Last Word: Awakening

As a student, Richard Wormser '55 paid little attention to the complicated world beyond campus. Since the 1960s, he has dedicated his career to making up for it.

By Richard Wormser '55

On July 7, 1951, shortly after I entered Bucknell as a first-year summer student, seven men in chains were ushered into the federal penitentiary near Lewisburg to serve five-year terms. These men, leaders of the legal Communist Party USA, had not been charged with spying or carrying out any revolutionary acts. They had been charged with conspiring to overthrow the government by force and violence because they taught and promoted the ideas of Marx and Lenin. Though many Americans didn’t trust Communists during the Cold War, the trials and convictions of these men under the Smith Act — legislation that many believe was used to persecute people for their ideas rather than their actions, violating their First Amendment rights — have been questioned and debated by scholars and activists for more than half a century. In fact, by the late ’50s, similar convictions would be overturned by the Supreme Court.

No matter what one thought of the American Communist Party or the actions of those convicted in 1951, the Smith Act trials should have at least given pause to those of us on campus. These were the McCarthy years after all, when thousands were silenced, threatened, accused, fired, tried, imprisoned, occasionally beaten and brutalized for unorthodox political thoughts, and campuses across the nation would soon become hotbeds of protest and debate over social justice issues, including racial equality, feminism and First Amendment rights (even for Communist leaders). But I, along with many of my fellow students, was oblivious to this turbulent world outside Bucknell. Few of my teachers ventured to examine this side of American life or the coming cultural shift.

Yet there was plenty to be concerned about, even in our small world of classrooms, dorm rooms and organizations. There was a handful of socially concerned professors and students, as well as a local chapter of the NAACP, but Christian fraternities, at Bucknell and across the nation, did not accept black students as members and rarely welcomed them as guests. Jewish students, who had their own fraternity on campus, were invited as guests to other fraternities but banned as members. The rationale for discrimination was that the national offices determined the policy, not the local chapters.

It was only during the 1960s — after I became a social activist and a documentary filmmaker (and after Bucknell itself began to awaken and implement change) — that I recognized my oblivion to the real world during my college days. And so I eventually began to make films illuminating the struggles of people who overcame political and economic repression. My hope was that my work might enlighten future generations to create a world free from racial, gender, economic and political nequality.

I envy my former classmate Philip Roth ’54, who was able to sheath his pen at age 80 and end his storytelling days. But since I take my cue not from the “good old days” (which my former classmates tend to glorify in these pages) but from the “bad new ones,” I remain in the trenches even at the age of 81. I still have stories to tell before I fade to black and become a story myself. And there is still much to learn in order to become a better storyteller — to recognize that the work already done should have been done better; to continue to question the world around me; and to be guided by Samuel Beckett’s admonition: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

 

Richard Wormser has written, produced and/or directed some 40 documentary films that have received more than 25 awards, including the Peabody Award. His latest film, American Reds: What Must We Dream of? focuses on the rise and fall of America’s Communist Party between 1930 and 1960. The program is intended for broadcast on PBS next year. Wormser teaches sociology and film studies at several universities.

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