David Rothenberg, EFC ’53, author of Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion, recently shared his recollections about his life-changing Encampment experience. It was an inspiring history lesson about the role of the Encampment before the more well-known stories in the struggle for civil rights in the US.
When you meet people and you care about them, and then you can’t sit in a restaurant together, it becomes an issue for you. I can argue about democracy and what’s fair, but it comes down to I have an investment in people I love. A passion for justice is ignited through this in-depth experience.
What topic did you spend the most time on at the Encampment?
Civil rights. . . this was the 50s and the notion of civil rights was on our minds even if not on the rest of white America’s. We had inspiring speakers that particularly stand out for me: Judge Julius Waring1 and Josh White2. This was my first real experience of being close to black kids. The nation was essentially segregated. I had a sense that was intrinsically wrong and I had participated in summer sit-ins in DC with Students for Democratic Action. But the Encampment gave me an in-depth experience of living and learning with people of other races. We became close in a special way that has remained with me all these years. I made friends there that 60 years later, the conversation just picks up wherever it left off last—like Glory Van Scott, who later became a Katherine Dunham dancer.
What did you learn at the Encampment?
One person can make a difference! This was really emphasized. If you remain silent you won’t have any impact. But if you speak up, other people will listen. Years later, I founded the Fortune Society, a self-help program that works with formerly incarcerated men, women and youths who have had trouble with the law. I had a successful career in the theatre when I produced an off-Broadway prison drama “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” Preparing for the play, I joined the actors for a visit to a city jail. That first visit told me the prisons were an exercise in institutional futility. I later learned that released prisoners were muted, unable to speak about their experiences because it would eliminate their job and housing possibilities.
Fortune Society began in my small theatre office with a handful of volunteers, mostly formerly incarcerated men and women. Today we have a staff of over 150 and it is the most formidable organization in the nation dealing with re-entry. Over the years, I have acknowledged what Fortune gained from my summer with EFC. It gave me the tools and the confidence to fight societal shibboleths. That summer was a starting point for me and an opportunity to find my own voice.
What field trips do you remember?
I have a picture right here of me standing next to Eleanor Roosevelt. She had just come back from the USSR so the NY Times was there. I was thrilled to meet her. She is one of my first political heroes. The entire group went to Wall Street one day—an unusual occurrence for Wall Street! We were of course a mixed group and we were very conscious of how we were perceived, of being stared at. You just didn’t see a gang of mixed-race kids. We also went to places where I felt very much at home in this mixed family. Greenwich Village (where I later decided to live), Lewisohn Stadium3 in Harlem, that’s where we had social times. We had to be selective where we went. A group of us talked about the Encampment on the Buddy Bowser and Sarah Harris radio show on WLIB4.
What is your favorite story, or memory, from the Encampment?
After we had a speaker, we would gather on the lawn and break up into discussion groups. I loved it— it was stimulating and emotionally satisfying. I was bored through high school. There was no challenge and teachers discouraged questions. They viewed them as disruptive. We talked about the history of political parties. EFC encouraged questions and analysis. We had wonderful speakers that I mentioned earlier. I can still feel the sense of it after 60 years. It was only 6 weeks and I am still clear that it was an important ingredient in my education and who I am. We couldn’t bear to part at the end so we all went to my parents’ house in Teaneck NJ. They were away but came home to find 20 kids all over the living room. My parents were cool because everyone was so great! There was no drinking—we just wanted to stay together.
Another great outcome is that I got to go to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico because I met a Navajo youth at the Encampment. He invited me and I stayed for the weekend and witnessed a dance ritual with the family. It was wonderful! How many Jewish kids from NJ end up as a welcome guest that way?
David, you lead a very busy life. What are you up to now?
I’m very much involved with the Fortune Society. For instance, I’m going down to “The Castle” this evening for the regular Thursday meeting. I have my radio show on WBAI “Any Saturday” every week (http://wbai.org/). In April, “The Castle”—a play I co-authored—is playing in several locations in the New York area. I participate in a large extended family and community of friends that I love.
1Judge Julius Waites Waring: A US federal judge who played an important role in the early legal battles of the American Civil Rights Movement. After divorcing his first wife and marrying the Northern socialite Elizabeth Waring (born Elizabeth Avery), Judge Waring quickly transitioned from a racial moderate to a proponent of radical change.
2Josh White: A singer/songwriter/civil rights activist who influenced many others. When the Associated Press interviewed Harry Belafonte following White’s passing, Belafonte said, “I can’t tell you how sad I am. I spent many, many hours with him in the years of my early development. He had a profound influence on my style. At the time I came along, he was the only popular black folk singer, and through his artistry exposed America to a wealth of material about the life and conditions of black people that had not been sung by any other artist.”
3WLIB: Also known as Harlem Radio Center; had studios in the Hotel Theresa, a center for the social life of the black community of Harlem. Many famous people of color, including Fidel Castro when he appeared at the UN, stayed at the Hotel Theresa because prestigious hotels elsewhere in the city refused to accept black guests.
4Lewisohn Stadium: Besides sporting events, the stadium was used for performances by Ella Fitzgerald, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philarmonic, Marian Anderson, Eugene Ormandy, Pete Seeger, Leontyne Price, Yehudi Menuhin, and many more.