Memorable debate with memorable educator

October 24, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

I felt a distinct twinge of sadness when I saw Harold Greenwald's picture in this paper's obituaries section Saturday morning.

Greenwald, according to Frederick N. Rasmussen's obituary, died Thursday at the age of 94. The rest of the news story gave details I already knew, which confirmed this was indeed the same man who was my U.S. history teacher at Baltimore City College in my senior year.

A first cousin of actor Kirk Douglas? Yep. Greenwald told us that the first day we walked into his classroom. Staunch New Deal Democrat? Yeah, he told us that, too.

I also learned things about Mr. Greenwald (I figure he won't mind if I still call him that) which I didn't know. But as I looked at his obituary photograph, which the caption said was taken in 1994, I couldn't help but be impressed by how little Mr. Greenwald's appearance had changed since he was my history teacher.

And I also remembered the debate we had the day he called John Brown a "fanatic."

The year was 1968. In late January, North Vietnamese Army soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas launched the Tet Offensive, which ended in a resounding military victory for American troops but resulted in a public relations nightmare for another New Deal Democrat, President Johnson.

The year went straight down the toilet from there.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April. Presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a New Deal Democrat, was killed after winning the California Democratic primary in June. There was a police riot at the Democratic National Convention in August. Richard Nixon barely edged Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (yet another New Deal Democrat) in November to win the presidency.

While not as important, except in my own personal, tiny and insignificant world, David Ruffin left the Temptations, leaving me in a state of dudgeon from which I haven't quite recovered.

Perhaps that was why my debate with Mr. Greenwald got a tad testy. He was dealing with a very bad year for New Deal Democrats. I was still in my funk about Ruffin leaving the Tempts. Inevitably, a nerve was going to get plucked somewhere, somehow, sometime.

It happened the day when Mr. Greenwald called John Brown a fanatic.

"Why do you call him a fanatic?" I asked. We went back and forth on the topic with no clear conclusion or winner. The middle-aged, white Jewish teacher couldn't understand why the 16-year-old black kid didn't think the man who wanted to end - through violence - a system perpetuated with even more brutal and heinous violence was a fanatic.

Well, to put it simply, because on my side of the racial divide, that wasn't, in general, how black folks saw John Brown. But I understand, in hindsight, the argument Mr. Greenwald was trying to make.

In 1850s Kansas, where pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces battled each other over whether the territory would be admitted as a slave or free state, Brown committed an act of almost unspeakable violence. He and other anti-slavery men hacked five unarmed pro-slavery men to death with broadswords.

I can see where some might interpret that as an act of fanaticism. But pro-slavery forces were guilty of similar acts. Slaves who rebelled against the system were executed in far more horrendous fashion. I'd never heard anyone call pro-slavery forces in Kansas or those who meted out death sentences to rebelling slaves "fanatics." In fact, I still haven't.

But my debate with Mr. Greenwald had some positive fallout: It forced me to read more, especially history, so that in future debates I'd have more ammunition than just my hunch that Brown wasn't a fanatic. It was only a few years later that I bought W.E.B. DuBois' biography of John Brown from old Abe Sherman's bookstore at the corner of Mulberry Street and Park Avenue.

My love affair with history has continued since then, inspired, I realize now, as much by Mr. Greenwald as by his colleague in City College's history department, the late Samuel L. Banks.

At the time Mr. Greenwald was trying to convince me that John Brown was a fanatic, I was taking Mr. Banks' "Problems of Democracy" class. It was Mr. Banks who was famous for telling his students that teachers weren't infallible, that their opinions were not gospel and that students should challenge faculty members when the occasion called for it.

It was Mr. Banks' inspiration that led me to challenge Mr. Greenwald's comment about Brown. I'm sure Mr. Greenwald didn't know that, but I can imagine the conversation he would have had with Mr. Banks if he did.

"Thanks, Sam. Thanks a whole lot. Maybe I can return the favor one day."

There was one debate I was only too glad to let Mr. Greenwald win. His position was that the Holocaust was a greater crime against humanity than the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I ceased debating when I realized we were arguing about whether blacks or Jews were more oppressed throughout history.

No one's giving a prize to the winner of that category, I figured as I dummied up.

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