ACORN’s Thanks to Roy Reed, Star Reporter for the New York Times

New Orleans   Roy Reed passed away at 87 from a stroke. He had been many things over the years, working most recently as a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas and earlier as a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette, when it was still a stand alone newspaper. He was also a reporter for the New York Times working in Washington and then covering the South from 1965 to 1978 as a national reporter based in New Orleans. He was famous for his brilliant and lucid coverage of the civil rights movement that helped propel the movement nationally.

It’s hardly a footnote to his career, but it was a milestone in the development and national growth of ACORN as well, when Reed filed a story in 1976 on ACORN, marking the first serious examination of the organization in the national media. Reading the piece more than 40 years later, it offers a stark contrast with modern reporting in its calm effort at objectivity and, “just the facts, ma’am” attitude. It seems to deliberately seek to inform and educate readers, in this case about an upstart outfit called ACORN. It’s not the piece many would have written, but it was a piece that because of its tone and plain statement helped propel ACORN to the organization it would become.

In honor of both Reed’s work and ACORN’s, here it is…

Lobby of Have-Nots Nettles The Southern Establishment

By ROY REED Special to The New York Times
October 06, 1976,

LITTLE ROCK, Ark., Oct. 2 An unusual political force that began six years ago in Arkansas is nettling the economic and political establishments in a widening swath across this region.

It is the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, popularly known as ACORN.

The association is a collection of 120 neighborhood organizations in low-to-middle income communities in six states. It claims more than 7000 member families.

It began in Little Rock, spread through other cities and towns in Arkanas, then expanded to several major cities in the surrounding states of Missouri, Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee.

It also established branches in South Dakota at the invitation of Senator James Abourezk, a Democrat, who heard in Washington of ACORN’s growth.

Most Potent Have-Nots

The membership is about 60 percent white and 40 percent black. Most members have incomes of less than $8000 a year.

These people have long had little to say about how they were governed. That is changing so rapidly in Arkansas that some are calling ACORN the most potent organization of have-nots in the region since the Southern Tenant Farmers Union grew out of eastern Arkansas in the 1930s.

ACORN’s main adversaries have been local governments and utility companies. It fights the governnments for better services and facilities in low-income neighborhoods and it fights the utilities on everything from high rates to pollution.

It recently added banks to its list. In the November election it will be battling the wealthiest financial institutions, the largest businesses and industries and the most powerful utility in Arkansas. And it will be fighting powerful interests in Missouri to remove the state sales tax from food and drugs.

The organization still finds time for scores of local battles over flooded yards, dogs on the loose and intersections without stop signs.

ACORN was indulged at first as the visionary tinkering of post-Vietnam War youths looking for a cause. Now that it has become a threat – and the membership rolls have taken on as many old folk as youngsters – the country clubs and chambers of commerce that historically have run things in towns like Little Rock have begun to stir uneasily.

A few weeks ago, Mayor George Wimberly of Little Rock, denounced an ACORN plan for lowering electric rates as “socialism in the worst degree.” State Representative Boyce Alfard of Pine Bluff has called ACORN a threat to capitalism.

Headed by Retired Blacksmith

Warning alarms are being sounded in towns and council chambers in cities of the region as ACORN extends its reach.

The leader of the Arkansas board is a retired railroad blacksmith named Willard Johnson. His political relationship to socialism is about as close as Barry Goldwater’s. He is leaning toward voting for President Ford in this year’s election.

People like Johnson, unlike the rich real estate interests and bankers who make the big decisions here, has never had much clout at City Hall.

He and his neighbors in southwestern Little Rock complained for years, without results, about poor drainage that caused flooding in their yards and in some of their houses.

They heard about ACORN and some decided to join. With help from the organization, they got a $900,000 Federal grand to rework ditches and streets in the neighborhood. And they have a promise from the corps of engineers of a longterm drainage plan.

First Goals are Modest

ACORN’s first projects in a newly organized neighborhood generally are modest campaigns such as improving garbage collection and getting traffic lights installed. Winning is important. The young professional organizers believe that they need repeated victories to keep the members enthusiastic.

Once the members learn that they can attain power by organizing, they usually set their sights higher. Then the various groups in an area join to fight for lower utility rates or equalized tax assessments or a slate of candidates for local office.

ACORN’s founder and chief organizer is a 28-year old Williams College dropout named Wade Rathke. He has lived in various parts of the country, the longest in New Orleans. He began as an organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization in Massachusetts.

Mr. Rathke and George Wiley, the late head of the welfare rights group, decided that a more effective organization might be built if it had a broader base than one composed of welfare clients alone. With Mr. Wiley’s encouragement and initial financial aid, Mr. Rathke chose Arkansas with its diverse population and geography to test the theory. He came here in 1970.

Mr. Rathke, who is white, was determined to avoid the race-baiting that destroyed Southern populist movements in the past. He made sure that ACORN always had a solid mixture of black and white members.

“There’s something about ACORN,” Mr. Johnson said, “it doesn’t make any difference what a person’s skin is. That’s one benefit I think I’ve gotten out of ACORN. Our people have common problems and they try to help one another, not kick them in the butt because they’re black or Catholic or something else.”

An example of ACORN’s power was the passage of a law by the Arkansas legislature permitting physicians to prescribe drugs by lower-cost generic rather than brand names.

