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In the Land of the Scrod


By Michael Lerner

"I'm sorry about the clothes," Noel Day apologized. "I had planned to look a little more congressional, but I've been out helping someone move all day."

From his manner it seemed very plausible that this bulky but graceful young Negro man--Dartmouth graduate, social worker, son of a middle-class Harlem school teacher--should be challenging Speaker of the House John McCormack for his seat from the Ninth Congressional District.

But the contest has the makings of a race as lopsided as Stuart Hughes's campaign against Ted Kennedy. Day has a magnetic manner and a good program of social reform working for him. The Ninth also holds more than half of the state's Negro population. But Negroes account for ony 12.8 percent of the District's voters. McCormack's is the most Irish of all American districts, with first or second generation immigrants alone accounting for 11.6 percent of the population. Well over 50 percent are descendents of the 19th century deluge.

Over 100,000 voters in 1962 voted for McCormack out of 167,000 who voted in the district. "This is a real candidacy," Day insists. "We're in the race to win. But our decisions in the campaign are not calculated to increase our vote. They are based on principle."

It is easy and logical to run a principled campaign when there is absolutely no hope--short of a change of heart by the Irish--for victory. Day has no reason to stop at half-promises, so his campaign buttons read: "Part of the Way with LBJ; the Rest of the Way with Noel Day."

His campaign proposals are equally sanguine: "Guarantee of a job or a decent income. $2 minimum wage for all workers. Legalization of rent strikes. Free college education to needy children. Free medical care for all citizens regardless of income."

Day views his candidacy as "part of a new process of political development" with manifestations as different as the Freedom Democratic Party in the South and the Hughes senatorial campaign in the North: both are groups which maintain that even in politics victory is not always won at the polls.

He says his own candidacy draws from both of these movements: "In a sense Hughes was the prophet of this kind of candidacy, and he had the burden that all prophets have. He was laughed at, and called a fool or fuzzy liberal."

From the freedom movement in the South, Day has drawn another element into his campaign: "I call it a new form of political power--the power we've been aware of ever since the sit-ins began four years ago. It is the power of personal witness. This is the kind of political power that the Negro freedom movement has begun to find in the street. Political power I would define as anything that moves institutions, affects or influences decisions, or brings about change."

Day hopes to harness the "new" form of political power with the traditional form structured on votes during the course of his campaign. To do this his staff set to work organizing and equipping two community centers, known as "action offices," in Negro sections of the district. The idea was that the offices would organize as part of his campaign drive, but stay on after the election was over to work for better living conditions in the neighborhoods. The staffs are concerned with health care, housing, dietary planning, and food pricing, among many other things.

Noel Day was born, not surprisingly, on Christmas of 1933. He grew up in Harlem and attended public schools. He went to Dartmouth, where he graduated in 1953 with an A.B. in psychology, and then went on to City College, where he earned an M.A. in chemistry by 1955. After a few years teaching mathematics and science in Harlem while spending his nights as a street gang worker for the New York Youth Board, Day started full-time social work in 1958.

Day's family moved, he remembers, between Taft and Eisenhower Republicanism. Day was not interested in politics himself until one day in 1960 when, in his capacity as program director for a settlement house in Brooklyn, he joined a picket line in front of a Woolworth store. The store was being picketed in conjunction with one of the first Southern sit-ins.

"It was a rainy cold day in late March. I was scared silly, I don't know why. I don't know what I was afraid of. My training from childhood had taught me that a middle-class Ivy League boy should be dignified and reserved, and here I was making a public spectacle of myself. There were no incidents. People just stared. I remember I began to feel terribly depressed whenever a Negro crossed the picket line and went into Wool-worths.

"I learned what 'action educates' means. In four years since that I've moved from being a faintly Republican, apolitical person to being a fairly political radical--an American radical. I probably wouldn't have, if I hadn't been on that picket line."

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