4 Famous Activists Who Did a Complete 180
The funny thing about beliefs is that people tend to believe them. Ideally, you grow and change throughout your life, but at any given moment, you can't imagine espousing anything other than your current beliefs. These people certainly couldn't. And yet ...
The Author of The Anarchist Cookbook Wanted It Taken Out of Print
In case you're some kind of nerd who's never heard of William Powell's The Anarchist Cookbook, it's pretty much a one-stop-shop for all things terrorism. It's full of "recipes" for bombs and drugs, instructions for killing people with various weapons and what passed for hacking in 1971, and screeds about the encroaching threat of communism and "bringing America back to where she was 200 years ago." Today, it would more likely result in a call to the FBI than a publishing contract, especially once it came out that the author was a teenage boy who researched the whole thing from the public library. This stuff could kill people, both intentionally and not. Aside from the moral obligation not to disseminate information on how to blow people up, what are the chances that teenage boy is going to regret his actions at some point in the future?
The answer is "100% and almost immediately." When Powell was a 19-year-old cliche, he was angry "at the prospect of being drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight in a war that I did not believe in" and came to a conclusion "that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change." He hoped his book would incite the masses and arm them for the coming revolution. Then he grew up. Within a decade, he'd earned a master's degree and begun opening schools all over the world -- normal ones, even "elite" ones, not thinly veiled terrorist cells. He got married, had children, found religion, and started to think that whole "bombing manual" thing was a big mistake. Especially once it became associated with multiple real-world acts of terrorism, including the Oklahoma City bombing and Columbine High School shooting.
Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about it. Teenagers tend to make both bad literary and legal decisions, so he'd sold the copyright to the publisher, and when he politely asked them to stop printing it, they said no. For the next 40 years, Powell lobbied to have the book taken out of print, to the point that it's presumably the only book whose "Editorial Reviews" section on Amazon begs you not to buy it. Where there are usually glowing snippets of praise from professional geeks is an eight-paragraph "From the Author" essay explaining that Powell would rip the book right out of your hands if he legally could.
The copyright was sold several times in the intervening years, and by 2013, it was making a publisher named Billy Blann very rich. "I'm sure I got my money back," he bragged to NBC News. Powell died in 2017 having never succeeded in erasing his "youthful indiscretion," so think twice about what you post on Reddit.
George Wallace Let Go of Segregation As Dramatically As Possible
George Wallace, who served a record four terms as governor of Alabama between the '60s and the '80s, was a little more hands-on than most governors. He was also "the embodiment of resistance to the civil rights movement," in a very physical sense: In a 1962 campaign speech, he promised to "resist any illegal federal court order, even to the point of standing at the schoolhouse door in person, if necessary," which he famously did when the University of Alabama's first black students attempted to drag themselves to class along with the rest of their sleepy peers. That was a sadly common sight in that time and place, but not usually involving the king of the state.
Wallace had an origin story befitting the supervillain he became. As a judge, he was known as the most liberal on the bench, and when he ran for governor in 1958, he was even endorsed by the NAACP. When he lost to an opponent supported by the KKK, though, he furiously declared that he would never again be, um ... outwitted. (He used a different and super racist verb.) After his win in 1962, he was re-elected twice more, and since term limits at the time prevented him from running again, the people of Alabama elected his wife instead. They sure loved the new and deteriorated George Wallace.
Well, not all of them. In 1972, Wallace survived an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed. During his recovery, he was visited by first Black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who Wallace's daughter said, "planted a seed of new beginnings in father's heart." By 1979, that seed had apparently grown into a big honking anti-racist bush. One day, Wallace wandered unexpectedly into the King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery and announced, "I've learned what suffering means in a way that was impossible. I think I can understand something of the pain that Black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for your forgiveness." Over the next few years, he made numerous stops to speak in front of various black community groups in what can only be described as the George Wallace "Sorry About Your Rights" Apology Tour.
It might seem like more political BS-ery from a man who could sense which way the wind was blowing since Wallace soon ran for another term as governor, but the Black community of Alabama believed him. The man who once ran on the promise of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever" won with 90% of their vote. He went on to appoint a record number of Black leaders to his cabinet and other state positions before quietly retiring from public life, so if he was bullshitting, it's hard to tell the difference.
