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A forgotten hero

Jack Lessenberry

There were just a few lines on the obituary page of yesterday, with a tiny picture. Margaret Fishman, beloved wife of Alvin, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt. Graveside services this morning in Detroit. Nothing exceptional, except for one line: “Margaret was a lifetime fighter for world peace, civil rights, workers’ rights, and justice for all.”

That she was. And for a moment sixty-three years ago, she was at the center of the world’s attention, at the dawn of the age of television journalism. Her younger brother, Milo Radulovich, was caught in the maw of Cold War hysteria.

He was a completely apolitical ex-GI trying to finish a physics degree at the University of Michigan, so he could become a weather forecaster. But she was a political activist who had picketed a Detroit hotel which wouldn’t allow the famous singer Paul Robeson to stay there, because he was black. Her parents were immigrants from Serbia, and she had worked at the Yugoslav embassy in Washington. Some thought she was a Communist.

The U.S. Air Force told Milo he had to renounce and have nothing to do with his father and especially his sister, or they would throw him out and cut off his benefits.

Milo thought that was nuts. He told me many years later that he only saw his sister on holidays and didn’t know squat about her politics. But he wasn’t going to denounce his family. The injustice was so clear Edward R. Murrow, then the most famous television journalist, took up the cause.

One night in October, 1953, he had Margaret on his program, See It Now, the 60 Minutes of its day. She was dressed fashionably, with her raven hair styled and her dark eyes flashing as she calmly told Murrow that her political beliefs were her own affair, and had nothing to do with her brother.

She looked calm, but was pregnant, and scared to death. The program cleared Milo, though his life and career were blighted by the trauma. He moved to California; she and her husband Al, who nobody ever called Alvin, stayed in Detroit to fight for a million causes. They had a beautiful home crammed with books.

The widow of Salvador Allende, the murdered president of Chile, stayed with them for a while. Al was proud that he’d been a pallbearer for one of the Scottsboro boys.

Years later, they told me that they had indeed been Communists for a time, because they were the only ones against segregation, back in the day. Al was trim and athletic; younger than Margaret and totally devoted to her. But nine years ago he suddenly died of a heart attack.

Margaret’s last few years were hard ones. She never completely recovered from a bad car accident. The daughter she’d been carrying when Murrow interviewed her grew up to become a crusading lawyer, then died of cancer. Margaret lived out her days in a senior living facility with her brother Sam. When I saw her last Christmas, she was pretty weak.

But when somebody mentioned Donald Trump, she made a face.

When her niece, a well-known cellist in New York, called to tell me Margaret was gone I asked if she had known about the election. “We don’t think so,” she told me.

Sometimes, ignorance can be bliss.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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