poor folks Catholics and Jews It didn’t matter who you were Once you were accused.
It wasn’t like the sixties When voices could be heard Students marched against the war But got themselves deferred And all the bearded poets Applied and got their grants When you spoke out in ‘52 You didn’t stand a chance.
Chorus: Papa had to start all over He wasn’t any kid They took away his livelihood For doing what he did Congress said, “Just tell us who you know” Papa told them all where they could go.
So when I get discouraged And wonder where I’m bound And where I’m gonna find the strength To get up off the ground I remember Papa With Mama by his side A little man with a grey mustache Who stood up with such pride. (Final Chorus)
Dad was a leftist his whole life and eventually recovered his law practice—when Mom went to work at UCLA as a secretary to support the family. He juggled tax law (to earn money) with his political cases—which cost him money. His most challenging case was his defense of an American soldier who no other attorney would touch. The soldier was willing to defend his country—but not to attack another country—which at the time put him in the crosshairs of the Vietnam War.
Oh, did I mention? He was also Black. Dad was looking for a case involving a soldier who was not a pacifist, or a conscientious objector, who had no objection to combat; thus whose sole objection was to the Vietnam War itself. My father wanted to take on the constitutionality of an undeclared war. In fact he wanted an excuse to subpoena Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk and ultimately Lyndon Johnson to testify and force them to defend the war. So he needed a soldier whose only objection was to serving in Vietnam. He found such a soldier who had first contacted the American Civil Liberties Union–the ACLU. The ACLU’s judgment was that the case was “too political.” So they referred it to Dad. And thereby hangs a tale:
Too Political – 1966
Fort Benning, Georgia My father had a client A black American soldier He refused to be shipped to Vietnam And no other lawyer would take him on My father said, “We’ll try Lyndon Johnson For giving you an illegal order.”
The ACLU Refused to take his case They said it was “too political” They said he was way off base So my dad flew out to Georgia And hailed a taxi to the fort “There’s a nigger-loving lawyer from Beverly Hills Coming here” said the driver, in short.
Chorus: I’m just a chip off of that old block I didn’t fall far from the tree If you can’t say something nice about Uncle Sam, sit next to me.
My father got out of the taxi Said, “I think I feel like walkin’” “If I run into that lawyer you mentioned I’ll sure give him a talkin’ to” When he got out to Fort Benning He met the reason he came The soldier had gone on a hunger strike And he asked my father’s name.
“My name is George T. Altman,” Said my father as he shook his hand And I’ve been waiting two long years To find a man who would take this stand Who didn’t refuse induction Who’s not a conscientious objector But who wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam For this unjust, undeclared war. (Ch.)
The upper brass finally got to him If he refused to be deployed They’d make his life so miserable His family would be destroyed They wore him down till he dropped his strike And was shipped out to Vietnam Where they put him on the front lines And three days later he was killed by Viet Cong. (Ch)
“A nigger-loving lawyer from Beverly Hills”—that was my father. Fort Benning, Georgia is still training our soldiers—still the home base for the School of the Americas—which my peace activist friends Theresa and Blasé Bonpane accurately renamed “The School of the Assassins.” “After criticism concerning human rights violations committed by a number of graduates in Latin America, the school was renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.” It was named, by the way, for a Confederate General.
Sunset Hall—“L.A.’s retirement home for ageless radicals,” was just around the corner—2830 Francis Ave.–an offshoot and offspring of the First Church. When I came back to L.A. after my academic Wanderjahr across the country—that’s where I met Waldemar Hille—formerly the Music Director of the First Unitarian Church, editor of The People’s Songbook, who collected and annotated Woody Guthrie’s early songs, introduced We Shall Overcome to Pete Seeger, and accompanied Paul Robeson on piano when he performed at the First Church. Wally and I became friends and I helped celebrate his life after he passed away. After meeting him at Sunset Hall I wrote The Ballad of Sunset Hall which started like this:
The Ballad of Sunset Hall
There’s a place in Los Angeles called Sunset Hall A retirement home for ageless radicals Founded by the Unitarians in 1924 Now they say they can’t live there no more….
Meet Waldemar Hille he’s a grand old man He can play Joe Hill as pretty as he plays Chopin Former Music Director of the First Unitarian Church He was red-baited and black-listed by hate groups like John Birch—
Pete Seeger sang at a benefit for his retirement He edited The People’s Songbook it’s still in print He accompanied Paul Robeson and did they raise the roof Now Wally Hille’s favorite song is “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
Chorus: They’re still making trouble They don’t know when to quit They stood up to McCarthy And saw through Tricky Dick They unionized the workers They marched for civil rights So don’t expect them to walk away From Sunset Hall—without a fight.
Later that night I met attorneys Jan Goodman and Jerry Manpearl who succeeded in saving Sunset Hall—at least for the time being. We’re still friends! The Old Left still marches on—even during the pandemic.
My father passed away on June 18, 1975—the day after my sister’s 27th birthday. He was 78 years old. But he did other things besides the law. He was an amateur scientist, from whom I acquired my love of Albert Einstein and physics. We spent many an evening looking at the stars—and he loved teaching me something about the constellations we were looking at. He also loved to play catch with me. Because of him I developed into a decent first baseman—since I was left-handed—and was in love with Lou Gehrig—and finally found the Baseball Reliquary. He was an atheist who never took me to Temple—but every once in a while we’d go to the First Unitarian Church to see a good program or hear Robeson or Pete Seeger sing—the only place in town where they were welcome during the blacklist—for they were both blacklisted too.
Other than that he was not musical—but my mother was. She had played piano growing up. And it was my mother who brought music into our home. And while my aunts and uncles would buy records for their children, they were exclusively Broadway show tunes. My mother stuck to the music I grew up on—the records of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Richard Dyer-Bennett, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Josh White, Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Marais and Miranda. Between my dad’s left-wing politics and my mother’s folk music records—I was destined to be a folk singer. I still have all of those ten-inch Folkways Records—
When I left home Mom and Dad gave me their blessings—and a Martin D-28 guitar. Bless them both—and Happy Birthday, Dad. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and moved to Chicago before coming out here. Dad met Mom in a real estate office. He asked her out immediately, and fell in love on their first date—once upon a time.
Finally, Mom and Linda passed away on the very same day—July 7, 2008 and 2020.
Mom fell in love with her just as I did. Mo and Linda’s birthday were both June 17; for my beloved and my sister to be born on the same day was strange enough—but for Mom and Linda to pass away on the very same day—that was providential. Some things are beyond words.
Dad and Linda Huf both died from pneumonia—forty-five years apart—still a deadly disease. Dad never got to meet her—the love of my life—or to hear the song I wrote for him. That’s what Heaven is for.
PAPA HAD TO START ALL OVER
(December 1, 1897—June 18, 1975) December 1 was George T. Altman, My Father’s Birthday