Influence of three good men

December 21, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

This is about three men - two brothers and their cousin - and the profound impact they have had on my life. You may blame them for the direction these columns take most of the time, after blaming me, of course.

One of the brothers was my father, George J. Price, an adventurous man who spent his working life flying airplanes for Pan American World Airways, beginning on seaplanes in the golden age of flight. He is a liberal thinker, a quiet, patient man, well-read and full of interesting and challenging ideas. Now 90, he lives in Miami, where he began his career on Pan Am's flying boats.

From him I acquired a sense of adventure, curiosity about the world and a desire to travel.

Another of the three was his cousin, George W. Polk. Polk, a Navy pilot in World War II, was a journalist. He was murdered in 1948 while working as a correspondent for CBS news. Polk was covering the civil war in Greece, where the Truman administration was investing a fortune in the fight against communist insurgents.

The Greek government beneficiaries of the American largesse were corrupt and brutal. Polk had exposed them before and had come across some information which could have devastated a government minister and endangered the U.S.-Greek partnership.

In May of 1948, Polk's body was found in Salonika Bay in Northern Greece. He had been bound and shot in the head. The truth of who killed him and why has been the subject of many articles and books - most of which point to a cover-up by the Greek government with the cooperation of the U.S. government and some journalists.

I did not know Polk, but his legacy is a part of my family's history and an inspiration for my own work. The George Polk Award is one of journalism's most respected prizes.

Third, and most important, is my father's brother, William A. Price. Uncle Bill, as we know him, was also a Navy pilot during World War II and he was also a journalist. Bill is 88 years old now and never married, though Lord knows he could have married, for there have been many women in his life.

Bill Price is a hero. He was a hero flying rescue missions in World War II and he was a hero as a journalist and a political activist.

All three of these men have been called communists - my father for his liberal views, his cousin for going after bad guys in the Greek government and Bill for his own views. George Polk paid for his ways with his life. Bill Price gave his life to his ways and paid a heavy price, though he never lost an ounce of dignity over it.

In the 1950s, when Bill was working for the New York Daily News, he was summoned by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee under Sen. James O. Eastland, a racist and segregationist from Mississippi, to say whether he was a communist. He was not the only newsman subpoenaed by Eastland. The senator from Sunflower County dragged a lot of journalists in from New York, where the New York Times and others had been lambasting his segregationist stand.

So they asked Bill whether he was a communist and, standing on the First Amendment, he told them it was none of their business. The Daily News, to its undying shame, fired him on the spot. To make a very long story short, Bill was cited for contempt of Congress. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but an attorney general named Robert F. Kennedy - to his shame - re-indicted him, only to be overturned again.

Bill was not a communist; certainly he is a socialist and an anti-establishmentarian. He organized and participated in civil rights marches of the 1960s and the movement against the Vietnam War in the '60s and '70s.

Later he became involved in housing issues on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, fighting to preserve housing for the poor as gentrification and high-rise urban renewal threatened the fabric of his community.

In the 1970s Bill's telephone and those of four other political activists were tapped by the FBI, which apparently thought they might turn up some information on Weather Underground fugitives. Bill and the others sued the government and, in 1981, the Justice Department agreed to pay each them $10,000 for violating their civil rights.

Bill was accused of being un-American, an insult often hurled at people who object to authority and the behavior of the government, but he loves this country deeply and probably knows it better than most his taunters.

Bill kept his pilot's license after the war, bought a surplus single-engine plane and flew all over the country he loved, creating a photographic history in the process.

Four years ago, the Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine published some of the photos he took flying the length of U.S. Route 40. The article was titled "A Flight Along America's Highway - One man's mid-century portrait of the United States - from 1,500 feet."

Bill also loves a good martini and still buys his clothes at Brooks Brothers. Can you get any more American than that?

He'll be here for Christmas and as we often do, we'll pull out the yellowed copy of a letter he wrote to his parents at Christmas time in 1943, while he was stationed in the Aleutians.

Writing of the men alongside whom he was fighting for America, he wrote of a message to his parents, "that you, and by `you,' I mean the whole nation and especially the men you send to make the peace, keep the faith with us, that you recognize as Jesus did, the dignity and equality of all men implied in his naming us the `sons of God,' men of all nations and races, whether they're right now on our side, or on the other, equal and deserving in the sight of God, `joint heirs with Christ.' And if you do, you've made the fight worth fighting and there's nothing more we could possibly ask for Christmas."

For the sake of full disclosure, I must note that Bill no longer believes in God. But he has kept the faith as an American and as an honest man still fighting for "the dignity and equality of all men."

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