NEARLY THREE years after Jack L. Levin died, his friends still remember him as one of Baltimore's great angry men. What was he angry about? It's Brando's response in The Wild One. "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" "Whadaya got?" he answered. Levin was the go-to guy for all political underdogs scraped up along life's highway.
He made a living in the advertising business but made a life out of good fights: marching, lobbying, organizing, writing. His anger came out of an emotionally troubled youth and the routine unfairness he witnessed in adulthood.
He fought racial and religious bias. ("The open housing law," he wrote three decades ago, "requires us only to practice seven days a week what we preach in synagogue on Saturday and in church on Sunday.") The only non-lawyer who was president of Maryland's American Civil Liberties Union, he fought the government's violations of such liberties. ("The ACLU," he said, "has really only one client. It is the Bill of Rights.") When he rode a bus from Baltimore to the 1963 "I Have A Dream" March on Washington, he wrote, "When we recalled the pitifully small band of mavericks who used to fight alone in this struggle, we felt more than ever before like members in good standing of the human race."
And he fumed over America's flexing its military muscle without thinking things through. His friends are wondering what volcanic rage the current Middle East troubles might have set off in Levin.
They'll gather Sunday afternoon to talk about it. At 2 o'clock, at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, on East Baltimore's Lloyd Street, former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs will address a gathering sponsored by the state's ACLU, the American Jewish Congress, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the Baltimore Jewish Council.
Among other things, they'll celebrate publication of a collection of Levin's writings (some of which originally appeared on this newspaper's op-ed page over the years). The new book, Fighting the Good Fight, published by American Literary Press Inc., can be purchased through the ACLU or the American Jewish Congress.
"He was the most unforgettable character I ever met," said lawyer William Engelman. "A great fighter, a rough and tumble guy who wanted to correct every wrong done to everybody. And it wasn't just talk. He wanted us to get off our asses and do something."
"He was an angry guy who knew how to channel his anger," said his nephew, Baltimore Realtor Alan Shecter. "He had a sense of humor and a sense of irony, but this was a guy who came to fight."
Born in East Baltimore in 1912, Levin was the son of an alcoholic father, Shecter said. "He was awakened and beaten, for years, night after night by his father. He was, certainly by today's standards, an abused child. I think his anger came out of that. He grew up angry at a lot of things he experienced, and he held onto the anger over things that he saw through the years."
But merely to recall his anger simplifies a complex man. He and Ester were married for more than 60 years. Near the end of his life, Jack still considered one of life's joys "holding my wife's hand." For years, he entertained his grandchildren by standing on his head and playing the harmonica, "pleasing everyone," Shecter said, "except his wife."
"A good guy who fought the good fights," Steve Sachs said, as he prepared his remarks for Sunday's gathering. "And he knew how to put it into words. In fact, the more I quote from his book, the better my speech will be."
Levin, said Sachs, "would be appalled at the insensitivity to civil liberties of the current Washington administration, especially post-Sept. 11. These guys are tone deaf to the music of democracy. They're exploiting the tragedy, and the danger, of Sept. 11 to extend their powers in very troubling ways.
"The Patriot Act, the roundup of 800 Muslims for visa violations, the openings the government has for investigating our lives - this is dangerous stuff, and it's the stuff Jack understood. He'd be the first to say the war against terrorism's first casualty shouldn't be the Bill of Rights. The things being done by [Attorney General John] Ashcroft remind me of a line Jack wrote about Edwin Meese [Ronald Reagan's attorney general]: `He's an arsonist appointed fire chief for a government of flaming radicals.'"
Over the years, Levin's eyesight worsened. He recalled Dylan Thomas's line: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" - but lamented, "I've been raging like crazy, but the light keeps dying." In his last years, when he was blind, Jack wore a large button on his lapel, saying, "I Have No Vision."
"He wanted to let people know, without awkwardness, why he didn't recognize them when they approached," Shecter said. "But then he'd make a joke about it. He'd say it shouldn't be interpreted as a declaration that he was running for president."
No vision, indeed. Jack Levin had vision even when he couldn't see. And he translated his views, as few people do, into an extended battle cry for those who needed a fighter on their side.