Chris Rosenblum | Veteran, county resident was committed to fighting injustices

March 31, 2013 

Mike Sletson protested against war, but he fought tooth and nail when confronted with social injustice.

“That would just get his blood going,” said Jay Sletson, one of his two children. “I always called Mike a peaceful warrior. He was a warrior in every sense of the word.”

His father’s battle is over. Recently, the scrappy activist passed away at 86 in Centre Crest after complications from a fall.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. April 13 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County.

Friends will celebrate the fires of an old-school lefty, an immigrants’ son inspired by his heroes, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger.

Over the course of his life, he supported unions, marched in civil rights rallies, organized Vietnam War protesters and spoke out against the arms race, nuclear proliferation and racial profiling.

He immersed himself in Democratic politics. In 1968, he served as Eugene McCarthy’s Pennsylvania presidential campaign manager. Four years later, he joined George McGovern’s bid for the presidency.

During the 1980s in Philadelphia, he started a consulting firm, Funds for Progress, drawing on his organizing talents to help liberal nonprofits raise money. He moved to Centre County in 1996.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq 10 years ago, Sletson found his second wind. As a member of the State College Peace Center, he actively opposed the costly war, becoming a frequent contributor to local newspaper opinion pages.

“It was a fight,” said his son, Roy Sletson. “He liked to fight. He was feisty.”

One would expect no less from a Bronx kid from the Depression who fought against Nazis.

Born in 1926 to Eastern European parents, Isaac Meyer Sletson played street football with a ball made of tightly rolled newspapers bound with string. He also wielded a slick baseball glove.

His athleticism later got him out of the jam in the Army while serving in Aachen, Germany, at the end of World War II.

As Jay Sletson recalls, his father once fell asleep on guard duty, a court-martial offense. But a colonel didn’t want to lose his outfit’s star third baseman.

Eventually during the occupation, the Army discovered Sletson could write as well.

He ended up covering the Nuremberg trials for Stars and Stripes, reporting the war crimes and atrocities committed by Nazi officials and generals. The experience, coupled with the destruction he witnessed, made a profound impression.

So did talking to locals about the Holocaust.

“(W)hen I spoke with Germans, it was as if they were reading from a script,” he wrote in a 2005 column. “They were unaware of concentration camps, they did not know what had happened to Jews who were removed from their community, they knew nothing about slave-labor camps.”

He held on to the outrage.

During the 1950s, while a Fuller Brush salesman, he worked as an union organizer. But he truly hit his stride as an activist in the 1960s after moving to Philadelphia.

Roy Sletson remembers his father’s stunt at a 1964 presidential campaign rally for Lyndon B. Johnson. He hung a sign around the family’s white boxer that read “Barry Goldwater, not even for dogcatcher.” It caught the attention of a Philadelphia Inquirer photographer.

The Vietnam War energized Sletson further.

“It was an intervention into a civil war,” he told a reporter years later. “I didn’t think we belonged there.”

He mobilized protestors from Philadelphia, sending dozens of buses at a time to Washington, D.C., anti-war rallies and marching himself.

And he developed a reputation in certain circles.

One afternoon, he took his sons to a Phillies game at Connie Mack Stadium and caught a foul ball. In all the excitement, Jay Sletson turned around, noticed a familiar-looking man a few rows behind and asked his father about him.

“Oh, he’s the FBI guy,” Jay Sletson remembers his father saying. “He always follows us around.”

Unfazed by the shadowing, Mike Sletson later took exception to a brush with city police.

By 1967, he had become the executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy, and even more politically outspoken. While leading the chapter for six years, he played host in his home to noted activists, such as Rennie Davis from the famous Chicago Seven radicals.

When President Richard Nixon visited Philadelphia one time, the cops picked up Sletson and drove him around. And around. Only when the president left town did the police release him.

Sletson had his revenge. He sued them for illegal detainment — and won.

Later with Funds for Progress, he branched out. One cause was Aspira, a Latino community nonprofit in the city, even though he knew little Spanish. For one of his birthday parties, he gave it a present.

“He basically said on invitations, ‘I don’t want any gifts. I want you to give to Aspira,’ ” Roy Sletson said.

That fit with his basic social orientation, Jay Sletson said, noting one of his father’s pet sayings was “Who pays and who benefits?”

“He was tuned into the working class men and women, the underprivileged, the minorities,” Jay Sletson said.

But as empathetic as he was, Mike Sletson could be a bear in an argument.

“He was an incredibly aggressive person,” Jay Sletson said. “I always likened Mike to a rose bush: really beautiful person, but he had some big thorns. If you wanted to get to the beauty, you had to take a hit from a couple of thorns.”

Part of that came from his deep convictions. Sletson lived life guided by “a strong moral compass,” Roy Sletson said.

“He was passionate when he saw injustice, and that drove him strongly,” Sletson said. “And that was the primary focus of his life: to try to fight the injustices and to develop the grass-roots contingent to protest them with the hopes of changing them.”

Jay Sletson said he draws inspiration from another of his father’s mottos: “The best is the enemy of the good.” In other words, it’s better to do something than worry about being perfect.

“Suit up and get in the game and make a difference,” Jay Sletson said. “That was what he was all about. That’s what he gave other people, the courage to get in the game.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.

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