John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, died at 80 years old on July 17, 2020. Throughout his years of public service, John always wanted cooperatives to build a better, fairer, and more diverse and equitable America. What follows is part two in a short chronology of John’s lifetime commitment to and engagement with cooperatives. Read part one in the series here.
John was elected Chairman of SNCC, and in that role he was one of the “Big Six” who represented the organizers of “The March on Washington.” The other five members were:
- James Farmer, head of the Congress on Racial Equality, CORE. Farmer lived at the Chatham Green Co-op in NYC, which had been sponsored by credit unions.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., a lifetime supporter of co-ops.
- A. Philip Randolph, a writer about cooperatives, who lived in the Dunbar Apartments, the first housing co-op for Blacks in NYC. Randolph later lived in Penn South Co-op in NYC until he died.
- Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP, who later joined the Parkway Village Housing Co-op in NYC.
- Whitney Young, President of the Urban League, which organized housing and other co-ops.
Bayard Rustin was appointed as organizer of the “March on Washington.” At his co-op apartment in Penn South, Bayard hosted the first meeting of the group that would go on to organize the march.
Rachelle Horowitz and Tom Kahn, who also lived at the same Penn South Co-op, were key members of the “march” staff. Norm Hill, who also attended the first meeting and worked on the march, later moved to the co-op, and still lives there today.
During 1963, Rachelle put up many volunteers at her Penn South Co-op apartment. Among them, in particular, were Eleanor Holmes, today the non-voting Congress member for Washington, D.C., and Civil Rights activists and sisters, Joyce and Dorie Ladner. In Walking With the Wind, John wrote about being in NYC just before the march and having Joyce Ladner, Tom Kahn, and Eleanor Norton read over his controversial speech. John’s speech would end up being the most contentious one of the day. Roy Wilkins wanted it to be left out of the program and others threatened to boycott the event if it were not read.
Rachelle told me in an interview that the hotel in NYC where John was staying had thin walls and John was practicing his speech there too loudly. The hotel manager asked John to practice his speech elsewhere or be evicted from the hotel. John asked Rachel if he could come over to her apartment at the co-op to practice it. Rachel figured that the co-op’s thick brick walls would make a good sound curtain. Dorie, Joyce, and Eleanor were staying there, too, but after hearing endless forceful renditions of the speech the women eventually had to kick John out.
A few days later, a 23 year old John Lewis gave his speech to the nation from in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
A couple of nights before, Rachelle had the job of also kicking out Bob Dylan. Dylan had come over to her co-op apartment to practice the songs he was doing for the March. Dylan had an additional motive—he wanted to serenade Dorie Ladner for as long as Dorie would allow. He would sing song after song to Dorie until Rachelle told him it was late, and he needed to leave as the four women had work to do tomorrow. He left reluctantly but “the woman in Jackson” in Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues” is assumed to be Dorie Ladner.
In his book, Walking With The Wind, John wrote about going to work for the Southern Regional Council (SRC) in Atlanta, GA, where he was made Director of the SRC’s Community Organization Project. John’s task was to establish cooperatives, credit unions and community development groups in the Deep South. In Walking With The Wind, John wrote about his work for the SRC, “This was hands-on work, and I loved it. I felt at home again, literally.”
John is appointed by President Carter as the associate director of ACTION under Sam Brown (at one time also a board member of the NCCB). John’s staff included 125 people in ten regional offices. The staff oversaw 5,000 Vista volunteers and over 230,000 elderly volunteers. “We tried to help them through a range of programs similar to those I had directed with the Southern Regional Council … We helped form cooperatives in rural communities.”
John goes to work for the National Consumer Cooperative Bank (NCCB) as Community Relations Director.
This same year, NCCB President, Carol Greenwald, asks me to arrange tours of Black communities in the U.S., where John could speak about the bank and its nonprofit arm as resources for cooperatives in Black communities. I had the honor of being on a two-week tour of California with John.
Among those with whom we met were: Mayor Tom Bradley (LA), Mayor Willie Brown (SF), Assembly member now Congress member Maxine Waters, and state Senator Diane Watson. These Black leaders were all excited to see John and eagerly listened to the cooperative opportunities provided by the NCCB and its nonprofit arm. Bradley and Brown both later gave help to food co-ops assisted by the NCCB’s nonprofit arm.
My wife Ann and I had hosted Eldridge Mathebula, a visitor from South Africa, whose organization, The Black Consumers Union, wanted to develop co-ops for Blacks in South Africa. At that time, however, under apartheid, only whites could develop and operate cooperatives in South Africa. Eldridge’s organization invited me to South Africa to give talks on what types of co-ops could be organized and to work with South African governmental agencies on a pathway to legalize co-ops for Blacks.
At the time, there was an international boycott of South Africa which I did not want to break. John, by that time, was a Congress Member representing Atlanta. I called him, made an appointment, and met with him in his office in D.C. I laid out the pros and cons of going to South Africa, and basically asked him to give me his judgment on whether I should go. In the end, John felt I should certainly should.
In John’s opinion, the opportunity was there to instigate Black cooperatives as democratically run organizations. In a nation that disallowed Blacks from voting and having political power, cooperatives could be a nonviolent way to build a new society. In 1989, the Black Consumers’ Union registered the first Black cooperative in South Africa.
Throughout this time, John was a good friend and champion of the Atlanta-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC). He spoke at FSC’s 50th Anniversary in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2017. The National Cooperative Business Association reported: “During a stirring speech at the awards ceremony, prominent Civil Rights leader, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), called cooperatives a ‘key strategy’ in the Civil Rights Movement. Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., Lewis urged audience members to keep their ‘eyes on the prize’ of achieving true and lasting equality, despite setbacks.”
Ann, our daughter Hatley, my mother-in-law, Audrey Lippman, my business partner at Neighborhood Partners, LLC, Luke Watkins, and I met with John in his D.C. office. We talked about co-ops, the needs of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the role of the now-named National Cooperative Bank, and in particular its nonprofit arm, then named the NCB Development Corporation. John had heard from several Southern and minority cooperatives that the NCBDC was no longer very active in their world. He was disappointed that the NCBDC was not doing enough for Blacks but hoped they might return to keeping the promises they had made in 1980 that he had carried to Black America.
John always believed in redemption
just as he did in cooperatives.
We have surely lost a Champion but honor a Giant. He was the son of a sharecropper who then shaped our conscious and our nation. We have a moment now in which to reflect on the unique opportunity John has given us to re-direct ourselves to the cooperative world that John Lewis wished us to create. It is time for cooperators to return to making “Good Trouble.”
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.
David J. Thompson
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