Rarely do I meet an idea that I don’t like. I might not entertain each and every one in the front room, but usually I will permit a passing idea to at least sit for a while on the back porch, and I will try to patiently listen even if I don’t always agree. I had to remind myself of this when I received this recent E-mail to the editor from a retired TWA pilot living in Brick Township:
“Regarding the story of the passing of Rosa Parks, I noticed a few glaring omissions about her life.
“Although it was a courageous act to refuse to sit in the back of the bus as she was ordered to do, this was not a spontaneous act on her part, and a closer look at history will tell the full story, which unfortunately does not meet the ‘politically correct’ criteria for today’s news.
“Rosa Parks was the secretary of the local NAACP. In August of 1955, (four months before the bus incident) Parks attended the Highlander Folk School in Mount Eagle, Tennessee. This school was started in 1932 by Myles Horton and James Dombrowski, both members of the Communist Party. The school’s original purpose was to train Communists activists on how to promote textile strikes and hold protest marches.
“The Textile Workers Union then was completely controlled by the Communist Party. Parks attended summer training at the Highlander Folk school in 1955, 1956 and 1957. She is pictured with Martin Luther King sitting on the front row in a Highlander training class on September 2, 1957. The story that she was just a ‘poor tired black seamstress’ when she sat in the front of the bus is a complete lie.”
My first reaction was so what. So what if Rosa Parks consorted with communists? So what if she planned days or weeks in advance to challenge the bus seating policy? The bottom line was that she and millions of other Americans were being treated separately and unequally. Why even print a letter that argued a point so far away from that bottom line? But then Ruth Rabstein Pellettieri, the longtime lawyer, died at the age of 92. In reading her obituary, I saw the light that made everything fall into place. Here’s the connection:
Back in 1948 six black Trenton men were charged with the brutal slaying of a junk shop owner on North Broad Street. The police had confessions, the prosecutor got a conviction from the all-white jury, and the judge imposed the death sentence on all six men.
But the evidence was fraught with inconsistencies (one of the accused had an arm amputated eight days before the crime; but no eyewitnesses ever mentioned a one-armed man). The sister of one defendant — another seamstress, wouldn’t you know it — petitioned Trenton’s NAACP for assistance. When the NAACP declined to help (apparently seeing no hope for a better outcome), this seamstress turned to the Communist Party, which began cranking out publicity that made the case of the “Trenton Six” a popular cause around the world.
After the state supreme court overturned the convictions, the Trenton Six got a new trial with an aggressive defense team headed by Trenton labor lawyer George Pellettieri and his young assistant, a trailblazing woman, Ruth Rabstein. They won acquittals for four of the six defendants; the other two were found guilty, but this all-white jury recommended mercy, not death.
Pellettieri and Rabstein eventually married, and their firm became prominent for its representation of working men and women and organized labor. Rabstein founded the Mercer County Women’s Law Caucus and held meetings at her house.
During the trial of the Trenton Six she and Pellettieri put the communist support on the back burner. “We thought we had the chance to save the lives of some innocent people,” Rabstein said in an interview six years ago with the Trentonian newspaper. “The communists were diverting attention to make their own political points.”
Later, when the heir apparent to their firm, George Pellettieri Jr., died at an early age, and her husband, George Sr., was in failing health, Rabstein engineered the hiring of Richard Altman, a young county prosecutor, to take over management. Pellettieri, Rabstein, and Altman now has more than 30 lawyers, 100 staffers, and offices in Nassau Park as well as Mount Holly.
“She was an astute businesswoman,” remembers Anne McHugh, a lawyer with the firm since 1980. “George was the spokesperson for the firm; she was the brains.”
I put in a phone call to Ed Toner, author of the E-mail with the contrarian view of Rosa Parks. A pleasant enough retiree, Toner reminisced about race relations in the 1950s, when he took his first trip into the deep south as a military man. When the train hit Virginia, he recalled, all the blacks moved into the rear seats. If the tables were turned, I asked, and he had to move to the rear of the train, would he be resentful? “You bet,” he replied.
Toner’s beef seemed to be much more with communism than with civil rights. I’ll bet that if Toner considered Rabstein’s work with the Trenton Six, he might come to a different conclusion about the seamstress in that case. But I decided not to pursue the subject — this discussion had its airing on the back porch, and it was time to move on.