50 Years of the War on Poverty and My 70 Year Struggle with Black Equality
Jack Riordan, OCCD Development Specialist
My Segregated White World in Chicago’s Lawndale
Early in the Second World War, when I was five or six, a little black boy walked down the other side of our street. Three or four of us preschool kids repeatedly yelled a well-known racial slur until my Grandma came out and said, “Hush that is not nice and they do not like it.” Grandma was a single mom from Kentucky. She claimed her family had a former slave living in their house long after the Civil War. Obviously the little white guys on our side of the street already carried racial bias baggage. I do not know what baggage that little black guy on the other side of the street carried or remembered. I have not forgotten. It took a long time to empty the bag.
The 1950’s and 1960’s were an eye opener for me and I think most people. I grew up between poverty and the very low rungs of the middle class in Lawndale, an all-white, mixed, ethnic neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side. I had little experience with African Americans growing up, until Lawndale started to racially change; there were no African Americans in our neighborhood. When our neighborhood began to change my father said, “You cannot live with those people.”
Beginning in 1952, I had summer jobs at Coca Cola which gave first hand insight into the daytime lives of poor African Americans. It was also my first real encounter with a lot of young black males. Except for us summer hires, all the helpers were black, as were some of the route salesmen. Some of the black helpers were standoffish but generally we were all pleasant to one another especially those of us on the Coke softball team.
A few years later, my brother Tom got a job as a helper and we were on the Coke softball team with Jefferson (he did not like to be called Jeff) one of the black helpers and his brother (Robert) who worked in the bottling plant. This led to our invitation to see the view from one of the first high rise apartments in the Cabrini Green Public Housing Project. Jefferson really wanted us to see his new apartment and meet his wife and baby.
It was nice with fresh paint and two elevators. From one of his windows, you could see the tops of the trees along the lake and a ribbon of Lake Michigan. He was so proud of it. I was impressed. It was way better than the flat I grew up in.
I worked for Coke almost every summer until 1959. The Coke job left me with two impressions of black people. One was hard working, struggling folks just like me and my family. The other impression was of lazy good-for-nothings, always looking for a fast, easy buck who spoke English in a way I could hardly understand. I felt threatened by them. I believed their poor lives were their own fault. If Jefferson and his brother could have a decent life from hard work, so could others by getting jobs and working hard.
More Views of The Complex Black World
In the early 60s, a few of my guilt-ridden, drinking buddies, in an effort to do something productive, got involved with a group of French religious brothers called The Little Brothers of the Poor, who we called the LBs. Our role as volunteers was visiting old people in their homes in the poor areas of Chicago. Sometimes we brought wrapped packages and flowers. We also helped serve elaborate holiday dinners. The motto of the French group was “Flowers Before Bread”. There was one black volunteer, Gordon, a manager at the Social Security Administration. He was very personable and quite intelligent. I enjoyed talking to him.
There were a few couples among my clients, but mostly I visited old women. I met quite a few very nice, but lonely old folks. One black lady was surprisingly elegant, tall and skinny like my Aunt Girt. Eventually, I became the first permanent American Little Brother. I joined with my conservative views on poverty and race. I made solemn promises to live in poverty, abstain from sex, and obey the directions of the organization.
Jack Kennedy took over as President in 1961 and he and his brother Robert were very supportive of the Civil Rights movements and set up The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March. The year was filled with sit-ins, Freedom Riders and arrests. Even Doctor Martin Luther King was arrested in Albany Georgia. The Kennedy brothers were involved and making strides toward racial equality. In 1961 or 62, I read John Howard Griffin’s revealing book “Black Like Me”. Griffin a southern white darkened his skin to look Black. His book gave me a new perspective and a vivid inside look at life of black males in the Jim Crow South.
One of my friends, and fellow volunteers, was involved in civil rights with an organization that what would become the Conference on Religion and Race. In February of 1962, Gene talked me into going with him to a rally of the Nation of Islam to hear Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. I was interested, but fearful, but he promised there would be a black Chicago police sergeant sitting right behind us. When we were finally seated, there were over 15,000 Black Moslems in the International Amphitheater, a few white people from the press, and Gene and me. The stage was ringed by the Fruit of Islam, a dozen or so muscular young men in somber business suits. Malcolm X was impressive as he emphasized family values and avoidance of alcohol and tobacco. There was no threat to us. The audience was well dressed, quiet with appropriate applause and a few “amens”. I was getting comfortable. All was calm until down the central aisle George Lincoln Rockwell and ten of his American Nazi Storm Troopers marched in. I thought one cop was not going to be enough. Rockwell turned the meeting into an anti-Semitic rant and a call for a separate Black Nation which was reinforced by the audience and Elijah Muhammad.
Since joining the LBs, as I gained more insight into the plight of poor blacks, my conservative views of poverty and race were slowly changing. The jobs that existed when Jefferson, his brother, my brother, and I worked at Coke in the early 50s were disappearing. Poor black males were falling behind; opportunities were just not the same, but I still held on to some of my prejudices, but thanks to Gordon and some of my clients my belief in white superiority was eroding away.
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. I kept remembering, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” His death caused further assessments of my conservative views. Lyndon Johnson took over as President and began developing his war on poverty. One of his first successes was the July 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act removing voting and public access impediments. Johnson told Robert Kennedy, “We just gave the south to the GOP.”
