Remembering Elena Hanggi, Jack Lavey, and the Wilbur Mills Expressway Fight

ACORN Personal Writings
ACORN President Elena Hanggi leads marchers.Rep National Convene Dallas, Republicans in 1984.
ACORN President Elena Hanggi leads marchers. Republican  National Convention Dallas  in 1984.

New Orleans  The obituary for Elena Hanggi Giddings said so little that it was almost hard for me to believe that this was the same woman I knew so well and so long.  Her stint as chair of the regional advisory board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in Dallas was acknowledged, along with her graduation from law school, her four daughters, and her grandchildren.  Not that these brief notes weren’t true, but they were really mere footnotes to the real courage and accomplishment of this woman.  She never practiced law, and her time with the Federal Home Loan folks came as a result of her having been the third national president of ACORN in the 1980s and the last from Arkansas where she served several terms before joining the staff with the Institute for Social Justice, where she specialized in training other grassroots elected leaders within the organization. 

            Elena was beloved by ACORN members and the reason was always clear.  Her story was so many of their stories, and she told it well and from the heart. She painted the story of her life as that of a silent, housewife, whose only opinions were those expressed at her own kitchen table, until two things happened almost at the same time.  First, she was doorknocked by an ACORN organizer named Barbara Friedman, over and over again, until she was literally pried out of kitchen to a meeting of the newly formed ACORN community organization in her neighborhood, and worked up the courage in a cold sweat and total panic, to say something at the meeting about what concerned her and was shocked to find her own voice and the support of her neighbors.  Secondly, the plans of politicos and real estate moguls to divide the city, racially and economically, with an expressway in order to cut 3 minutes of commuting time to the western suburbs where they wanted to make their fortunes would run right through her family home not far from McArthur Park and right smack in the path of the expressway, which meant that her new found voice suddenly had to reach the level of a battle cry. 

            In a sadly, tragic coincidence Elena, one of the lead plaintiffs along with ACORN in the suit we finally filed to contest the inadequacy of the environmental statement for the highway and its failure to seriously consider other options, passed away at 72, a week after our lawyer in the Mills case, the great Little Rock labor and civil rights attorney and my longtime friend and comrade, Jack Lavey at 81.  His obituary, not surprisingly, was well written by Ernie Dumas, the former editorial writer for the Arkansas Gazette in those days and weekly columnist still for the Arkansas Times, so I can add little to that save, “amen.”  Even in Little Rock, it is probably less ironic that simply a continuing statement of fact that a peoples’ leader’s passing should be barely noted next to that of a practicing lawyer of the bar.

            Nonetheless, as critical as a lawyer’s skill, and Jack’s was far reaching, and as deep as his commitment to social justice, and my debts will never be fully paid to him, because he never said, “no,” to any request for help or representation or advice that I ever made to him, it is the courage of an Elena Hanggi and so many leaders that emerge like her, and the unfathomable depth of her will and the magical power of silenced voices that rise with work, discipline, and magic to break the bonds of silence and roar with anger, accepting the call to change everything in their lives in order to fight with their people for justice. 

            I watched Elena find her voice and a lifetime cause.  I watched her not back down to police in Chicago at a national march and find herself hauled away to jail.  I watched people rise to their feet when she gave the call to action to thousands with rage and tears in her voice.  I witnessed both her pride and terror when she and other leaders were arrested for holding signs in a Congressional hearing and faced jail for the protest.  I sat over many years at her kitchen table myself, and I knew her family, her hopes, dreams, fears, and struggle as a person, a woman, and a worker to find her true self and live past the limits caging her. 

            There are no replacements for leaders like Elena and peoples’ servants like Jack, but for their sakes, as long as the fight for justice, freedom, and equality is waged, it is all of our jobs to continue in the struggle and to help find others to follow in their footsteps.  We owe it to them.  We owe it to ourselves.