Downtown CORE

The history of Downtown CORE, among other things, speaks to the dangers specifically faced by the White members in CORE and the larger Civil Rights movement.

This was the chapter that Mickey and Rita Schwerner (both White) belonged to. It became the chapter for the Freedom Rider Betsy Wyckoff (White). It also became the chapter for such older noted activists as Murray Bookchin (White) and Igal Roodenko (White), a veteran of the Journey of Reconciliation. Their presence has much to do with the nature of the Lower East Side (L.E.S.). A ghetto made up of poor ethnic Whites, Blacks and Puerto Ricans, the LES was then a haven for left of center politics and culture and known as the home of jazz artists and radical activists.

The chapter was formed in March of 1963. Because of concerns over there being too many chapters in any given geographic area such as Manhattan, it was at first suggested it should be a unit of New York CORE. The office was at 64-66 Delancey street. Meetings were held at the Tompkins Square Peace Center (515 east 11th street).

The fact so many women were leaders distinguished Downtown CORE from other NYC chapters, beginning with Elizabeth King (Black) as chairman and Joan Reynolds as vice chairman. Other officers included Iris Davison, Roy Barker and Ellen Larson. By mid-summer, the chapter reported having twenty active and thirty five associates members.

First Demos
The chapter picketed at a Howard Johnsons motel with the Chelsea NAACP and at New York CORE's Harlem Hospital demonstration. The chapter’s first campaign to get them noticed was its demonstration at the Rutgers Houses, part of the summer of 1963 CORE campaigns against the all White building trade unions. On July 13, 1963, seven were arrested while attempting to block concrete trucks from entering the work area. With the exception of Bob Gore from national CORE, all those arrested were White: Lisa Henri, Walter Flesch, Harold Kerster, Rita and Mickey Schwerner. Also arrested was 66 years old Samuel H. Friedman, a former socialist candidate for Vice President.

According to Rita Schwerner: ‘Those who pled not guilty were given sentences of 60 days, those who pled guilty, but refused to say we wouldn't do it again, got 30 days. Women to the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village, men to Rikers. We were released on appeal after about 3 days. The sentences were overturned on appeal about 2 years later, but the disorderly conduct convictions were not dismissed.’

A second group was arrested on August 1 for darting 'into the path of trucks that were delivering construction material. Some of them sat in front of and under the wheels of the trucks and others sat in front of the gate leading to the house itself.' Those arrested were: Helena L. Levine, Sara E. Penn, Barbara Pliskow (White), Edward M. Pitt, Benita T. Cannon, Claudio Ramos, Thomas McKenna, Meryl Chatkin, Isidore T. Bloom, David Rivera and Saul Gottlieb. All were convicted of disorderly conduct and sentenced to five days or a $25 fine. Levine, Pliskow and Cannon refused to pay and served their time at the Woman's House of Detention. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court which refused to review it.

Party Time... Excellent...
By the time of the March on Washington, the chapter reported that at least forty two members had been arrested, including member Jules Older. Downtown CORE sent a group down like every other NYC chapter. Among this group (believed to have been organized by Joan Reynolds and Lisa Henry) were: Judy Bundy (Black), Dave Licorice, Larry (Black) and Judy (White) Rhodell and Rita Schwerner. Mickey Schwerner organized a bus for kids from Hamilton-Madison Houses where he was a social worker. The fact the bus was paid for with money he may have borrowed from his parents was something Schwerner kept to himself at the time.

Jazz artists performing at fundraising benefits for NYC CORE chapters was nothing unusual. Downtown CORE’s event at the legendary jazz club the Five Spot on October 20 and 27, 1963 was especially notable. The musicians scheduled to perform included: Billy Taylor on piano, Roy Haynes on drums, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Ron Carter on bass, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutchinson and Joe Chambers, among others.

The chapter did not support the Stall-In but instead demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair. Erskine Keary and Igal Roodenko were arrested. So was Murray Bookchin who stated in an interview he was at the Florida Pavilion and spent almost a week locked up.

I'll House You
Much of the chapter’s energy went into tenant organizing. ‘Operation East Side‘ was one such attempt ‘to survey needs and give assistance’ as part of its campaign attacking poverty on the LES. It was already working closely with NYU CORE picketing landlords, doing inspections for housing violations and demanding enforcement of the housing laws, especially on Eldridge street, a block in the heart of the L.E.S. The work they did with NYU CORE led to the start of the rent strike movement that exploded in the city during the mid to late 1960's.

On May 27, 1964 the New York Times reported nine members were arrested for blocking doors to the NYC Building Department for 2 ½ hours and chanting ‘slumlords must go’. Marianthe Siderelis, Erskine Keary, Patricia Newman, Sandra Rodriguez, Kay Reitzen, Richard Redman, Barbara Reiner and Joan Liftin, all in their late teens to early twenties, were charged with disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly and intrusion on real property. The demonstration to protest LES housing conditions was led by William 'Chris' Sprowal (Black), then chairman. He and Steve Gordon were also among a group arrested and charged on May 29 with loitering in the vicinity of a public school where they were handing out CORE fliers to high school students.

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