As remembered by Rick Tuttle
July 4, 2016
Willy Leventhal was a 1965 volunteer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's SCOPE (Summer Community Organizing Political Education ) project in Macon, Georgia. A UCLA graduate, with a Master's in Sociology, Will wrote extensively about SCOPE and about civil rights issues. He played a very significant role in encouraging UCLA a few years ago to place a plaque acknowledging Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr.'s campus speech where Dr. King announced the SCOPE project. Yours truly, Rick Tuttle
As remembered by Deric Gilliard
July 18, 2016
Despite a lingering feeling of foreboding, I have to admit I was shocked to hear of the death of my friend, Willy Siegel Leventhal, recently.
I remember the first night I met him, at SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, in November of 2000. I'd heard mention of him and many other veterans who had returned to town to honor a hospitalized Hosea Williams during a vigil at Ebenezer Baptist Church. I informed Willy I had served as the SCLC's communications director from 1994-98 and had been inspired by my time there to work on a book featuring the foot soldiers of Dr. King's movement. Though he had a bad cold, he agreed to what he said would be a brief interview. If you know Willy, it turned out to be anything but. After the inspirational tribute, when we returned to the SCLC officer, Willy, the only Anglo in the setting, got into an intense debate with Willy Ricks, credited with first uttering the phrase "black power," over the merits of Zionism. Later, after meeting several more times and pouring over much material, I remember Willy threatening to stop speaking to me when I told him my chapter on him in my first book, Living in the Shadows of a Legend: Unsung Heroes and 'Sheroes' who Marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would include his statement that his father had told him "for the first time" he was proud of him for coming South during SCOPE, because he was afraid he might be disinherited.
Will was kind of like my irascible uncle. He could tell amazing, captivating stories about the sixties that dropped my jaw and left me wishing I had been ten years older during the most amazing era in modern history. And as anyone who knew him could tell you, he could also drive you up the wall with his irrational expectations and unique perspective on the world, especially as it related to civil rights.
However, because of Willy, I learned about his trying to attend church with John Lewis in Americus in August of 1965 to challenge city fathers to allow blacks to worship with whites following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Because of Willy, I got a sense of the tension and struggles that took place in Macon, where he was dispatched to serve as a SCOPE volunteer to mobilize and register blacks to vote for the first time. (An avid baseball fan, he was immensely proud of his brief stint playing shortstop for the all-black Macon Bombers).
Because of Willy, I learned the names and stories of countless unsung activists throughout the south who puts their lives, families and reputations on the line to challenge injustice and racism while displaying unacknowledged heroism.
Because of Willy, I learned new insite into the relationship between Jews and blacks and a deeper appreciation for both the bond and the suffering those communities shared.
Because of Willy, I got to know activists Lanny Kaufer and Jo Freeman, who he brought to stay at my house in 1995 when he constructed the 40th anniversary of SCOPE celebration in Atlanta.
Because of Willy, I developed a relationship with Andy Young, even being invited to his house on a couple of occasions.
Because of Willy, I got a deeper glimpse into the student and anti-war movements of the 1960s, of which he was an organizer.
Because of Willy and his abiding dedication to Mrs. King and her children, I became more sensitive to the sibling squabbles that took place after her passing I could not understand.
Because of Willy, I developed an awe of Hosea Williams, as well as a deep respect for Jimmy Wells and the little firebrand with the big voice from Savannah, Benjamin Van Clark, who, like Willy, struggled with life due to his time in the movement.
Because of Willy, I learned the meaning of sociological terms like "anomie,"and how it related to those under pressure as active participants in the movement.
Because of Willy, I also learned first-hand the complications of dealing with those you care about and respect who struggle with post-traumatic stress and other mental illnesses, as well as the demons they carry as baggage.
Because or Willy and many of you, I learned the meaning of a lifelong commitment to cause rarely displayed by the generation that followed.
Yes, like many of you, I saw Willy turn people off. I remember going to a southern historical society meeting with him when he challenged the writings of Taylor Branch and someone muttered behind his back that he was an academic terrorist.
I remember him incessantly talking about how he had to stop doing everything for everyone else and how he was sacrificing his health and running out of money.
I remember he'd rather sleep in the garage in my home with his beloved dog Trooper during frequent visits to Atlanta, rather than take a bedroom because my wife wouldn't allow dogs in the house.
I remember late in 2014 Willy questioning my friendship because I refused to pull my book from the King Center bookstore because he was at odds with the park manager, who chose not to carry his. In fact, perhaps as Willy's paranoia grew, while we talked several times per week before that, we conversed less and less frequently, from then on.
Looking back Willy always wanted his own family, and frequently told me how fortunate I was to have one.
Gifted, troubled and tormented, we both discussed and sometimes disagreed over many issues, from the election of President Obama, to the Republican party, his opinion of his alma mater UCLA's failure to pay tribute to its connection to Dr. King, to his relationship with the SCLC veterans and beyond;
Admittedly, sometimes I vibed and empathized with Willy, and sometimes I did not. Oftentimes, I thought I understood his frustration with being underappreciated, though I rarely condoned his method of expressing it.
Mostly, however, I felt he needed a friend, someone who could (usually) listen to him get his frustrations and perspectives off his chest. That willingness in no way made me noble. But I thought that it was some small way I could help someone whom it seemed to me had devoted his entire adult life in pursuit of racial justice.
Willy always wanted to make a film about his life. Regrettably, that will not happen, for indeed it was remarkable.
I miss the complex character that was Willy Siegel Leventhal — the brilliant, the challenging and the frustrating — and I ache for the fact that we as a society struggle to know how to help he and those like him find their way and live fulfilled lives.