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Remembering a leader and the multiracial South Jersey coalition he helped to build

Family, friends and folks who marched with Rev. Samuel E. Appel remembered him at a service that brought back memories of the turbulent Camden of the 1960s and '70s

Harvey C. Johnson, first president of the Black People’s Unit Movement, speaks at a memorial service Saturday in Camden for the Rev. Sam Appel, a BPUM supporter who also led an interracial, ecumenical, city-suburban coalition in the 1960s and ’70s.
Harvey C. Johnson, first president of the Black People’s Unit Movement, speaks at a memorial service Saturday in Camden for the Rev. Sam Appel, a BPUM supporter who also led an interracial, ecumenical, city-suburban coalition in the 1960s and ’70s.Read moreKEVIN RIORDAN

Samuel E. Appel's memorial service celebrated the life of a much admired, sometimes controversial clergyman  — and reunited people who marched and made headlines with him in the tumultuous Camden of the 1960s and '70s.

They'd been part of a multiracial, ecumenical, urban-suburban movement that mobilized on behalf of poor and historically excluded city residents a half-century ago.

And on Saturday at Sacred Heart Church, they sang and prayed together one more time.

"I'm getting a little choked up," the Rev. Dick Whitham, 93, told me. "I didn't expect to see so many people I can't recognize anymore."

Assigned with Appel and a third Presbyterian minister, Larry Black, to do community work in Camden, Whitham was among 100 friends and family members who gathered for the memorial; between selections of glorious music,  eloquent speakers paid tribute to the leader of a social justice movement with impact well beyond the city.

"No challenge was too great for Sam," said Fair Share Housing Center founder Peter O'Connor, 75, noting Appel's statewide role in urban education funding reform and particularly the development of affordable housing. Appel chaired Fair Share's board for 35 years, during which tens of thousands of affordable housing units were constructed in New Jersey.

'It's an honor to be here … [given] what he meant to me and to thousands of people, some of whom may never know what he contributed to their lives," said Jose Delgado.

Like Appel, he served on the city school board. "Sam inspired me in everything I did," Delgado said.

Appel died at 91 on Oct. 5 after a long struggle with dementia. Family members said the implacable disease never robbed him of his sense of humor and kindness of heart.

"He loved this city. He wanted good housing, good schools, and good jobs, and he ached" for them, said his daughter, Joy Appel Brown.  "You know how impossible the task was. But there were a lot of 'wins' over the years."

From the altar, speakers reminisced about Appel and his black Volkswagen bug, his love of a good meal (and the occasional adult beverage), and the contagious heartiness of his laugh.

"He had a deep passion for social justice. And that passion could turn to anger in the face of the reluctance of the powerful to …  change," said the Rev. John T. Ash III,  pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Mays Landing.

By the time Appel and his young family moved from Cherry Hill to Camden in the early '60s, the exodus of the white middle class from the city to the suburban frontier was well underway.

"We lived on Hillside Avenue, the nicest street in East Camden," Appel Brown recalled during a conversation.

"When a house was sold to a black family in 1963, nine other houses went up for sale."

As retired Rutgers-Camden history professor Howard Gillette — who called the service "a very poignant hour and a half" — wrote in Camden After the Fall, his postwar history of the city,  then-Mayor Alfred Pierce and Police Chief Harold Melleby were decidedly hostile to Appel and his movement, which Pierce would later describe as Marxist-inspired.

And after a weekend retreat about non-violence led by Appel and two associates, the three were indicted on charges of conspiring to incite violence; the case was later dropped for lack of evidence.

Camden was tense, to say the least. "Black and Latino people were not allowed to participate in government fully," noted Harvey C. Johnson, 73, one of the generation of emerging African American leaders in 1960s Camden.

Now a lawyer in Cherry Hill, Johnson was the first president of the Black People's Unity Movement, which advocated in the boardroom and agitated on the street as white politicians clung to power despite the fact that people of color were fast becoming a majority of the city's population.

Appel befriended Johnson and as well as BPUM founder Charles "Poppy" Sharp,  a fierce opponent of the city's urban renewal programs, whose in-your-face tactics frightened many in the white community. But Appel championed the organization and persuaded suburban whites to form a "Friends" group to support it,  financially and otherwise.

"Poppy and Sam opened the doors" to greater empowerment in Camden, Johnson said.

The Friends group "was how I got to know a lot of people from the suburbs and made friends with people from the suburbs," city activist Mangaliso Davis, 70, said at a reception after the service. "Sam was a very good spirit."

Tom Knoche, 67, a longtime advocate for progressive causes, told me he got to know and respect Appel after moving to North Camden in the late 1970s.

"There wasn't the monolithic power structure in the city we have today," he said. "There was a lot of energy around a lot of issues in Camden, and Sam was right in the mix."

Some of the oratory during the service sought to credit Appel and the movement with indirectly paving the way for Camden's current mega-redevelopment boom.

But the magnificently restored sanctuary of Sacred Heart, a vibrant church that has inspired people in the city and the suburbs to work together on Camden's behalf, was a clearer testimony to the worthiness of Appel's own efforts in that regard.

"The space was never more honored … than by having this service here," said Msgr. Michael Doyle, 83, his voice reassuringly strong a year and a half after cancer surgery.

Appel and the people who worked with him  "could move mountains,"  said Doyle, who certainly knows a thing or too about that subject.

"And they did."