Interview: Tom Motko

Tom Motko joined the U.S. Army in 1968 within a month of graduating from high school, was trained as a Vietnamese linguist/ voice intercept operator at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA and Goodfellow ABF, TX, and worked in a command subordinate to the National Security Agency. His duty stations included Japan, Taiwan, and Viet Nam.

In 1969, while stationed in Texas he became active in the GI Resistance movement, was co-founder of a GI underground press, and took part in civil rights struggles against Jim Crow in San Angelo, TX. After discharge, he founded the Corvallis (Oregon) chapter of Viet Nam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). During the mid-1970s, he helped establish and participated in one of the first self-help groups in the U.S. for Viet Nam combat veterans coping with “post-Viet Nam syndrome” (which came to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder). In 1981, he was awarded a BA from Oregon State University in Speech Communication. Active in social justice movements throughout his life, he worked in diverse blue- and white-collar jobs before his 25-year career as a union organizer/field representative from which he retired in 2011.


What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?

I see my entire life as a process of awakening (or, something akin to it), understanding (or, what passes for it), and radicalization although I’m not nearly the activist now that I was, say, twenty years ago.

My grandfather was a union activist in the steel mills of Cleveland, OH; my father was a shop steward in the Cleveland factories where he worked until 1959 when he began his career in the army. I idolized my grandfather as a wee one and the feel of his stories about standing up for workers’ rights stayed with me, if not the stories themselves.

I was greatly influenced by the civil rights movement(s) as early as the 1950s; I was five when the Montgomery bus boycott occurred. The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, when I was 13, had a heavy influence: Three of the four murdered black girls were just a year older than I and the other was the age of my younger brother. I don’t recall many of the particulars with great definition, just black and white TV images, but the notion that someone would blow up a church and kill kids was especially angering (and frightening) to me. I also had been living near Anniston, AL, until 1961 and had had some grim lessons in the Southern brand of racism.

Within a couple months of the bombing, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and, just like the rest of my generation, this event was one of a number of watersheds in my growth. Despite the fact that my more mature understandings left him stripped of his hero’s cape, JFK’s messages of freedom and justice resonated with me as with many others.

During my teen years, the movement opposing the Viet Nam war was growing. I was an army brat and very “pro-war” through most of those years as that was my milieu. However, during these years, I discovered Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan and their influences led me to question my own concepts of reality and what one was to do. But, even more influential were the Canadian students who showed up at the youth center in the U.S. Army dependent housing area in Karlsruhe, Germany early in my senior year of high school. They were strong in their views opposing the war, something unheard of in my circles. They were also just normal likeable kids who didn’t seem like commies at all. That I’ve remembered them for over 45 years suggests they may have been more influential than one might guess.


Who would you consider your social justice heroes and why?

There are more than I could possibly name. Here are a few, some unknown to the general public:

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, labor organizer extraordinaire during the first half of the 20th Century who stood up against gun thugs and the red witch hunt, helped found the ACLU (from which she was expelled because she was a communist), and spent many days behind bars for her stand with the working people of the United States.


Ken Cruse was an airman who was charged with conspiracy to commit mutiny at Goodfellow AFB, TX in 1969. He and a number of classmates at security school refused to sign the Air Force’s version of the NSA secrecy oath. He was from Delano, CA, the son of a grower who had acted (and been castigated for it) in solidarity with the grape pickers and other farmworkers in the early days of UFW. He was a brave man who faced years of prison if convicted, yet never backed down. He and his spouse Jana Price opened their home to GIs who opposed the war (their dining room was our office). Jana was the first person from whom I heard the term “feminism” as she gently informed young male soldiers about the oppression of women.


Fr. Darryl Rupiper, was a Oblate priest (now deceased) in Omaha, NE, while I was attending grad school there. I met him just after his annual 6-month term in federal lockup for crossing “the line” at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Bellevue, NE. He had previously done missionary work in South America among the poor and had returned to the U.S. rather than be jailed. He closed out his life working among the urban poor in the U.S., interspersed with going to prison.


Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, poet, liberation theologian, and founder of the Solentiname Base Community in Nicaragua and the Minister of Culture there from 1979-87. Fought against Somoza as early as 1954, stood up to Pope John Paul II, was a Sandinista but resisted Daniel Ortega’s authoritarianism and eventually left the party.


