It’s been a rough few days for race relations in our country—Donald Trump’s still the president, and Michael Flug died.
I’ll get to Flug—but first, a word or two about Trump.
He apparently came to the conclusion that the fastest, surest way to win reelection is to fire up the worst fear, anger, and resentment that whites have about Blacks.
For the last few weeks he’s been on a rampage—on Twitter and in rallies—against the “Squad”—four rookie congresswomen of color.
Among other things, he told them to “go back to the countries” they came from. Even though three of the four were born in the U.S. In fact, Congresswomen Ayana Pressley of Massachusetts was born in Cincinnati, was raised right here in Chicago, and graduated from Francis W. Parker School on the north side.
So, if she went back to the country she came from it would be Clark and Belden. On top of everything else, the president is geographically challenged.
It was while reading coverage of Trump’s hate-filled screeds that I came upon Flug’s obituary, written by the incomparable Maureen O’Donnell for the Sun-Times.
Classic O’Donnell, it was more like a short story or a parable than a newspaper obit. I urge everyone to read it. And then when you’re done, check out the ones she wrote for Russ Ewing and Al Mampre. Man, I can talk forever with and about the great Maureen O’Donnell.
In almost every sense of the word, Flug is the antithesis to Trump.
For 20 years, Flug was the senior archivist at the Carter G. Woodson library at 95th and Halsted. He helped develop and arrange the voluminous collection of material in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection.
We’re talking tens of thousands of articles, books, first drafts of manuscripts, letters, and other artifacts from literary luminaries like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Durham, and so on.
Flug knew the location of everything in that collection—he was the helpful guy at the curator’s desk who led you to and through the treasure trove. He helped hundreds of people find the material they needed—from important scholars to lowly Reader writers.
I met him in the early 90s when I was doing a story that required a deep dive into the archives.
He was a fun-to-talk-to guy with a New York accent and the gift of gab. He seemed to know everything about everything. I spent half of my time saying, “Man, how do you know all this stuff?”
Because he ran the archives at a south-side library primarily dedicated to African-American history, many people figured he was a light-skinned Black guy.
In fact, he was Jewish. He was born in Brooklyn to parents who were New York lefties. “He would not like it if you called him a liberal—he was a radical,” says Suzanne French, Flug’s wife. “He joked that he grew up in a family in which he always thought the two-party system was the Communists and the socialists.”
I think I know the type.
Flug’s family didn’t have much money. His father died when he was nine. He won a scholarship to Columbia University.
“When Michael was young, his family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island, and he faced terrible anti-Semitism from some of the kids,” says French. “A lot of his friends were Jews and Blacks. He learned at an early age that so much about what white society wants you to believe about Black society is not true.”
Throughout the 60s, Flug protested against various racial injustices as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the civil rights group. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. “To be a conscientious objector you had to go to court to prove you are nonviolent,” says French. “They assigned him to two years of alternative service.”
For what it’s worth, Trump didn’t fight in the Vietnam war either. But he didn’t bother filing for conscientious objector status. He just found some doctor who said he had bone spurs. Then he spent the 60s partying like a rock star. Funny how the guys who talk the most about loving America are the ones who are least willing to fight for it.
When Flug retired from Woodson in 2010, the poet Haki Madhubuti honored him with a poem appropriately titled “A Poem for Michael Flug.”
It begins: “books altered the culture of his life, / a DNA effect that transported him southwest of / wherever he was meant to be”.
And it ends: “you leave prodigious fingerprints.”
Beyond his work as an archivist, Flug had wide-ranging tastes. “Michael loved dogs—big dogs—he didn’t love little dogs,” says French. “But then we got a cat. He loved that little cat. He also loved music. Opera. Tina Turner. Tim McGraw. He loved Tim McGraw—Southern Voice. He wanted Tim McGraw to run for senator from Tennessee.”
He was also a baseball fan. “He loved the Sox, not the Cubs,” says French. “And he hated the Dodgers. He never forgave them for moving the team out of Brooklyn.”
So when the Cubs played the Dodgers for the pennant, who did he root for?
“Well, in that case, he had to root for the Cubs.”
Flug died on July 11 from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 74.
I hope the city finds a way to pay him tribute—maybe name a library branch or at least a collection for him.
After all, we’ve got that big, ugly Trump sign on a prominently placed downtown skyscraper. The least we can do is pay tribute to one of the good guys in our town.
In the meantime, Flug’s friends and colleagues will have a memorial service on Saturday, August 3, from 10 AM to 1 PM at the Harold Washington Library Center.
Where else but a library—right? Rest in peace, Michael. v