Aaron Libson: Decades of activism, from civil rights to union rights

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we thought we’d speak to local former union leader and activist Aaron Libson.

PGN: I understand you’re a longtime resident of Philadelphia. AL: Yes, I’m 75 and I was born and raised in North Philadelphia. My parents came here from the Ukraine as teenagers. When she wasn’t taking care of us, my mother worked as a seamstress in the clothing industry and my father worked as a meat cutter. I have a brother and sister, both older.

PGN: I was told that you come from a family of activists. AL: I guess you could say that. My sister was a Freedom Rider. During the civil-rights era, she spent 40 days in jail down in Mississippi.

PGN: That’s amazing and scary. I just saw a great exhibit last year at the African American Museum about it. The Freedom Riders really faced a lot of hatred and violence. It must have been scary, knowing your big sister was on the front lines. AL: Well, she went down there with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. She wasn’t a member but she felt that she had to do something during those times. She was lucky in that she went right after the first bus bombings. Robert Kennedy sent troops to escort the riders to try to keep them somewhat safe. Instead of being beaten or killed, they were just jailed. She was invited by Oprah to be on her show honoring the Freedom Riders for the 50th anniversary of the rides.

PGN: Oh, wow. I saw that show. AL: Yeah, she went to Chicago and was reunited with one of her cellmates there and they had a nice get-together. She had a lot of stories and when she came back, instead of just going back to business as usual, she did a lot of speaking at different events about the civil-rights movement, her experiences and what was happening. She spoke at churches and school groups, etc. She still gets requests to speak from time to time.

PGN: What’s an early memory? AL: My father didn’t believe in buying houses so we moved a lot. In school, when you had to fill out previous addresses, I’d fill up the whole page! But we always stayed in the same area, near Fairmount Park, which was nice. I graduated from Central High and went to about two-and-a-half years of evening college.

PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up? AL: I never figured that out. That’s why I didn’t finish. I ended up working as a machinist for 30 years for different manufacturing companies.

PGN: It’s such a shame we’re losing so many manufacturing jobs. I understand that Philadelphia used to be a hub, but now everything is shipped overseas. AL: I think it’s deadly for the country. Our political leaders really could care less about the people and how they get by. Witness the fact that they’re trying to cut food stamps and services for people who need it; it’s heartless. And they are cutting education and closing schools, that’s just … it’s cruel and thoughtless.

PGN: So true. What did you like to do as a kid? Were you athletic or bookish? AL: I was a street athlete. We played stickball and handball and street games. I find it interesting that we all played together, boys and girls back then. And of course we loved it when they put the fireplugs on.

PGN: Favorite class? AL: I was good at math and I had a few years of Spanish. I still remember a lot of it.

PGN: Have you traveled much? AL: Yes and no. I danced with a folk dance group and got to go to Poland with them in ’72 and ’74. I took my sister and a friend of hers out West some years back. We went to Wyoming and Montana, to see Yellowstone and the Tetons, and in 2004 we went to San Francisco, Portland and around Seattle.

PGN: When did you come out? AL: I got straight-married when I was 23 and had two children. Then in 1966, I was arrested in a tearoom in Hunting Park. I didn’t do any time behind it, but it completely changed my life. The ordinance I was charged with has since been taken off the books, but at the time I was charged and tried.

PGN: Tearoom? AL: A public bathroom in the park. Somebody told me about it and every so often I’d stop by to see what was happening. Since I was still married it was on the QT, but when I got arrested my wife found out. We stayed married for about five years after that before we got a divorce. But we shared custody and I always remained an active parent with my children.

PGN: That must have been traumatic. AL: Yes, the police had a park guard office they took me to and kept me overnight. I knew that if it became public, that I wouldn’t be able to face anyone — family, friends, co-workers. I made a vow to myself that I would take my life if anyone found out. There was also another component. PGN: Which was … ? AL: In my activism as a young person, I’d joined the Communist Party. There was so much going on at that time — the civil-rights movement, the anti-war movement and so forth, and I found myself, like a lot of us, joining the party. A year later, when I had the arrest, I pleaded nolo contendere — I do not wish to contend — on a Friday. The next day, Saturday, I woke up and got ready for work, and as I looked at the paper that morning, there was a small article saying “Local Red arrested.” I had a suicide plan ready just in case it came out, so I thought, OK, this is it and I carried out the plan.

PGN: Thankfully you weren’t successful. AL: I wasn’t going to do anything at my house where my family would find me, so I rented a room at the Arch Street YMCA. I’d packed some of the crystal stuff you clean toilets with in some tin foil and I swallowed that and laid down and waited for something to happen. Nothing happened. In the interim, I’d called a friend of mine. While I was waiting for something to happen with the poison, I got up and sat on the window ledge — the room was on the fifth floor. As I realized the poison wasn’t working, I looked down and thought, maybe I should just lean forward and let go. Before I could do anything, my friend showed up knocking on the door. It saved my life. He called some people, including a lawyer, who called my job and talked to them. They said they had no problems with me coming back to work despite the arrest. From then on, I became known as the “Gay Red” and people came to respect me to the point that I was elected union-shop steward and then chief. People accepted me for who I was and how I presented myself. When the factory eventually closed down, it was on a Saturday and that Monday I had a new job, so I was always accepted and respected.

PGN: Name two things that were terrible about being gay back then and two things that were great. AL: I can’t think of anything that was great. It wasn’t until after the marriage was dissolved that I even thought of going into a gay bar or anything like that. I had no idea what to expect.

