Obituary for J. Quinn Brisben, 1934-2012

by Eric S

May 18, 2012

J. Quinn Brisben, the Chicago-based socialist who died in April 2012, was widely known for his Civil Rights and disability rights activism. Born in Enid, Oklahoma, Quinn discovered socialism as a student at the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s, where he joined the school’s NAACP student chapter as its first white member. A Socialist Party USA member since 1959, Quinn revered the traditions of Debs, Victor Berger, Ernestine Kettler, Fred Thompson, and others whose lives and writings inspired him.

A committed Civil Rights activist, with membership in CORE, the NAACP, and SNCC, Quinn and his spouse Andi Brisben frequently worked in the South, beginning with Montgomery in 1956, through the 1965 Selma protests, and organizing in Alabama through 1967. Anti-black militants frequently threatened Quinn and Andi’s lives, even at home in Chicago. He became a fierce critic of the mounting generational and political divides of the post-1965 Civil Rights movement, and became a life-long Chicago South Side resident. Well known among friends (and enemies), Quinn was easy to spot, at well over six feet tall and a generous girth, always with a tall Stetson cowboy hat, bola tie, and cowboy boots, attire he wore each day to work as a teacher at Chicago’s Harlan High School and AFT Local 1 representative.

Quinn’s life was shaped by his activism, and provided the material for his legendary story-telling capacities. On a frigid winter Saturday in the early 1960s he and Charlie Curtis set up a two-man picket outside the Walgreens on State Street, which refused to hire African American employees. The chagrined store manager acquiesced on the spot. The unusually profitable annual Debs Dinner of 1963, which Quinn helped organize and took place the day after the Kennedy assassination, featured Bayard Rustin and James Farmer addressing a room packed with supporters, SP members, press, and most of the Chicago Police red squad. In the early 1980s, Quinn was arrested for handing out condoms in Moscow’s Red Square, an AIDS awareness protest that ended with a post-jail party at local restaurant, with Quinn and the waiters sharing condom jokes and a risqué chorus of “ARISE! ye prisoners of starvation.”

Along with anti-war activist David McReynolds and others, Quinn survived the Schachtman-era SP to run as the party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1976 alongside Frank Zeidler, and standing as the SPUSA’s presidential candidate in 1992 with vice-presidential candidate Barbara Garson. Quinn also became a committed disabilities rights activist, and many of his later-life arrests featured the bewildering sight of police separating Quinn and his comrades from their wheelchairs and walkers.

Quinn’s writings remain a font of inspiration and delight, and reflect his capacity to connect the idealism of socialism with its pragmatism. The core of his work remained the context of the lived working-class experience. He easily and elegantly combined wry humor with an unpretentious call for proletarian unity. (ATC reviewed a collection of his poems in 2004.) His book reviews and essays appeared in The Nation, The Socialist, The Populist, and elsewhere. Interviews with Quinn are included in books by his friend and colleague Studs Terkel. Always the materialist, Quinn was careful to recognize that there are elements of life for which Marxism had no answer. “There are institutions that will probably always resist socialization,” he wrote. “As the famous Wisconsin Socialist Victor Berger once said about a place that he knew well: ‘No one wants to socialize the corner saloon.’”

Those who knew him well came to understand his temper and bitterness towards neoliberal society, and the diminishment of the ideals and practices of Debs that it represented in his eyes, as an expression of the frustration that many of us were fearful to admit or articulate out loud. Yet, Quinn’s legacy is one of staunch opposition to pessimism and deafeatism, and one that insisted that an honest and transparent assessment of the social forces at hand should never inhibit audacity and aspiration. To this end, Andi Brisben insisted that the words of We Shall Overcome be changed to We Shall Occupy, and sung with gusto at a recent memorial. “Capitalism,” Quinn never tired of arguing, “is an economic and political system based on greed, force, and endless cycles of revenge,” and must be overcome and abandoned.

But how? Quinn’s answer is worth remembering: “We do not wait for great people to lead us. Debs said he did not want to be called the Moses of the labor movement because anyone who could lead us out of the wilderness could lead us right back in again. We must lead ourselves out. There are no great people anyhow. There are only people like us.”