Rosemary Neidenberg: a century of revolutionary struggle

Rosemary Neidenberg (center) and Mae Mallory (right) petitioning in Cleveland. Thanks to Paula Marie Seniors for sharing this historic photo.

Rosemary Neidenberg died in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 29 at the age of 99. For almost a century, her commitment to the revolutionary liberation of humanity never faltered. She was also one of the kindest, funniest, most thoughtful and hardworking people I ever knew. 

Comrade Rosie was born just three years after the Russian Revolution and lived through most of the major events of the 20th century. Through the decades, she was also at the center of building an independent Marxist current in the belly of U.S. imperialism, from the harshest days of the 1950s anti-communist witch-hunt to the defense of Black Liberation fighters Mae Mallory and Robert F. Williams, from the 1970s Food Is A Right campaign led by women of Youth Against War and Fascism to ensuring the uninterrupted distribution of Marxist agitation in the difficult years following the destruction of the USSR. 

She did it all in her modest, mostly behind the scenes, yet utterly indispensable way.

To give just one example of her far-reaching influence, consider that Bob McCubbin, author of the groundbreaking “Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” recently wrote that Rosemary Neidenberg “won me to communism.” 

In the dedication to his newest book, “The Social Evolution of Humanity: Marx and Engels were Right!”, McCubbin said: “Rosemary Neidenberg (b. 1921) is a lifelong communist and founding member of Workers World Party, whose anger at imperialism remains undiminished and whose vision of a socialist future for humankind is uncompromised after many decades of struggle with the goal of the establishment of workers’ power here in the world center of capitalism.” 

Mother’s Alliance rally from the 1950s. Rosemary Neidenberg is second from left on banner.

Lallan Schoenstein recalled: “Rosemary was an inspiration personally and politically. My first encounter with her was in 1970, when I volunteered to help with a large mailing that rallied support for the Black Panthers, ‘Stop the War against Black America.’

“Rosemary was sitting at a long table among 20 or so people who were all decades younger than her. It wasn’t only her bright cheerful colors, but her animated, friendly attention that made her the only person I remember from that day. That first impression was later sealed by her political savvy and dependable support.

“It was impressive to see an older woman who didn’t seem aged,” Schoenstein said. “At first I wasn’t even aware of the significant difficulties she endured from a childhood bout with polio. Her dignity and self-esteem appeared to be generated by profound confidence that the tedium of the work she was responsible for would have a socially revolutionary impact.”

“I’ll always remember Rosie as the most loving and accepting revolutionary I know,” said Lizz Toledo. “After years of my being inactive at the national level, when she saw me at a meeting, she hugged me tight without questions, judgements or reprimands. She was just happy to see me. We shared a very touching, intimate moment as she whispered in my ear, ‘So happy to see you are back, we need you.’” 

That was Rosemary. She valued every comrade, their partners, their children. She was a devoted parent and grandparent herself, together with her life partner, Comrade Milt Neidenberg, who died in February 2018.

As for me, I met Rosie in 1990, when I moved to New York City fresh out of high school and determined to become a revolutionary. As a naive kid raised in rural Wisconsin, I could have run into a lot of problems inside or outside the struggle. Rosemary was one of the comrades who took an interest in me and helped steer me in the best direction. She was warm, witty and so kind that her sometimes sarcastic, always spot-on personal observations never seemed mean-spirited. 

Rosemary speaks at memorial for Leslie Feinberg, 2015. Her daughter Nina holds the microphone.  SLL photo: Greg Butterfield

A socialist youth

Rosemary joined the working-class movement as a high-school student in the industrial city of Buffalo, N.Y., during the mighty struggles of the Great Depression. She was fortunate to be on the ground floor of the revolutionary Marxist tendency led by Sam Marcy, Dorothy Ballan and Vince Copeland, which first took shape within the Buffalo branch of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and later founded Workers World Party (WWP) in 1959. They, in turn, were fortunate to have her revolutionary work ethic and charm in their corner.

In the summer of 2018, I interviewed Rosemary about her early experiences in the political struggle. She followed up by writing a brief account filling in more details. Here I share some of that conversation, as much as possible in her own words:

Rosemary Rook was part of a large Catholic family. They lived in her grandmother’s house. Her grandfather had been killed in an industrial accident at the flour mill where he worked before Rosie was born. 

