Local News

March on Washington was born at NYC housing co-op

By From page A4 | October 17, 2013

Civil rights movement and cooperative development are linked through history

* Editor’s noteOn Aug. 28, David J. Thompson of Davis was in Washington, D.C., to interview key people about their Penn South Co-op experiences during the organizing of the 1963 March on Washington. He went to the Lincoln Memorial for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the march.

By David J. Thompson

Velma Hill remembers the genesis of the 1963 March on Washington very well, even in August of 2013.

“We met in Bayard Rustin’s co-op apartment at Penn South in New York City in early 1963,” she recalls. “That night, Tom Kahn and my husband Norm Hill and I, under Bayard’s guidance and leadership, crafted the concept for what soon became known as The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

Not long after, Rachelle Horowitz, another Penn South co-op member, became one of the early organizers of the march. That spring and summer, Horowitz’s one-bedroom apartment became an unofficial march headquarters. Working with Horowitz on the march and staying with her that summer were Joyce and Dorie Ladner, two sisters who were activists from the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, an activist friend and now congresswoman from the District of Columbia.

Just days before the march, civil rights icon John Lewis — then of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and now a congressman from Georgia — came over to practice his speech in full voice.

On other occasions, Horowitz came home to find Bob Dylan in her apartment practicing his songs for the march. Dylan had a crush on Dorie Ladner and was rehearsing with her “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” his new song about the June 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. Dorie was herself a great singer and had brought Dylan down to Greenwood, Miss., to first sing the song in July of 1963.

The 2,820-unit Penn South Co-op was sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Speaking at its opening in 1962 were President Kennedy, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner, AFL-CIO President George Meany, garment workers union president David Dubinsky and others.

The co-op soon became home to many labor activists and civil rights advocates. Later, with Bayard Rustin’s help, Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine moved into the co-op.

“During the 1960s we all lived or stayed at the Penn South Co-op. Norm and I still do,” Hill said proudly. Norm and Velma Hill have committed their lives to labor and civil rights issues.

The year 1963 saw both high and low moments in race relations in America.

The high occurred on Aug. 28, 1963. The March on Washington that Norm and Velma Hill helped organize brought more than 250,000 people to Washington to demand jobs and freedom for African-Americans. The spectacle of so many Americans of all colors, peaceably gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, will stand forever. The stirring event concluded with Martin Luther King Jr’s majestic “I Have a Dream” speech. The march left an indelible imprint on America’s conscience.

The low point of the year was the Sept. 15 murders of four young black girls attending the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Segregationists had planted the deadly bombs. The deaths sent the nation into shock and mourning. The two different events in 1963 demanded that America must change.

It would be a long time before African-Americans obtained their full legal rights as citizens. Yet, much earlier, cooperatives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean proudly provided African-Americans with both economic power and voting rights. Today, newer cooperatives continue to fight for economic democracy and build community.

— David J. Thompson of Davis is writing a book titled “Cooperatives and the Civil Rights Movement” due for publication in 2014. He is president of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation. Email him at [email protected]

What about the everyday role of cooperatives in the civil rights movement — efforts that began in the mid-1800s and proceeded into the civil rights movement and beyond? Here are a few vignettes about the role of cooperatives in civil rights for African-Americans.

* Frederick Douglass spoke four times in Rochdale, England, in 1846. Some of the founders of the Rochdale Co-op likely would have gone to hear Douglass speak, 1,000 feet from their store. Douglass stayed with Rochdale resident John Bright, a member of Parliament and co-op supporter. Part of the money to purchase Douglass’ freedom from slavery in 1846 came from Bright, a supporter of the Rochdale Pioneers.

* Many leading British cooperators, especially in the Manchester area, played key roles in the Union and Emancipation Society. That group was the main United Kingdom supporter of the anti-slavery platform of Abraham Lincoln.

* As chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Thurgood Marshall and his wife supplemented their income by doing home deliveries for their local consumer cooperative in New York City.

* In 1957, Marshall was invited to live in a New York City housing co-op (Morningside Gardens). Due to his interracial marriage, he was restricted from buying most other housing in New York. The Marshalls took their first opportunity to become homeowners and lived at the co-op for almost a decade. In 1967, Marshall became the first African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

* Many civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., point to their attendance at the Highlander Folk School as a key moment. Highlander is modeled after the folk schools in Denmark that played a critical role in the development of the Danish cooperative movement. Parks chose not to give up her seat on the bus only months after attending Highlander. When asked what difference Highland made, she replied, “Everything.”

* The arrival at Highlander of African-American activists from Johns Island, S.C., brought about another historical impact. Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins returned from Highlander to set up the first ever “citizenship” classes. Most African-Americans had to be taught how to read and write and pass a test to get the right to vote. Held in the back room of their consumer co-op, the “citizenship” classes were then exported to the rest of the South. The classes led to hundreds of thousands of African-Americans winning the right to vote and changing the face of the South.

* Housing co-ops organized by integrated groups of veterans after World War II led the fight to end the Federal Housing Agency’s restriction on lending to housing co-ops that allowed African-Americans to be members. Marshall personally intervened with President Truman to end the federal restriction on lending to integrated housing cooperatives.

* A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who led and organized the 1963 March on Washington, both lived and died at Penn South, a union-sponsored housing co-op in New York City. Down below on the ground floor of Penn South was the Chelsea Co-op, a consumers’ co-op. Penn South’s members are also served by their own credit union.

* During the civil rights era, hundreds of co-ops were organized in the South. In 1967, a core group of those cooperatives gathered together in Atlanta to found the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Today, the federation is the leading voice representing the issues facing black farmers and black communities in the South.

* From 1965 to 1985, Charles and Shirley Sherrod led development of New Communities Inc., a cooperative farm in Georgia. It was the largest parcel of land owned by African-American farmers and the first land trust in the nation.

* Congressman John Lewis, the last living speaker at the 1963 march, has spent much of his life supporting cooperatives, including being the chair of New Communities and working for the National Cooperative Bank. Fifty years later, Lewis is still marching on and championing co-ops.

Special to The Enterprise

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