Fare thee Wellman

Dec 17, 2003 at 12:00 am

Of all the people who have appeared on the pages of this paper over the years, few commanded as much respect as self-described revolutionary Saul Wellman, who died of a stroke last week in Ann Arbor at the age of 90.

His was a remarkable life.

“I suckled the ideas of socialism at my mother’s breast,” he told us in an interview (“Big Brother comes home,” Metro Times, June 26-July 2, 2002). It was a commitment he maintained throughout his long life. He summed up his philosophy in the documentary film Saul Wellman: One Man in His Time, saying: “I want things to change where the playing field is leveled, where equality emerges as a reality … where the horrible things about inequities are eliminated.”

That documentary, co-produced by Wayne State University professor Ron Aronson, is in the final stages of production.

“Many of us have been trying over the years to capture the essence of Saul Wellman,” explains Aronson. “He had a powerful effect on a whole generation of Detroit activists.”

Wellman was first arrested at 16 while participating in a massive New York City labor demonstration. In 1936, at 23, he joined the Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War, a commitment that resulted in him being named an honorary Spanish citizen in 1996. At the age of 30 he joined the U.S. Army as a paratrooper, and was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge.

“He was a dedicated and committed anti-fascist,” says Al Fishman, who had known Wellman since the late 1940s. “He was so committed that he would put his body on the line for the things he believed in.”

As the head of the Michigan Communist Party, Wellman was swept up in the McCarthyism of the early 1950s. As one of the “Detroit Six” he was convicted under the anti-Communist Smith Act for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. After serving six months of a five-year prison sentence he was released when the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional.

“He was a revolutionary at a time when revolution was not possible in this country,” says Fishman.

His absolute certainty in his political beliefs could be perceived as arrogance, says Fishman. But he was not afraid to change. After the horrors of Stalinism were revealed, he broke with the Communist Party in the mid-’50s, but continued to advocate for social justice as a union leader and member of the so-called New Left, participating in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. According to Aronson, starting in the 1960s and through the ’70s and ’80s, Wellman would have weekly breakfasts with younger activists, mentoring them.

Earlier this year, using a wheelchair, he participated in a demonstration against the war in Iraq. That scene was captured on film for the documentary.

“You could hear him saying, ‘Don’t be passive,’” says Aronson. “That was his message: Don’t be passive. Do something, and never give in.”

Until his last days, the man once tried for sedition could point to framed proclamations from the City of Detroit and the Michigan Legislature, both of which eventually honored his commitment to social justice.

“I have always felt that I was performing in the best interest of my country,” he once said.

A true hero has passed.

Wellman is survived by son David and daughter Vicki, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A memorial gathering is being planned for early next year. Those wishing to make contributions to Wellman’s memory can donate to the Democratic Values Project or the Saul Wellman Film Project, both at 5700 Cass Ave., No. 2426, Detroit, MI 48202.

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