March on Washington: Genesis in Housing Co-op in New York City

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

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. That night Tom Kahn and my husband Norm Hill and I, under Bayard’s guidance, 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 organisers of the March. That spring and summer, Rachelle Horowitz’s one bedroom co-op apartment at Penn South became a Civil Rights hostel. Working on the “March” and staying with her in her co-op apartment at various times were; John Lewis, now a congress member and the only living speaker from the 1963 March, Eleanor Holmes Norton, now the congress member for Washington, DC, Joyce & Dorie Ladner, two sisters who were activists from SNCC (Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and a young singer called Dylan.

The 2,820 unit Penn South Co-op was sponsored by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). Speaking at its opening in 1962 were President Kennedy, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, NYC Mayor Robert Wagner and others. The Penn South Co-op soon became home to many labor activists and civil rights advocates. Later, with Bayard’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,” says co-op member Velma Hill proudly. Norm and Velma Hill have committed their lives to labor and civil rights issues.

The 2013 commemoration of two events that occurred in 1963 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Yet, 1963 was both a high and a low moment in race relations in America.

The high occurred on August 28th, 1963. “The March on Washington” that Norm and Velma Hill helped to birth, brought over 250,000 people to Washington, DC 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 forevermore. The stirring event concluded with Martin Luther King Jr’s majestic “I Have a Dream” speech.  The ‘March” made an indelible imprint on America’s conscience.

The low point of the year was the September 15th killing of four young black girls attending the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. 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.

These events, and others that made up the American Civil Rights Movement, are fairly well known. But what about the everyday role of co-operatives in the Civil Rights Movement — efforts that began in the middle 1800’s and proceeded into the Civil Rights Movement and beyond? Here are just a few vignettes about the role of co-operatives in civil rights for African-Americans.

• Frederick Douglass visited Rochdale and spoke in Fenwick during his sojourn in Britain (1845-1847).  The first third of the money to purchase Douglass’ freedom from slavery came from Rochdale resident John Bright, MP, a supporter of the Rochdale Pioneers and co-operatives. Douglass visited a Chartist colony to learn how the vote was gained through the co-operative purchase of land. Douglass stayed with Bright in Rochdale again in 1860.

• Many leading British co-operators, especially in the Manchester area, played key roles in the Union and Emancipation Society. That group was the main United Kingdom (UK) supporter of the anti-slavery platform of Abraham Lincoln. Following news that the Civil War had ended, figures such as John Bright and Frederick Engels set off to Rochdale to sign the Pioneer’s Visitor’s Book.

• As chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall and his wife supplemented their income by doing home deliveries for their local consumer co-operative in New York City.

• In 1957, Marshall was invited to live in a NYC housing co-op (Morningside Gardens). Due to his interracial marriage he was restricted from buying most other housing in NYC. In 1967, Marshall became the first African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

• Many Civil Rights leaders point to their attendance at the Highlander Folk School as a key moment. Among them, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Highlander are modeled after the Folk Schools in Denmark that played a critical role in the development of the Danish co-operative movement. Rosa Parks chose not to give up her seat on the bus only months after attending Highlander. When asked what difference did Highlander make? Rosa Parks replied, “Everything.”

• The arrival at Highlander of African-American activists from John’s Island, South Carolina 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. Thurgood Marshall personally intervened with President Truman to end the federal restriction on lending to integrated housing co-operatives.

• 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. The core plan for the “March” was crafted at meetings at Bayard Rustin’s co-op apartment in Penn South. Down below on the ground floor of Penn South was the Chelsea Co-op, a consumers’ market.

• During the Civil Rights era, hundreds of co-ops were organized in the South. In 1967, a core group of those co-operatives gathered together in Atlanta, Georgia, to found the Federation of Southern Co-operatives. Today, the Federation is the leading voice representing the issues facing black farmers and black communities in the South.

The Federation is at the forefront of the development of co-operatives and credit unions and the empowerment of minorities and low income populations. The Federation and other black farmers successfully won the “Pigford” suit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) resulting in a billion dollar discrimination award to black farmers.

• From 1965-1985, Charles and Shirley Sherrod led development of New Communities, Inc, a co-operative farm in Georgia. It was the largest parcel of land owned by African-American farmers and the first land trust in the nation. With funds from the “Pigford Suit” the Sherrod’s are rebuilding New Communities.

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

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

• David J. Thompson is writing a book entitled “Co-operatives and the Civil Rights Movement.” due for publication in 2015.

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