I could list hundreds of others. My “heroes” are those who stood for the poor and downtrodden and against any intractable system of oppression and who risked everything to make society just a little more fair for everyone.


You mention exposure to feminism early on in your growth as an organizer.  Was the feminist movement something that impacted your awareness of social justice?

If one was a social-justice activist when I came up, the question is more one of how could feminism not affect one’s awareness of social justice, so, of course mine was impacted. My entry point into activism was via the civil rights and antiwar movements, but only because the notion of feminism was not on the radar of people’s movements when I was a kid (at least in any way that reached my peers and me). When feminists first hit the small screen, of course, they were largely ridiculed and demeaned. When that happens in America, one should immediately start looking for the important message that the ridicule is trying to drown out.

Over the years, another layer of the onion is occasionally peeled away. It’s not really about “feminism” per se which is, to me, how the intelligentsia frames issues of oppressive patriarchy, but about everyone having relatively equal access to everything society has to offer and about no one suffering violence or demeaning behaviors based solely on their gender (or on any other factor for that matter). We have to get to that point, at least in our intent, before we can begin to deal with the deeper damage that sexism (and racism, and capitalism, etc.) has done to all of us. My understanding of those kinds of destructive behaviors has certainly changed over time; learning how to engage with others as full human beings with respect and without bias against their gender (or race, or sexuality, or social status) is a lifelong process whether one has the advantage/privilege of being a white male in a white- and male-dominated society or not – even those who are not white or male or both have quite likely internalized a de-humanized view of themselves.

The real issue is learning to treat another with dignity and respect as reasonably defined by the other while acting in integrity with one’s own values. Moving forward with that attitude, one can imperfectly begin to come to grips with one’s own internalized biases and fears, one can begin to own one’s participation in the oppressive system of sexism and start making what positive changes one can, whether personally or in the wider world (both are important).

So, feminism’s had a profound impact in my private and public life. But, I’m not all that qualified to discuss feminism. I’m pretty sure I still would have done in my life what I’ve done without feminism, just not nearly as well. Other than that, I’d suggest asking a woman.


What gives you hope for the future?

“And every day on earth’s another chance to get it right.” – Steve Earle “God is God” on the album I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive

And, then, there are the engaged young people who are our real hope for the future.


Do you think there’s lesson that organizers from a younger generation ought to learn from organizers of your generation? Is there something that younger generations are doing/thinking that gives you particular hope in them?

The only thing that has changed about successful organizing over any span of time is the technology available to support the organizing effort. The real necessity for successful organizing is one-on-one in-person contact with other human beings. I think there’s a tendency to rely too much on text messaging and social media these days. Not that these are not extremely useful tools, but organizing is more than posting updates and notices. It’s about persuading enough people to coalesce around achieving a strategy to realize a goal that the goal has a chance of being accomplished. It’s also about changing the minds of those who might oppose the goal. There are successful, time-tested, nuts-and-bolts methods for doing this and those are ignored at an organizer’s peril. Plan the work and work the plan. Stay flexible. Assess, assess, assess. Study your opposition. Use your strengths to overcome your weaknesses.

It’s the energy and the thirst for justice I see in younger people that gives me hope. Being an activist/organizer is not the easiest route to take in life it’s always good to know there are others coming along behind to take the older folks’ place. I mean, the job’s not done and if there’s no one to carry it forward, we’ve failed. It gives me hope to know the wheel is still turning and that there are younger people to help keep it turning when I no longer can.


What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?

The ability of the political/business/military complex to distort reality, instill fear in the masses leading to lynch-mob mentality and repressive laws. Or, more succinctly, gangster corporate capitalism.


What books would you recommend people look at for social change and why?

Just a few:

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx – just read it; Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire – for its excellent unpackaging of oppression; Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky – the basics of organizing; The Rebel Girl, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – Flynn’s autobiography of her courageous early years in labor and radical life well lived; Women’s Reality, Ann Wilson Schaef – for her unpackaging of cultural oppression.


Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?

I’ll name just two, though there are many: Norma Rae and Bound for Glory.

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