My Albany Sojourn
by Richard Gaikowski

Introduction
by Mary Paley

In the course of my research for this website, I contacted many of the people who played a part in the events that are depicted in my father’s photographs, as well as reporters who worked with my father at The Knickerbocker News (one of the two major newspapers in Albany, the capital of New York State). I wanted to provide site visitors with the stories behind the photos, told by the people who lived those experiences and the reporters who witnessed the events firsthand.

Leon Van Dyke, spokesman for The Brothers, inspired me to locate activist reporter, Richard Gaikowski. Leon remembers Dick with great affection. His stories about the Brothers were even-handed and truthful, although the working class organization never courted the establishment press. I also remembered Dick, having met him in the mid-1960’s when my father invited him to our house.

Richard Gaikowski (L) with Leon Van Dyke, playing chess at The Brothers headquarters in Albany, New York.
Richard Gaikowski (L) with Leon Van Dyke, playing chess at The Brothers headquarters in Albany, New York.

I called Dick Gaikowski at his storefront apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District in the fall of 2003, and asked if he would be willing to contribute to the project by writing about his experiences covering Albany's civil rights movement. I mailed him copies of his signature articles that were often paired with my father’s photos, to help refresh his memory of his time as a reporter for The Knickerbocker News during the turbulent sixties. Happily, we began an email friendship.

Immersing himself in pieces he’d written as a young civil rights reporter, Dick remembered Albany’s potholed streets and the Knick’s clash with the political machine. The paper’s loss of its legal ads briefly fostered an atmosphere that welcomed the firebrand reporter who was cheering for social change.

1968 was a pivotal year. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the Democratic Convention, led Dick to question his relevance. He quit the paper and left for Europe. Not much later, he found himself in Northern Ireland where he witnessed a brutal attack on Queen’s University students who marched from Belfast to Derry with the People’s Democracy movement. He quickly penned an article for The Knickerbocker News about Ireland’s impending sectarian violence.

"Although he could have become a mainstream newspaper editor, Gaikowski went in another direction. He moved to Haight-Ashbury in 1969 where he edited a weekly underground newspaper, the San Francisco Good Times, and experimented with film and video, always creating networks for distributing other people’s work while producing his own."* The last piece of journalism Dick wrote was a freelance piece for the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle in 1980.

In 1985, he founded NewsBase, a San Francisco-based electronic bulletin board. NewsBase featured first-hand reports from journalists who had just returned from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Middle East. Dick’s project offered local alternative newspapers a ready source of articles, hosted debates, free form discussions and even published poetry. The controversial bulletin board was cited in a scholarly journal published by Hawthorne Press, in an article titled “Democratic Questions for the Computer Age.”

Dick’s memoir, “My Albany Sojourn” arrived in my mailbox on February 10, 2004. He had planned to send along biographical information, but it never arrived. In my six month correspondence with Richard, he had never mentioned his illness. In April, 2004, The Times Union published his obituary.

During his lifetime, Richard Gaikowski endured his share of controversy. According to a 1986 article in "In These Times," Gaikowski experienced both the positive and negative effects of uncensored dialogue after he set up the first progressive Electronic Bulletin Board, a precursor of today's forums. Hate groups targeted and often overwhelmed his forum with vicious attacks.

Even after his death, there are people who target Gaikowski. A blogger who once participated in the attacks eventually discovered that the accusations against Gaikowski were groundless. He now dedicates a blog to defending Richard against his accusers.

You can visit his blog here

My Albany Sojourn
By Richard Gaikowski

February 10, 2004

It was nearly midnight when I arrived in Albany on a cold January night in 1966. I had spent four days driving across country from California, stopping briefly in South Dakota to visit my parents on the farm that I was born and raised on. I had never been to the Northeast before. That was one reason I had accepted the job at The Knickerbocker News. I had worked in California for four years and now I wanted to see the East Coast.

Driving into Albany the first thing I noticed was the potholed streets. The city seemed gray and drab. “The potholes keep people from speeding,” I was later told. I learned that the condition of the streets was in keeping with the frugal level of services provided by the city. Keeping taxes low appeared to be the main goal of the O’Connell machine. In 1966, California still hadn’t experienced the Reagan Revolution. Local governments provided what now seems like lavish social welfare, medical and educational services. Streets, roads and highways were well maintained. I had never driven on a Toll Road before the New York State Thruway.

