When Ernest Thompson moved to Orange, New Jersey, it was under protest. As an organizer for the militant international union, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), and organizational director of the National Negro Labor Council, Ernest (known affectionately as Ernie, Home, Homeboy, and Big Train) was part of powerful new movements fighting for rights for workers, women and minorities. But by 1956, pressure from the McCarthyite government and hostile white trade unionists had decimated these organizations. Ernie found himself in what he called “a dirty little Jim Crow town going nowhere,” and he was profoundly depressed. His wife Maggie insisted that he start organizing again, beginning with fighting to desegregate local schools. After winning that fight, Ernie threw himself into serving the community, crusading for education reform, establishing a platform for Black representation in local government, and nurturing several generations of leadership.
Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People’s Power is Ernest’s tale of his life in organizing, written with his daughter, New School professor Mindy Thompson Fullilove. First published in 1976, a new edition of the Homeboy Came to Orange was released by New Village Press last year, and features a new foreword and postscript, as well as an afterword by Ernie’s granddaughter, journalist and organizer Molly Rose Kaufman.
Professor Fullilove spoke with Public Seminar editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham about telling Ernest’s story, and what his achievements mean today.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham [ERG]: What prompted the new edition of Homeboy Came to Orange?
Mindy Thompson Fullilove [MTF]: Homeboy Came to Orange is one of three books we’ve suggested that people read in preparation for the observance of 400 Years of Inequality. We wanted the book to have a fresh and appealing look for this new audience.
[ERG]: Homeboy Came to Orange is a masterclass on coalition, and depicts collaborations of all shapes and sizes. What was the collaboration between you and your dad like in working on the book?
[MTF]: The collaboration was rocky in the beginning, as the concepts were way above my head and my dad was impatient with explaining it all to me. Learning about the National Negro Labor Council was a turning point, as I was able to dig into the story, interview his colleagues, and appreciate the extraordinary work he had done. By the end, we were great collaborators.
[ERG]: Returning to the book now, has anything changed in how you read the story? Passages that stand out to you with new significance?
[MTF]: Stories that I told in a paragraph or two encapsulated months or years of the grinding work of organizing. What I understand better are the many hours my dad spent staring off into space, trying to decipher the big picture and decide what to do next.
[ERG]: While the significance of Homeboy Came to Orange has national scope, its story is firmly local. Challenges and achievements are interlocked, while the alliances between friends and neighbors develop across chapters, and come into play throughout the years. What has the community response been to this new edition?
[MTF]: Community response has been very warm. One organizer said to Dominic Moulden, who wrote the new foreword, “Homeboy is the perfect book for organizers to read.”
[ERG]: One of the lessons of Homeboy Came to Orange is the relationships Ernie fostered with younger members of the community, and his emphasis on “building a bridge” for the next generation move forward on. And his book is itself a resource to future activists, as your daughter Molly Rose Kaufman highlights in this edition’s afterword. What advice do you think Ernie, with his astute eye for the big picture, would offer to the young (and not-so-young) people who are taking up the mantle of organizing and leadership in the U.S. right now?
[MTF]: We did not avoid the traps of separatism that he saw then, and therefore the “least of these” are much worse off than they were in the nineteen-seventies. Ernie would say, “Organize with a preference for the poor and working people. Build coalition. Throw the moneylenders out of the temple.”
The following passage is taken from Chapter 27: “Pure Coalition at Last,” in which Ernest (“Home”) facilitates a 1970 coalition between Ben Jones, Orange’s first Black councilman, and white ally Tom Kelly, in response to city officials’ vote to overturn mayor-council government and revert to an archaic and corrupt commission form forcing council candidates to run citywide rather than local campaigns.
It was a tough campaign, and there were many problems. Home was very ill and couldn’t get around to check on organization. Literature was late; one piece couldn’t be used because of a printing error. Money was scarce. Where other candidates were running campaigns on as much as $25,000, Ben and Tom had only a few thousand between them. But they stretched their funds, corrected their mistakes, and kept the campaign moving.
It became clear that if any Black person could break through citywide, it was Ben. His record was outstanding and far surpassed that of any other candidate. And he had a strong, open coalition working for him in all wards.
Election day came. Home went to the doctor that morning with severe pain and was told to go into the hospital immediately. “Don’t even go home for your things.”
Home protested, “But I didn’t vote yet.”
The doctor shook his head. “If you vote, it may cost you your life.”
The election results showed Ben tied with Quincy Lucarello for the fifth and last spot on the commission. When the news was brought to him in the intensive care unit, Home was even sicker to hear that his candidate hadn’t won because of the vote he hadn’t cast.
When the absentee ballots were counted, Lucarello came in ten votes ahead. It looked certain that Ben had lost. Kelly, Ben’s partner in coalition, had gone down to defeat. People gathered at Doc’s to discuss what could be done. One thing was sure – there had to be a recount. There was a feeling that the election had somehow been stolen.
Many were convinced that the recount would reveal the stolen votes in one of the white wards, but Rudy Thomas said, “I think we have to look in our own ward. That First District doesn’t measure up to what it’s been in any past election.”
On recount day, Ben was checking the machines ward by ward – South, West, East… The woman reading the figures on the First District machine called out, “12A, Ben Jones, 177.” The prior figure had been 77.
Ben gasped. Rudy jumped up and down, yelling, “Hold it, hold it, hold it!” He pounded on the table, “Don’t you see?” he cried. “That’s it, that’s the election! Ben won!”
Not only had Ben won, but he moved into fourth place. The lost votes were right where Rudy had predicted they would be.
The final results showed that the people of the city wanted to move forward, not backward.
Ben had been victorious. Although Kelly had lost, credit for Ben’s victory went to Tom and his committee for carrying the message of coalition to the white voters.
Shain, the first Jew elected in Orange, had won – and the support of the Jones-Kelly coalition had been decisive in the outcome.
Harry Callaghan and Carmine Capone, who had been in favor of retaining mayor-council form, were victorious.
Only one candidate who favored reverting to the commission, John Trezza, got into office.
The result was a fairly representative government – far better than any previous commission.
When the commission met to organize, Ben fought for Kelly to become city attorney and also threw his weight behind Shain for mayor. He was successful on both counts. Ben became Commissioner of Parks and Public Property, in charge of whole areas of programming that would vitally affect the Black community.
The oldest racist political tradition – that a Black person could not be elected to office in a citywide election where Blacks were a minority – had been shattered in Orange.
Dr. Mindy Fullilove is a professor of Urban Health and Policy at The New School and the author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It.