In 1964, I took over more of the administrative side of the Little Brothers, giving speeches and organizing mailing campaigns to raise money and helping remodel an industrial building LBs were given to be our headquarters. I was now living and working across Division Street from one of the 20-story high rise buildings of Cabrini Green, a notorious Chicago Public Housing Project – the same complex where my Coke team-mate had his apartment. I now had a day and night view of the lives of some of the poorest black people in Chicago. Cabrini was gradually being taken over by teen gangs who charged fees to play. Mothers were afraid to let their kids go downstairs without them. It was a noisy place. The swings squeaked almost all day and night. Radios and TVs blared and teen girls sang their mesmerizing music. We were robbed and one of the brothers was knocked in the head with a broom stick he was using to get kids off a delivery truck.
On March 7, 1965, a peaceful voter rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama was violently stopped on the Edmond Pettus Bridge by masses of state troopers and local police. Director Michael asked me to go to Selma with Gordon, our most faithful volunteer and who I liked. My old friend Gene from Religion and Race organized demonstrations in Selma to support their efforts for equal rights. With thoughts of Freedom Riders being routinely killed, Gordon and I flew to Montgomery and were picked up and driven on a very scary drive in the rain to a mission in downtown Selma where cots had been set up for our stay. They took us to a neighborhood Baptist Church service which was the focal point of the protest. The rain had stopped so there was a large crowd overflowing on the street. While we joined in the spiritual singing, a lady asked if I would like a cup of coffee. It was served in a very fine China cup and saucer.
The next day as we walked to the demonstration area, we passed a frame duplex. On a porch swing two women sat. One white, one black, while kids of both races ran out one door and into the other. The two women were removing the strings from green beans from a large plastic bag and snapped the beans into their pots. I thought here we are down in the Deep South to promote equality and you would never see that in my segregated Chicago. Gordon and I participated in the demonstrations for four days and nights. We were face to face, one on one with the Alabama Guard as they surrounded the area. I wonder whatever happened to the FBI’s pictures of us.
When we got back I wrote an article that was the headline and front page of the Chicago Defender. That was the first of what would later become my left leaning writing.
After Fifty Years of the War and Struggle
Cabrini and most of the nation’s high rise public housing is gone – a demolished social experiment. But there are ghosts of lives past and lost. The area is racially gentrified with low rise mixed income apartments. There is even a new Target. A lot happens in fifty years. The 60’s brought many changes to society and me. I went from a conservative Republican (I voted for Nixon) to a left leaning Independent. I left the Little Brothers because of problems with religion and not wanting a life without a family. I went from celibate Urban Monk to a Refugee Relief Officer in Vietnam, to one of HUD’s first employees; from boozing with buddies to a grass cutting husband and father; from the comfort of my childhood religion to a questioning agnostic who hopes there is a creator. We lost Jack and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King as well as Malcolm X to assassins. The USA was cut in half by the Vietnamese Way. The decade ended with the Kent State shooting and the election of Nixon, which chocked off the War on Poverty. The Civil Rights Movement had momentum and kept plodding along.
Now my window view is Windows PC data; just numbers without the faces or real sounds. I unconsciously add my fifty-year-old images to the numbers. The boys who terrorized Cabrini, the few who are still alive, are all old now with unknown sons with their own unknown sons. The data shows very few really smart or talented guys made it out to decent lives. Some black men went to work every day, showing up on time, worked their way up by demonstrating skills. Some labored in demeaning, lousy jobs to give their kids a better chance. Most black males then and even fewer now have a chance for a decent life. By age 23, 49% of black males compared to 38% of whites have arrest records. Far too many gravitate to higher paying jobs with the employers of the street in the drug business. They buy, use, deal, go to jail and or die, some still, just boys wearing the latest shoes and carrying the best cell phone, leaving their moms, aunts and sisters, and pregnant girl friends to cry.
Data from Windows shows that today’s single moms of single moms have more chance for dignifying employment with good wages. The fifty-year fight against poverty and inequality has benefited women more than men. Poor women have a better chance today to get good jobs. They struggle to educate their kids so their daughters might have better lives.
Overall today it is better. Racial housing segregation still persists but income is the big discriminator, Black unemployment is at 14%. Cuts in public sector jobs had disproportionally affected blacks since 20% of blacks have public sector jobs compared to 14% for whites, and 10 % for Hispanics. There are fewer impediments to public access and voting. Blacks were a major force behind the election of the first President of Color. There are more interracial couples. Black males and females with education and determination are prospering in every field. Even though whites are no longer the race with the highest income (that is now Asians) it is still much easier to be white in America.
For males without high school diplomas, their role in society has diminished. My biased view is that the lack of dignifying employment for poor black and white males is the core problem for America. Racism and Elitism is the root of the problem. Both are linked to a basic human trait, part of the genetic baggage that has evolved with us to protect our turf from others. Our drive to preserve, “Our Way of Life, Our Source of Income and Prestige” is what divides our country. Until we recognize a threat greater than each other, Elitism and Racism will not be Overcome. For me even after all the great black men I have worked and partied with, and worked out with at the Y; despite Jefferson, Gordon, Syl my best boss and many others, I am leery of young black males more so than white guys. I may understand their plight better, but my first reaction is being leery.
The Old Lady with Cats said, “You walked the walk and you talk the talk, but your views are a threat to the established way.”