Camejo's Early Political Years

— Barry Sheppard

I FIRST MET Peter Camejo in 1958, when we were both students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had joined the Young Socialist Alliance in New York, politically aligned with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, the year before, and I was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, politically aligned with the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation.

Despite our differences, we reached out to a broad range of socialist students from the many campuses in the Boston area to form a discussion club in the spring of 1959. By that autumn we had both concluded that an activist organization was needed. I had become disillusioned with the YPSL for its support to the Democratic Party, and joined the YSA as a member-at-large. Soon we also joined the SWP.

We set out to build a YSA chapter in Boston, and our first activity early in 1960 was to form campus student committees in the Boston area to organize picketing of Woolworth stores in solidarity with the lunch counter sit-ins that Black students had launched in the South to break down the “Jim Crow” segregation laws.

We were mobilized most evenings. Every Saturday we held a party for picketers, and in this way met many new people. Our YSA grew rapidly into one of the largest in the country.

The supporters of the Young Socialist newpaper, which the New York YSA published, led in organizing of picketing by Northern students nationally in support of the Southern sit-ins. In those hectic months the Young Socialist was the best source of information about the Northern support actions as well as of those in the South (YS sent reporters to the South, although it had no organized supporters there).

Meetings in the Boston area were held not only on campuses but also in Black churches. I remember one church whose leaders had posted up issues of the YS so the congregation could read about the actions. Out of the sit-ins and the subsequent Freedom Rides, Black students in the South formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

It was in the midst of this activity that the Young Socialist Alliance was formed as a national organization. Peter and I were elected to its National Committee.

Another focus was defense of the Cuban Revolution. The SWP and YSA worked with Cuban supporters of the July 26 Movement to launch a Boston Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Support to revolutionary movements in Latin America would be a hallmark of Peter’s political career throughout his life, including, most recently, events in Venezuela.

The SWP presidential candidate in 1960 was Farrell Dobbs. He had gone to Cuba early in 1960, together with Militant editor Joseph Hansen. The Boston YSA and SWP organized a meeting for Farrell to speak on the Revolution. Over 80 people came, mostly students, and we met many more young people.

Dobbs and Hansen had observed first hand the Cuban land reform, which itself was a social revolution in the countryside. I remember Dobbs telling Peter and myself at this time that the Cuban revolutionaries were like “social democrats who meant it.”

It was during this period that Washington tried to smash the Revolution because the United Fruit Company was nationalized as part of the land reform. The U.S. government ordered American refineries to stop refining oil. The revolutionary government took over management of the refineries, a step toward nationalization. The U.S. responded by cutting off oil to the island. Cuba then struck back by making a deal with the USSR to barter sugar for oil.

One activity our FPCC organized was a demonstration against the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. In the summer of 1960 Peter was part of a YSA delegation to a Latin American Congress on Youth held in Havana, at which Fidel Castro gave a speech that indicated the direction of the revolution, after public debate and workers' mobilizations.  The Cuban Stalinists held that the revolution had to stay within the bounds of capitalism, but in October the revolutionary leadership announced the expropriation of the Cuban capitalists as well as of the imperialists.

I telephoned Peter that night, and we were excited. We concluded that Cuba had become a workers’ state. The leadership of the SWP had come to the same conclusion. A minority in the SWP — led by three central leaders of the YSA, Tim Wohlforth, James Robertson and Shane Mage — rejected this view. The discussion was democratic and thorough, and culminated in a convention in the summer of 1961 at which the position of the SWP leadership majority was upheld.

A discussion then ensued in the YSA, in which Peter and I were the main spokespeople for the pro-Cuba position, which carried the day in a convention over the New Year’s holiday. The result is that I was elected the YSA National Chairman and Peter National Secretary.

Our collaboration continued in New York in the YSA national office. He had a very spirited temperament, made many imaginative suggestions for our work, some of which were very good and some not so good, and he relied on me to filter them. My temperament was more even, and at the time I knew more about Marxism. This made for a good balance.

Black Nationalism and Radicalization

We were involved in a rent strike in Harlem, and participated in the SWP and YSA’s turn toward Malcolm X, and the Black Power movement initiated by SNCC as it radicalized. Almost all other tendencies on the left failed to see the revolutionary potential of Black Nationalism. Peter and I were among those in our movement who attended Malcolm X’s funeral.

In 1965 Peter was one of our people who marched in Selma, Alabama, with Martin Luther King and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis for Black voting rights in the south, a turning point of the civil rights movement.

Peter was the best public speaker of our generation in the SWP and YSA. In fact, he was among the best public speakers who emerged in the entire youth radicalization. He was equally fluent in both Spanish and English, having grown up in both the United States and Venezuela. He spoke without notes, and had the ability to explain ideas in terms wide audiences could grasp, and a quick wit. He communicated his enthusiasm to his listeners, who knew that he passionately believed in what he was saying.

The 1960 sit-ins marked the beginning of the radicalization of the 1960s. They foretold two important aspects of this radicalization: the Black movement and the role of students. Peter became a mass leader as this radicalization developed. In the mid-1960s, we sent Peter to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he soon became a leader of the new antiwar movement and the Berkeley student movement.

I worked with Peter for fifty years. He called me a few days before he went into the hospital for the last time, in early September 2008. We talked politics for an hour.

ATC 139, March-April 2009

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