What Two Civil Rights Heroes Can Teach Today's Left

Guest author and Shanker Institute Board Member Richard Kahlenberg reviews Climbing the Rough Side of the Mountain: The Extraordinary Story of Love, Civil Rights, and Labor Activism, the memoir of civil and labor rights leaders Norman and Velma Hill.

If you’re worried about threats to liberal democracy in America, emanating primarily from Donald Trump but also from parts of the progressive left, a new memoir published by two veteran civil rights activists provides a refreshing reminder that a better path remains open. Climbing the Rough Side of the Mountain: The Extraordinary Story of Love, Civil Rights, and Labor Activism, by Norman and Velma Hill, two black civil rights leaders, provides a fascinating account of their years working closely with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin to make their country live up to its ideals.

Norman and Velma (whom I came to know while writing biography of labor leader Albert Shanker), were in the thick of many of the central battles for racial and economic justice in the mid-twentieth century.

They first met in 1960, fighting racial segregation in Chicago. In 1963, they helped Randolph and Rustin organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As the Black Power movement began to gain salience in the mid-1960s, they shifted to work with organized labor. Norman took a job with Rustin at the A. Philip Randolph Institute to provide a bridge between trade unions and the black community. Velma worked for the United Federation of Teachers to organize mostly black and Hispanic teacher aides in New York City at a time when many black city residents were distrustful of the union.

Throughout, the Hills battled segregationists and union-busters on the right as well as forces of illiberalism and black separatism on the left. In a sense, then, they’ve written two books in one. The first is a familiar—though still deeply affecting—morality tale in which they combat the pure evil of white supremacy and largely prevail. The second story involves the internecine battles on the left with other advocates of black advancement. Like their mentors Randolph and Rustin, the Hills believed in several key principles that received pushback at the time: interracial coalition politics; a common economic agenda across racial lines; nonviolence in achieving social change; democratic norms at home and abroad; and an optimism about the possibilities of America.

In many ways, the second book is the more interesting one to read today. White segregationists have been shunted to the extremes, placed in the dustbin of history. But on the activist left, the values that Randolph, Rustin, and the Hills espoused—optimism, the importance of nonviolence, and the need to reach out to working-class whites on common economic concerns—have fallen out of favor. This book ought to help change that.

The Interracial Alliance for Desegregating Chicago in 1960.
Norman and Velma Hill met in 1960 on a picket line in Chicago agitating for civil rights. They were (and are) opposites in many ways. He was the son of a prosperous dentist, formal and buttoned up. More gregarious and emotional than him, she was raised by a low-wage single mother and grew up having to plug holes in her shoes with newspaper. But they were both riveted by the civil rights movement, the labor movement, and the desire to advance social democracy in America.

Soon after meeting, they joined forces to desegregate Chicago’s Rainbow Beach—an effort that would transform their lives. Although Rainbow Beach was not segregated by law, whites ruthlessly enforced a custom that the beach was reserved only for them. The Hills worked with other black activists to plan a “wade in” demonstration to challenge the practice. Some of the activists did not want liberal whites to be part of their effort, but the Hills insisted that the demonstration itself be integrated. About one-third of the group who participated in the wade in were young whites, many from nearby Hyde Park.

At first, the demonstrators played checkers or read books in peace. But as the day wore on, an angry white mob assembled and attacked the activists with rocks and bricks. One projectile struck Velma in the back of her head. She fell to the ground and blood soaked her blouse. Norman picked her up and carried her to a safe space and soon accompanied her to the hospital, where she received 17 stitches. Tragically, after the Hills were married and Velma became pregnant, she miscarried and almost died. Doctors told her that, because of her injury on Rainbow Beach, it was too dangerous for her to have children—and the couple never did.

Merging Class and Race Concerns in the 1963 March on Washington and Beyond.
By 1963, both Norman and Velma were working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and were assigned to help Randolph and Rustin plan the famous March on Washington at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech. While most people in the civil rights community “were talking about just race,” they write, Randolph and Rustin insisted that it be a march not only call for passage of civil rights legislation but also a national jobs program and minimum wage.

Like Randolph and Rustin, the Hills saw the issues of race and class as closely connected to democracy. America’s great experiment in self-governance would fail, they said, so long as “millions of people, by virtue of the color of their skin or economic status, were systematically excluded from participating in that experiment.”

