Activist, Organizer, Scholar, Family Man: Milt Tambor, 1938-2022

Milt Tambor, founder of Atlanta DSA, died suddenly on August 23. Ever since he recruited me to help start the chapter in 2006, he was a close friend, mentor, confidante, and inspiration. I am both deeply sad and proud to have been asked to share this tribute with the readers of Democratic Left.

If Milt could speak to us today from wherever he is in socialist heaven, he might echo the words of the IWW martyr Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn for me, organize!” But he would understand our mourning. He was compassionate and a great listener. When there were conflicts in our chapter, he was the one both sides were willing to talk to. Family members who differed with him politically fondly recall their arguments, which never ended in rancor. His personal connections to Atlanta labor leaders won him great respect and made our annual Douglass-Debs awards dinners a success. [See Milt’s recent report for DL on building relationships and raising money through the dinners.]

As a boy, Milt had thought about becoming a rabbi. He wrote that from a young age he was influenced by the Jewish experience of persecution and was inspired by heroic figures such as Jackie Robinson and Robin Hood. Throughout his life he referred to the Jewish tradition of social justice, of fixing what’s wrong with the world, tikkun olam.  But instead of becoming a rabbi, he became a social worker, a labor organizer, a socialist activist, a sociology professor and a popular educator. He was dedicated to his large family, his friends, his community, DSA, and the coalitions he helped organize and sustain. 

Born in 1938 on New York City’s Lower East Side, Milt was the son of a cantor. He earned a Hebrew teacher’s degree from Yeshiva University and a BA in psychology and an MA in social work from Wayne State University.  His career fighting for respect and dignity for all workers began with his first jobs at a housing project and a community center in Detroit. Next, he worked organizing youth programs for a Jewish community center. When his job responsibilities increased, he asked for a raise, but his supervisor answered, “We’ll let you know when we think you’re ready.” He quit and went to work for the United Automobile Workers’ Retired Workers Centers. He volunteered on the staff union’s bargaining committee, soon becoming chief negotiator. In 1968, he became president of Local 1640 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a position he held for 10 years. 

Milt began teaching classes in sociology, collective bargaining and steward training at the University of Michigan-Wayne State Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations and at Wayne State’s College of Lifelong Learning. He earned a PhD in sociology in 1991 at age 54, with a dissertation on bargaining with nonprofit agencies. Next, he joined the graduate faculty at Wayne State’s School of Social Work’s, where he initiated a course on “Social Work Issues in the Workplace.” 

But academia and union activism were never enough for Milt. He co-chaired the Detroit Coalition to End the [Vietnam] War and chaired the Michigan Labor Committee on Central America. He joined labor delegations in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and marched in Memphis following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Milt cited as his mentor Saul Wellman, a former Michigan Communist Party head and Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteer, who, Milt wrote, “helped me sort out what it meant to be a socialist trade unionist.” In 1975, Milt joined the New American Movement, which merged with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form DSA in 1983. 

On retiring in 2005 after 35 years with Michigan AFSCME, Milt moved with his second wife, Linda Lieberman ( who, with his sons Alex and Jonah and a large extended family survives him), to be near relatives in Atlanta. Seeking a new outlet for his activism, Milt brought a core group together in 2006 to form Metro Atlanta DSA, now known as Atlanta DSA. (He found me in a Nation Magazine discussion group.) We gradually grew from a membership of about 30 to over 1000 during his term of leadership. Our inaugural event was a benefit for Bernie Sanders’s first Senate run. Milt, always the negotiator, got Sanders to agree to repay the favor by speaking at our first Douglass-Debs Dinner, which he did, on the same weekend as DSA’s 2007 national convention, held in Atlanta. Milt was re-elected chair each year for the next 12 years, until he stepped down to allow the wave of new young members to take over.

In 2009, Milt picked up on the high number of Atlantans facing foreclosure in our city, especially in communities of color. Forging bonds with progressive Black leaders, including Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort, he helped found Atlanta Fighting Foreclosure. He was arrested with Senator Fort and three others in a sit-in at a branch of predatory lender Wells Fargo. When he received a sentence of community service, he took pleasure in carrying it out as a volunteer for another important coalition he helped revive, Atlanta Jobs with Justice. 

Milt regularly represented Atlanta DSA in the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a civil rights and community organizing network founded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s associate Reverend Joseph Lowery. Believing strongly that the strength of our organization lies in solidarity with the broad movements of poor and working people, he built our chapter’s reputation for reliably turning out to antiwar demonstrations and for the Fight for $15, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and Black Lives Matter; on union picket lines; at Occupy Atlanta; and in the annual Martin Luther King Day and Atlanta Pride marches. 

He wasn’t always serious, though.  In 2016, while waiting for Bernie Sanders to speak in a large theater, he put on a Bernie mask and danced down the aisles, recalling in his memoir, “I soaked in the cheers and laughter.”

As he grew older, Milt took seriously his role as mentor to younger generations, including members of his family, whom he engaged according to their own interests rather than imposing his own. He never stopped sharing his wisdom and inspiring his DSA comrades, making eloquent speeches at our events even after he was impaired by an ordeal with cancer. Most notably, he published a memoir: A Democratic Socialist’s 50-Year Adventure (Fulton Books). He was with us to the end. As he said in an article for the June DL: “As a long-distance runner, I did not train for sprints but for marathons,” and he meant it.  At 84, he was still ready to keep going. It was not to be.

For a broader picture of Milt’s coalition building in the context of his DSA work, please read at least the last chapter of his memoir, which is about Atlanta DSA: