Questions surround student activism fifty-two years later

Next week will mark the fifty-second anniversary of what was arguably the most famous period of civil rights organizing in Chester, Pennsylvania: several days in which activists — including students from the college — engaged in acts of civil disobedience to protest segregation in Chester’s Franklin Elementary School. Beginning on November 4, 1963, students associated with Students for a Democratic Society joined forces with the Committee for Freedom Now and its leader Stanley Branche, facing beatings and arrests in order to voice their opposition to the chronic overcrowding, deteriorating facilities, and lack of resources that plagued segregated schools in Chester. More than half a century later, however, the benefits of this period of activism and the work of the CFFN remain heavily contentious among historians and Chesterites alike, raising questions about the extent to which students from the college may have been duped into forwarding the agenda of a corrupt and self-interested Civil Rights leader.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Swarthmore students who were in SDS would be involved with Stanley Branche,” explained Dr. John McLarnon III, Associate Professor of History at Millersville College, whose book Ruling Suburbia: John J. McClure and the Republican Machine in Delaware County, Pennsylvania chronicles the political history of the area. “He was the kind of guy that could easily take in and convince relatively young, idealistic college kids to commit to his cause. He went out to Swarthmore a couple times, and he would go out to other college campuses, and he was a marvelous speaker and made it seem like he was the guy that was going to change everything. Most of it was hot air as far as his commitment.”

According to McLarnon, Branche came to Chester in early 1963 following a summer of activist work in Cambridge, Maryland. In Chester, he quickly established a name for himself after volunteering to help George Raymond, the president of the Chester Chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People at the time, in his campaign to desegregate Chester schools. Though Raymond had made some progress in legal battles with the Board of Education — most notably establishing a busing system that would facilitate integration beginning in 1964 — Branche wanted more outspoken, newsworthy activism. When he could not get support from the NAACP, he formed his own organization, the CFFN.

“This position was all a game for him,” McLarnon said. “He could scream and yell, and I think at some level he had the best interests of the black community at heart, but he believed in doing well before doing good. He was the original Music Man. Branche was wherever the news was being made or news could be made. He only really cared about growing his reputation and moved from city to city, from Cambridge, to Chester, to Philadelphia, following the march and claiming to lead it.”

In the fall of 1963, students from the college’s chapter of SDS decided — albeit unknowingly — to follow in Branche’s footsteps, moving their activism from Cambridge to Chester after having spent the summer working with the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee.

“In September, two of us were driving through Chester, Pennsylvania, on the way home from an SDS convention, and after the summer in Cambridge we looked upon the situation somewhat differently than we had previously,” wrote Carl Wittman ’64 in a 1963 report compiled for the SDS national office entitled “Students and Economic Action.” “Aren’t these really the same people we were working with this summer? Why, then, shouldn’t we shift our activities here only two miles from Swarthmore?”

Wittman explained that despite struggling at first to gain an entry into Chester’s activist community, students from SDS were able to establish connections to the NAACP in Chester through a former Sharples employee who had quit due to “degrading” working conditions and gone on to lead the association’s Youth Chapter. Nevertheless, Wittman noted that students from the college were somewhat disappointed with what he described as the chapter’s “non-action orientation.” Instead of legal battles led by older, middle-class activists, SDS members sought more direct action, and were thus far more attracted to the aims of Branche and the CFFN.

“In the past year, the chief force for change in the city has been the Committee for Freedom Now, a militant civil rights group led by an extremely effective mass leader, Stanley Branche,” Wittman explained at the time. “He sees the solution to the Negro’s problems in Chester chiefly in terms of ending discrimination, and doesn’t agree with stress on more basic structural and economic changes.”

In October 1963, when Branche — following Raymonde’s lead — announced that segregation in schools was the issue of most vital concern to the black community, and that it was time to take direct action to affect change, students from the college were quick to join the cause.

“They didn’t need to be recruited because they already believed that the issues were incredibly important,” explained Thompson Bradley, Professor Emeritus of Russian at the college, who was involved in activist work in Chester during the 1960s. “Swarthmore was a very politically and socially active campus with a very active student body. The students voluntarily went there. They wanted to be part of it.”

On a national level, Chester began to figure prominently in the Civil Rights movement, inspiring visits from famed activists such as Gloria Richardson and Malcolm X, which served to bolster Branche’s fame. According to McLarnon, students at the college were attracted to the action-oriented aspects of Branche’s reputation because his uncompromising demands for integration represented a marked contrast from the more demure tactics of Raymond and the NAACP.

“Chester was the Birmingham of the North,” McLarnon explained. “Chester was a terribly segregated city during the war years, and despite state laws, which made segregation illegal in public education, by manipulating district lines, Chester politicians created what was basically de facto segregation. Branche made it seem like he could really do something about it.”

Branche focused his efforts primarily on the Franklin Elementary School because it epitomized the inequities of the segregated educational facilities that existed throughout the city.  Though the Franklin Elementary School was built for only 500 students, more than 1200 students were enrolled in the fall of 1963, expanding the school’s average class size to 39 students — almost double that of the nearest white school. Further, the school’s building had not been updated once since its construction in 1910, and only two bathrooms served the entire facility.

When members of SDS became aware of these conditions through conversations with parents of children at the school, they were moved to action. In early November 1963, students at the college co-authored a statement to the Board of Education with CFFN and Chester parents, listing the changes they expected to be made in the Chester school system.

“We demand improved school facilities for all of Chester,” wrote SDS members Larry Gordon ‘67 and Vernon Grizzard ‘66 in an update sent to SDS headquarters. “1. There must be equal facilities for Negro and white students. 2. The faculty, administration, and classes of each school must be integrated. 3. The school board and administration of each school must agree to deal with committees in each school made up equally of parents and students in all questions concerning the school. 4. There must be a city-wide average class size of 26 pupils. 5. Existing school buildings and other facilities must be repaired and improved. 6. There must be more money allocated per child to each school. 7. Catholic and other private schools in the city must be integrated.”

On November 4, 1963, a group of 20 protesters made up of parents, members of CFFN, and students from the college set up a picket line around Franklin Elementary, demanding that their requests be responded to within a week. Each day that passed without a response from the Board of Education incited an increase in protesters, and within days, the number of picketers swelled to 150. On the night of November 10 — the last possible opportunity for the Board to respond to the protesters’ demands — Stanley Branche and the CFFN decided that if no response was given, the group would escalate its tactics, blockading the school in order to prevent anyone’s entry.

“The blockade closed the school,” Wittman wrote. “Four hundred people participated. When the closing was made official at 9:30 A.M., the demonstrators marched through the streets to the center of town. Arriving at City Hall, 150 entered the Mayor’s chambers and presented their complaints to the commissioners. They were told that the letter never arrived and that the Mayor and the City Council had no control over the Board of Education.”

According to Wittman, the following day, protesters once again blockaded the school,

while others followed Branche to the Board of Education and blocked the doors to the Board’s offices. The protesters from both sites then converged on the municipal building where they sang and prayed inside of the building, preventing anyone from entering or leaving.

“Eventually paddy wagons were backed up to a side door,” Wittman wrote. “The demonstrators had locked arms. The police pulled them apart and dragged them down the stairs to the waiting vans. Three hours later, 158 had been arrested.”

Fifty of the 158 arrested were students from the college. These students — along with the other activists — had been accused of trespassing and under threat of arrest stood their ground. Many of the 50 students were beaten by police, and all 50 detained with bail of upwards of $200 against them. Though Bradley was not yet directly involved in Chester activism at this point, he explained that several of his students had come to him explaining what had occurred, worried about their detained comrades.

“During the protest, a number of Swarthmore students who were with members of the NAACP and the Chester Committee for Freedom Now got arrested,” Bradley explained. “They were put in a kind of pen or garage in Media because there wasn’t enough space for them in the Chester jails.”

While members of SDS viewed their involvement romantically, administrators from the college found the illegality of their civil disobedience to be inappropriate and threatened further disciplinary consequences.

“The student activity in Chester was seen as somewhat rabble-rousing and incendiary,” explained Maurice Eldridge ’61, Vice President for College and Community Relations at the college. “I graduated in ’61, and in the years after that, activism grew, and some people regarded it as a good thing and some people regarded it as disruptive. President [Courtney] Smith was supportive of the students’ rights to demonstrate, but some people wanted to have disciplinary consequences.”

According to a historical chronicle of Smith’s presidency, entitled Dignity, Discourse, and Destiny, in the aftermath of the protest, the Deans’ Office issued a statement to the students, which read, “There are important differences between socially responsible procedures and those which are violent or tend to lead to violence.” Students who had “broken the law” in Chester were warned that they would face discipline on campus in addition to potential further action from legal authorities. Faculty and students alike heavily protested this stance, however, rendering the threats futile.