An ACORN unit of older people at Hot Springs originated the campaign. The larger organization persuaded Gov. David H. Pryor to help push it through the legislature. Later, ACORN, helped persuade the state pharmaceutical board to permit drug advertising.

ACORN gets much of the credit for scaling down a huge new coal burning electric generating plant south of Little Rock. The Arkansas Power and Light Company was required to cut the project in half and install pollution devices after ACORN and other groups and individuals protested.

The organization is now trying to force the same power company to shed part of its collections from small households to favored industrial users that have always paid lower rates. Six Arkansas cities will vote on the ACORN proposition in November. Industrial and governmental interests have joined the power company in fight it.

Lobbying, Publicity, Lawsuits

ACORN uses lobbying, publicity, lawsuits, public hearings and any other kind of persuasion it can find.

ACORN members and some of their political allies are now working for a slate of candidates for the Little Rock City Council.

The staff of 35 – organizers, lawyers, researchers – earn lower salaries than many of the people they recruit. Beginning organizers are paid $45 a week and senior ones, $90.

As ACORN affiliate known as the Arkansas Institute for Social Justice has begun to train organizers for other groups around the country. In 1975, Mr. Rathke said, it trained 450 persons for 55 other organizations.

The organization’s member families pay dues of $16 per year. From various sources, including consulting work and small foundation grants, the group takes in and spends about $250,000 a year, Mr. Rathke said.

Mr. Rathke is anxious that the organization not grow too fast. He believes that has killed other mass organizations. The expansion to Memphis, where ACORN began working last summer, will be the last one for several months.

***

Please enjoy Sheryl Crow’s The Dreaming Kind.

Thanks to Kabf.

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Arkansas ACORN Leader, Walter Nunn

New Orleans    In the early 1970s, I used to run into Walter Nunn all the time. He and his wife were the primary leaders of the ACORN group in Oak Forest. He sat on the ACORN board in Little Rock and statewide in those days, but was always more of a back-of-the-room guy, than the voice at the front, running the meeting. He liked it that way. Working with Little Rock ACORN organizers, first Melva Harmon, and then Carolyn Carr, he liked being one of the team. Then he seemed a lot older than me, but reading his obituary, it turns out the gap was only a half-dozen years.

The Oak Forest neighborhood was the last redoubt before reaching University Avenue, which in many ways marked the borderland between the East and West in Little Rock in 1972, when we organized the area as part of ACORN’s Save the City community drives. We stumbled into Walter on the doors. He and a few others had been trying to put together a small neighborhood group. They immediately folded into ACORN to access full-time organizers and get the firepower for the issue galvanizing the area: blockbusting. Block after block we heard stories of the aggressive solicitation of homeowners being whipped into a frenzy to sell, because black families were increasingly buying into the area. Typical of the scheme, the various real estate agents would implore families to sell cheap before the home value dropped, and then turn around and sell high to African-American families wanting a stable, mixed neighborhood.

We won some weak language at the City Board of Directors language, condemning the practice, but it lacked any real bit. They weren’t willing in 1972-3 to embrace the pure racial exploitation involved. We had made the issue impossible to ignore though. We made signs that said, “This House is NOT For Sale – ACORN,” that families put up all over the area. Through a connection with a Los Angeles-based public media advocate and friend, Norman Seigelman, he produced public affairs spots that ran on local radio stations by Carroll O’Conner of the big TV hit, “Archie,” at that time, and popular movie stars in their prime, Jack Nicholson and Ryan O’Neil. It was a big deal.

I would see Walter regularly. Along with Martin Kirby, a former Arkansas Democrat reporter and some others, we put out a monthly newspaper for a bit. Walter was doing books through Rose Publishing, named after his wife at the time, specializing in Arkansas themes. I still have my copy of one of his big hits, a book of George Fisher’s memorable political cartoons. Things happened. Divorces. Moving to New Orleans in 1978. In the pre-Facebook era, it was easy to lose touch with people.

Going back to Little Rock more regularly the last 5 years between Local 100 and managing KABF, I quickly ran into Walter again, and it was as if we hadn’t missed a beat. I asked him to join the KABF board when it was being reorganized, and he did so, grudgingly, as a favor for a year or so, until the crisis ebbed. I met his son during the Occupy days, which was a nice closing of the circle. Walter did an interview about ACORN and the blockbusting campaign for the documentary, The Organizer, coming out now. He was on the board of the Arkansas Community Institute, one of the successor organizations, of Arkansas ACORN. He was an engaged community activist, who would never not answer the call.

Local 100’s Toney Orr and I saw him only days before he died. Briefly stopping by to see Senator Joyce Elliot and my sister-in-law out west, we walked out to find Walter eating lunch with a former cartoonist for the Arkansas Advocate. He had been at what he described as a seniors re-education camp at a church not far away learning some new computer techniques. We told old stories for a minute, and went on. I drove that night to New Orleans and flew out to Casablanca the next day. I replied to one of the ACORN Canada leaders the next day who asked on Facebook why I was heading to Casablanca and what was the deal on the Organizers’ Forum. Walter weighed in and commented that he had seen me the day before and was surprised that I hadn’t mentioned I was leaving the next day for Morocco.

It never occurred to me to do so, knowing that I would see Walter many, many times in the future. I didn’t mention Morocco, and Walter didn’t mention that he, my old comrade and friend, would be dead before I returned, creating a hole in my life and my history that can never be filled again.

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