Tough, Cat-Clawing, Bloody  [HUNTER GRAY]

See, too, my community organizing "mini-course" at:

And see my Grassroots Organizing: Race and Ethnicity:


Chicago organizing is tough -- in any era -- just  plain damn tough: a
cat-clawing fight on all sides.  This is an extended note on our work on the
bloody South/Southwest side of Chicago during the unusually turbulent era,
1969 into 1973.  This was the most volatile piece of urban frontier in the
country at that point.

In the spring of 1969, I came to Chicago to become the first Southside
Director of the Chicago Commons Association.  This was one of the city's
oldest and largest private social service organizations, founded in the
1890s by Dr. Graham Taylor, a colleague of Jane Addams and William
Mackintire Salter.  Graham Taylor's daughter, Lea Taylor [Miss Taylor] -- a
major figure in American social work  -- was still active, in her eighties,
in Commons affairs and was an old friend of my parents.  She and a
colleague, Dr. Arthur Hillman of Roosevelt University and a socialist, were
instrumental in my joining the staff of the Chicago Commons Association --
very much because of my background in effective grassroots community
organization in dangerous and challenging settings.

Our Southside Area  was brand-new:  whatever we wanted to make it.  I
developed a first-rate core staff of  mostly younger people:  among them, Jim
Richardson and Marshall Klein -- themselves trained organizers; Emily
Garcia; Jesse Howard and Geraldine Howard; and an old Tougaloo/Jackson
Movement friend and colleague, Betty Anne Poole.  Later we were able to hire
significant numbers of community people on various arrangements.  We
operated out of  a network of store-front offices: our main base and several

Our geographic sweep was an immense piece of turf on the South/Southwest
side:  from about 28th Street southward down to 63d and then from the Penn
Central railroad tracks [and sometimes the Dan Ryan Expressway] on the east
all the way westward  to South Ashland Avenue and eventually far to the west
of even that.  [It included the old stockyards, among other landmarks.]
Much of this was changing racially as large numbers of white people moved
out and very large number of non-whites moved in.  Our program focus -- the
grassroots community organization of low-income people, and also related
advocate services -- involved primarily Blacks,  Puerto Ricans,  Chicanos,
some Native Americans, and some Anglos who stayed behind and worked with us.
We began to systematically organize multi-issue block clubs and single-issue
action organizations:  very hard, tedious, super-dangerous work.

The Richard Daley machine -- which sought to cut off  many city services in areas
that became predominately non-white and which quite rightly saw our work as
a major threat on all fronts -- was consistently  and often viciously
hostile.  This was reflected by most police [but not all] and  by other city
officials.  Hostile white gangs -- the White Berets and spin-offs from the
American Nazi Party -- functioned as venomously racist guerilla fighters on
our borders.  Real estate outfits were predatory on a multi-faceted  basis:
sowing all kinds of racial distrust and hate to maneuver the
over-and-over-again sale of homes.  Schools were consistently tense and
forbidding and  dangerous.

We got along well with most  minority youth gangs  on our turf and one, the
Disciples, took it upon itself to provide us with protection.  Violence
pervaded that whole urban region.  I and my entire staff and our local
leaders were subjected to constant death threats from white racists and
their public sector allies, our offices were set afire, there were attempted
police frame-ups.
  Red-baiting was common, especially against me.

In the Labor Day period, 1971, after a summer of constant and oft-deadly
white violence against Black and Puerto Rican people, two young whites were
shot and killed.  Immediately, the whole South/Southwest side moved to the
very brink of what could have been Chicago's bloodiest racial riot in
history.  White advocates of hatred from all over the Chicago metropolitan
area and environs poured into the setting to incite violence; on our side, there were
understandably fed-up people who were moving  very close to violent
retaliation.  But, by that time, we had an extensive network of block-clubs
and other groups throughout our entire area -- with vigorously committed local
leadership  -- and good close working relationships with a number of younger
social-justice Catholic clergy in the white areas.   Acting on our demand,
and with the prodding of a very decent police unit -- the Human Relations
Section of Chicago PD [understaffed and always referred to by mainline
Chicago cops as "the Black mafia" -- it was predominately Black but
interracial] -- top police officials in Chicago pulled out all the local
[hostile] police units from our smoldering turf and sent in huge numbers of
police from other parts of the city.

All of us -- staff, community leaders, grassroots people -- were in the field.

And we worked around the clock.

A hideously bloody catastrophe in that whole area was averted.  And we kept
right on organizing and fighting.  I have always believed that that was one
of the most significant accomplishments in which I've been privileged to
play a substantive role: the Right to the Edge of Armageddon, Labor Day, '71.

All told, we helped a vast number of people overcome the most profound
inter-personal alienation, fear, and apathetic futility to organize
300 multi-issue block clubs plus related groups in two large umbrella
organizations.  We dealt with ever increasing effectiveness and success on a
wide variety of problems: civic services, education, employment, housing,
health, police/community relations, welfare -- and race.  We made enduring
peace between minority youth gangs -- and we defeated a Daley alderman,
installing a Black woman independent.

In Back of the Yards [the old stockyards district],  a solid, cohesive and hard-fighting coalition of Chicano and Anglo people -- organized and serviced by our staff -- won a conclusive and stunning victory against a powerfully-backed urban renewal scheme.

By 1972 and 1973, our community organizations were well established, alert
and resistant to attacks -- and inoculated against that age-old Chicago
organizational disease: co-optation by machine politics.

The solid work of all of this in that turbulent and sanguinary setting lives
on to this day.

I left at the end of the Summer of 1973, always on our own Romany Trail.

The basic records of this critical campaign are in my possession -- with
copies in my collected papers at State Historical Society of Wisconsin and
Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Jim Richardson left in '72.  I've always appreciated this comment from him:

jimrichardson.jpg (486583 bytes)

It helps to be psychic.  Around 1964, a Southern Movement colleague, J.V. Henry, commented cordially to me, "If this were the Middle Ages, you'd be burned as a witch."

Well, anyway. . .


I'm very much interested in and encouraged by Dave Grenier's discussion of
DARE [Providence, RI], its grassroots nature and its democratic and
effective ethos.  John Lacny's  thoughtful analysis of all of this: i.e.,
healthy organizing approach vs. top-down, old-line political stuff -- "the
mass line and the "concrete victory" -- is extremely solid and very much on
target.  John mentions -- as I, too, have -- the Saul Alinsky approach.
It's about 2 am in Idaho but I have a few comments.  Even my faithful
one-half Bobcat cat and companion has gone to sleep by this computer.

The history of Chicago is wild and turbulent: a flood of ethnicities from
the four directions; racism and ethnocentrism like the leaves on trees and
the smog in the air;  pervasive Boss political traditions where
Machiavellian use of race and ethnicity to create and maintain grassroots
divisions -- and, hence,  control -- is a fine  and wicked art;  traps
everywhere --especially patronage payoffs;  remote stratospheric elites like
the myriad of stars in the sky -- all of these and much, much more are
generally known.

It was in all of this, of course, that Saul Alinsky developed his basic
top-down, coalitioning and narrowly pragmatic organizing approach which
eventually became the dogma of his Industrial Areas Foundation -- and was
carried into many other urban areas.  The pioneer Alinsky effort in the old
Stockyards/Packinghouse district -- the Back of the Yards Neighborhood
Council -- was essentially built by bringing together a broad range of
existent leadership groups, some better and many worse. BYNC, run in
traditional Chicago style from the top down, initially won significant
short-range victories, was quickly courted by high up politicos and just as
quickly entered into Faustian alliances at that level. There never was a
radical vision on the Alinsky trail.

