An 'incorrigible do-gooder' and a lifetime of activism At 83, Jack L. Levin says he's not ready to give up the fight

January 08, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Jack L. Levin is 83 now. His heart runs on batteries, he's lost 95 percent of his eyesight and his hearing is impaired. But he still works four days a week at his downtown advertising business, and he's collecting a passel of awards for a lifetime of work for civil liberties and human rights.

Mr. Levin suffers what he calls "my various decompositions" with good humor. "My cardiologist, my ophthalmologist, my internist and my urologist are all spreading the word," he says.

A self-described "incorrigible do-gooder," he's been involved in an abundance of social causes since he graduated from City College in 1928.

"There's not a fight that's worth fighting that Jack Levin didn't get engaged in," said retired Judge Robert Watts during a recent tribute to Mr. Levin sponsored by the Maryland chapter of the American Jewish Congress. Other awards have come recently from City College and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Mr. Levin says he has been a "premature supporter of causes that eventually proved right."

Among them, opposition to the Nazi threat. Mr. Levin led a protest against the welcome Baltimore gave to the German training ship Emden in 1936. (Debutantes kissed the fingers of the officers, and City Hall displayed the swastika flag.)

The Vietnam War? Mr. Levin led demonstrations against American involvement long before protests became fashionable. At one point, he organized a group of 3,000 business executives nationwide against American involvement in the war.

Civil liberties? He joined the Maryland chapter of the ACLU the year it was chartered, 1931. He was a leader in the organization in 1977 when the ACLU supported the successful effort by Nazi sympathizers for the right to march in Skokie, Ill., a largely Jewish suburb of Chicago.

"We live under a system of precedence," Mr. Levin says. "You set a precedent by denying rights to an unwelcome, hated organization, and later it's applied against an organization we approve of."

Jewish causes? He helped organize Baltimore rallies for Israel in 1948 (the year Israel was founded) and during that nation's war years of 1967 and 1973.

Racial justice? Mr. Levin, as president of the Maryland chapter of the American Jewish Congress, led a Baltimore delegation to the civil rights March on Washington in 1963.

"The worst prejudice of all," Mr. Levin says, "is that inequality of opportunity for blacks is not serious, and therefore it doesn't require a serious remedy."

To this day, Mr. Levin, in a series of opposite-editorial page articles in The Sun -- there have been more than 100 of them published in the morning paper and its late sister, The Evening Sun, over the past two decades -- rails against what he perceives as injustice.

"I'm distressed about the mean spirit running through the country," he says. "During the New Deal, people regarded poor people with a sense of but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I. But that's no longer the case. Poor people today are viewed with contempt or hostility or outright ferocity. I wish there'd be peace, or at least a cease-fire by the Newt Deal in their campaign against the poor."

He refers, of course, to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican congressional majority.

Behind the scenes

Yet Jack Levin is not a household name in Baltimore. He is praised -- even revered -- by civil rights leaders and others in leadership positions -- but has shunned the limelight for six decades. Behind the scenes he wrote speeches, pro bono, for Mayor (and Gov.) Theodore R. McKeldin. He supported other politicians -- campaigned for U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, when Mr. Sarbanes was making his political start, for example.

But he never sought public office. "I've never been ready to pay the price, which is that you have to abandon most of the things you believe in in order to win," says Mr. Levin.

"I call him my last angry man," says Rabbi Murray Saltzman, of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. "He has a prophetic conscience. He's not the least fearful of rocking the boat in the pursuit of justice. He's a self-effacing guy who attributes his prophetic fervor to others."

Others in the chorus:

* Calvin W. Burnett, president of Coppin State College and a participant in Mr. Levin's efforts to build relationships through such organizations as the Black-Jewish Forum of Baltimore (BL-EWS), which Mr. Levin helped organize. Dr. Burnett says Baltimore's social problems would disappear "if we had a couple hundred thousand Jack Levins."

* Stuart Comstock-Gay, head of the Maryland ACLU for the past decade, who says Mr. Levin "is one the most patriotic people I know. He always wanted the ACLU to participate in the 'I Am an American Day' parade. Through organizational inertia, we never did. But for him, there was no irony in wanting the ACLU to march in a patriotic parade."

* Milton Bates, a retired businessman who used to play tennis with Mr. Levin. He says Mr. Levin "has been doing good work since he came out of the crib."

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