Though the Board of Education responded to some demands made by the Chester protesters — most notably the refurbishment and expansion of the restroom facilities at Franklin Elementary — the concessions were minimal. The most notable response in the aftermath of the November organizing was the city’s crackdown on all forms of Civil Rights activism in Chester regardless of whether or not they were organized by the CFFN or Chester parents.

“After being caught unawares in the November, 1963, demonstrations about Franklin school, and thus being forced to grant a few minor concessions, the city reacted to the movement with brutal repression and no concessions,” Wittman wrote to SDS in the aftermath of the protests. “Dozens of people were beaten, and five weeks of people in the streets could not force the school board to meet with CFFN.”

According to McLarnon, many, including the national leadership of the NAACP, thought that despite the publicity it garnered, the activism undertaken by Branche and the CFFN had actually served to derail the progress of civil rights in Chester.

“It wasn’t clear if Branche was doing more harm than good,” McLarnon said. “Branche wound up leading a bunch of college kids in the marches in Downtown Chester. It got very, very nasty down there with state police and city police beating the heads of demonstrating students, and when that happened, Stanley really lost all control. The Mayor Jim Gorby hated him, and George Raymond was getting really frustrated.”

McLarnon explained that in the late 1990s, while he was writing his book on Delaware County, he interviewed Raymond who viewed the events of the fall of 1963 as the decline of the possibility for meaningful desegregation in Chester.

“George Raymond carried on this kind of low profile,” McLarnon explained. “Raymond had never lost a court case until Swarthmore students started showing up to support them, showing up at their courthouses with their signs and protests and pissing off the judges. That’s when George started losing court cases. George told me this in his eighties, and he told me he would have been much better off without this kind of help, but the students didn’t know any better because they were under Stanley Branche and Swarthmore students get caught up in this thinking they’re doing the black community a big favor when all they’re doing is screwing up a campaign that George Raymond was with for years.”

According to McLarnon, however, Branche’s stay in Chester was short-lived. By 1965, he had moved to Philadelphia where he left civil rights organizing entirely and turned to business, operating several night clubs, a security firm, a cab company and a shoe repair chain. In 1989, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in Federal prison for participating in a drug ring and extortion scene run by an Italian mob boss — Nicodimo Scarfo — in North Philadelphia. Following his departure from Chester, several Chesterites began writing to the NAACP expressing their fear that Branche had been paid off by the reigning Republican political machine in the city in order to prevent progress amongst local activists.

“A lot of people thought Stanley Branche was a political plant in Chester,” McLarnon explained. “From the NAACP archive, I found letters from very respected members of Chester’s black community during that time alleging that Stanley Branche was a plant married to a woman whose uncle was a member of the machine, and who ran the rackets in the black community in the neighborhood of Bethel Court. A lot of people thought that Branche had been brought to Chester by the machine to get people out in the street, the final result being to whip up white anger against the black community.”

According to McLarnon, however, one had to be deeply rooted in Chester politics in order to pick up on what was going on. Branche was capable of convincing anyone that his cause was just and that he had the interests of the Chester community at heart in a way that might have seemed incredibly compelling to a socially conscious college student.

“Branche just announced that there would be strikes at this school or that school and come into downtown Chester, and the Swarthmore students would follow,” McLarnon explained. “The Swarthmore students — like college students anywhere — were at their idealistic best. You still think that you can really make a difference and you’re willing to do things.”

Bradley, who never met Branche, agreed, adding that morally complex personas were not atypical of meaningful activist work.

“You could see the heart of the man as he spoke and what attracted other people to him, but these are the unexpected and melancholy histories of the arc of people’s lives,” Bradley said. “Very few of them were as principled as say Jesse Jackson. Not everybody could stay the course in that way and not everybody did. That’s also what happened with SDS – some members of the group essentially just fell apart under the pressure.”

Nevertheless, Bradley explained that such narratives by no means discounted the work that students from the college played in politics during this period both on the local as well as national level. He describes members of the college’s chapter of SDS as an immensely civically conscious group who always intended to develop meaningful linkages with the communities with whom they worked. For all involved, the best part of the work in Chester was developing close relationships with their activist “comrades” there.

Wittman summed this attitude up in a report to SDS headquarters in late October, 1963, just prior to the start of the Franklin School protests.

“We do not bank on tendencies or presume that we are an elite waiting for the masses,” Wittman said. “We are people and we work with people. Only if conscious cooperative practice is our main style, will our ideology take on the right details…The meaningful participation in politics, the moral reconstruction that comes from cooperation in positive work and the forms which involve in this struggle may be the main social basis for a democratic America.”

 

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