As with the Rainbow Beach demonstration, the Hills agreed with Randolph and Rustin that the March on Washington would be more successful if it were interracial. Ultimately, about one third of participants were white. The Hills write: “Unlike the Million Man March in 1995, this was not just an all-Black affair. It was Black and white, and young and old, and Catholic and Protestant and Jewish; it was the unity that you wanted for this country.”

Not everyone was happy about the dual race and class agenda, and the cross-racial alliance, the Hills note. Malcom X called the 1963 march a “circus” and the “Farce on Washington.” Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael called the march a “sanitized, middle-class version of the real Black movement.”

After the 1963 March, the Hills write, the country saw a rise in “Black nationalism that encouraged Black separatism and a general air of hostility toward whites.” They remember attending CORE meetings where black members would tell whites to “shut up” and “Don’t forget, this is our organization!” CORE’s head, James Farmer, over time became deeply suspicious of Rustin’s emphasis on class inequality.

Farmer would tell Velma, “I like my coffee the way I like my women, strong and Black”—even though his wife was in fact white. Malcolm X once spotted Velma at a demonstration, called her over, and wanted to know why she was “not at home, taking care of my house and husband.”

In 1964, the Hills resigned from CORE and Norman joined the AFL-CIO, a move that reporter David Halberstam covered in the New York Times. In explaining his departure, Hill emphasized the need to focus on interracial alliances for economic and racial justice. In 1967, Norman went to work with Rustin at the newly created A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization meant to build on the success of the March on Washington Coalition. As Randolph remarked, “if he had a son, he would have been Bayard, and if he had a grandson, he would have been Norman.”

The Plea for Nonviolence in the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike
As part of his work at the Randolph Institute, Norman went to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to help aid striking sanitation workers to gain better wages, greater workplace safety, and dignity. The workers were mostly black, so the strike, the Hills write, involved “a classic nexus of the promise of the civil rights movement and the American labor movement.”

Heavily influenced by Rustin, Martin Luther King was by 1968 deeply invested in addressing economic inequality. Controversial among his colleagues who wanted a singularly racial focus, King had planned a nationwide multiracial “Poor People’s Campaign.” Consistent with that approach, he travelled to Memphis to champion the cause of the sanitation workers and led a march on their behalf.



Norman Hill was an organizer and participant in the march that King led, and he saw how King reacted when some of the marchers began smashing windows and looting. “He was visibly upset, distraught and depressed,” Hill noted. “He seemed so disappointed.” King knew that the violence would backfire, diminish public support for the strikers, and give the police an excuse to crack down harder.

When he learned the horrible news that King had been assassinated in Memphis by a white assailant, Hill rushed to the Lorraine Motel. Hill was shattered and writes that he became “full of troubling questions about the future of the civil rights movement.”

Organizing Teacher Aides after the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Strike
By the fall of 1968, growing numbers of black leaders had given up on King’s dream of an integrated society with integrated schools. In the New York City neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, for instance, a group of Black Power advocates pushed for “community control” of black schools and sought to force unionized white teachers out. Randolph, Rustin, and Norman, as staunch union supporters, opposed the move and backed United Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker in calling for a teachers’ strike.

The series of strikes dragged on for weeks, and animosity between some black parents and the mostly white teaching force grew. After the strike was resolved—mostly in the UFT’s favor—Shanker set out to organize New York City’s teacher aides. By and large these “paraprofessionals” were mostly black and Hispanic mothers who lacked much formal education. Shanker believed they deserved better wages and benefits, and he hoped that by organizing the paraprofessionals, the UFT could begin to heal some of the racial wounds from the teacher strikes.

Shanker turned to Velma Hill to organize the effort. Although Velma had by then earned a graduate degree in education from Harvard, Shanker asked her to become a paraprofessional in order to win their trust. She became what she called “an Afro-wearing, brown-skinned Norma Rae,” working alongside and organizing her fellow teacher aides.

Hill received a great deal of pushback, both from a rival union seeking to represent paraprofessionals, and from some black leaders still stinging from the teacher strike. One opponent said, "you may have natural hair but you got a processed mind." Another came at her with a baseball bat and said: "Stay out of our district. Don't come in here with that damn UFT!"

