I met a man today. Not any old man, but a man who played a part in history. He looked ordinary enough, in his Bernie Sanders t-shirt, jeans held up with braces (oops, suspenders), and a logo’d baseball cap. Just another guy. Until the story started.
New Riverside Café
We were in a park by the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. It was the 49th reunion of folks (and I use the term advisedly) who had worked at the New Riverside Café, a cooperative venture established in the 1970s to serve up vegetarian fare, coffee, and great music to the people of the West Bank.
The Café collective was organized under the guidance of Episcopal priest and neighborhood activist, William Teska, with donations from the community. It opened in 1970 and quickly became a cornerstone of the counterculture community, a “living room” for the neighborhood. The first full-service vegetarian restaurant in Minneapolis, the Café offered food on a “pay-as-you-can” basis.
Himself was once part of it all.
I asked DZP how the whole cooperative movement had started. A simply enough question, I’d have thought, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the history lesson that his answer came wrapped in.
Summer of ’64
He took me back to the summer of 1964. Lots of things happened that summer. Alan Huffman writing for the International Business Times 50 years on made note of a few:
[…] the arrival of the Beatles in New York City […] the infamous disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi […] the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act and President […] the life sentence handed down against anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the addition of 5,000 U.S. “advisers” to Vietnam and the first bombing that August of north Vietnam.
But DZP took me to the state of Mississippi and the Jim Crow laws – state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. Everyone could register to vote if they passed a test on the Constitution. Some questions were harder than others with those administering the tests at liberty to suit the question to the taker. As a result, the voting register was remarkably white.
That summer, also known as Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Summer Project, about 800-1000, mainly white volunteers with various civil rights organisations from reputable East Coast and Mid-West schools, took on the challenge of increasing black voter registration in the State.
Bob Moses, Mississippi field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, proposed in autumn 1963 the idea of a voter registration project in his state. The Mississippi Summer Project received approval from several civil rights groups the following February, and leaders decided on initiatives including voter education and creation of Freedom Schools for black children.
They worked side by side with local activists, having met for two week’s orientation training at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.
It was during that second week that Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white New Yorkers, and James Chaney, a black activist from Mississippi disappeared while investigating a fire at a church set alight by the KKK. The lads had been at WCW for the first week and had left to see what had happened to the church, one that had been earmarked for one of the Freedom Schools planned for that summer. Their bodies would be discovered some six weeks later.
Fast forward a few decades to Alan Parker’s film Mississippi Burning and a whole new generation would discovered what happened that summer. The New York Times Wayne King wrote an interesting piece comparing fact with fiction back in 1988 when the film was released.
I had vague memories of it all, nothing more. DZP, I think, was a little disappointed at the shallowness of my knowledge of American history and asked if he was boring me. To the contrary. I was fascinated to be hearing about it from someone who’d actually been there.
There was more to it than voter registration and summer schools. That summer also saw the birth of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party set to take on the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
DZP was there for that, too.
Fannie Lou Harper testified in front of the Credentials Committee in an effort to show the racist side of the Mississippi delegation and to have the MFDP seated. Her testimony makes for harrowing listening. And this wasn’t so long ago.
By this stage, the nosee’ems were having a field day with my ankles and I was getting itchy feet (literally). I didn’t quite follow what happened next – there was something about Democratic party reps from North Dakota giving their credentials to the MFDP lot so that they could enter the room. and that took us from Atlantic City NJ to North Dakota and his Irish ancestry.
He told me the story of an Irish woman (originally from Co Down) with six kids turfing up in North Dakota having left behind a life in Ontario, I think he said. The Homestead Act was in place at the time whereby any head of household, aged 21 or more, could receive, free of charge, 160 acres of land provided they built a house on it and cultivated the land for five years.
The key here was head of household. This creative Irish lass got three lads from Ireland to swear she was a widow. She got the land. Built the house. And did her time. Years and years later, someone tracing the family tree discovered that her husband had been alive and well when she left him and her two eldest boys in Ontario. Oh the mystery of it all.
The Homestead Act is no longer in place but as of 2010, seven towns in the USA were giving away free land – modern-day homesteading.
So there you have it. A 30-minute chat in a park in Minneapolis with a man I’d never met before and one I’m unlikely to meet again, opened up parts of history to me that I’d never given much thought. The air was rife with the sweet smell of the seventies as a dozen or so of the old crew from the Riv reconnected and recounted their true dope tales.
I was still learning to my 6x tables when they were in their element, living as a community, making a difference.
The cafe was created as a business, but within a short time it did away with the hierarchical business structure and opted for a collective style of management. The result of this business model meant that starting in 1972, cafe revenue paid for all living expenses for members, including paying for members rent and food. In the first few years of the cafe, the majority of members were housed in one of three collectively owned houses in the West-Bank neighborhood. In order to provide a supplemental income for the establishment, the New Riverside Cafe also had several side businesses such as a moving company, a vegetarian catering company, and an auto repair business.
I’m grateful we were in the Twin Cities and made time to drop by. And I’m particularly thankful to the Universe for placing people in my path who open my mind to thoughts I might never think otherwise.
Mandy Mastrovita, writing for the blog of the Digital Library of Georgia: The 1964 Democratic National Convention and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party