Time Capsule: An Aging Norman Thomas Places Socialist on New York City Ballot in 1963

aging norman thomasStill battling the two-headed Goliath, an aging Norman M. Thomas — a six-time candidate for the presidency on the Socialist Party ticket — filed nominating petitions to place the name of Richard F. Parrish, the Socialist Party’s candidate for councilman at-large in Manhattan, on the New York City ballot on this day in 1963.

Thomas, who had stopped reaching for the biggest prize of all some fifteen years earlier, and his longtime friend and associate A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had personally recruited Parrish, a black special education instructor and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, to run for city council earlier that year.

Suffering from crippling arthritis and aided by a cane, the 78-year-old Thomas and the only slightly younger Randolph personally filed nominating petitions bearing an impressive 8,073 signatures — 5,000 were needed — placing Parrish’s name on the November ballot. Several newspaper reporters were on hand as Thomas and Randolph turned in stacks and stacks of signed petitions.

Thomas was delighted. After an eleven-year hiatus, his party — a party that he had led through thick and thin, through good times and bad, for nearly four decades — was once again on the ballot in New York City.

The little-remembered Parrish didn’t let him down.

A graduate of the City College of New York, the 47-year-old Parrish was long active in the civil rights movement and was a leader of the Community Teachers Association, a group founded in 1956 which sought to eliminate racial discrimination in the city’s various teachers’ organizations. He was later active in the National Afro-American Labor Council.

With the venerable Thomas serving in the role of senior advisor, Parrish campaigned on a solid working-class platform that autumn, calling for an income tax to replace the city’s regressive sales tax and sharply criticizing the New York City Board of Education for dragging its feet in integrating the city’s public schools. He also warned of a potentially “revolutionary situation” in Manhattan as a result of widespread poverty, something America was just beginning to come to grips with, thanks in no small measure to celebrated writer Michael Harrington, “the man who discovered poverty” and influenced a President, and Norman Thomas himself — a kind and generous soul who had worked closely with impoverished immigrants in the slum-ridden Lower East Side long before Harrington was born.

One of three African-Americans running for at-large council seats in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, Parrish — the first Socialist Party candidate to appear on the ballot in New York City since former Pennsylvania state lawmaker Darlington Hoopes’ forlorn candidacy for the White House in 1952 — waged a vigorous campaign, garnering a respectable 8,317 votes, or 2.5 percent.

Despite a spirited effort, Thomas’ candidate finished dead last in the four-cornered race. It was familiar territory for the saint-like Thomas, the nation’s most persistent idealist who watched helplessly on election night as his comrade fell farther and farther behind Democrat Paul O’Dwyer, brother of former New York City mayor William O’Dwyer, Republican Richard S. Aldrich, a cousin of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and the Liberal Party’s Amos S. Basel.

It was yet one more small defeat in a lifetime of much greater victories, many of which he saw come to fruition in the final years of his life.

Excerpted from Darcy G. Richardson’s forthcoming title, “The Lowest Ebb: Norman Thomas and America’s Minor Parties in 1944,” available from Amazon on November 3rd.

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