PGN: What was the first bar you went into? AL: The old Alegro on Spruce Street. Then I found out about the Westbury on 15th Street. I thought it was so funny, you’d see these big-ass motorcycles parked out front and inside the guys with the leather vests and chaps. Then they’d open their mouths and it would be [in a high voice], “Hello Mary!”

PGN: When was that? AL: In the late ’70s. In the 1980s I’d heard about BWMT [Black & White Men Together] on a talk-radio program. I wanted to get involved but didn’t know where they were or anything until I met a connection who put me in touch with them in 1983.

PGN: What made you want to join that particular organization? Were you in a biracial relationship? AL: No, the one thing that I didn’t like about the gay community was all the discrimination I found. Men against women, white against black and the class differences. People whose job entailed a suit and tie not mixing with working-class people, etc. I figured BWMT would be a good chance to work for some equality in the community. Because I always felt, how can you be for gay liberation if you’re going to discriminate within your own community? I still find that to be one of the biggest contradictions. I liked the fact that as BWMT we joined with other organizations to do things like test cases. We would show things like how clubs would card people in a manner that wasn’t equal for all. Even with the PGN, they used to run segregated classified ads in housing and jobs. We protested it and they changed the policies. And we did other things like potluck dinners in different homes. I got involved with the summer camping trips we did and I’m still involved with that now that we’re MACT [Men of All Colors Together]. We do about three camping trips a summer. I just came back last week from a trip to The Woods campground.

PGN: Speaking of things you’ve done, my mother just came back from the 50th-anniversary March on Washington. I understand that you were at the original march when Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. AL: I was. My daughter was only 2 months old and we left her with my mother so my wife and I could go to the march. I also went to the 30th-anniversary march but I didn’t go this time.

PGN: It seems hard to believe it’s been 50 years. Do you remember where you were when you heard Dr. King was shot? AL: I was at work. I was at work when Kennedy was killed. I was at work on Sept. 11…

PGN: You sound like a workaholic! Switching gears, did you know your grandparents? AL: I knew my grandmothers. My father’s mother had remarried so her husband was the only grandfather I knew. He was very kind even though we were not his blood relatives. She died when I was 9 but my mother’s mother lived to be 90. She gave birth to 12 children, though only five of them survived to adulthood. Back then, living in the eastern part of the Ukraine, in the village, they didn’t have access to childhood vaccines, so kids could live to 8-10 years old and die from diphtheria, cholera and other diseases like that. She was a very feisty woman, she didn’t take any guff from anyone. I always found it interesting that she went from living very simply in a hut with a thatched roof and clay floor, no electricity or plumbing, not even an outhouse, to coming to Philadelphia in the age of space travel, landing on the moon, television and all of the new modern conveniences. It must have been an interesting bridge she crossed.

PGN: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen come to light? AL: President Barack Obama. I always thought the possibility was there since there have been some independent candidates of color, but to see him become the nominee of a major party and then to have him elected was something I didn’t think I’d ever see.

PGN: And reelected! After everyone made jokes about how he’d never live through his first term; not only did he live, but thrived enough to get elected again. AL: Yes. Even with the campaign against him. I lived through the McCarthy era and I’ve never seen anything like what they’ve tried to do to him — thwarting his every move and putting up every road block imaginable.

PGN: You’ve been HIV-positive for years. How did you first find out? AL: I was seeing a guy from Delaware back in 1988. He’d been told by a former partner that he should be checked. He didn’t know who to go to, so one Friday after work, I met him and took him to see Dr. Ift. The nurse there assumed that we’d both come to be tested. Well, I wasn’t going to say, “Uh uh, not me.” So we got the results and he was negative, I was positive. What’s weird was that I was totally asymptomatic and I wasn’t taking anything. All my T-cell counts, viral loads, everything, were in the normal range. It wasn’t until nine years later when they’d refined it a bit that I decided to take the cocktail just to be on the safe side. It’s been about 32 years and I’m still asymptomatic. My viral load has been undetectable.

PGN: What would you say is your main flaw? AL: I’ve been very lucky, despite all the things I could have had against me — religion, sexual orientation, my Communism and activism — I always had the respect of my coworkers. I was always myself no matter what. For flaws, I think I’m not as organized as I’d like to be. Yet, I keep getting pulled into things! I’ve found myself designated as program coordinator for MACT, planning the camping trips, getting speakers for events, finding people to host the potlucks, etc.

PGN: Since you’ve worked as an activist, which is harder to explain to non-people of color: racism or homophobia? AL: My approach has always been to show people their self-interest in things. If you try to be preachy about it, telling them to “turn the other cheek” or “take the high road,” people don’t really listen. But when you show them how it will benefit them in the big picture, it works better.

PGN: Where did your activism come from? AL: My mother. Besides being an activist in things like the PTA, she also joined the North Penn Community Counsel, which tried to do things for the neighborhood, which was both black and white. She wasn’t confrontational but she wouldn’t let people roll over her either. She didn’t care what people had to say if she was fighting for something right. My sister was like that too; as I said she was a Freedom Rider. We also took part in the sympathy lines for the sit-ins down South, boycotting the 5&10s, etc.

PGN: Random question. What was the first car you owned? AL: It was a ’52 Plymouth that I bought for $100. Guess what? I didn’t even have a license yet, so I had to have someone drive it over to my house!

PGN: Single or partnered? AL: I’m a single man. Never had a long-term relationship. When I was younger, I had the kids every weekend and, as I got older, all my potential relationships seemed to morph into great friendships.

PGN: Who was your celebrity crush as a teen? AL: I was never one to hang a picture on my wall, but I thought Tab Hunter was cute.

PGN: And now he’s finally out of the closet! AL: [Laughs.] We both are!

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