More than a year ago, in the sack of mail delivered each afternoon to the Crimson, a stream of letters began to appear. Unlike most of the mail--announcements of bassoon concerts and speeches by nuclear chemists, or indignant responses to recent articles--these letters addressed only the great issues of the day, and with a style and a penmanship that made them unmistakable.
Most began with the same salutation: "Sister/Bro. Americans--" And each came from the same E. 162 St. New York address and from the same man. 162nd St., it turns out, is in the South Bronx, and Henry Ratliff, a 66-year old retired Methodist minister, lives in a rooming house there, commuting daily to the Lower Manhattan offices of the city welfare department, where he is a caseworker.
But more than the address and the salutation were constant in the letters. Ratliff's style never changed--a bare-bones prose that results, he says, from long hours of thinking before he puts pen to paper. "I read the news, and then I try to let it sift through my mental passages, so I can boil it down...People are not going to read long drawn-out writings," the University of Texas graduate says, adding that his models of clarity include Bertrand Russell, Leo Tolstoy and the King James Bible. All the letters are written early in the morning, "one, two, three, when the moonlight is in the window and my mind is the clearest." And each the product of an undivided attention: "I don't have a radio, a television, a telephone--you would be shocked at the simplicity of it all," Ratliff says.
Ratliff's philosophy doesn't vary much either--his preoccupations include the environment, arms control and civil liberties, but he also has a strong nostalgic bent, recommending regularly the pastoral virtues perhaps closer to his San Antonio birthplace than his current inner-city home. The child of a Methodist minister, the grandson of a circuit-riding preacher, Ratliff says he was exposed early to the fight for social justice--"back in the '30s, my parents always voted the straight Socialist ticket, and they pioneered in trying to get the whites and Blacks to work together," a task Ratliff--by his own estimation one of the very few white residents of his area of the South Bronx--continues to pursue. "I like living here a little more all the time," Ratliff says.
The uncommon mix of nostalgia and liberalism reflects Ratliff's belief that some change--almost any change--is needed. "You've heard the old saying that there's more than one way to skin a cat," he says. "I try in my letters to give people lots of options." But one political movement Ratliff rejects absolutely is the currently resurgent far right, especially the fundamentalist Christian "Moral Majority" faction. "I'm afraid I'm not a very tolerant person," he says--his letters fulminate against what he terms the hypocrisy of preachers like Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell. And Ratliff is one adversary that knows his Scripture: "To right wing evangelicals, Jesus says, 'You call me Lord but do not the things I command you.'"
Though he's no fan of Ronald Reagan, Ratliff wasn't unhappy when President Carter lost his November battle with the American public. Carter, and particularly his national security sidekick Zbigniew Brezezinski, are regularly attacked for a hypocrisy Ratliff says rivals Falwell's. "Carter goes and teaches a Bible class, while people are dying. Have we lost all our compassion?" he asks.
In an age when apocalyptic thinking is the norm, Ratliff is no exception. "We are living at a precipice," he insists, and letter after letter rails against the MX missile, the concept of limited nuclear war, or draft registration. But though the days are dark Ratliff says men must steel themselves to action. "Whether we can avert tragedy I don't know. I do know we ought to be moving in the right direction. Where's there's life there's hope, and anyway humans have never had a guarantee on tomorrow," he says. And, he adds, "If we go down, then we ought to go down fighting."
And so here are Ratliff's diagnoses and prescriptions, as compiled over the past year. They are printed not because they might be thought odd, but because they are spare statements of some fundamental truths. William E. McKibben Dec. 2, 1979
If Harvard people embrace individual Mormon ethics and metaphysics of James, Royce, Whitehead, Santayana, Hocking; eschew the worst cleave to the best of pilgrim fathers--in a moral commitment equal to the intellectual: you can transcend modern man into a dramatic new amalgam, generating a powerful and irresistible public mood, in which the weakest and most derelict find it easy to do right and hard to do wrong. Henry Ratliff
* Dec. 3, 1979
After Nov. 1980 election, the Pentagon sets up a strike force, Congress reimposes conscription, a presidential war ensues, Mideast oil is cut off, Europe-Japan-USA go into convulsions, PPCC (President-Pentagon-Court-Congress) disappear. Henry Ratliff
* December 5, 1979