[News] Elsa Knight Thompson - The truth is always left of center!

Anti-Imperialist News News at freedomarchives.org
Thu Apr 6 13:48:25 EDT 2006

The truth is always left of center!
                       - Elsa Knight Thompson

I offer this message In celebration of today, which would have been 
the 100th birthday of Elsa Knight Thompson.

Elsa was a forerunner, role model, and a spiritual grandmother of the 
Freedom Archives. Several of us worked closely with her. Her lifetime 
of work in radio and her aliveness to new revolutionary currents 
remain an inspiration.

At the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London during World 
War II, the program Radio Newsreel, where she headed the 
international desk, reached an estimated audience of 20 million 
people worldwide.  In the United States her documentary programs and 
interviews, mainly generated at KPFA-FM in Berkeley, won numerous 
broadcasting awards. She was a pathfinder for women in broadcasting 
and one of the leading forces in the evolution of community 
radio.  Her interviews are legendary.

As the recently and also dearly departed music critic and longtime 
KPFA programmer Phil Elwood said: "When Elsa had some very special 
guest on the air most of the staff and lots of townsfolk-subscribers 
would crowd into the station to watch it all happen.  Who among those 
present will ever forget Elsa and Paul Robeson?"

Elsa was a very dear friend of mine. We worked together in radio for 
some years, then became even closer during the final years of her 
life, when I began to help her with an unpublished 
autobiography/biography. She died on February 12, 1983. I met her in 
1968, shortly before I became News Director at KPFA-FM in Berkeley, 
when she was, as she had been since 1957, Public Affairs Director and 
later Program Director.  The book records her birth this way:

Two weeks before the San Francisco earthquake, on April 6, 1906, 
Elsie Eloise was born in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, to Murel Bolden and 
Earl Knight.  Although her parents came from Seattle, Washington, 
they were sent to Idaho by their parents to disguise the fact that 
the child was conceived out of wedlock. When they returned to 
Seattle, now legally married, the official birth date was listed as 
three months later, to provide a veneer of "legitimacy."

While the birth of this child was hardly an earthshaking event at the 
time, in years to come her creative work would play an important part 
in helping to tremble the Northern California earth again, this time 
not as a quake, but as part of the worldwide wave of social protest 
of the 1960s, one of whose epicenters was Berkeley and the San 
Francisco Bay Area.
Social protest was an important part of her life from childhood, for 
she grew up in the activist Northwest where many union organizing 
efforts of the IWW were concentrated.  Her father was a journalist, 
and she heard vehement discussions on all sorts of topics, as the 
house swirled with the controversies brought forth by shootings of 
workers in Centralia, Washington, conditions in the lumber camps, 
World War I, and the Russian Revolution.

Elsa's personality, full of contradictions, had a power well 
remembered by anyone who met her, friend or foe.  She was a 
controversial figure, and could be uncompromising, cantankerous, 
stubborn, irascible.  She didn't "suffer fools gladly."  At the same 
time, she was a sensitive, consistent friend and great helper to a 
remarkably large number and variety of people. Less well known than 
her radio work were her many close connections to activists and 
revolutionaries, from Europe before World War II to the Black Panther 
Party, the United Farm Workers, Women for Peace, and the list goes on and on.

Elsa was not a large woman physically, but her presence was 
commanding.  Partly this was the power of her voice, the intensity 
and depth of her gaze.  She was a memorable conversationalist, with 
an often barbed and sardonic sense of humor and a certain unerring 
ability to say the unspeakable truth, no matter whose toes were 
stepped on.  One always wonders (and misses) the sharpness of her wit 
during these imperio-fascistic times!

Another less well known but transformative chapter in Elsa's life, 
more relevant than ever today, was her rape and pregnancy at 17, 
followed by a botched (then illegal) abortion that she almost died 
from, and a long period of despair, illness, and then eventual 
recuperation.  In the end she emerged to say:

Something within these events brought into full flower earlier 
influences of my childhood, creating within me a power I only partly 
understand, a force far larger than myself, causing me to speak out 
when something had to be said, reinforcing within me an unyielding 
love of truth.

Most of all I resolved absolutely, with no-holds-barred, that, as I 
could not have children myself, I would do whatever I could to try to 
help build a better world, to make this Earth a better place for all 
children to be born into, to use whatever abilities I had and was 
able to cultivate in the service of humanity.  That was my 
resolution, and that resolve became the guiding force of my life.

Of course, we can look at the world now and wonder whether or not the 
efforts of my lifetime, and the struggles of so many other people in 
all nations, have indeed resulted in a better world.  In many ways, 
the world situation has been getting steadily and visibly worse since 
I began my quest!  Yet even so, I deeply believe that the efforts of 
so many I have known cannot have been in vain.  The survival of the 
Earth is at stake, just as so many years ago, my own survival 
teetered on the brink of destruction.  The root of hope, the strength 
found within the common struggle of people for freedom, justice, and 
peace, the constant creative effort to raise the new generations as 
stronger, healthier, and happier people-this struggle is at the heart 
of my commitment.

But one thing I know for certain:  I emerged from over a year of deep 
psychological and physical terror as a woman with a mission, and I 
have tried to remain true to that mission over the course of terrible 
and tumultuous years in world history.

Of course, there is so much more to say and tell, If you are 
interested in learning more about Elsa Knight Thompson, contact The 
Freedom Archives.


                       Lincoln Bergman, for
                       The Freedom Archives

PS - Elsa was a mentor and friend to me, a very naive teenager, as i 
got my start in radio at KPFA in the late 1960s. (and also when 
Lincoln and i first met and became life-long friends).

The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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