The old activist was sitting on the couch in his apartment, suspicious about my visit.
“This is not for an obituary,” I told him.
A look of relief crossed Marv Davidov’s face.
“Good,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Davidov had come to mind with word late last week that Alliant Techsystems executives are moving to Washington, D.C. The bulk of the 2,700 Minnesota workers, who produce weapons for the military, are to remain in the state.
In 1990, Alliant Tech was spun off from Honeywell, which once upon a time was located in Minneapolis. Honeywell, of course, was the target of massive demonstrations, dating to 1968, led by Davidov.
Much smaller protests have been held outside Alliant Tech operations by a handful of protesters ever since the spinoff.
Alliant execs want to be by decision-makers
It should be noted that the executives say they are moving east to be closer to the decisions — and decision-makers — that lead to the huge government contracts. Their move is seen as a significant loss by state political and business leaders.
Davidov first laughed at the thought that activists ran Alliant leaders out of town but then turned serious.
“We’ve had an effect, as you usually do, if you have a sustained action,” he said. “When we started the actions at Honeywell, we knew it would have to be a sustained effort. You don’t take on a major weapons-maker for a week or a year. In this country, we have a permanent war economy.”
Nothing has changed, and everything has changed, for Davidov.
The constant: His rhetoric about “the war machine.”
The change: His health.
After waiting five years for a new kidney, Davidov received a transplant last November. All was going reasonably well until January, when Davidov twice fell in his apartment.
“I was weak because I had no appetite and wasn’t eating,” Davidov said. “The falls ruined the new kidney.”
Shaky health, but he’s still teaching
Through much of January and February, Davidov was hospitalized.
“The doctors didn’t know if I’d pull through,” he said.
Then, a laugh.
“But you can’t let that kill you,” he concluded.
The transplanted kidney can’t be restored to working order, meaning Davidov is back to being on dialysis three times a week, each treatment lasting more than three hours. But he made it to his 80th birthday last month, and he’s strong enough now to go back to his peace justice teaching at the University of St. Thomas, a job he loves.
“I told my students, ‘You know how your parents and your grandparents have told you that old age isn’t for cowards? They were correct.’ They all laughed.”
His portion of the program is taught with former U.S. Senate candidate Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.
Davidov teaches through oral histories, much of it around his own experiences as a lifelong activist.
In 1961, he was among the original Freedom Riders, the racially mixed group of young activists who rode buses into the Deep South challenging segregation. The riders were met by mobs and were arrested but kept going.
“If you weren’t scared, you were crazy,” Davidov said in one interview about that experience.
But in an our interview, he added this: “We showed that taking action makes a difference. We helped desegregate the South.”
In 1963 and ’64, he was among a group that undertook a walk from Canada to Cuba to protest U.S. policy toward Cuba.
“It took us 18 months because we got slowed down in Georgia,” Davidov said. “In Georgia, we were beaten, cattle-prodded and jailed twice.”
That was followed by the anti-war protests over Vietnam and, of course, the Honeywell protests.
“Honeywell mattered,” Davidov insisted. “War crimes were being committed in the neighborhood that we live. They were creating weapons of mass, indiscriminate destruction.”
But now 80, living extremely frugally, does Davidov think it was all worthwhile? Would sliding into the mainstream, making a living, retiring with a portfolio have been a better path to follow?
“No, no, no,” said Davidov. He talked of the “wonderful people” he has become friends with locally — and the friendships with such nationally known figures as historian Howard Zinn, linguist/philosopher Noam Chomsky, the Berrigan brothers and David Dellinger.
“When I started out as a young man, I suppose I thought I’d be a teacher,” said Davidov. “And now that’s what I’ve ended up doing.”
And his students, and the peace and justice movement, will survive him.
“There will be a movement as long as there needs to be a movement,” he said.
But is full-time activism a worthy life choice?
In reply, he tells one of his favorite stories about his late mother, Gertie. She was being interviewed once about her son’s lifelong work. At the time of the interview, Marv’s brother, Jerry, was working for the St. Paul Public Works department.
“I have one son who sits in the streets,” said Gertie, “and one son who cleans ’em.”