For a journalist the best thing about California had been the Brown Act which required all meetings of public bodies be “open and public” except for issues dealing with individual persons. Then adequate notice had to be given and no other business conducted. That’s not saying informal casual meetings between several councilmen and county supervisors did not go on. But if word got out that a quorum of a particular body did meet at some bar, home or café, it would be cause for a big expose. As a newsman, I was only barred from one meeting. A senior vice president of Southern Pacific Railroad brought a luxury private rail car with personal chef to Martinez where the mayor and city council were wined and dined. It made a great story, but the power of SP had been crushed long ago and was more like a garden snake instead of the all powerful corrupting octopus that Frank Norris had exposed in his novel.

The small daily paper that I edited existed mainly on legal advertisements of Contra Costa Court and the city of Martinez. The publisher liked my crusading style until I exposed the payoff of a city building inspector and exposed substandard construction of a development calling the houses, “cracker boxes.” The newspaper and I were each sued for millions of dollars. The publisher forced me to publish a front page retraction taking back the “cracker box” description. He didn’t want to spend a dime on lawyers and the lawsuit was dropped even though the charge of payoff to the city building inspector wasn’t retracted. My crusading spirit was wilted and I was ready to leave Martinez.

Arriving in Albany I soon discovered that New York had no Brown Act. The public business in Albany was mainly conducted behind closed doors. I remembered that Arthur Schlessinger Jr. wrote in his book, The Age of Roosevelt, that the O’Connell Machine ought to be preserved and placed in the Smithsonian Institute so that future generations would know what a real political machine looked like.

 
Richard Gaikowski
Richard Gaikowski at work in the newsroom of The Knickerbocker News

While Albany might not have seemed that impressive to me at first, I found The Knickerbocker News an exciting and stimulating place to work. The O’Connell Machine had taken away legal advertising from the Knick News and the Times Union for publishing articles critical to the organization. At the same time, the 1960s civil rights movement had mobilized blacks to take civil and political actions. As the blacks in Albany struggled against the machine, those who had been a clog in the machine made big headlines.

As I got to know Albany, I learned to appreciate it. Coming from South Dakota, where my grandfather had a homestead, then living in California, where everything was new, Albany seemed ancient to me. While small, it was a real city. I especially liked exploring the black neighborhoods and culture.

Troy, not Albany, was the location of my first story on racial tension. After some minor shuffle arose over the arrest of a teenager by police, some windows got broken and fires started. There was tension in Albany, too. To keep the peace on the streets of Albany, Jackie Robinson made two visits. Another visiting star was Mohammad Ali. In the morning at a press conference, sports reporters attempted to skew him with questions about changing his name from Cassius Clay and resisting the Vietnam era military draft. Undaunted, he replied, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”

In the afternoon I followed Ali on a walking tour of the South End as he greeted people in barber shops and cafes urging them to keep cool. In the evening he spoke to the local Black Muslim temple. As a white man, I was not allowed inside the temple, but Ali sat by a cracked door so I could hear his speech which was one of peace and reconciliation.

On October 22, 1966, my first story on The Brothers was published.  This was the era when scary headlines about Black Panthers and Black Muslims were common. News reports were trumpeting that blacks were abandoning Martin Luther King’s non violence tactics for the more militant Black Power ideology. In this atmosphere, a story announcing a secret organization of militant young black men in Albany’s South End would have been easy to sensationalize. But that was not what The Brothers were about. Their meetings were closed, but so were those of the O’Connell Machine.

The first major public theatre organized by The Brothers was a gutsy election day protest where pickets demonstrated outside of polling places carrying signs saying, “Don’t sell your vote for $5.00.” It was alleged that the O’Connell Machine gave $5.00 to black voters for showing up at the polls and voting. Police arrested 21 protestors charging that the demonstration was frightening voters and keeping them from voting.  The voter obstruction charges were dropped that night with a lecture from the police court justice and all were released without going to jail. Albany was no Birmingham, Alabama. But the whole affair made great TV news although it seemed impossible to embarrass the political machine. The vote buying charges were being investigated by an Albany County Grand Jury. Leon Van Dyke, who emerged as the Brothers spokesperson, admitted accepting $5.00 for his vote in a previous election. He and five other Brothers volunteered to testify even though the district attorney said he would persecute both “giver and taker.” However, as expected, the following spring, the grand jury ended the investigation without an indictment.