In time, Alinsky moved on into other pastures with his "model" and BYNC,
bereft of any substantive grassroots involvement and vigour, degenerated
[under  Alinsky's protégé Joe Meegan] into an increasingly reactionary
appendage of the Democratic machine.  Although in time, Alinsky denounced
BYNC as a "Frankenstein," his basic  flaw -- organizing existent leaders and
Visionless short-term pragmatism [often devoid of a moral foundation and
context] , led to a situation where  many of his subsequent efforts  --
e.g., The Woodlawn Organization --followed the same progression of the BYNC:
tub-thumping coalitioning of leaders, short-term victories, political
alliances and payoffs, ossification and corruption.  And Alinsky has had
many imitators.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was privileged to play the  key
directive role in a very large-scale grassroots community organizing effort
on the bloody Chicago South/Southwest Side from the late 1960s  into the
1970s.  Starting at the most basic level, the house-to-house city block, and
working primarily but not completely with racial minorities, we organized
around 300 block clubs plus related groups in two large grassroots umbrella
organizations.  In a wild and cat-clawing melee that went on and on, we had
to fight the Daley Machine, the Republicans, racists and realtors, police at
all levels, some gangs, urban renewal, part of the Catholic Church, and Joe
Meegan and his Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council [and much more.]
Red-baiting was prevalent, our offices were set afire, our organizers framed
up [we had solidly effective volunteer lawyers.] Violence was rife
everywhere.   We struck a good balance between the grassroots and the
organizers' involvement -- with the tilt going very strongly with the
grassroots.  And we struck a pretty good workable balance between pragmatic
[with a reasonably moral foundation and framework!] short term "civic
improvement" stuff and longer-term visionary goals.  [From the safe, far
edges we were picked at by some uninvolved Progressive Labor elements as not
being explicitly radical enough but this was purely mosquito sniping.] Early
on, I bailed out several key leaders of the Disciples youth gang who had
been cruelly assaulted by "riot" police.  From that point on, the
Disciples  -- a grassroots approach in its own right -- provided us with
considerable protection and much support. And, in due course, our own
fast-developing grassroots  block club organizational work joined, in one
ward, with the Disciples and, together, we ousted the Daley alderman and
installed a Black woman Independent Democrat.  One of the internal
organizational provisions grassroots people wisely insisted on was a
prohibition against serving as an organizational officer and as a paid
[e.g., assistant precinct captain] operative of any [but basically we're
talking about Democratic] political party. All of this has lived on and,
over the years, the community people themselves took on more and more of a
direct organizing role -- moving grassroots efforts effectively into new

Our efforts on the Chicago South/Southwest side weren't perfect.  There was
factionalism, back-biting, power struggles.  But, these were  vigorous
grassroots organizations and there was an essential solidarity.  They worked
and they've lived effectively.

Here and there, there were examples of Alinsky projects in which an ignited
grassroots , often with younger idealistic organizers, could take  things
over -- and , at least to some extent, turn the initial top-down
organizational effort around "toward the Sun" and democracy. These tended to
be rare because of much of the founding baggage and people proved heavily

In due course, I had direct and acrimonious contact with a very key Alinsky
honcho over many of these issues. At a large inter-tribal urban/reservation
Native conference held on the Mill Lacs Chippewa reservation in Northern
Minnesota, I and a colleague, Bill Redcloud,  conducted a workshop on Native
American community organization -- and accountability to the Indian
community.  When that was done, we went over and sat in on another workshop
being conducted by the late Alinsky's successor, Ed Chambers from Industrial
Areas Foundation.  Everyone was Indian except Chambers [who did not know
me.]  His approach  seemed even more elitist and rigid to me than that of
his  prophet.  Initially, I said nothing, just listened. When an elderly
Chippewa man very politely questioned whether this kind of an approach would
fit Native situations, Chambers simply and rudely hammered him down,
indicating the Alinsky approach was a proven one for all people. The room
grew quiet and very tense.  At that point, I arose and did [fairly civil]
battle. Chambers, taken aback by someone who had warred against Joe Meegan
and BYNC, reddened and floundered but maintained his rigidity.  We debated
heatedly and I carried things well.  Chambers abruptly declared a break in
the workshop and, when it resumed, he was immediately attacked  verbally by
young Indians who then forced him physically from the room and then from the
conference itself.

There is always something worse and, in Chicago, Jesse Jackson's very
top -down Operation Push -- a  largely empty, Daley-captured entity with
much verbal militancy and nothing beyond the end of the old-line Democratic
leash -- would be it.  Alinsky, at least,  in his own way, was a  fighter.

The DARE effort in Rhode Island sounds great to me --  and it strikes, as do
John Lacny's  solidly analytical reflections, a strong note of resonance
with me.  Effective  social justice organizing has to be fundamentally
grassroots in nature; has to build enduring and increasing grassroots power;
has to generate vigorous grassroots leadership; has to maintain a sensible
focus on the here-and-now and, concurrently, on the Better World Over The
Mountains Yonder -- and keep those two critical dimensions integrally
related to one another and each rooted solidly in the grassroots.  That's
what makes any "Save the World" endeavour -- labor, civil rights, community
organization, whatever -- strong, sharp, vital.  And, to its enemies,

Time to hit the sack.  In Solidarity -

Hunter Gray [Hunter Bear]

Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
and Ohkwari'
(much social justice material)
For the new, just out (11/2011) and expanded/updated
edition of my "Organizer's Book," JACKSON MISSISSIPPI --
with a new and substantial Introduction by me:
Our community organizing course:
Personal Background Narrative (with many links):