Thursday, January 11, 2007

Flashback: 1966: The Civil Rights Revolution Hits Chicago with Jesse Louis Jackson on the Rise with his New Creation, “Operation Breadbasket.”

[Memories from more than 50 years in politics for my kids and grandchildren.]

The photo run here is how I looked forty-one years ago—involved in Illinois politics and at the same time trying to protect my company, Quaker Oats, from a demagoguery that could ruin it.

In the summer of 1966, while Father was in the hospital from which he would never emerge alive, Martin Luther King, fresh from winning a Nobel prize and capturing the conscience of the socially conscious of the nation, came to Chicago to dramatize it as the nation’s most segregated city. Until he came to this city, it was fashionable for us to cluck our tongues at the red-necks of the South who allowed a simple matter of skin pigmentation to bother them…not recognizing this simple fact: that if every vestige of discrimination against blacks were to be removed overnight—in the North as in the South—the debilitating effect of a combined total of 400 years of slavery and segregation would remain for years to come. That stain and the ill-conceived welfare policies of the Great Society pounded the black family with the result that families headed by single women are more likely to suffer from poverty than any other. This is still not fully appreciated by many African Americans and white liberals.

From that year on, I became involved under the aegis of my boss, Bob Thurston, in launching modest works of social progress for Quaker: a tutoring program for public housing kids participated in by Quaker employees, a nutrition education program for disadvantaged women with no company product overtone, a supermarket training program which encouraged some to think about getting involved in businesses of their own, a reform of the company’s philanthropy and support by the company’s lobbying arm for measures to relieve poverty. Until we hired a qualified African American who specialized in knowledge of that community, I made it my practice to attend minority meetings in the city including one of the earliest sessions of what was then known as “Operation Breadbasket,” run by a powerfully motivated orator who was an uniquely gifted phrase-maker, the phrases usually rhyming which would start black audiences, raised in Baptist church genre, applauding and shouting “amen.”

One signal effort I saw first-hand was backstage at “Breadbasket” when, led there by a black friend, I saw Jackson visiting with his circle of admirers. There is a misconception that those who played major roles in the civil rights movement were the black poor. They were not. The black poor were immobilized and powerless. Those who played big roles were members of the black middle-class—and not as many of them as were supposed. In particular, it must be said that the Breadbasket sessions on Saturday mornings were emotional, composed of the middle class with about a third of the seats empty in the auditorium. Women were prevalent because at that time, the Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson was a strikingly good-looking man, with strong athletic build (he had declined an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois) and the young men he had around him were also handsome including his volunteer body-guards, called “the Fruit of Islam,” powerfully built young men, immaculately well-dressed from the black Muslim organization.

I remember very well one of the earliest times I went backstage. A group of middle class men—but mostly women--were scoffing at the then new-nature of conservative protest…against school busing which was undertaken to integrate the educational system and which had generated a powerful backlash among middle-class whites. I had had some experience watching another phrase-maker, a decade earlier, Hubert Humphrey and was wondering if this young minister could possibly measure up to the task of picturing a crisis in Humphrey-style shorthand. While I watched, it seemed clear that Jackson had decided to harangue the crowd against the conservative whites who opposed busing. He was talking to the crowd while attractive young black women were giving him the eye, showing great deference, trying to capture his favor—all the while he was ignoring them, trying to come to a conclusion in his own mind as to how to tackle the issue for the audience.

There was no doubt that opposition to sending kids far away from home in school buses was unpopular—as it would be. The entire consensus of urban education was that of the neighborhood school. Now federal courts were violating the neighborhood school concept and ordering buses to be taken for long trips, from one side of Chicago to the other, for the sole purpose of racial integration. There was some opposition within black families as well, sending African American kids to, say, white neighborhoods in my own Northwest Side and not hauling them back home until it was nearly dark in Chicago’s long winters.

As I watched Jackson, I was fascinated with how he listened to a group of his black devotees discussing the issue…he asking some questions and studying their responses very much like Humphrey used to do when he was turning over in his mind a problem to see how it would have most appeal to an audience. The conversation went on until one young lady nailed it perfectly as an issue. She had come from the South and reminded Jackson that, after all, in rural areas, white families weren’t bothered unduly with kids being bused. Jackson himself had come from a rural area in South Carolina and he readily agreed. Actually, I recognized instantly that busing to schools had been in process for many years…in rural Illinois…rural Minnesota…and just now it was causing a ruckus with whites. Even today in my suburb, buses leave for long trips to Chicago carrying white kids to Ignatius, Loyola academy and other schools. The woman kept hammering at him that white fear of busing was atypical. Suddenly he hit on his theme.

He snapped to a conclusion and he tried the phrase out in that little circle of us. He said slowly, “It ain’t the bus—it’s us.” Then he repeated it: It Ain’t the Bus—It’s Us! The group thrilled to it because he had captured the essence of the white protest in a way that made it hotly unpopular and racist. At that moment, he was tapped on the shoulder by an aide and prepared to go on stage in the auditorium. The auditorium was half-full…it never was more than half-full on Saturday mornings…but the TV cameras were so stationed that it looked like an immense congregation jammed into the Mormon Tabernacle. The band…composed of hired musicians…started the theme for his entrance.

The song that filled the hall was certainly one of the greatest ever composed for black optimism, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” written by a black minister, James Weldon Johnson, from the South, a distinguished and gifted educator who died in 1948. I defy anyone hearing that song…black or white… not to become emotionally committed by its very powerful religious strain enough to go out and tackle the Mississippi deputy sheriffs single-handed.

As he stood backstage, snapping his fingers to the strains, Jackson looked at his watch and allowed the band to hit its stride…refusing to enter until the tension of the crowd fairly demanded him: “Where is he?” It’s important to note that this show-biz style was also used by King when he came to “Breadbasket”—but not with the long-drawn effect. King was so superlative a speaker that he used to come up without much orchestral fan-fare and have us weeping within fifteen minutes with a sad, sonorous recital in superb English…no deep South drawl ala Jackson. But I digress.

As Jackson would wait patiently backstage, the band and choir would strike up certainly the most powerful song ever to animate an emotional crowd—a mixture of religious faith, a refusal to continue docility, a spiritual reaffirmation. The band and a volunteer church choir sang with the audience joining in at full-throated cry: Lift ev’ry voice and sing/ Till earth and heaven ring/ Ring with the harmonies of liberty/ Let our rejoicing rise/ High as the list’ning skies. Let it resound loud as to rolling sea./ Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/ Sing a songfull of the hope that the present has brought us/ Facing the rising sun of our new day begun/ Let us march on till victory is won!

His band of worshipers backstage watched him reverently as he snapped his fingers, catching up with the rhythm…then, when he decided the crowd was at the right pitch…he would stroll onstage—just stroll onstage which produced a screaming mass frenzy from the third of the people in the hall while the TV cameramen and reporters obediently determined not to disgrace the sanctimonious of the moment by showing empty seats. He would stand there, almost sullen, pouting but with a soft smile beginning to play on his lips, waiting for the crowd to finish their hysterical serenade of him. One time I saw him raise his wrist to look at his watch—a signal for the singing to stop. But they wouldn’t and would begin again: Lift ev’ry voice and sing! Then he would smile and hold his wrist with the wrist-watch on it to his ear to find out if it was ticking…which started a scream of laughter as the chorus rolled on.

When the crowd calmed down after 12 minutes of steady cheering by my own watch with the band playing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” over and over Jackson began in a low tone that caused people to cup their ears to hear him, asking themselves “what is he saying?” and getting response from their neighbors, “he’s talking about the busing!” Then skillfully he raised his voice…clear, not loud…raised it keeping the inflection of the South, the deliberately mispronounced words of southern idiom—the word “folla” for “follow”…culminating with the gesture of slapping the flat of his hand to his forehead as if he had just thought of it. “It ain’t the bus…” he would yell…”it’s US!” The timbers would rock with laughter, derisive anti-white scorn, hysterical shrieking of understanding…and as he led them they would repeat: IT AIN’T THE BUS…IT’S US!

After that day I knew I was in the presence of a master. And while today Jackson has lost much of his youth, has been somewhat demeaned by his own excesses, there probably has never been a more dramatic African American delivery of a message except by the great man himself, Martin Luther King.

I would thrill to the cacophony and show-biz of those Saturday mornings but all the same I’d come home with the realization that as a company that marketed Aunt Jemima products…pancakes, syrup, waffles…we were in a desperately serious position with this guy if…and it seemed inevitable…he determined to shut the brand down because of some spurious insult to black womanhood. He could lead a national boycott that would kill us for no reason other than he felt he could enlarge his constituency nationally and rival even Dr. King. It was something indeed to worry about. How the crisis came about and was resolved next time.

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