From Free Speech to the Spanish War: Thoughts on the Merriman Monument

November 18, 2023

Members of the Lincoln Battalion Machine Gun Company on the Jarama Front, Spring 1937. Courtesy of Dave Smith who is holding the staff of the flag.

My father, Dave Smith, was a volunteer with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. “Spain changed my whole life,” he said. “I saw a country struggling—ordinary people, peasants, poor people. They couldn’t even read or write, but when these young people came up to the front, we became an integrated army, the people struggling against the oppressing group of fascists. It left an indelible impression on my mind. So when I got back, I decided that I was going to be committed to furthering the cause of the people, whatever I did.”

After returning from Spain, he worked as a machinist and a union organizer. However, over the years the effects of his shoulder wound from Spain interfered and he needed to rethink his occupation. He went back to college to complete his BA and then earned a Master’s in Education. He taught science in middle and high school for many years and eventually became head of his local teachers union. In his later years he gave many talks about his experiences in Spain at local colleges on the east coast and worked briefly on curriculum with the NY vets … long before the wonderful ALBA teaching institutes were created.

As a child I slowly learned about his participation in the Spanish Civil War but also learned to never mention it in public…I never expected to be part of public educational events and to work with my father and innumerable others on the SF Bay Area Monument, which was completed in 2008. One of our earliest supporters was Russ Ellis, a former vice chancellor and sociologist here at UC Berkeley who worked with us on community engagement.

The Monument was designed by Walter Hood and Ann Chamberlain. Walter is a Professor and Chair of the Dept of Landscape Architecture at Berkeley and a MacArthur award recipient. He told us that he had no knowledge of the Spanish Civil War until he responded to a competition for a monument design. Over the years, he spent endless hours at community and city meetings ensuring that the project would move forward.

My connection to Berkeley began as an undergraduate in the 1960’s. I was arrested during the Free Speech movement and met my husband in the process. He later became an Associate Vice Chancellor at Berkeley (now retired), and he is on the Board of the FSM archives (which are in the process of being donated to the Bancroft Library).

Cal has both a monument to the Free Speech Movement and the Free Speech Cafe where students interact with each other, encounter information about FSM and there are always current periodicals to read and stay informed about the world.

It is time for Cal to add to its monuments for War Veterans (there are several here) and honor former Cal student Robert Merriman’s contribution to a better world. It is fitting that it be placed near the Bancroft Library housing the Merriman archives where current students can study historical documents and consider their own future actions.

Linda Lustig is a former member of the ALBA Board of Governors.