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Dropped Lines

In response to:

The Real McCoy from the March 13, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

In his essay occasioned by my book The Teachers Strike: New York 1968, Jason Epstein argues at great length circumstantially around what I wrote about the incident in Ocean Hill which began the series of strikes. Think how simple it would be—it would have saved Mr. Epstein at least two thousand words—to say instead, flatly, “Mr. McCoy had asked for the informal transfer out of the teachers the governing board publicly dismissed from the district at its meeting of May 7th”; or “Mr. McCoy did not tell the members of the governing board that he had made such a request and been turned down.” But these simple statements are never made, presumably because too many people would know they are false.

More seriously, Mr. Epstein stresses what he calls an incomplete letter quoted in my book.

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The offending item appears in the context of my discussion of the New York Civil Liberties Union contention that the action of the governing board was a mere routine transfer out which the union dishonestly treated as an extraordinary affront to its members. To show that the governing board at the moment of its action was not just requesting transfers, I quote “in its entirety” what I describe as “the letter approved by the governing board to be sent to the dismissed personnel.” As Mr. Epstein does not quote this brief document at all, I should like to print it—again in its entirety—for your readers:

The Governing Board of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville School District has voted to end your employment in the schools of this district. This action was taken on the recommendation of the Personnel Committee. The termination of employment is to take effect immediately. In the event you wish to question this action, the Governing Board will receive you on Friday, May 10th at 6 PM at 1-55.

To this approved letter, the next day, on his own motion, Mr. McCoy added the rather contemptuous sentence, “You will report Friday morning to Personnel, 110 Livingston Street, Brooklyn, for reassignment.” So much for the chance “to question this action” that the governing board had offered.

Mr. Epstein is outraged by my failure to quote Mr. McCoy’s afterthought, and he would of course be right if I had anywhere in my book alleged that the governing board “fired” teachers. But just as I never use the phrase “due process” or accuse the Mayor of anti-Semitism, I never say the governing board fired teachers. Indeed, the sentence in my book which directly follows the quoted material reads, “Of course, the governing board could not fire anybody; it didn’t employ anybody.” Mr. McCoy’s afterthought says no more.

Mr. Epstein wonders where I got the “truncated version” of the letter. I first found it, just as I print it, in the file of original minutes of governing board meetings, at the Institute of Community Studies of Queens College, which administers the Ford grant to the district.

Like Mr. Epstein, I at one time thought that Mr. McCoy had sought to avoid a confrontation; I suspect that the same man told us so. In the fall of 1968, I even wrote that Mr. McCoy had “lost control of his board.” (At about this same time, oddly, Mr. Epstein wrote admiringly in your pages of “the decision of the local board to elevate the conflict to the point where the UFT was left with no choice but to intervene in behalf of its general membership.”) But when I came to investigate the matter after the end of the third strike, and interviewed people on all sides of all the disputes, I found that my estimate of Mr. McCoy’s role was quite false, like much else one would have gathered if one read only the newspapers and magazines or spoke only to Mr. McCoy and the customary spokesmen for the governing board.

Mr. Epstein neglected to indicate in his headnote that The Teachers Strike: New York 1968 was simultaneously published in paperback, at 95c. But he does kindly recommend to my readers a new book of my magazine articles, entitled All You Know Is Facts. It may therefore be in point to correct in your columns an error in the recent review of that book in The New York Times Book Review. Its publisher is Harper & Row, not, as The Times had it, Random House.

Martin Mayer

New York City

Jason Epstein replies:

1) If Mr. Mayer will read what I wrote he will see that as part of my “circumstantial” case against his preposterous charge that Rhody McCoy “tricked” the Ocean Hill governing board into provoking the UFT, I showed that McCoy, together with the governing board, met twice with the Central Board to ask that the unwanted teachers be transferred and that the Board, in effect, turned them down. This seemed to me a very “flat” way of saying that (a) Mr. McCoy had asked for the informal transfer out of the teachers and (b) it is nonsense to charge that McCoy withheld the Central Board’s decision from the board since the board heard the decision directly from headquarters itself. My purpose in mentioning these meetings was not simply to show the absurdity of Mayer’s case that McCoy withheld the Central Board’s decision from the governing board, but to supply an example of how blithely Mr. Mayer, whose book makes no mention of these meetings, omits such important evidence in order to impose his wild theories on susceptible readers. Now in his letter he persists in ignoring the two meetings, though they were, as I showed, part of the public record.

2) The best way to settle the question of whether Mr. Mayer printed the letter of dismissal “in its entirety” is to print herewith the letter exactly as it was finally approved by the governing board and sent to the unwanted teachers. Mr. Mayer suggests that the last sentence was supplied by McCoy as an afterthought and he seems to imply that this was done without the knowledge or consent of the governing board. Readers will note, however, that the letter is signed by Rev. C. Herbert Oliver, Chairman, Ocean Hill governing board, as well as by McCoy himself. Readers may then decide for themselves whether Mr. Mayer knows what is meant by the word “entirety.”

3) Mr. Mayer writes that nowhere in his book did he allege that the governing board “fired” the teachers. Why then did he write that “it occurred to someone on the governing board that he could make a big splash by firing a bunch of teachers.” That he also wrote that the governing board had no power to fire anyone was, as I said in my review, typical of the weaseling inconsistency that may be found throughout Mr. Mayer’s crudely argued book.

4) The burden of my review was to challenge the factual basis of Mr. Mayer’s interpretation of the events in Ocean Hill. Thus I charged Mr. Mayer with numerous omissions and errors of fact, some of them minor and a few humorous, of which I listed several examples, and some very serious, including the truncated letter and the suppressed evidence of the two meetings referred to above. Mr. Mayer’s rebuttal in the matter of the letter is incomprehensible or it is grossly disingenuous in view of the contents of the letter itself. He does not deny my charge that he omitted the evidence of the two meetings. Indeed, he continues to pretend that those meetings never occurred. He says nothing in his letter in defense of his having incorrectly described the ethnic structure of Mayor Lindsay’s Board of Education, yet it was on the basis of this incorrect description that Mr. Mayer charged Lindsay, if not with anti-Semitism, at least with indifference to the interests of the city’s Jews and non-Spanish Catholics, in favor of a “political” decision to support the blacks and Puerto Ricans. It was by means of these and many more inaccuracies, evasions, and suppressions, for which Mr. Mayer’s letter supplies no defense, that he mounted his slanderous attack on McCoy and the Ocean Hill governing board.

Mr. Mayer claims to be a responsible journalist. The New York Sunday Times, which printed a version of his wildly improbable and highly damaging fabrication apparently accepts his estimate of himself. Since Mr. Mayer has been unable to defend himself against the charges in my review, it seems to me that he and the Sunday Times now owe the city, and particularly the residents of Ocean Hill, a profound apology. They also owe the New York State Legislature an effort at clarification since the United Federation of Teachers has recently distributed copies of Mr. Mayer’s miserable book to members of the legislature in order still further to obscure from these harassed individuals the complex issue of school decentralization.

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