Paul Booth was born on June 7, 1943, and was raised in Washington, D.C. Both of his parents were Socialist Party members bred in Chicago. His mother was a psychiatric social worker, and his father was an unemployment expert who worked for the U.S. Department of Labor and helped develop the Social Security program in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration.
When Booth was a student at Swarthmore College from 1960-64, he co-founded the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), whose national umbrella organization was the largest and most influential radical group of its era. Along with Tom Hayden and other SDS members, Booth authored portions of the famous Port Huron Statement – a political manifesto that articulated the agendas of the New Left.
In the summer of 1963, Booth worked with the Jewish Renewal movement rabbi Arthur Waskow at the Peace Research Institute in Washington, D.C., trying to formulate a plan by which federal spending could be reallocated from military to civilian projects, and by which defense workers could be helped to transition into non-military jobs.
In 1964, Booth led SDS’s Peace Research and Education Project, which, by organizing defense-plant employees who were in danger of being laid off, sought to build a coalition between such workers and the inner-city poor. The overarching objective of this project was to reduce America’s military expenditures while increasing funds for social programs, housing, and education.
In 1964 as well, Booth and fellow SDS leader Todd Gitlin traveled the country, exhorting college students to join the antiwar movement. Eventually, Booth and Gitlin persuaded their SDS colleagues to sponsor the first major antiwar March on Washington, an event that Booth helped organize and direct. Held on on April 17, 1965, the march drew some 25,000 participants, making it the largest peace protest the nation had ever seen. “We’re really not just a peace group,” Booth told a New York Times reporter covering the rally. “We are working on domestic problems—civil rights, poverty, and university reform. We feel passionately and angrily about things in America, and we feel that a war in Asia will destroy what we’re trying to do here.”
Years later, Booth, reflecting upon his development as a young activist, told SDS historian James Miller: “My starting point was a commitment to mass organizing, that’s why I admired [Eugene] Debs [the union organizer and Socialist Party candidate in the early 1900s]. He got votes, organized strikes and went to jail for protesting the First World War. He was both an effective organizer and a principled leader.”
In 1965 as well, Booth and Lee Webb, the latter of whom had been SDS’s National Secretary two years earlier, collaborated to write The Antiwar Movement: From Protest to Radical Politics, a screed that SDS circulated via mimeograph. Condemning America’s military actions in Vietnam as a “dirty immoral war,” Booth and Webb lamented that the “single-issue politics” of the antiwar movement had caused it to become largely isolated from other factions of the American Left, and that the movement’s overall influence was therefore considerably smaller than it could could potentially have been. Urging “people in the [antiwar] movement [to] see themselves first and foremost as organizers,” Booth and Webb insisted that “the times demand that the movement against the war become a movement for domestic social change.” This, the authors suggested, meant that peace movement activists should strive to ally themselves with fellow leftists whose efforts were centered instead around issues like racism, sexism, and economic inequality.
However, the more extremist elements within SDS rejected the proposed Booth-Webb strategy of building alliances with other leftist groups and constituencies. Deriding Booth as a representative of the “old guard,” those extremists ousted him from his SDS leadership role in 1966.
At a May 1966 antiwar protest, Booth met a young woman named Heather Tobis. On the third day of the protest, he asked Tobis to marry him. Two days later she agreed, and the couple were wed in 1967. The bride, Heather Booth, would go on to become an iconic figure in community organizing.
In 1969, Paul Booth worked for the Chicago radical newspaper, Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices. Around that same time, he was a sponsor of the GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee, which served as a front group for the Socialist Workers Party.
In 1969 as well, Booth and his wife, along with onetime SDS field secretary Steve Max and radical community organizer Harry Boyte, published a pamphlet titled Socialism and the Coming Decade. This screed argued that because the U.S. was then in a “non-revolutionary period,” socialist activists should eschew confrontational tactics in favor of a stealth, incremental approach to social change.
In the very early 1970s, Booth collaborated with Harry Boyte to form a pro-socialist organization called the New American Movement (NAM). Soon thereafter, the Booths, along with Steve Max as well as Robert Creamer and his wife (Day Creamer), organized an NAM conference which was held in June of 1972.
In May 1973, Paul Booth contributed an article to NAM’s Discussion Bulletin, wherein he outlined some strategies — such as the use of revenue sharing — designed to help “revolutionary socialists … begin to build the base for a mass revolutionary movement.” That same year, Booth’s wife, Heather, co-founded the Midwest Academy, a training center for leftwing radicalism. Mr. Booth served on the Academy’s board of directors along with Robert Creamer, Day Creamer, and a small number of additional radical associates.
Also in the early 1970s, Paul Booth was a co-founder and a leading figure — along with Heather Booth and Steve Max — in Saul Alinsky‘s Citizens Action Program (CAP), a national coalition of community organizations coordinated through the Midwest Academy. Alinsky had established CAP to organize white middle-class residents after the Black Power movement had driven him out of the black inner-city projects. According to the American Constitution Society, “With Paul as its co-chair, CAP built grassroots campaigns to challenge banks’ redlining practices; to expose the Cook County tax assessor’s practice of undervaluing corporate properties; [and] to reduce toxic air pollution from local steel plants and other factories, and prod Commonwealth Edison, the region’s largest private utility, to negotiate an unprecedented antipollution agreement.”
In 1974 Booth joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He initially worked to build and expand Illinois AFSCME (Council 31), where he became the Associate Director in 1976.
In 1988 Paul and Heather Booth moved to Chicago, where Paul served for a decade as AFSCME’s organizing director. After that, Mr. Booth became Executive Assistant for AFSCME presidents Gerald McEntee and Lee Saunders, the latter of whom succeeded McEntee in 2010.
In 1990, Paul Booth participated in a Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City. He was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America at that time, and he would remain a member for the rest of his life.
In 1994 Booth devised America’s first living-wage campaign, working with BUILD, a Baltimore-based community organizing group that called on that city to require private companies that received municipal subsidies to pay their employees a living wage.
In 2005 Booth served as an Advisory Committee member for “Tell the Story: The Chicago SNCC History Project, 1960-1965” — a retrospective on the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The project was sponsored by the Chicago Area Friends of the SNCC.
In 2016, Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appointed Booth to serve on the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee, where he helped reconcile differences between the preferred agendas of Mrs. Clinton on the one hand, and those of Senator Bernie Sanders on the other. In a speech he delivered at the Democratic National Convention that summer, Booth said: “I am proud to present the most ambitious Platform the Democratic Party has ever offered.” The platform’s “progressive principles,” he continued, advocated “historic investments” in programs that would address “the challenges of systemic racism in America”; advance the “figh[t] for social justice”; guarantee a “safe and secure retirement”; promote “the right to organize labor unions”; protect humanity from the dangers of “climate change”; and raise the federal minimum wage to “$15 an hour at least.” By contrast, Booth claimed, the Republican Party Platform called for “legalizing discrimination”; “cutting holes in the social safety net”; securing “special privileges” for “the corporate elite and billionaires”; and enacting “more privatization and union-busting at the expense of working families.”
On January 17, 2018, Booth died as a result of complications from chronic lymphocytic leukemia.