Clifford Vaughs, American civil rights activist, filmmaker and motorcycle builder, Died at 79

Clifford A. ‘Soney’ Vaughs was born on April 16, 1937, in Boston, MA and died on July 2016.

He was an American civil rights activist, filmmaker, and motorcycle builder.

He was the designer of the two chopper motorcycles used for the 1969 film ‘Easy Rider’, while an Associate Producer on the film.

Clifford also produced and directed the documentary ‘What Will the Harvest Be?’ (1965) and ‘Not So Easy’ (1972).

He was an only child of an unmarried mother.

He received his education at the Boston Latin School and earned his BA at Boston University.

He joined the Marine Corps., in 1953, and then he earned his Master’s degree at the University of Mexico, in Mexico City, majoring in Latin American Studies.

Clifford relocated to Los Angeles in 1961, where he became involved in the custom motorcycle scene, and rode several Harley-Davidson ‘Knucklehead’ ‘choppers’.

During 1963, he got an offer to join the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) by Bob Zelner, while on a fundraising tour for the organization.

He decided to drive his 1953 Chevrolet half-ton pickup truck to the East Coast to join the SNCC activities there.

Vaughs was photographed by Danny Lyon being bodily dragged by five National Guard troops at a sit-in in Cambridge, Maryland, on May 2, 1964.

He took along his customized blue Knucklehead chopper in the bed of his pickup truck to Alabama in 1964, and rode the motorcycle to visit sharecroppers in remote areas.

Reportedly Vaughs said, “I may have been na├»ve thinking I could be an example to the black folks who were living in the South, but that’s why I rode my chopper in Alabama – I’d visit people in their dirt-floor shacks, living like slavery had never ended – I wanted to be a visible example to them; a free black man on my motorcycle.”

During 1964, he filmed interviews with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Stokeley Carmichael, and Julian Bond, among others, on the rise of the Black Power movement in the US.

As a result, the documentary ‘What Will the Harvest Be?’, which was aired in 1965 on ABC-TV.

Nonetheless, he was denied entry into the cameraman’s union while working at KABC, and sued successfully to break the ‘color barrier’ for union membership.

In the year 1967, while working at KABC in Los Angeles, Vaughs interviewed Peter Fonda. Vaughs and Fonda shared an interest in motorcycles, and Fonda introduced Vaughs to Dennis Hopper, which led Vaughs to join a new film project as Associate Producer, a “Western type movie with motorcycles”.

Apprently, he claims to have come up with the name for the film, ‘Easy Rider’, after the Mae West song, I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone?

He purchased four Harley-Davidson ‘Panhead’ motorcycles at an LA County Sherriff’s auction in 1967, and coordinated with motorcycle builder Ben Hardy, to create the ‘Captain America’ and ‘Billy’ choppers for the film.

Two ‘hero’ choppers were built, and two stunt doubles for the ending scenes of the movie; while the stunt Captain America was destroyed in filming the final scene of the movie, the remaining three motorcycles were apparently stolen, and never recovered.

The First-time director Dennis Hopper consumed the limited budget for ‘Easy Rider’ very quickly, and Columbia pictures invested in the movie to finish it.

During that juncture, Cliff Vaughs, and most other crew members, were fired, and a new crew hired.

However, as part of a legal settlement for leaving as Associate Producer, Vaughs’ contribution to the film, including the creation of the iconic motorcycles, was not included in the film’s credits.

Clifford Vaughs passed away at 79 years old.