Leslie Dunbar, John Lewis, and Heeding the Call of the Civil Rights Movement

Leslie W. Dunbar speaking to the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi Convention in 1968. Credit Tony Dunbar

New Orleans   Thus far President-elect Trump and his office have said nothing formally in commemoration of Martin Luther King Day. His Twitter-attack on civil rights warrior and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis capsulizes his own special oblivion to the struggles and aspirations of tens of millions who don’t live in Manhattan and winter in Florida.

I was struck by the contrast as I recently read the obituary of Leslie Dunbar in my local newspaper when he passed away at nearly 96 years old. I didn’t know Leslie well, but I knew him from his time as executive director of the Field Foundation when I tried to raise money from him in the 1970s. During the time that Field operated the foundation was famous, especially under Dunbar’s direction as a funder of voting rights and civil rights efforts, particularly in the South.

Several years after founding ACORN in 1970, as we made our first ventures to New York in 1974 to try and raise foundation money, Leslie and Field were on the short list as “naturals” to support a growing community organization with roots in Arkansas. My first visit didn’t go well and in a follow-up letter when I described ACORN’s mission as trying to build an AFL-CIO of membership-based community organizations of low and moderate income families, he dismissed the whole effort somewhat brusquely with a hand scribbled note saying that, “the last thing we need in this country is another AFL-CIO.” That stung, even though decades later, I can concede the point as the AFL-CIO becomes more and more sclerotic, and eventually Field became one of our consistent funders until it closed its doors. After Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, it was great to talk with Leslie and his son, Tony, when he visited New Orleans before moving to the city in the last years of his life.

His obituary spoke to the transformational power of the civil rights movement though and the clarity of its call to men and women who cared about people and equal rights and justice for all. It turned out Leslie had a PhD in political philosophy and constitutional law from Cornell and had bounced around on the track between academia and government service until ending up running the political science department at Mount Holyoke when in 1958 he jumped into the fray. Remember that the Montgomery Bus Boycott which propelled Martin Luther King, Jr. into national prominence ran from early December 1955 until about the same time 1956. The power of this emerging civil rights movement was life changing for millions, and Leslie Dunbar was clearly one of the many who ached for a way to align their convictions with their actions or move in Trump’s sense from all talk to as close to all action as they might get. In Dunbar’s case he moved to the Southern Regional Council, which was a mainstay of research and advocacy around race and voting rights at the time and for many years thereafter. When I’m in Little Rock I still take note on most visits of the plaque that remains in our building’s meeting room when ACORN was named by the SRC as the outstanding organization in the South in 1973.

Leslie’s obit notes with some pride his role at the SRC along with King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins in establishing the Voter Education Project, and the 2 million people it helped register. In these early years of ACORN we were proud to work with VEP during the years that John Lewis ran the project from 1970 to 1977. As organizations ran from voter registration and the modern attacks on voting rights that have accelerated in the 21st Century, there is no organization that began in the South as ACORN did in Arkansas in 1970 that didn’t understand that every peoples’ organization had a commitment forever to expand and protect voting rights, regardless of the consequences, if was to be accountable to his membership and their aspirations.

In the sense that John Lewis today is a headline example of such lifetime commitments, Leslie Dunbar and tens of thousands like him, playing roles large and small, uprooted their lives and sometimes gave their lives, as King did, at the call and in service to doing whatever they could and whatever they were able in order to build a movement to change America.

We watch the first African-America president leave office in the legacy of that movement at the same time we watch a new president move to office while trying to ignore and perhaps destroy that movement. He has to be taught once again that we shall not be moved.

Civil Rights activists lead the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 including John Lewis (far left) and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (middle). (Photo by Robert w. Kelley/Getty Images)


A Personal Remembrance of Martin Luther King’s Pivot to Poverty

New Orleans    Every once in a while something falls into your hands that begs to be shared. In this case S.M. “Mike” Miller, one of my infrequent, but invaluable correspondents and a faithful subscriber and sometime contributor to our journal, Social Policy, sent me, and others, a remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr, which seems timely. Including Mike’s piece, which I’ve lightly edited below, seems especially timely on the eve of the national holiday and a week before President Obama leaves office, as President-elect Trump tweets abuse at civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis.


