Explaining an experiment with serialized biography
If you’ve read this newspaper closely over the past month weeks you may have noticed that this issue holds the fourth installment in a series of articles about Hal Sieber, a 79-year-old Greensboro resident.
We’ve met regularly at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays at his apartment on Wintergarden Lane to talk about the significant episodes of his life, and we’ll probably end up with eight more segments before we’re through.
It’s a unique assignment, one I accepted eagerly and one for which I quickly obtained support from my editor.
I first met Sieber in the spring of 2005, about three months into my employment at YES! Weekly, then in its infancy. Sieber summoned me to the caf’ at Borders on High Point Road to give me the scoop on how he had just been eased out as commentary editor at the Carolina Peacemaker. The event was notable because it marked a true transition into retirement, because the job had entailed a white man writing opinions for the city’s black newspaper — representative of Sieber’s repeated transgressions of the color line — and because of his longstanding and deep friendship with the newspaper’s
Sieber is one of the unique and significant figures in the history of 20 th century liberalism and civil rights, not only in Greensboro and North Carolina, but in the nation as a whole. Growing up in a German family of Jewish heritage in the mountains of western North Carolina, Sieber had published a poem in the North Carolina Catholic as a teenager denouncing racial prejudice almost a decade before the Brown v. Board of Education. He became a poet in a time and place when such activity was not reinforced as badge of masculinity, if it ever was.
Sieber was nominated for the National Book Award in the mid-1950s on the strength of his poems, and it brought him acclaim. The decade of his twenties in Chapel Hill and Washington, DC was heady times. Dating back to the friendship he forged as a teenager with poet Carl Sandburg, Sieber learned how to exploit opportunities and build contacts.
Sieber’s poetry helped him secure a position at the Library of Congress where, among other activities, he worked as a speechwriter for Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Stealthily working the system in Washington in tandem with Robert Frost, he uncovered critical documents that helped free poet Ezra Pound, who had been confined in a mental institution after being held without trial on suspicion of treason.
Sieber’s activities at the Library of Congress epitomize an abiding tension in his life: He often moved in mainstream circles while working whatever angles he could to champion the marginalized of society.
An avowed capitalist, Sieber came of age in a decade marked by anti-communist hysteria stirred up by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). His German heritage during World War II, his adherence to the Catholic faith in the Bible Belt, his poetry, his opposition to segregation as a white person in the Jim Crow South all marked him as different and possibly suspect, and Sieber internalized the lessons of discretion. He would argue passionately with poet Amiri Baraka, formerly Leroi Jones, and contends today that Baraka squandered an opportunity to be a great American poet by publicly embracing communism and radical black liberation stances.
Sieber’s most significant contribution to the history of Greensboro in particular is probably the work he did as public relations director for the chamber of commerce. He was recruited for the job by progressive business leaders such as Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles and Al Lineberry Sr. in 1966, and stayed on through the early 1970s. His lasting legacy from that period was his work behind the scenes at the chamber running “a community relations program to institutionalize interracial comfort,” as he put it, to ease white resistance to public school integration.
Since then, Sieber has taught in local colleges, led sensitivity seminars, run a public relations firm, published numerous booklets on African-American affairs, painted, written local history, toiled in various capacities at the Peacemaker, worked for the controversial and now defunct housing nonprofit Project Homestead and maintained varied and rich friendships. Many of those friendships were nourished in the past decade through an intellectual salon of sorts at the Borders caf’.
In 2002, Sieber won the national Peace Prize of St. Francis from the Secular Franciscan Order-USA, a distinction he shares with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II.
Sieber’s headstrong style and his unique position as a social broker in Greensboro have made him a somewhat controversial figure. I anticipate that my engagement will not shy away from, deepen or resolve what controversy has gathered around him. Much of my perception of Sieber’s role in decisive events in Greensboro owes to the work of
William Chafe, the person I consider to be the authoritative historian of Greensboro’s civil rights journey.
Although Sieber was admired by many white liberals and by many blacks in general, Chafe has written that he has not been universally appreciated in the black community, particularly during his years with the chamber.
“From the perspective of some black radicals,” Chafe wrote, “Sieber represented the ultimate example of paternalism, using flattery or the offer of jobs and political help to win allies. ‘He wormed his way around to everybody,’ Nelson Johnson commented, appearing to take the side of the insurgents, but only for the purpose of controlling them. Sieber ‘tried too hard’ to be genuine, skeptics said, and seemed to feel that ‘whenever or wherever a meeting went on in the black community, he was supposed to be there.’ A few viewed this as simply a psychic need to identify with blacks. But to some it suggested a determination to infiltrate the black movement and destroy it through a strategy of divide and conquer.”
Someday a serious biographer will come along to sift through Sieber’s papers, compile the man’s interviews and cross-reference it all with the contemporaneous remarks and current reminiscences of others. That’s beyond my scope. Writing the chapters of someone’s life is somewhat more intimidating than the average journalism assignment, however: You want to maintain independence; at the same time you’re holding up a mirror to your subject week after week, and you hope that on the whole he likes what he sees.
There is also the challenge of speaking with each other across the distance of time. Personalities and events that were significant 50 or 60 years ago may seem obscure today. Political terminologies and passions resonate differently now than they did in the past. For example, “liberal Republican” sounds like an oxymoron today; “Tea Party movement” was not shorthand for conservative discontent in the 1950s.
I’m honored that Hal Sieber, a friend, chose me for the project. I know that objectivity is largely fiction, and that these stories will be, at least in part, a conversation between writer and source.
They say journalism is the first draft of history. A legacy will follow the man. And make no mistake, Hal Sieber will have his say on this subject.