On a glorious Saturday afternoon, dozens of friends, family and admirers of civic legend Marvin Caplan gathered in his eponymous park to dedicate a newly installed plaque in his honor. Marvin Caplan Park at the corner of Alaska Avenue NW and Holly Street NW in the Shepherd Park neighborhood of Washington, DC pays tribute to one of the architects of our nation’s Civil Rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and Title IX of the Federal Education law would not exist in their current form without Marvin Caplan’s behind-the-scenes ability to cajole compromise and consensus out of many disparate groups.
The event was sponsored by the Shepherd Park Citizens Association, Neighbors, Inc. and Tifereth Israel Congregation. Carl Bergman has been a dedicated historian of Mr. Caplan’s work throughout the years and very capably led the day’s proceedings.
Tapestry of a Life Well-Lived
The text of the plaque is printed below. It concisely recounts Mr. Caplan’s lifelong quest to implore America live up to its ideals. However, what I truly enjoyed about this event was hearing the anecdotes and stories from his friends and family. Their words painted the picture of a man who’s sense of purpose drove him to live a life dedicated to social justice.
A Man of Emphatic Principles
Bennett Caplan had the unique perspective of growing up in the home of two pioneering civil rights crusaders. As one of the three children of Marvin and Naomi Caplan, he witnessed the highs and the lows of their efforts in the struggle.
Before moving to Washington, DC, the Caplan family lived in Richmond, Virginia. There, Marvin was attempting to make a living as a freelance writer. His main source of income was writing pieces for the Richmond Times-Ledger. A civil rights issue came up, and he felt strongly about it, so he wrote a Letter to the Editor.
The editor at the time said, “Marvin. It’s a marvelous letter. I agree with you. But if we publish this letter, you’re never gonna publish another piece in this newspaper.”
Marvin thought about it and he said, “Publish the letter.”
Consequentially, he had to look for a new job and that’s how he ended up in Washington. The rest is history.
Bennett Caplan continued, “The thing about Marvin that we took away as kids, was that our dad was a man of deep principles who never shied away from articulating his principles in an honorable and emphatic way. We were so lucky, because his principles were the right principles and they live today.”
After arriving in Washington and witnessing blatant housing discrimination, Marvin Caplan joined with others and formed Neighbors Incorporated. Neighbors, Inc. was a new kind of civic organization whose purpose was to fight the racist “block-busting” real estate practices of the day.
Mr. Joe Hairston, one of the first Black residents of Shepherd Park, described in detail the efforts that he, Marvin and others took to defeat housing discrimination. “We started working through Neighbors, Inc. to acquaint residents with the fact that ‘People are People’”. They reduced the fear of integration in residents through social engagement. This helped neighborhoods like Shepherd Park become integrated while other areas in the city grew increasingly segregated.
Pati Griffith explained how the Neighbors Inc. meetings worked. She said, “Every month we would meet in another person’s house. We would talk about everything: our problems, the neighborhood problems. We’d get to know each other. We had an Orange Hat Patrol and that was very exciting.”
Ralph Blessing described Marvin as “the glue that held the neighborhood together. He organized the events, activities and monthly meetings. He herded us together if we weren’t willing to be herded. He instilled in all of us the feelings, the beliefs, the purpose of Neighbors, Inc. and the mindset of ‘Shepherd Park’.”
Marvin Caplan’s House
Audrey Easaw never met Marvin Caplan. She moved to Shepherd Park eighteen years ago after an exhaustive real estate search. But it wasn’t long after she moved in that she discovered that her dream home had a unique distinction: It was the former home of Mr. Caplan.
To this day, neighbors and acquaintances still refer to her Geranium Street home as “Marvin Caplan’s House”. That is a testament to the lasting relationships and respect that the community has for the man.
Upon moving into the home, Ms. Easaw found the following words scribbled under the cushion of a window seat:
Do for them; be not selfish.
She doesn’t know who wrote them, but they perfectly capture the values of the man whom we all came to honor on this day.
The National Activist
“At the national level, Marvin is probably the most important activist that no one has ever heard of.” Those were the words of Mr. Wade Henderson, the immediate past president of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights.
He continued, “Marvin’s commitment to building an America as good as its ideals became the foundation upon which the Leadership Conference was based. His career as a lobbyist with the AFL-CIO led him to work behind the scenes for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.”
Mr. Henderson concluded by stating, “His contribution to the work of the national Civil Rights movement is something that we should all take time to acknowledge and remember. This park is really an elegant and simple commemoration of what Marvin represents, not just to this community, but as a national symbol of equality and fairness for all.”
A Master Strategist
The final speaker of the day was Mr. Ralph Neas, who served as the Director of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights immediately following Marvin. After listing many of Marvin’s accomplishments at “herding” large organizations representing millions of people, he described the secret of success of Mr. Caplan and his contemporaries, Joseph Rauh Jr. and Clarence Mitchell.
He said, “They knew how to get things done. They knew about bipartisanship. You have to cross the aisle. You have to work with Republicans, Democrats and Independents. They knew about civility and treating everyone with respect and with dignity. And most importantly: consensus and compromise are not dirty words, as so many people think today. Marvin shared that with us.”
Although my family moved to Shepherd Park long after Mr. Caplan’s passing, I am grateful for his enduring legacy. This would not be the vibrant and inclusive community that it is today without the work that he and so many others completed.
During his remarks today, Councilmember Brandon Todd shared a piece of wisdom that Mr. Caplan once wrote in the Atlantic Monthly magazine: “Do I believe in brotherhood? Do I believe we are all born free and equal? Do I believe in the sacredness of the individual? Suddenly I am pushed beyond easy platitudes into that difficult and stony place where we are forced to take a stand for our professed convictions or abandon them.”
If only the political and civic leaders of today could follow Mr. Caplan’s advice.
Marvin Caplan: The Memorial Plaque Text
Marvin Caplan 1919 – 2000
This park is dedicated to the memory of Marvin Caplan, whose singular spirit defied bigotry and promoted neighborhoods open to all, regardless of race, religion, or culture.
In both his personal and professional life, he used his organizational skills, writing talent, and sense of humor to further the cause of social justice and democracy. His numerous achievements include:
- World War II veteran and Temple University graduate.
- Co-editor, Southern Jewish Outlook.
- Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights during the 1960s and ’70s.
- Strategist for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and Title IX’s prohibition of gender discrimination in education.
- Co-founder and first President of Neighbors, Inc.
- Under his leadership, Neighbors fought white flight and block busting. It worked to increase housing choices for African-Americans and others facing discrimination. Neighbors exposed housing discrimination and successfully lobbied for DC’s open housing law.
- Author, Farther Along: A Civil Rights Memoir (1999).
- Active participant in the Yiddish Revival Movement.
- Our good friend, Shepherd Park neighbor, mentor, respected writer, and storyteller.
For these accomplishments, service, and leadership, the City Council, upon petition by his friends, named this park in his honor: Marvin Caplan Memorial Designation Act of 2003, DC Act 15-0030, May 19, 2003.