By S. M. Miller

I was heartened by a comment by Henry Louis Gates [in a three-part PBS series on race] that Martin Luther King Jr. had moved in the last period of his young life to emphasizing economics in dealing with racial issues in the United States.

I had been trying to influence King in that direction for a couple of years. I met him at the annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Council in Natchez, Mississippi in 1965 when he was in bed, suffering from a cold. I was there as a speaker invited by his educator advisor who liked what I had written about school dropouts and pushouts. The advisor, a professor at Michigan State, had taken a leave from the university to work fulltime for King and earlier on a plane with King had begun to read the speech that he had asked me to write for Ted Kennedy for the convention but when King looked at the speech, he said, “don’t give it to Kennedy, I’ll use it.”

In the following seven years, I was an advisor and then a staff member at the Ford Foundation as well as a professor at New York University. One of my three self-appointed missions at the Foundation was to widen the Foundation’s support of black organizations beyond the National Urban League. That effort led to my spending time with King and building a successful case for broader funding.

In my discussions with King I raised the issue for not only overcoming racial barriers but to more directly improve the economic situation of African Americans by affecting the shaping of the American economy. He did not see why he should talk about national economic policies. After the second or third time I raised this issues, Martin said I still don’t understand why you want me to talk about national economic policies but since “I owe you, I’ll do it.” I replied, no, you are too busy to do something that you don’t feel strongly about.

Sometime later, I received a call at home on a Saturday morning—Martin wants to have a chapter on economics in his new book and wants you to write it. Will you? I agreed, only to learn that it was needed by Monday morning. My wife, psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, consented to take over my weekend family and household responsibilities, and I dashed off the chapter. The publisher did not want to use it. Martin insisted, and it appeared as the appendix to “Where Do We Go From Here.”

Earlier, when I was still at Syracuse University, a senior aide in Senator Rubicoff’s office called me, saying that the Senator is planning a series of hearings on urban issues. We are looking for topics and issues. Would you please look me up when you are next in Washington? We met. I was really “on” that day and reeled off 10 terrific ideas. No, no, the aide said. I asked the aide, “What’s up? You are tossing off this good stuff?” The aide said, “I’ll level with you. My senator is addicted to golf, so I have to offer something compelling to get him off the course. He is lazy so it can’t be a topic that requires him to spend time studying the issue. Third, he is vain; he wants his name in the media.” I replied that I could not meet those requirements and left.

Sometime later, Martin decided to testify before the Rubicoff hearings on urban issues and I was asked to collaborate with Stanley Levison, a chief aide to King, on preparing the testimony. I organized a meeting at my home in New York City of leading New York urban thinkers. Stanley and I wrote Martin’s presentation which dealt with racial economic issues in housing situations. Martin testified. The next day the front page of the New York Times had a front page picture of Martin and the senator. So I helped deliver for the senator.

Much more importantly, I contributed to that emerging stage of attention to economics in the King legacy. Gates’ view vindicated my pressures on King.

All I can add is that the arc of history is long and leans toward justice, and like Miller, that’s worth remembering as we gird ourselves for the future. Thanks for sharing, Mike!


King’s Boots and Lewis’ Backpack

Photo with the backpack from www.spidermartin.com

Photo with the backpack from www.spidermartin.com

New Orleans      Too often our tactics lose their edge when they devolve into more show than steel, more parade than march, more about the media than the target.  This is constantly an organizer’s dilemma in putting together actions that have to impact various audiences.   Without care and thorough, disciplined organizing with real people actions can become mere charades and performances rather than demonstrations of power producing pressure and change.

If, as the saying goes, pictures can say a thousand words, I could hear more than that while looking closely at two reprints of photos taken by James “Spider” Martin, the Alabama newspaper photographer of the events around Selma and Montgomery in 1965 that the New York Times reprinted from his archive recently acquired by the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin.  There were details in the picture that were the signatures of authenticity, keeping it real.

