Norman Fruchter, who died on January 4 from complications after being struck by a car while walking his dog, was a civil rights activist, community organizer, novelist, filmmaker, and for over five decades a giant in the education equity movement. He was 85.
Upon graduation from Rutgers in 1959, Fruchter sailed for England to study at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford on a Fulbright scholarship. Almost immediately, he bolted Stratford for London to join the burgeoning New Left.
The New Left
Michael Rustin, then a first-year student at Oxford, picked him up hitchhiking and introduced him to Stuart Hall, editor in chief of the recently launched socialist New Left Review (NLR). Hall quickly made Fruchter his editorial assistant and invited him to write film and book reviews. Working with such eminent contributors as Marxist critic Raymond Williams and British labor historian E.P. Thompson vastly expanded Fruchter’s political and intellectual outlook.
When he returned to the United States in 1962, newly married to women’s health researcher and future feminist Rachel Gillett, he carried a headful of ideas to enrich the American New Left. (In 1997, Rachel was also struck by a car and killed, while bicycling in Prospect Park.)
According to Rustin, the influence between British and American New Leftists “went both ways.” The older, staid British Marxist intellectuals were “shaken up by the young, charismatic Americans in London”—not just Fruchter but also the California novelist Clancy Segal, as well as sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose influential 1960 “Letter to the New Left,” published in NLR and advocating “direct non-violent action,” popularized the term “New Left” in the US.
Fruchter’s first novel, Coat Upon a Stick, was published in 1963 by Simon & Schuster, where a rising young star of US publishing, Robert Gottlieb, was his editor. Gottlieb soon became editor in chief of Knopf, where he published Fruchter’s second novel, Single File, in 1970.
Meanwhile, Fruchter hurled himself into the civil rights movement and community organizing. At a civil rights protest at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he was arrested alongside Black freedom activists Bayard Rustin and James Farmer Jr. With Tom Hayden and other members of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) he cofounded the Newark Community Union Project, which he memorialized in a 1966 documentary film, Troublemakers, made with his friend Robert Machover. It was selected by the New York Film Festival and shown at Lincoln Center.
When the New Left filmmakers collective Newsreel was founded in late 1967 as “a radical news service” to “aid the revolutionary movement,” Fruchter joined. Among his Newsreel documentaries are Summer of ’68 (1969), about the protests at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago, and People’s War (1969), filmed in North Vietnam to show the war from a Vietnamese perspective. As the filmmakers returned home, all their footage was confiscated at Kennedy Airport customs; only after they successfully sued the Government for violating their First Amendment rights was it returned.
He became a frequent film critic for radio station WBAI.
Back in 1960s London, Fruchter had taught at the experimental Kingsway Day Release College, where one day a week working-class youth were released from their jobs in order to continue their truncated education—which for many had ended at 15, then the school-leaving age in the UK. In 1970s New Jersey, Fruchter cofounded and led one of the first alternative high schools in the US, Newark’s Independence High School, designed for students who had dropped out of traditional schools.
So began his life as a tireless activist for education equity, quality, diversity, community control, parental engagement, and racial justice. He brought his experience as a civil rights activist and New Left organizer into the field of public education.
“Norm lived and breathed justice. He had a giant intellect, and a spirit that inspired us all to lead activist lives,” Michele Cahill, senior adviser at XQ Institute and Fruchter’s friend of 50 years, told me.
In the 1980s, Fruchter supported the push for small public schools in New York City, as director of the Urban Education Program of the Aaron Diamond Foundation. He also led the Ford Foundation’s national Dropout Prevention Program.
In 1994, he cofounded the Institute for Education and Social Policy (IESP) at New York University to study the impact of public policy on students from poor and disadvantaged urban communities. One of IESP’s most notable projects was to help form the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, through which parents sued New York State for failing to provide adequate education to NYC students. After the case was won on appeal, the legislature allocated hundreds of millions of extra dollars for NYC public schools.
Another critical IESP project was the ASD Nest Program, to serve students with autism in NYC public school classrooms alongside general education students. According to IESP coworker Carol Ascher, Fruchter prioritized helping parents organize, believing that a major difference between schools in middle-class and low-income communities was parental involvement.
His commitment to education seemed limitless. Michelle Fine, a leading academic psychologist and education author, writes, “Norm’s footprints are everywhere, a blend of radical vision, tender action, and soft humility. He imagined what could be, and willed it into possibility, bringing gentle wisdom to each movement he touched.”
He served for a decade on Brooklyn’s District 15 Community School Board, becoming its president and later helping to start the Brooklyn New School. He wrote prolifically on education, including two books. After leaving IESP, he founded the Community Organizing and Engagement Program at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
But he was also a devoted family man, said his second wife, Heather Lewis. “Norm loved hosting his friends, children, step-children, and many grand- and step-grandchildren, especially during long summer visits in the country.”
In his final years he was deputy director, then senior adviser, at NYU’s Metro Center (Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and School Transformation), where he also wrote a monthly blog. His last one was posted a week before his fatal accident.