OXFORD—The letters from Edwards, Miss., began arriving around 11 years ago. The penmanship was a big, wild scrawl not always easy to read. Jumping off those pages, however, was the passion of the writer.
"There will be unions in the South in time because it is right," lawyer and former journalist Sander P. "Sandy" Margolis wrote in one of them, responding to a column of mine about unions and the raw deal working-class people get.
Then, in big, capital letters, he offered a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. "YOU GAIN STRENGTH, COURAGE, AND CONFIDENCE BY EVERY EXPERIENCE IN WHICH YOU REALLY STOP TO LOOK FEAR IN THE FACE. YOU MUST DO THE THING YOU THING YOU CANNOT DO."
I miss getting those letters. Sandy Margolis, the last of the letter writers, died at age 74 two years ago this September. His had been a long illness, and the letters had stopped long before. Still, I knew that as long as Sandy Margolis was breathing, things like justice, truth and honor had a champion.
A Virginia native, he came from a Jewish immigrant family with roots in Lithuania. A grandfather lived in South Africa, and an uncle once wrote for the Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward, in New York City. His parents struggled during the Depression. His father lacked education and lost his job, but "FDR's New Deal gave him hope for employment and a better life," Sandy said. They lost family members to the Holocaust.
In the Margolis household, politics and social justice were part of the regular conversation.
"My father ... saw through Nixon's 'Southern Strategy' in 1968. He remembered when LBJ said after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that 'we've lost the South.' But my father never let racism dishonor his soul," Sandy wrote.
Sandy studied at the University of Virginia and Notre Dame and got his law degree at Ole Miss. He worked as a liberal reporter and columnist in political boss Harry Byrd's Virginia during the time of massive resistance to racial integration. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther, and many thousands of others in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
He wrote columns for different newspapers, worked as a lawyer and, until he became ill, fired off letters to the editor—perhaps the last place in the world where people still actually write letters.
Ah, those letters! Whether to me or to a newspaper, they were full of fire. After Republican Haley Barbour's election as governor of Mississippi in 2003—a campaign in which Barbour brandished his state flag lapel pin with its Confederate insignia and allowed his image on the ultra-right-wing Committee of Conservative Citizens' website—Sandy wrote this in a letter to The Clarion-Ledger: "He orchestrated a racist campaign. He knew that playing the 'race card' works in Mississippi. ... Will Haley Barbour now seek the way of honor and apologize to African Americans for his campaign methods?"
Those words produced an outcry. Another letter writer responded angrily by linking Sandy with columnist Bill Minor and yours truly as three "hysterical" liberals unable to cope with Barbour's victory. Sandy said he was proud to be in such company.
The Margolis pen was just as sharp in a column as in a personal letter. "The promotion of extreme corporate wealth and favoritism is corrupting and corroding the bedrock institutions of our republic," he wrote in a piece for the now-defunct alternative publication Planet Weekly in 2004. "Even the press and media, the sentinels of our liberty, are being subverted by corporate ownership and used as public relations and propaganda tools."
Like the great crusading Jewish journalists Abraham Cahan, George Seldes and I.F. Stone, Sandy was an unabashed intellectual. His writings are replete with quotes—Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Edmund Burke, Lewis Carroll, William Faulkner.
Here's one he sent me from FDR, again in letters as big as his laugh: "THE TEST OF OUR PROGRESS IS NOT WHETHER WE ADD MORE TO THE ABUNDANCE OF THOSE WHO HAVE MUCH; IT IS WHETHER WE PROVIDE ENOUGH FOR THOSE WHO HAVE TOO LITTLE."
Although proud of his Jewish heritage, he admitted he was "not a formally religious person." Yet, he said, "we must treat every human being as a child of God, with justice, mercy and love."
His wife, Alice and, his daughters, Kate and Amanda, keep his memory alive. And now maybe I'm helping a little, too. A postcard from Sandy and Alice hangs on the wall next to my desk, and I'll never forget what they wrote. "We believe you have a Jewish heart because you believe in justice and truth and honor."
No letter has ever pleased me more than that card.
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. His blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com. Email him at [email protected].