In the 21st century backpacks are everywhere weighing down school children and slung on the shoulder behind a hoodie defining urban transportation and community for many.  Backpacks were for campers fifty years ago, the badge of Boy Scouts and few others.  It struck me watching the film, Selma, recently and again studying the picture of John Lewis and Hosea Williams in the faceoff on the Pettus Bridge before the police attack, that Lewis was wearing a backpack over his overcoat.  That backpack is itself a symbol of seriousness.  What did he have in that pack?  Was he prepared to cross the bridge towards Montgomery?  Was he hoping he had access to a toothbrush or a change of shorts if he ended up in jail?  It doesn’t matter for the point of the march.  The backpack makes it real and yells to anyone looking – and caring – that he was ready.  The coat, tie, and even the overcoat were a message to the media and the American people that the marchers were good, solid, reasonable people trying to make change and not fire-breathers or as George McGovern said while running for President, “…those who would be most radical must appear the most conservative.”  The backpack though makes it all real and not just a show.

Another picture of the march hitting the streets of Montgomery several weeks later could be any picture of any march anywhere, except for a similar and significant difference.  If you looked down from the photo of the front line singing, Martin Luther King holding Coretta Scott King’s hand, and their triumphant entry into the city, you see that on King’s feet and a couple of people over on Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s feet are hiking boots.  King has his suit pants cuffed over the boots, while Abernathy has his hanging loose.  Those boots make it all real.  This was no parade.  This was a march on the capitol.  This was real; they had done the miles; they had taken the steps along the highway.  The suit coats, slacks, white shirts, and ties were put on for the camera and many in this same picture had undoubtedly joined at the end for the final surge, but the hiking boots on the front line on King and Abernathy’s feet and another pair of hush puppy looking shoes mismatched to another front line marcher’s shoes tell the true story of real struggle.

from spidermartin.com

from spidermartin.com

There’s more than the devil in the details.  There are the touches of reality that bring the punch and power to action, and worth every organizer remembering.


Please enjoy another pro-union song, Phil Ochs’ Links on the Chain


Tide Turning on Voter ID Suppression


picture from http://www.phillymag.com/news/2014/01/17/court-overturns-pennsylvania-voter-id-law/

New Orleans   As long as Republicans realize that their appeal is to a minority segment of the United States population, but fortunately for them, one that votes more steadfastly that Democrats, they will try to erect barriers in the road to voting since we do not have automatic suffrage.  You would think that would be matched with constant efforts by the Democrats to expand the electorate and lower barriers, but who knows if that’s true?  But no matter, as long as it all works this way, the push and pull to limit and expand voting access will be a constant in the political wars, democracy be damned.

The far right though seems to be having some particularly bad problems with voter identification.  Courts seem to be clearer and clearer that it’s just plain not legal.

Recently a Wisconsin federal judge ruled that voter IDs so clearly and overwhelmingly targeted minorities in that state that they ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act in addition to the 14th Amendment.

An Arkansas judge threw out voter IDs as well.

In Pennsylvania after several tries at mandating voter IDs, despite there never having been a single case of in-person voter fraud in the state, the Governor has now announced that he will not appeal his most recent loss in court at trying to establish voter IDs.

It’s hard not to conclude that at least the voter ID part of the voter suppression effort is increasingly a losing cause.

Now no less than Tea Party darling, libertarian Republican, and possible Presidential candidate, Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, has cautioned his Republican buddies that it’s time to drop the voter ID obsession from their program.  He says it’s hurting the party.  He even stated in Memphis, where he continues to try to distance himself from earlier remarks he has made indicating tepid support, if not opposition, to previous civil rights legislation, that the voter ID campaign is alienating African-Americans.

Voter suppression is no doubt alive and well, but you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing, and with the momentum gaining in the courts and politicians now feeling the breeze, finally voter identifications, a well-recognized suppression-only effort often called a “solution looking for a problem,” may be fading from the conservative top ten.


Personal Experience Once Again Changing People: Immigration & Gay Rights

Little Rock   Polls out today from Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute indicate that the American people continue to shift significantly to favor a legal path to citizenship for immigrants by a huge 70%+ majority among Democrats and over 50% for Republicans.  The hater patrol stoked by rightwing radio and television only finds 17% of Americans in the “pack ‘em up, and send them where they came” from camp now.  Politicians have had their fingers in the wind for quite some time, and a gale force is starting to blow them over demanding change.

