Monday, July 17, 2017

Jessica Mitford: An Appreciation

As I write this I hear that Mitford's grandson James Forman Jr. will appear on NPR's Fresh Air today to talk about his book, "Locking Up Our Own," examining the role played by African-American leaders in creating the era of mass incarceration. And the beat goes on. 

I've long called Jessica Mitford, the muckraking journalist and activist, my heroine for her quote, "Objective? I always have an objective."*

Picking up Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford (Knopf, 2006), a 744-page collection of Mitford's letters edited by former SF Chronicle staffer Peter Y. Sussman, I've gained even more respect for her.

Mitford was one of five well-known daughters born to Lord and Lady Redesdale in Oxfordshire, England who took wildly different paths. Two of her sisters became Nazi sympathizers; Jessica ran off at the age of 19 with her second cousin Esmond Romilly, whom she married and joined chronicling the Spanish Civil War. Romilly died in WWII while flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Jessica married labor lawyer Robert Truehaft and lived in Oakland, CA until her death in 1996.

The couple was eavesdropped on by the same FBI agents who later targeted Mario Savio and student activists in Berkeley; Ronald Reagan got reports on her and Mitford later joked when she donated eyeglasses to a museum not to put them near Reagan’s for fear of explosion. She was good friends with Tokin' Woman Maya Angelou, and helped her husband Bob defend “Negroes” falsely accused of murder and rape, explaining to her mother (“Muv" = Lady Redesdale) in a letter what a “frame up” was and how it was applied to Negroes especially. She also testified at a hearing in front of Sen. Edward Kennedy in DC about drug experiments taking place on California prisoners (“Cheaper than Chimpanzees” was her headline).

As well as exposing the funeral industry in her famous book The American Way of Death, she wrote an exposé of the US prison system (Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business (1973), in which she reported on the 1967 President's Crime Commission that abolished public drunkenness as a crime and deemed alcoholism a disease. Mitford asked, "While they were at it, why did not  the commissioners take the further steep of proposing repeal of the laws against such victimless crimes as homosexuality, prostitution, adultery, gambling, narcotics, and a host of other forms of behavior now legally proscribed thanks to the baleful influence of latter-day Puritans?" In answer, she quotes Pater Barton Hutt, consultant to the commission, who wrote, "It is likely that almost every member of the commission consumes alcohol. It is virtually certain that they have friends and relatives who have drinking problems and may even be alcoholics...I think it is fair to assume that something less than a majority of the commission members smoke marijuana...."

Long before it was fashionable to do so, Mitford documented the racial disparity in prison time for crimes between whites and people of color, noting that in drug cases, the average sentence for whites was 61.1 months, and for nonwhites 81.1 months. She also calls out New York's Governor Rockefeller on his absurd "solution" to the drug problem: locking up for life the dealers of all drugs, including hashish but excluding marijuana. She quotes Pennsylvania inmate Samuel Jordan, who wondered, "Could this be because he does not want to see his pot-smoking young relatives behind bars?"

A member of the Communist party from 1943 until she and Treuhaft renounced it due to Stalinism, Mitford was made to sign a loyalty oath in order to teach at San Jose State University, and won a court case against submitting to fingerprinting. In 1953, she wrote a letter to President Harry Truman urging him to refuse to testify before the HUAC committee. "True patriots must challenge the authority of this committee," she wrote. "I pledge to do my part by refusing to cooperate. You have an opportunity to set an example for loyal Americans by defying this committee and doing all in your power to expose its real aim—fascism in America."

On May 4, 1967 Decca wrote to her sister Nancy Mitford from Oakland—in a letter describing having Arnold Toynbee over to dinner and Bob’s “re-torturing” of the CIA over their involvement in the Berkeley Co-op movement—about what her "Muv" called "Marriage Uana":


Hillary Clinton interned with Mitford's husband in the 60s while she was a Yale law student, but here's what Mitford had to say about Bill Clinton in 1992: 


I'm not the only one who admires Mitford: J.K. Rowling named her daughter after Jessica. 

*I can't however find the source of that quote, although she did say, "If to be objective means having no point of view, or giving equal weight to all information that comes one's way, I plead guilty—although accuracy is essential...

No comments: