For most people, progress is in the rearview mirror; a road paved with the technology that got us here to today.
For Larry Hamm, progress is always up ahead; a slow march toward social change, an infinite walk to some distant mountain on a desert horizon.
“You might say I’m driven by a profound sense of dissatisfaction,” Hamm said this week.
Larry Hamm’s journey began in 1971 when, as a Newark Arts High senior, he helped organize a citywide student protest over a prolonged teacher’s strike, and has continued ever since.
Saturday at noon, Hamm will be on the street with his People’s Organization for Progress, leading a coalition to protest the closing of Muhlenberg Hospital.
In between, there have been countless causes and demonstrations, and a collection of protest placards as thick as a blackjack dealer’s deck. Police brutality. Racism. Street violence. Larry Hamm fights them all.
Hamm knows saving Muhlenberg would be a small miracle, but Hamm doesn’t work for miracles. He works to raise awareness.
“The people in Plainfield have no neighborhood hospital now,” he said. “The poor people will suffer. These workers had no union; not in the sense that a union would have solved the problems, because it wouldn’t have. But it would have given them an organized voice, to raise the issues that put the hospital in trouble.”
If Larry Hamm were writing an autobiography, “An Organized Voice” would be the right title.
“What I’ve learned from the history of individual and civil rights is this: social reform comes about when people actively and collectively organize to change their condition.”
What was true in 1776 for the American colonies was true for Larry Hamm in 1967 and what he calls “the rebellion” in Newark.
“That’s when I began my odyssey.”
He was 15 at the time, the working-class son of a truck driver and seamstress, a boy surrounded by an extended family, who “taught me right from wrong”; cousin Ralph, aunt Joan, and grandfather Claude Cobb, a boilerman at a cardboard factory in Bloomfield, all living in a house on 12th Street.
“When my cousin Ralph used to drive me up to Bloomfield to pick him up at night, for me it was like going to Disneyland,” Hamm said. “I know it sounds silly, but it’s true.”
The cocoon of his world broke open in the summer of 1967.
“My family had never talked about race. My parents weren’t politically active. And suddenly everything was out in the open.”
He remembers the smolder. “I went up to the Good Deal supermarket (on Springfield Avenue) for my mother. All the stores were burned out. It was terrible, but underneath all that destruction was a sense of hope. There was a new sense of unity.”
Other mileposts on the journey quickly followed.
“On my first day at Arts High, I was in an assembly, and the student (president) was this white kid who started talking about Vietnam. The principal tried to stop him and they got into a shoving match. I was struck by that; here was a kid like me, demanding to be heard on an important issue.”
When Hamm became the school leader, he drew the attention of Mayor Ken Gibson after the big student march.
Gibson appointed him to the school board. Hamm had won a full scholarship to Princeton, but withdrew after two months to concentrate on the board. He was written up in national news, destined for political success.
Another important milepost came when he ran for city council on the “Community Choice” ticket and lost. He returned to Princeton, and his life as a political outsider, rather than insider, began to take shape.
He formed the People’s Organization for Progress 25 years ago with nine other activists, and the goal has been to attack every injustice it sees. From police brutality to the war in Iraq to hospital closings. The POP has been there for every demonstration, every protest, either as the coalescing sponsor or to show support. And through it all, Larry Hamm has been the resolute soldier-general.
After graduating Princeton, he was accepted into their Ph.D. program for political science. He thought about it, but he returned home to Newark.
As a business executive (who’d rather not say where he works), who holds an MBA, he’s had many opportunities. But every night after his white-collar job, he returns to work on the street.
“I am an activist,” Hamm said. “I was more concerned about building grassroots organization than holding political office.”
He didn’t say it, but he knows his road remains straight and narrow.