Carol L. McAllister (1947-2007)

— Paul Le Blanc

I REMEMBER MEETING Carol on a public transit bus, I believe in 1980 –- when, almost out of the blue, she approached me and started talking to me about Central America. She recognized me from some earlier meeting on repression and revolution in Central America and wanted to know if, by any chance, I had been in the audience viewing a documentary on women in El Salvador that she had just seen (I hadn’t) and if I would mind if she shared some thoughts about it.

I had no idea then that she would become one of the most important people in my life. We became involved in 1983 in a relationship that ended in 1999. More than a quarter of a century after this initial connection, I returned from a national antiwar demonstration to learn from my friend, comrade and stepson Jonah McAllister-Erickson that his mom, Carol McAllister, passed away at about 6 PM on September 15th, in Shadyside Hospital, only eight days after her 60th birthday.

They were just ending a pleasant visit, and her dinner had been brought in. She indicated that she was tired and wanted to rest for a few minutes. She closed her eyes, her breathing became a little irregular, and then her heart stopped beating. Carol had been hit by breast cancer a number of years ago — and for a time she had beaten it. A little over a year ago, it returned.

For a number of years Carol was active in movements for social justice — antiwar struggles, anti-racist struggles, women’s liberation struggles, and more. Once a “new left” activist, Carol became a revolutionary Marxist in Pittsburgh — briefly as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, then for a number of years as a member of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (as one of its representatives, she attended the 1991 World Congress of the Fourth International, a global network of revolutionary socialist groups), and later for a brief period as a member of Solidarity.

She was also a very fine anthropologist, researcher, and teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, with a joint appointment in the Graduate School of Public Health and the Department of Anthropology, and later with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Since the mid-1990s, she had also connected with spiritual and progressive-Christian currents.

Issues of dignity for people in the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender (GLBT) communities engaged an increasing amount of her attention and energy. She was involved with struggles around equality for GLBT people at the University of Pittsburgh, where she worked, and within her Methodist community.  “Although she had stepped away from direct political activity in a day-to-day way,” Jonah has written to me, “when confronted with bigotry and injustice, she was compelled to act even when extremely disabled by the cancer.”

Carol came from a working-class family in Port Jervis, New York. Her father, John, was a carpenter. She was extremely close to him but lost him while still a little girl. His death was brought on by heart damage from childhood rheumatic fever, exacerbated by his World War II military service.

Carol’s mother, Harriet, had to raise her daughter as a single-mother, for many years employed in a garment factory, while also battling against government bureaucracy (ultimately with success) for the full benefits due to John McAllister’s family.

Carol was able to attend Cornell University on a scholarship from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), of which her mother was a long-time member. When she told her mother, in the autumn of 1967, that she would be protesting the Vietnam War in the March on the Pentagon, her mother responded: “Who do you think you are?”

The meaning of the question, Carol later explained to me, was: Who are people like us to question the judgment of the knowledgeable and powerful leaders of our country? But, of course, Harriet herself had been questioning and challenging authority in her battle to get the government benefits due to her and her daughter, and also sometimes in battles with her employers.

In later years Harriet confided to me how immensely proud she was of Carol, who she had come to recognize as someone truly insightful, brilliant and admirable.

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)