Tony Benn: the legacy

Herbert Shapiro is probably not that well known here in the UK. The son of Russian, Jewish immigrants he was a professor of history in the United States from 1964 until his death, aged 84, in 2012. His speciality was African American History and he wrote numerous books and articles on the subject. His obituary writer, fellow historian, Roger Daniels singled out his magnum opus, White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery (1988), as “Outstanding.”

Herbert Shapiro was not just a student of black civil rights. He was an active supporter and on March 25, 1965, marched on the last day of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama as part of a delegation of historians. Daniels also pays tribute to his work as a trade union activist who helped to,

“transform the local chapter of American Association of University Professors into an effective collective bargaining unit, and to participate in two brief, successful work stoppages that improved both wages and benefits for regular full-time faculty.”

When I heard of the death of Tony Benn my thoughts turned at once to Herb and his wife Judith, both of whom I met on a train many years ago in the UK. As I recall our conversation began because Judith noticed a book I was reading about autism. She was an educator with an interest in the subject. The conversation turned to politics and I discovered that they were combining their holiday with a visit to their old friend, Tony Benn.

We parted on good terms never to meet again but kept up a sporadic correspondence. When the second Gulf War began Herb and Judith posted me details of the anti-war movement in Cincinnati. I posted them pictures of the million strong anti-war demo in the UK. Tony Benn, of course, was a leading spokesman for that movement. And, of course, in numerous tributes he has been damned with faint praise for holding to his principles, qualified by pointed reminders to the political outcomes. Benn fought and lost as did those of us who fought alongside him.

But those who seek to diminish his legacy in this way miss the point. Men and women of goodwill, courage and integrity who do what they think is right without regard for personal gain or ambition will always be found wherever there is injustice. Sometimes our courage might fail us. Too often we are outnumbered or outmaneuvered. But sometimes we prevail. Herb began his teaching career in a segregated college in Georgia. He introduced his students to African American history and lived to see an African American President of the United States of America.

Today’s obituary writers are eager to tell us not only that Benn failed, but also that he represents a dying breed, the like of which we may never see again. (They hope!) But so long as we are seeing levels of inequality in which the richest hundred people in the UK own as much wealth as the poorest 18 million (30% of the population) the conditions exist to create more not less people like Tony Benn. It is not a question of if but when.

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