A Stirring Story of Building Grassroots Power

by on May 1, 2018

Despite 50th anniversary stories on the Civil Rights movement and new African-American history museums, many stories of African-Americans overcoming urban racism in the north remain little known. That makes this book on Ernest Thompson, a great community and social justice organizer, particularly important.  Thompson’s legacy is chronicled in, Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People’s Power,  a just released second edition of a book he originally co-authored with his daughter, the prominent urban studies Professor Mindy Thompson Fullilove.

Orange is the white-controlled New Jersey city that Thompson helped transform. “Homeboy” is Thompson’s nickname. His understanding of coalition politics brought success in Orange and remains a model for achieving political success.

Building Power in Orange

Ernest Thompson built his career in the labor movement. In 1950 he co-founded the National Negro Labor Council. Among  his co-founders and close allies was Coleman Young, who later became the longtime mayor of Detroit,. Thompson became a leader in the progressive United Electrical workers that was affiliated with the CIO rather than with the more moderate AFL. Thompson used his labor connections to build black power both in Orange and later in Newark.

African-Americans in the 1950’s were not yet an electoral majority in most northern cities. The challenge was securing any resources for blacks in a political system where at-large elections virtually guaranteed all white City Councils, School Boards etc. Thompson’s great skill was understanding how to navigate a majority white electorate in order to bring better schools and services to an underserved black community.

Thompson’s key strategy, and arguably the leading message of the book, is the power of coalition politics. He practiced coalition politics by offering African-American support to white politicians. In contrast, rival activists favored a “Vote Black” strategy that rejected endorsing whites. Thompson’s strategy worked in Orange and later became the distinguishing feature of successful mayoral elections of African-Americans in cities like Los Angeles (Tom Bradley), Seattle (Norm Rice) and New York City (David Dinkins) where blacks were not an electoral majority.

Thompson’s other key trait was an approach to politicians similar to the “fear and loathing” strategy I recommend in my book, The Activist’s Handbook. He played hardball with those seeking Orange’s African-American support, understanding that as long as his organization could deliver the core black base on Election Day, white politicians had to listen.

U.S. Fails Cities

Reading about Thompson’s efforts to get decent schools, housing and health services for a long disenfranchised black population necessarily raises the question: how did the steady progress made in these “inner city” black neighborhoods get reversed?

Initially, the wave of black mayors elected in Gary, Indiana, Cleveland and Detroit secured federal dollars to rebuild low-income neighborhoods. But soon after Richard Nixon took office in 1969, the federal government began turning its back on cities. The reversal began slowly but Ronald Reagan took a sledgehammer to programs assisting African-American neighborhoods. Its housing, health, education and employment needs have never fully recovered.

Declining federal support to cities just as blacks were becoming politically empowered was no coincidence. Nixon understood how to build and retain his silent White majority, and his urban policies proceeded accordingly

Reading about Thompson’s efforts in Orange and Newark is a reminder of the direction where our country’s post-1960s policies toward urban America could and should have gone. And this reminder offers a roadmap for where the nation’s policies can still go, if not by federal action but by local and state efforts to address the housing, health, education and employment needs of low-income and working class urban residents.

This book may be a revelation to younger people unfamiliar with what African-Americans in northern cities had to overcome. We hear a lot about pervasive 1960’s racism in cities like Chicago and Boston, but at large voting districts that denied political representation to blacks were common everywhere.

In 2008, Mindy Fullilove, her daughter, and others started the University of Orange, a center of public education. It is still going strong today. It has an urbanism department where city policies are discussed, and where Ernest Thompson’s ambitions for his adopted city can be further realized.

This is a book that anyone interested in how African-Americans built grassroots power in northern cities should read. It is also a great read for community organizers.

At a time where cynicism about government prevails, the tale of Homeboy will leave you even more inspired to work for social change.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His most recent book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. His upcoming book, Generation Priced Out, will be out in November from UC Press.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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