Thinking about Block Clubs, R. L. Polk’s City Directories, and the Chicago Police

Nairobi        What would you do in a plane for seventeen hours between New Orleans, Washington, Zurich, and finally Nairobi?  Try to sleep, surely.  I tried that.  Watch a movie or two?  Ok, but that can be a climb.  Read, yes, absolutely.  Among other books I read on these flights was one about block clubs in Chicago.  The author, historian Amanda Seligman, had come up to me when I visited at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, given me her card, and written the name of her recently published book on the back, Block Clubs in Chicago:  How Neighbors Shape the City.  I read it on my Kindle with interest.  I’m sure we’ll talk about block clubs more sometime in the future, but a couple of things piqued my interest.

Seligman’s book introduced me to the role of the Urban League in forming block clubs in Chicago, as well as other cities in the 1950s and early 1960s under various grants from donors, some of them meddling, who were dedicated to “racial uplift.”  Interestingly to me, she covered some of the organizing problems the League’s team had in making contacts on the block in order to build the clubs.

I had a nagging thought the whole time I read these sections?  They used flyers.  They mailed to contacts.  They door knocked.  But they had trouble building a list on the blocks.  Why did they not do what ACORN did and use R. L. Polk’s famous city directories that annually listed all addresses, owners, residents, occupations, and other information?  In building ACORN, Polk’s was mother’s milk to our organizers in building lists.  Every library had a copy.  Even for an annual subscription that used to run up to $600, it was often the first purchase in an ACORN office after the mimeograph machine.  This would have made their organizing so much more effective and easier.  Landing in Nairobi, I could hardly wait to find out the answer.  Sure enough, Polk’s began publishing its Chicago numerical directory in 1928-29 according to the Chicago Historical Society, so they were firmly established there and in 700 cities, counties, and countries.  So, it was available.  Was it simply not accurate in majority African-American neighborhoods or was it unknown to the organizers?  I also wondered if former New Orleans Mayor and longtime director of the national Urban League, Marc Morial, has any idea of the League’s role in community organizing of a fashion, “back in the day?”

Here’s the other question that fascinated me from Seligman’s research.  She found that up until relatively recently the Chicago Police Department employed more than twenty community organizers in a community policing program.  She made the point several times in the book, that the CPD in effect had the largest community organizing program in the city with the most organizers on their payroll.  Given the more recent problems between the Chicago police and the community, I had to ask, why with such a supposed commitment to community organizing and community policing, did they have such a horrific record in actually dealing with the community, especially the nonwhite community?  What happened there?  How did this go so terribly wrong?  Was it just the police or a defect in the organizing?

There are some people who play games on planes.  Others that take enough of whatever to knock themselves out.  There are people who work math problems in their head, so I have heard.  For me, these are among the kinds of questions that take over my mind in the space left between the roar of a plane’s engines.

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Marching on Washington for Jobs and Justice

Who-and-How-e1376425067576New Orleans   We commemorate lots of things in the United States like the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence, so it is a good thing to see real respect given and attention paid to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in 1963.  There’s a nice feeling to the interviews in the paper from people we know who were swept up and onto the buses 50 years ago and their ability to share the experience.  Marc Morial, the head of the Urban League and former Mayor of New Orleans, wrote a touching op-ed piece in one of my hometown papers of remembrance of his father’s role and the rallies and marches in New Orleans at that time.  Tellingly he used his space to also revisit the issues of the original march and express his revulsion that Louisiana’s radical rightwing governor, Bobbie Jindal, has refused to allow the expansion of Medicaid to 400,000 low income citizens.

            It is good for us to be reminded of how much is undone and how much of what was at issue 50 years ago has never been addressed.  I’ve been reading March on Washington:  Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights by William P. Jones.  Maybe there are some errors here and there in the book, but Jones does a service in reminding how important African-American labor leaders were in the civil rights lexicon and in organizing the great march, even though they are often neglected.  Given the polarity of these political times and the attack of the right on various organizations like Planned Parenthood and ACORN, it has been valuable to remember with Jones that during that period the NAACP was banned  by law or court injunctions “from operating in Louisiana, Alabama, Virginia, and Texas.  Florida had launched a $50,000 investigation into communist activities of the NAACP and South Carolina had barred teachers from joining the group.   As a result the NAACP had lost 226 branches and nearly half it membership in the South and was forced to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees just to survive.”  This is hard work. Perhaps people forget how hard, even though that is the nature of the struggle and the price of justice, so the reminders are good that simply put, not enough is being done.

            Controversially, radio host and commentator Tavis Smiley, has called the administration and President Obama “weak” and “timid” on the very issues that Dr. King addressed.  The Times quotes him in an interview saying:

“If you’re not going to address racism, if you’re not going to address poverty, if you’re not going to address militarism, if you’re going to dance around all three of them, then you’re not doing justice to Dr. King and you might as well stay home.” 

Tough talk, but also the kind of talk that helped move the country 50 years ago when President Kennedy was trying to talk labor and civil rights leaders into cancelling the march.  Rev. Al Sharpton makes an excellent point that Obama does not need to dream, but as President needs “to lead.”

I find myself packing for Baltimore this week to help moderate the founding of a coalition of groups that began organizing with the inspiration of King’s speech as their motivation to broaden community organizing.   Initially they even called themselves the ESIMORP Network which is a mouthful, but honored King’s speech as PROMISE spelled backwards.  Now they are naming themselves CROP, but the real point of their work and my being there is easy to understand: the job is undone and the work has to continue.   We have to all keep marching!

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