Peter Hitchens Went From International Socialist to Hating ... Everyone
You're probably more familiar with Peter Hitchens' brother, Christopher, A.K.A. the late king of the Reddit atheists, but over in their native England, he's also a political heavy hitter -- for the opposite reasons. Though the British journalist disparages the Labour Party and the Tories equally, joking that "I'm against assisted suicide in all cases but one -- the Conservatives can go to Switzerland tomorrow as far as I'm concerned," his positions on LGBTQ+ issues, climate change, the pandemic, etc. all put him squarely, in the uptight sense of the word, in the conservative camp. It's pretty weird for a former Trotskyist.
To hear them tell it, the Hitchens household was fairly apolitical until the boys were teenagers in the '60s when Christopher started getting really into this atheism thing, and Peter just kind of hitc-- went along for the ride. They both became members of the International Socialists, and according to Christopher, "I think may have stayed in longer than I did" -- seven years, in fact. In the late '70s, Peter Hitchens even campaigned for Labour Party politicians until his own concerns about ethical conflicts with his position as a journalist forced him to stop.
Then, in his early '30s, "various things start happening," chiefly a return to religion and righting up of his politics. "It's normal," he insisted in 2019. "Everybody used to do it. In all of human history, men would be radical when they're young and become conservative when they're old. The interesting thing is not that I have done that cliché, that obvious, boring thing ... what you need to ask is why so many people remain radical even into their later years." As if certain political beliefs are the equivalent of trucker hats and EDM, embarrassing phases that any sensible person grows out of.
Obviously, one person who didn't was his brother, with whom Hitchens frequently publicly clashed until Christopher's death in 2011. One joke, in which Peter implied Christopher was a Stalinist, drove a wedge between them for years. Incidentally, that 2005 Q&A includes some discussion of who was their mother's favorite, a hissy fit from Christopher when an audience member asks him to stop smoking in the non-smoking venue, and the pair insulting each other's beliefs to their faces. "I can't stand anyone who believes in God, who invokes the divinity, or who is a person of faith," Christopher says. "I mean, that to me is horrible, repulsive thing," to which Peter responds, "As an issue between us, I think he overestimates the issue. He has several faiths. He has the faith I think of Darwinism, which is just like Christianity an unproven and unprovable theory." It's always nice to be reminded that people on all sides can be so awful.
"Jane Roe" Became a Pro-Life Figurehead (Possibly For the Money)
The "Roe" of Roe v. Wade was actually a woman pseudonymously known as "Jane Roe" because lawyers love their linguistic jokes. She was no lawyer, though -- the 22-year-old, whose real name was Norma McCorvey, was just a young pregnant woman who got swept up in something she never intended. After failing to procure an illegal abortion, she met with an adoption lawyer who referred her to the team behind the landmark lawsuit. They just needed a woman who wanted an abortion to co-sign, and McCorvey fit the bill. Once the case was over, she identified herself, and from then on, she was the poster zygote for choice.
That is, until 1995 when the controversial anti-abortion group Operation Rescue set up shop next to the women's clinic where McCorvey worked. At the time, she compared them to "a pack of vultures," but someone got to her, and within just a few months, McCorvey had quit her job and joined the other side. Her defection was a huge win for the movement. She was baptized with much fanfare, and though she'd been in a relationship with a woman for more than 20 years, she announced that she was no longer a lesbian. She wrote a memoir cumbersomely titled Won by Love: Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, Speaks Out for the Unborn as She Shares Her New Conviction for Life, and even campaigned to overturn the decision that bears her fake name.
And it was apparently all an act. Just before her death in 2017, she confessed that she was paid to switch sides and never stopped believing in a woman's right to choose.
There's no disputing that she was paid -- tax records showed McCorvey earned as much as half a million dollars in "benevolent gifts" from pro-life organizations -- but you'd think it would take fathomless desperation for someone to sabotage their own life's work and forsake their partner of a few decades for any amount of money, and McCorvey didn't appear desperate. She had a good job as marketing director for the clinic, but maybe she had a giant stack of medical bills or an affinity for the ponies. Who knows? Those who knew her -- from her ex-partner, who called her a "phony" during her time with the movement, to her pro-life "spiritual guide" -- are split on the issue. Whatever the case, it seems McCorvey was always destined to be a weird chapter in the history books. She simply answered the call(s).
Top image: Lyle Stuart/Wikimedia Commons