Rosie’s grandmother would tell the story every time a new person came to the house. This made a very deep impact on her consciousness. Also, she recalled that one of her uncles was mercilessly hounded by the police for having stood up to them.

Rosie was struck with polio at age 7. Another uncle taught her to ride a bicycle despite her disability. She was able to pedal with one foot and push down the second, immobilized leg to keep going. Eventually, she was able to ride all over town, even up hills, in this fashion.

In high school, Rosie had a history teacher who recommended socially conscious literature, like the books of Upton Sinclair. She wrote: “Buffalo, N.Y., circa 1938. Fosdick-Masten High School. Cast: progressive history teachers Maurice B. Rovner and M. Rowen. Students Rosemary Rook, Rovner’s class, and Pearl Kessler, Rowen’s class, looking for a socialist organization. Artie Copeland, Rowen’s class, brother to actor Vincent Copeland, on tour with renowned Buffalo actress Katherine Cornell.”

Rosie continued: “Vinnie had been a Communist Party member or sympathizer, but had been introduced to the work of [Russian Revolutionary Leon] Trotsky while performing in Arden, Del., by Libby [Elizabeth Ross]. (Libby and Vinnie had fallen irrevocably in love.) Vinnie wrote political letters to his family. Artie brought one to Rowen’s history class, who shared it with Rovner’s class. Rosemary and Pearl were very impressed. Asked to meet Vinnie, and did. Much mutual admiration took place.”

At the time, Vince Copeland was performing on Broadway. Rosie and her friend Pearl went to meet Vince when he came back to Buffalo to perform in a play there. He invited them to visit him at his parent’s house. This is where their political association began. 

“Previously, Rosemary and Pearl, looking for socialism, had joined a Socialist Labor Party (SLP) study class held at the beautiful Grosvenor Library (where I later worked). At one session, a new member appeared, Frank St. George. He looked like a live one and as he sat opposite me to fill out an application for the class, I read his address upside down. I gave this address to Vinnie.”

Milt Neidenberg and Rosemary Neidenberg. WW photo: Brenda Ryan

A base in Buffalo

When Copeland returned to Buffalo for another play, he decided to set up a branch of the SWP. You needed five people to start a branch. He recruited Frank St. George, who recruited another three of the St. George brothers. “There were five brothers total from a large Italian family. The younger brothers all did what Frank told them to do. One of the younger brothers was quite militant though,” Rosemary explained.

“Much to my surprise and pleasure, the next time we saw Vinnie, there was an SWP branch in Buffalo.” Rosie and Pearl soon joined too.

“Vinnie had left the stage and soon brought Libby and her 4-year-old daughter Deirdre to Buffalo and introduced me to them. [We] quickly became closer than family.

“So the first SWP branch in Buffalo — created by a series of fortunate coincidences.”

Rosie also recalled when Milt Neidenberg moved to Buffalo – the third in a group of young Jewish veterans who came from New York City after World War II, looking for work and to be politically active.

The Buffalo comrades were then campaigning in defense of Willie McGee, an African American man who was sentenced to death in Mississippi on a false charge of raping a white woman. Large protests were organized in many cities. Although the movement was unable to stop McGee’s eventual execution in 1951, the protests reduced the number of legal lynchings and helped force the passing of anti-lynching legislation.

Rosie said she knew she was in love with Milt when she saw him at a street meeting for Willie McGee in the Black community. Two young women from the community came and spoke. She remembered seeing Milt handing out fliers in a very respectful way: “He was very dashing.” 

She also recalled buying a lot of Marxist books afterward, chuckling that it was “a dowry” as part of her plan to win his affections. She was successful, she said, but after so many years couldn’t remember if the books helped!

Today, the members and supporters of Struggle-La Lucha newspaper and the Socialist Unity Party work to carry forward the revolutionary ideas and traditions established by Sam Marcy, Dorothy Ballan and Vince Copeland in the modern conditions of decayed, crisis-ridden capitalism. As we do so, we proudly uphold the example of revolutionary worker Rosemary Neidenberg as one to aspire to.

Comrade Rosemary Neidenberg, ¡presente!