New Orleans June 18th is ACORN’s birthday. Our staff policies still list it as a possible holiday that can be substituted for other dates if someone on staff had to work a holiday. On most birthdays nothing can be remembered by babies. The clock on a lifetime begins ticking with the official marking of time that ends up on a governmentally issued certificate. Starting to build an organization that casts light over not only my lifetime, but the lives of millions has at least some memories, even if they dim with time.
I hold on to the snatches I recall. I was twenty-one years old. I had been in New Orleans a week staying with my family and checking in on a young woman who was my wife at the time. Hardly ten days earlier I had put her on a plane from Boston, terribly sick at the time with some malady unable to be diagnosed in the Mass General emergency room. I had packed everything that could fit in a small red station wagon and driven down then. She was getting better, but I left her in the city. We didn’t know what I would face in Little Rock. Organizing ACORN as an affiliate then of the National Welfare Rights Organization was an uncertain proposition forty-eight years ago. Going to a southern city that I didn’t know at all in 1970 to organize a multi-racial poor peoples’ organization was assuredly an unpopular proposition, and perhaps a dangerous one for all we knew, so I had promised to return once we were clearer about the situation. Forty-eight years ago, there was a greater chance that I might not last forty-eight days much less forty-eight years. Believe me!
I had only been to Little Rock once for a couple days to evaluate whether I was willing to go. NWRO was committed to trying to organize in Congressman Wilbur Mill’s congressional district since he headed the Ways and Means Committee which was all-powerful then when it came to improving welfare benefits. George Wiley, NWRO’s executive director, had sprung for the ticket because my condition was being able to build something different, a broader organization of low-and-moderate income families. Flying out of Adams Field, the city’s tiny airport, back to Boston, I sketched out the name ACORN scribbling on a napkin.
Before I agreed to leave Boston, I had to make sure the local NWRO leadership approved of this ACORN notion and that meant getting the go-ahead from a recipient leader named Dorothy Canada, a mother of a dozen children who lived in College Station, a small community in Pulaski County. Dorothy was the NCC or National Coordinating Committee representative from Arkansas. NWRO had 98 members statewide on the membership rolls, but College Station was also where Johnnie Tillmon, the national NWRO president was raised before ending up in Los Angeles and founding a welfare mothers organization in Watts.
This meeting was critical. In an earlier visit I had made to Atlanta, the NCC there had nixed the idea of ACORN, wanting instead to lead her small band and liking her place in the group. I got a ride out to Canada’s house and luckily the Johnnie Tillmon situation broke in my favor. Dorothy felt like she was letting Johnnie down because the organization was so small in Arkansas and Arkansas was Johnnie’s home state, so if the price of prying me away as head organizer of the largest affiliate of NWRO in Massachusetts, meant saying she was OK with this idea of ACORN, she was willing to make the bargain to get bigger. Wiley agreed as well when I reached out to him, and it was a matter of weeks before I was packing and on my way.
Driving to Little Rock through the southern Arkansas delta to the west of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, my heart sank. I knew this flat land of cotton and soybean fields, mile upon mile too well from our visits to my grandmother in Sunflower County in the Mississippi delta to the east. Had I not noticed anything about Little Rock? I didn’t want to live beside a cotton field. What had I gotten us into?
Finally, to my relief there started to be pine trees and rolling hills past Pine Bluff, so I started to breathe more easily. I still smile every time I come up a hill to a curve on the highway driving into Little Rock when the city skyscape emerges across the horizon. I remembered thinking then, maybe this would be all right after all, at least for a little while.