The same seems to be true for gay rights.  Colorado added itself to the list of states approving gay marriages yesterday and the Supreme Court looks increasingly hard pressed to not open the doors farther, if not declaring bars discriminatory on a federal level, accelerating the inevitability that except for a few holdout hater areas, we will likely see this the law of the land, perhaps before the end of this decade.

The tipping point, as it was for the movements against the Vietnam War and the fuller acceptance of the Civil Rights Movement is increasingly clear to see:  personal experience.  Four years ago I did a strategy memo for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), one of the largest state-based immigration reform organizations in the United States that was looking for a game-changer to accelerate immigration reform.

I speculated to them then that we needed to duplicate the antiwar and civil rights experience and learn those lessons by forcing the issues so that they could not be avoided by those in the middle.  The leadership had offhandedly remarked to me at one point that they kept getting calls from housewives in the suburbs looking for advice on how they could get help making an “exception” for their “good” worker who they knew as undocumented.  Hearing that was all too reminiscent of the way southerners talked about their maids and house help, that created the kinds of wedges in Montgomery and elsewhere that fueled the civil rights movement.  The personal is the political.  I argued that we needed to take advantage of the fact that the middle class in the suburbs increasingly knew their housekeepers, childcare workers, home health workers, landscape crew, maintenance repair folks, roofers, carpenters, and others were undocumented and regardless liked them and increasingly identified with their problems.  We needed strategy and tactics that would make the issue personal and convert it into political change.

My reading of these polls gives a powerful, factual foundation for what had been my analysis and speculation at the time.  Several remarks in the Times’ report on the polls underline what I believe we need to increasingly develop as a campaign strategy to find and then tactically trigger these “tipping points” for social change.

Immigration is increasingly shaping the experience of many Americans. Of those polled, 50 percent said they often came in contact with immigrants who spoke little or no English, while 61 percent said they had close friends who were born outside the United States. Younger generations of Americans are significantly more ethnically mixed than older ones, the poll found, in ways that the political parties will have to take into account. In the poll, nearly one quarter of Americans age 18 to 29 identified as Hispanic, while only a slim majority of 52 percent identified as white.

The young immigrants of the DREAM movement who stood out made the issue impossible to ignore and very personal particularly since they occupied the moral high ground in the argument that was undeniable.  Their parents made decisions.  They had lived with insecurity and fear, but had done their best and made America home.  Why should they have a life sentence punishment for a crime they never committed?  Couple that to the ubiquitous experience with immigrants, and the character of Americans, rather than their politics and we finally have a chance for change.  I would argue that it is virtually a rule of political organizing that political position cannot trump human experience.  If we can force there to be personal and empathetic experience then we can trigger the change from the political to the personal that can then alter the publicly political landscape.

Whether it is Dick Cheney or now Senator Portman from Ohio essentially conceding de facto or very publicly as Portman has done this week that their own personal experience with their own gay children make it impossible for them to countenance discrimination against them or their very American right to the “pursuit of happiness,” it makes change possible.  Obviously, we cannot wait for this to happen.  Men have always had spouses and daughters but for millennia there was – and still is – discrimination, but if, as organizers, we can force the experience to move to the public sphere from the private, discrimination cannot survive.

There’s a trigger at this tipping point.  Whether we can find it or build it is a different question.


The Real Danger in Treme is HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods and Heritage Tourism

New Orleans  The HBO show Treme is gearing up for another go in their efforts to Disneyland New Orleans as a constant musical carnival and cultural minstrel show.  In the past I’ve had mixed feelings about David Simon’s show and the fact that though he means terribly well, but is missing the heartbeat and essence of the city and is miles from the mark he set in The Wire, his exceptional series set in Baltimore.  Now I have to admit that I’ve allowed myself to get distracted by the fantasy of HBO’s  Treme, and have been overlooking the real and present danger faced in the New Orleans Treme neighborhood by the United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency and its vision in the Choice Neighborhoods redevelopment of the area.