But Velma and the UFT ultimately won the right to represent paraprofessionals by appealing to their desire for social mobility. The UFT’s slogan: “What Shanker did for the teachers, he’ll do for you.” Importantly, Hill and Shanker pushed the school board to create a career ladder for paraprofessionals that would enable them to go back to school and become teachers. The program, which provided financial support for continuing education, created what Hill called “affirmative action—without quotas.”

Some were skeptical that paraprofessionals would take advantage of the chance to go back to school. But when the program opened, Hill writes: “My Lord, you wouldn’t believe the lines…Thousands of paras had come to register for college. It was a sight to behold.” The career ladder, she says, “helped to effectively integrate the teaching staff of New York City public schools.”

Supporting Democracy in the Middle East
Most of Climbing the Rough Side of the Mountain addresses Norman and Velma Hill’s involvement with civil rights and labor in the turbulent 1960s. But the book also discusses the ways in which Randolph, Rustin, and the Hills strongly supported the state of Israel in later decades. Randolph and Rustin founded the Black Americans in Support of Israel Committee in 1975. And though critical of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Hills remain supportive of the Jewish state to this day: “We have an affinity for Israel because it is a democratic state that has a strong history of trade unions in the midst of Arab states that do not.” They continue: “While Israel is not perfect, it remains a democracy, the only one in the Middle East.”

Lessons for the Progressive Left Today
This past April 16, the AFL-CIO hosted a reception to mark the publication of Norman and Velma Hill’s book. The gathering had a bittersweet quality. On the one hand, Norman, who is in his early 90s and virtually blind, and Velma, who is in her mid 80s and was sitting in a wheelchair, provided a powerful living reminder of the glories of the 20th century’s civil rights and labor movements. On the other hand, the audience was made up mostly of aging civil rights and labor activists. There were few young leftist activists—the very people, of all races, who have imbibed so much of the Black Power movement’s thinking that the Hills rejected. Consider these differences:

  • Whereas Norman and Velma Hill emphasized how wonderful it was that the civil rights movement they worked in was interracial in character, today, the New York Times' 1619 Project feels the need to falsely claim that black people were “for the most part…alone” in their fight for civil rights. Riddled with other errors, the book project was nevertheless acclaimed by the highest reaches of American culture and awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
  • Whereas the Hills left CORE when black separatists started telling white people they should not speak at meetings, today’s left sometimes tolerates a close cousin of that practice—policies that determine the order of who is allowed to speak by the level of marginalization of the speakers' group.
  • Whereas the Hills insist on the importance of nonviolence, a political analyst was fired in 2020 for pointing out that rioting can backfire politically. Indeed, some Black Lives Matters activists even justify looting as a form of reparations.
  • Whereas the Hills insisted that the ultimate goal of the civil rights and labor movements was to further liberal democracy, and opposed those whom they identified as part of the “anti-democratic left,” today progressive students shout down speakers on campus and almost half of students in college say it is justifiable to block peers from attending a campus presentation that they view as offensive.
  • Finally, the Hills have been fundamentally optimistic about the promise of America. They acknowledge that the United States has serious racial problems but also argue that “it is in America where your rights to organize and confront those problems are protected.” By contrast, on today’s left, it is fashionable to say that America is defined by its racism, which is why the date on which enslaved people came to America is the country's "true founding."

In short, on large parts of the activist left, the Hills are losing. Today’s activists are the inheritors of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Farmer. Black Lives Matter has a larger megaphone than leaders such as Rev. William Barber or Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), who stand in the tradition of Randolph, Rustin, and Norman and Velma Hill. In the book, Velma Hill puts her finger on “the problem” with the Black Lives Matter movement: “there was no underling feeling about democracy” to undergird the work.

And yet despite it all, the Hills remain optimistic. In fact, they say they wrote the book in order to combat the “pessimism” they see among young people. They hope the book will “generate some real optimism and enthusiasm.”

This might seem surprising on the surface. The Hills faced far more virulent white racism than most if not all of today’s young activists will. For simply trying to integrate a beach, Velma Hill was stuck by a rock that left her unable to bear children. And despite having every reason to be bitter, she is not. How is that possible? Perhaps because she and Norman know than in an important period in history, they helped to forge a powerful alliance between labor unions and civil rights groups that changed the country forever—and could change it again.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is Director of the American Identity Project at the Progressive Policy Institute and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy and a member of the Albert Shanker board of directors.

This piece first appeared in the Liberal Patriot on May 21, 1014.

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