During these turbulent times I felt that Van Dyke was a very skillful organizer, one of the reasons no civil disorder erupted in Albany. I also give some credit to Albany Police Chief John P. Tuffey, who once asked me if I was the Brothers “public relations man.” I don’t remember answering him, but nodding my head from side to side. On April 16, 1967, the chief came by himself to The Brothers headquarters to meet for three hours with 15 members to discuss ways to improve community relations. Both Chief Tuffey and Van Dyke described the  meeting as “very fruitful” but I feel the picture taken by photographer, Bob Paley, of Chief Tuffey leaving the meeting, spoke volumes. It showed the white community that the Brothers were not a dangerous group.

During the nearly three years I spent in Albany, I felt very comfortable in black neighborhoods, day or night. It wasn’t until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King that I first felt fear. I worked nights while most of the news staff worked days. April 5, 1968 started off as a quiet night. I wasn’t working on any hard stories and planned a quiet evening. Shortly after 8 p.m., the teletype machine bells started ringing which only rang for major stories. Dr. King had been killed. Soon, my editor, Robert Fichenberg, came into the newsroom. He and his wife had been to a movie. When told the news, he said that I should go into the South End neighborhood and write a reaction story.

I went to Dorsey’s Restaurant on Broadway. I had no problem as I talked to people about the King assassination that night. The anger and grief was subdued that night. It wasn’t until two days later as I sat at the Brothers headquarters, that a couple of members started expressing their grief and anger. As the only representative of the white race present, the anger started to be directed to me. I soon left, not saying a word. I felt hurt. Did these brothers realize that I was on their side?

The Bobby Kennedy assassination followed in June, 1968. 1968 was turning out to be a very bad year. I don’t remember exact dates and didn’t save any of these clippings. But about this time the Brothers and other civil rights groups realized that the O’Connell Machine wasn’t their only impediment to equality. They realized that the Albany economic structure also discriminated against them and started planning a boycott of the major department stores. But my reports were no longer getting prominent positions in the newspaper like the stories fighting the O’Connell Machine had received. None of my editors said a word to me about it. I realized that the problem was the new target of the Albany Civil Rights Movement. The department stores were major advertisers in the newspapers and they were not going to support any actions that might hurt them. Also realized that if the O’Connell Machine ever returned the legal advertisements, the newspapers would probably no longer oppose it’s power. What really pained me, however, was when I realized my own naivety. Publishers have to be concerned with their economic base, a fact of life I was just learning to accept. I felt burned out and left The Knickerbocker News at the end of September and headed for Europe to lick my wounds.

Afterword
by Mary Paley

During his lifetime, Richard Gaikowski endured his share of controversy. According to a 1986 article in "In These Times," Gaikowski experienced both the positive and negative effects of uncensored dialogue after he set up the first progressive Electronic Bulletin Board, a precursor of today's forums. Hate groups targeted and often overwhelmed his forum with vicious attacks.

Even after his death, there are people who target Gaikowski. A blogger who once participated in the attacks eventually discovered that the accusations against Gaikowski were groundless. He now dedicates a blog to defending Richard against his accusers.

You can visit his blog here

The Brothers
Editorial from The Knickerbocker News
by Robert G. Fichenberg, Executive Editor

October, 1966

We are not in the habit of publishing intra-office notes that our reporters submit to our city desk, but we think that one sentence in the note that reporter Richard Gaikowski attached to his story yesterday on the Brothers - a militant Albany Negro organization - deserves wider circulation.

With his permission, we reproduce it here: "I bent over backwards to avoid making this a scare story, while at the same time presenting a true story of the Brothers"

In 23 words, reporter Gaikowski has described what every such story should include, in terms of accuracy, detail, painstaking care and public responsibility.

The story of the Brothers is not a scare story. It is a straightforward report on a group of young negro men in Albany's South End who are tired of seeing their people ignored, pushed around and treated with less than courtesy and mutual respect.

They are militant, yes. Who wouldn't be after members of their race had been denied most of the common courtesies that are elemental to human dignity a century after the Emancipation Proclamation? And while we would pass no judgment at this stage on the Brothers or any similar organization, we would suggest that this last point is one of the most important that the Brothers' neighbors--using the term "neighbors" in the broadest community sense--should consider.

As Mr. Gaikowski pointed out in his story, the one viewpoint that members of the Brothers expressed to him repeatedly was "We are not asking for special favors for the negro; just that he be treated as a man..."

In the United States, in 1966, this not only isn't too much to ask. It's a right that should have been honored as a matter of course starting a generation ago.

 

* From "Electronic Graffiti Soapbox by Connie Blitt & Dennis Bernstein, In These Times newspaper

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