Sometimes you only see what is under your nose, when you see something somewhere else.  This happened to me yesterday morning while I met with several colleagues from Memphis before they embarked on a dog-and-pony tour in New Orleans organized by the City of New Orleans and our Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO).  They had sent me the agenda for their tour and were interested in a reality check before they were trotted around the city to look at Treme in what New Orleans was touting as a coming model for “heritage tourism” and the impact of a “bio-district.”  Having been in Memphis only weeks ago to work with scores of organizations on the proposed “redevelopment” (read destruction) of Foote Homes near the Civil Rights District and the Memphis Bio-District, suddenly it hit me what was slipping under the tent in our own city.

Part of the dispute here was well known and a battle seemingly already lost when HANO and its partners including Pres Kabacoff’s Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) Properties and others had been chosen to redevelop the old, solidly built Iberville Housing Project abutting the French Quarter.   The post-Katrina reshaping of the city’s public housing in the so-called “big four” projects had delayed the return of thousands of tenants and its shrinking number of units had pushed many lower income families into mini-ghettos in rental housing elsewhere in the city at premium prices.  Kabacoff and HRI had been locally and nationally controversial and infamous for their earlier pre-storm devastation of the St. Thomas Housing Project and its conversion into River Gardens and hasty record of systematic exclusion after completion in what was supposed to become a viable mixed income development.  Iberville had long been felt to have been in the HRI sights and their emerging partnership was unsettling to many.  Timing is everything and HANO and HUD took advantage of the dislocation post-Katrina to push through its plans when opposition was disjointed and local residents were scattered.

The $30 million from HUD through its Choice Neighborhoods project though is a much bigger problem than just what happens to Iberville in the destruction of yet another housing project.  The footprint of the project when I looked at the map is huge and encompasses a lot of the 7th Ward and virtually all of Treme in a 300 square block area bounded by Tulane Avenue (which puts the program into the CBD and the “bio-district” and new hospital construction across Canal Street), St. Bernard Avenue, Rampart (one of the boundaries of the French Quarter) and Broad Street going West and into Mid-City.  The “heritage tourism” notion may currently be aimed at taking over control of Armstrong Park that includes historic Congo Square, and several cultural buildings like the Mahalia Jackson concert hall, which would fit hand in glove with the tune Simon and HBO’s Treme have humming and distracting us with its siren song.

In a story in the New Orleans Tribune, reporter Lovell Beaulieu quotes ex-SNCC organizer and long time Treme community and cultural activist, Jerome Smith, on how he sees the threat, including from self-styled groups like People United to Save Armstrong Park:

We were too busy smoking a cigar and drinking a root beer.  There was a lot of displacement, promises.  Let’s go after the promises.   The folks who had the resources were busy battling each other.  I think we have a class thing here.  There’s this big eraser, and because of our absence from a historical consciousness, we are allowing ourselves to be erased.  When the water came citywide, it also came with a rope.  It’s the new day lynching.  We have to be cautious.  We speak about the hood.  They have something more vicious than the hood.  Before they used to kidnap us, now they take the property, with our assistance.

Harsh words?  Perhaps, but in an editorial note Tribune publisher, Beverly McKenna, is also crystal clear that Treme residents have to say “No” to the real estate interests and developers who are trying to “blockbust” Treme in reverse by waving money now so they can flip the property to incoming white settlers sooner than later.   The headline on Beaulieu’s story was Gentrification:  The new segregation?  White Flight in Reverse and included the outrage of a picture of white panhandlers in what was for years the African-American community’s Main Street on Claiborne Avenue.   McKenna relates stories of cold calls to property and business owners with offers to pack and move to prepare for the newcomers.

In HBO’s Treme we watch the petty dispute of self-styled hipster and WWOZ DJ with his gay neighborhoods in Treme over noise and are lured into the current political and cultural divide over sex and gender, and it is easy to forget that both are already interloping gentrifiers in Treme at the sharp and painful points of the longer and still bridgeless chasm of race and class.  Who knows what “heritage” tourism might be, and I can hardly wait to hear a report from my Memphis colleagues on what the City’s description might have entailed.  Nonetheless, the claims now cropping up everywhere in Treme that HUD, Choice Neighborhoods, HRI and others are really just trying to extend the French Quarter past its historic boundaries at Rampart, a mile from the Mississippi River, another mile or so into and through Treme through gentrification and displacement of this classically, hundreds of years old, African-American community seem real and present dangers.

Iberville Housing Projects ~ on the list to be torn down