Little Rock One of the interesting things about a city the size of Little Rock, and perhaps one of the little understood secrets of ACORN’s growth and success there after its founding in 1970, is that it is just big enough to be a city and just small enough that you can fairly easily see the moving pieces. I was reminded of this talking to University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) History Professor John Kirk about a wide variety of subjects. Kirk is a United Kingdom (Manchester) bred expert of civil rights history in Arkansas and was apropos of my general theme here was introduced to me by Occupy activist and UALR student, Robert Nunn, who I met as the son of an ACORN leader in the Oak Forest neighborhood in the early 1970’s where we fought a huge anti-blockbusting campaign against real estate racial manipulation of pricing and integration.
As ex-ACORN and current Arkansas Community Organizations staffer, Neil Sealy, and I visited with John and Robert, we hit on subject after subject where threads of continuity were woven endlessly. Kirk had written a definitive book on the “Arsnick” or Arkansas SNCC movement including the incidents in Gould, where a family was burned out that housed the SNCC workers, and of course one of the first organizers I hired for ACORN was Bobbie Cox, whose grandmother owned the house in that story. The SNCC story led to a discussion of the threads which ran through Gould and then onto ACORN from the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and H. L. Mitchell. For an hour we seemed to move from one free association to another. Mention the KABF radio station and the earlier voter registration history of ACORN, and there is Pat House former chair of the board and long time ACORN stalwart as a silent and invaluable friend and advisor, along with Mamie Ruth Williams, both of whom Kirk immediately recognized as members of the Women’s Emergency Committee more than a decade earlier than ACORN during the 1957 Central High School integration crisis including Eisenhower’s use of the troops to achieve integration. Later Kirk sent me a draft of a piece he has in an upcoming book on that looks at the preconditions that established the scenario’s that led to the 1957 crisis much of which focused on the role of urban removal in creating the hardrock residential segregation that forced 1957. The rogue’s gallery of real estate moguls like Billy Rector and Housing Authority officials who were later bankers like Finley Vinson was sobering and disturbing.
All of which reminds me of a universal and humbling truth about organizing in any workplace or any community: there is always a history of struggle, if you but ask deeply and listen carefully. No matter how unique each effort and individual, we always stand on strong shoulders even though time may have obscured and bowed them. If we look we can find them, but it’s a comfort in organizing when you come to the realization that they are always there underneath you, steadying your progress, and saving you from a harder fall.