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The Statesman

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The Statesman

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    Michael Zweig’s Continuous Battle For Equality

    After 53 years, Stony Brook University professor Michael Zweig can’t forget Emmett Till.

    In August 1955, Till, a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago, was abducted from his aunt’s house in Money, Miss. He was then taken to a field where he was tortured and lynched for whistling at a white woman.

    Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, both of who were white, were soon arrested, but acquitted in a court of law by an all-white jury. Four months after the trial, the two men confessed to the murder to a reporter for $4,000.

    The court’s verdict galvanized the nascent Civil Rights Movement. It also left an indelible imprint on Zweig, who was 13 and living in Detroit when he read about Till’s murder in the newspaper.

    “He was black, and I saw what happened to him,” Zweig said. “And I knew what happened to my cousins, and my grandparents, and my family who were murdered and butchered and killed off in the Holocaust. And I thought, ‘He’s me. I’m him. We can’t allow this to happen.'”

    Till’s murder drew Zweig to the Civil Rights Movement, which presaged a career of helping others. In 1962, Zweig helped found Students for a Democratic Society, an activist group that protested the Vietnam War and civil rights abuses. During his 41-year career, this economics professor has been published widely in professional journals and written several books about working-class exploitation.

    In and outside the classroom, Zweig is guided by a deep-seated feeling of responsibility for others. In 1991, he received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. After 41 years in the classroom, his enthusiasm has not waned.

    “I get tired of people who are looking at young people and say, ‘They don’t know anything, they don’t know how to write, they’re ignorant, they are just into their iPods,'” Zweig said. “Who’s telling them anything different? Who’s talking to them? Who’s bringing them a different way to look at the world and their own lives? That’s what I’m trying to do.”

    Despite his commitment to teaching, not every student extols Zweig. On the website RateMyProfessors.com, 23 out of 38 students gave Zweig poor ratings. Several lampooned him, with one poster calling him a “one-sided, opinionated, backward, self-absorbed person.”

    Some of the students that gave Zweig a poor rating wrote that his political leanings affect his grading policy. Following a class Zweig taught on Oct. 30, several students defended Zweig against these claims.

    “I think he has very strong views about his beliefs and that’s fine,” said Sharon Weiss, an applied mathematics and statistics major. “But I’ve never seen him shut anybody down, and say, ‘Nope, you’re wrong.'”

    Outside of the classroom, Zweig is trying to help working people by marshaling support for his first legislative proposal. The economy is nose-diving as unemployment rates swell, home foreclosure rates rise, and the financial and auto industries teeter on bankruptcy.

    To reverse these trends, Zweig recently released a study in which he recommends a $220 billion economic stimulus package aimed at helping the working class. Zweig calculates the working class makes up nearly two thirds of the United States labor force.

    Zweig sounded the call to help working people long before congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank advocated stimulus plans for low-income families.

    “Michael has been involved in issues like the social movement and helping the working class for as far as I know 40 or 50 years,” said economics professor Hugo Benitez-Silva. “Michael is one of those true believers?in that there is a role for the state to be a safety net, to care about the people and not just let capitalism go crazy here.”

    On Sept. 29, Zweig released the study “Economic Stimulus and Economically Distressed Workers,” which he co-wrote with Stony Brook graduate students Junyi Zhu and Daniel Wolman. In the study, he recommends increasing “income support programs like food stamps, housing subsidies, (and) unemployment compensation,” and sending an average $2,000 check to 55 million households earning less than $50,000.

    To drum up support for his proposal, Zweig sent copies of this study to congressmen Tim Bishop and Steve Israel, as well as Congress’ Economic Joint Committee. Zweig said he will not hear from the congressmen until the new Congress convenes in January.

    But it’s difficult for Washington outsiders to push proposals past the denizens of Congress. Even though the political timing is right, some think power-brokers in Congress will torpedo Zweig’s proposal.

    “There are other proposals that are out there, that are crafted by members themselves, that will probably wind up getting priority for consideration by the Congressional leadership,” said political science professor Albert Cover.

    Despite the uphill battle Zweig faces in Congress, he will not capitulate.

    “I have a personal commitment to it, it is not just an intellectual position,” Zweig said. “It’s the right thing to do, and there’s a possibility this can have some positive influence on the discussion.”

    A painting that hangs in Zweig’s office spurs him to keep fighting for his economic proposal. The painting looks like a rainbow in a whirlpool. It was done by Louis Redstone, an architect who designed an international terminal at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport in the 1960s.

    Serious problems emerged during construction, so Redstone called Zweig’s father, a structural engineer, to rescue the project. Zweig’s father solved the problems and the terminal still stands.

    To show his appreciation, Redstone gave two paintings to Zweig’s father. After Zweig’s father died, Zweig took the paintings.

    “You know, I’ll take those paintings and put it in my office and I’ll remember what hard work gets and what it means to be rewarded,” said Zweig.

    Now 66, Zweig has no plans of slowing down.

    “There is still work to do,” Zweig said.

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