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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The Legacy of Fighting Blockbusting is Residential Diversity

photoshop-not-for-sale-dissolve-blend-stamp-000New Orleans   Studies of the largest 100 school districts in the United States indicate that there is such extensive re-segregation that schools are more segregated now than they were almost 50 years ago. Research on communities indicates that racial segregation in housing is part of the vicious cycle driving continued segregation in city after city. Sadly, the contemporary realities make fights like the campaign against racial blockbusting waged in Little Rock’s Oak Forest neighborhood 45 years ago by ACORN and its leaders like Walter Nunn, who I interviewed on Wade’s World, still very relevant.

Walter told the story of ACORN organizer, and now prominent Little Rock labor lawyer, Melva Harmon, contacting him at his home after hearing from other neighbors around the Oak Forest community that they were being solicited by unscrupulous real estate agents to quickly sell their houses because “blacks were buying into the neighborhood.” The strategy behind such panic-pedaling was to convince owners to sell cheap so that they could then flip the house at a higher price by marketing to black families hoping to buy homes in a stable, quiet neighborhood of single-family residences. In the case of Oak Forest the neighborhood was the last stable residential area abutting the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and University Avenue. The whites in flight would go farther west to the sprawling suburbs that other powerful real estate interests at the time were developing into suburban subdivisions farther and farther from the core of the city.

Walter Nunn and his neighbors organized the Oak Forest Property Owners Association with ACORN and with an extensive doorknocking program to families throughout the neighborhood essentially said, “hell no, we won’t go!” Signs went up everything, house to house, that said in big letters: THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE, ACORN. It was amazing to drive through the neighborhood and see the signs everywhere. It was impossible for the press to ignore. A group in Los Angeles arranged for some public service advertisements for us to run on the radio stations in Little Rock that were also big news. Carroll O’Connell, then in his Archie Bunker heyday was one of the voices on the spot. Jack Nicholson famous from Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Shining, and now an arm’s length of films was another distinctive voice warning people against blockbusters, saying it was illegal, and asking people to call ACORN, as was Ryan O’Neal.

The group proposed an ordinance to the Little Rock City Council to toughen the rules against blockbusters. Walter remembered only Jack Young and Les Hollingsworth on the City Board of Directors, both endorsed by ACORN, had supported them. Nonetheless, his highlight memory was getting up to speak and then dramatically brandishing the dozen or so business cards from real estate agents they had collected from neighbors who had personally heard the racist pitch to sell, move, and run.

Where the balance shifts to tipping points in neighborhood after neighborhood, it can seem impossible to restore healthy diverse communities. I asked Walter if he had been back to Oak Forest in recent years, and we were both proud to hear his report that Oak Forest still would qualify on such a list.

These were great fights. Maybe we need to reverse the field and have more of them that are about diversity, rather than gentrification.

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