A Life Remembered

May 20, 2011

Al Fishman called me last week, full of energy as ever, wanting some advice. He wanted to put together a big debate over the national budget  in Michigan. Wanted to show people things could be more fair. I told him I thought people here were more concerned with the state budget crisis right now. “I know that,” he said.

“But state and local budgets also reflect the spending priorities of the federal government,” he explained. What he wanted me to do was to suggest a television personality who could moderate the forum, someone who might help boost attendance.

I suggested a few names. Yesterday morning, Al, who was eighty-two and big on physical fitness, went to the doctor to have a tricky knee looked at. He was in the waiting room when the heart attack came. He may never have known what hit him.

Fishman wasn’t a big name, outside of what his opponents would have called the “left-wing labor community.” There, he was revered, though he didn’t seem to know that.

He acted like just another guy who had just discovered something was wrong in society, and had decided to try to fix it. What was most unusual about him was his energy level and his attitude.

No matter how many times the system disappointed him, no matter how many new wars or atrocities or unfairnesses he lived through, Al never stopped fighting. There was injustice in the world, and he thought it was up to all of us to do something about it.

What he wanted most of all was to abolish war, the nuclear threat, and any kind of discrimination. He grew up in New York City and saw all those things in the army right after World War II.

He came to these parts to attend the University of Michigan, but got involved in politics, and never finished. Perhaps his biggest success came by accident. He married a Serbian-American girl from Detroit, and their political activity caused the Air Force, back in the Red Scare days, to try to kick out her brother, who wasn’t political at all. Edward R. Murrow took up his cause and did one of the most famous programs in television history about it: The Case of Lieutenant Milo Radulovich. That show enabled Murrow to go on to help destroy the demagogue Joe McCarthy.

Al Fishman and his wife Margaret went on with their lives, raising three kids and occasionally getting arrested. He spent the Fourth of July, 1950 in jail for trying to get people to sign ban-the-bomb petitions. “Fifty-nine-years later, and I’m still working for nuclear abolition,“ he told me two years ago.

Back in the 1970s, his computer expertise caused a Detroit mayor to appoint him to a high-ranking position with the police department. They promptly gave him a tour of the jail. “Looks a little familiar,” he muttered, when they passed one cell block.

Ironically, the day he died, Peace Action of Michigan’s latest newsletter came with Al’s final article. It said our top priority needed to be “putting people to work, repairing our country and restoring dignity to workers and their families,” by whatever means necessary. That’s what Al Fishman was always all about.

It’s hard to imagine a better epitaph.