Tag Archives: tenant organising

SCLC’s 1966 Plan for Organizing Chicago

Eyes on the PrizeIt gave me chills to find the SCLC’s plan for organizing Chicago in Eyes on the Prize. Chills to read it, think about just how much resonated with the organizing work we were doing in LA at SAJE. I look back and honestly have no idea how much was influenced by the kind of thinking embodied in this document by the SCLC, passed down through generations of movement people to us, and how much we come up with on our own because it’s only common sense once you have some experience fighting and share similar outlook and goals. I think we probably inherited more than we ever knew consciously, soaking up wisdom and workshops and for myself at least, not paying enough attention to  this incredible history. Our luck at being woven into this long history of struggle and sacrifice and incredible human beings.

The document is entitled ‘A proposal by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Development of a Nonviolent Action Movement for the Greater Chicago Area’ It was put forward on 5th January, 1966, and was to be conducted together with Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). You can read the full text online here.

It opens with their analysis of the city of Chicago, and this political and economic moment of 1966:

Chicago is a city of more than a million Negroes. For almost a century now it has been the northern landing place for southern migrants journeying up from the Mississippi Delta. It was the Promised Land for thousand who sought to escape the cruelties of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee; yet, now in the year 1966, the cycle has almost reversed. Factories moving South, employment and opportunities on the increase, and recent civil rights legislation are rapidly disintegrating the cruelties of segregation. The South is now a land of opportunity, while those who generations ago sang, “Going to Chicago, sorry but I can’t take you,” now sink into the depths of despair. (291)

Their articulation of their own strategy and philosophy, rooting their projected plan of action in their philosophy and what they believe is the strength that has previously brought them to victory:

THE SCLC PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL CHANGE

In our work in the South two principles have emerged. One, the crystallization of issues, and two, the concentration of action.

In Birmingham we confronted the citadel of southern segregation. In 1963 not one aspect of Birmingham community life was desegregated. In approaching this complex segregated society, the issue was simplified deliberately to: Segregation. Early newspaper critiques challenged the simplification and offered a thousand rationalizations as to why such complex problems could not be dealt with so simply and suggested a hundred more “moderate, responsible” methods of dealing with our grievances. Yet it was the simplification of the issue to the point where every citizen of good will, black and white, north and south, could respond and identify that ultimately made Birmingham the watershed movement in the history of the civil rights struggle.

The second point was the concentration of action, and we chose lunch counters, a target which seemed to most social analysts the least significant but one to which most people could rally. It was a target wherein one might achieve some measure of change yet which sufficiently involved the lines of economic and social power to a point beyond itself – to the larger problem. (293-294)

Back to the concrete nature of what they face in Chicago (and what we faced in LA, and what communities of the poor and people of colour face across the country…interesting that they felt they could separate out the issues in the South.

THE PROBLEM IN CHICAGO

The Chicago problem is simply a matter of economic exploitation. Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the SLUM.

Look at this analysis of slum housing in 1966, ain’t nothing changed at all.

A slum is any area which is exploited by the community at large or an area where free trade and exchange of culture and resources is not allowed to exist. In a slum, people do not receive comparable care and services for the amount of rent paid on a dwelling. They are forced to purchase property at inflated real estate value. They pay taxes, but their children do not receive an equitable share of those taxes in educational, recreational and civic services. They may leave the community and acquire professional training, skills or crafts, but seldom are they able to find employment opportunities commensurate with these skills. And in rare occasions when they do, opportunities for advancement and promotion are restricted. The means that in proportion to the labor, money and intellect which the slum pours into the community at large, only a small portion is received in return benefits. [James] Bevel and our Chicago stall have come to see this as a system of internal colonialism, not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium. (294)

But I wish I had read this before, this is such a smart, comprehensive way of analysing the problem from some of the best minds in the country — why did we go reinventing this wheel? It never occurred to me when we were working on the issue of slum housing for so many years that it would be well worth my while to do more research on earlier battles to end it. I did a little, but not enough to find this. Not that I had time for research, and perhaps still might never have found this without knowing where to look. It’s why continuity in movement and halfway houses are so important I think… and better ways of making accessible information:

As we define and interpret the dynamics of the slum, we see the total pattern of economic exploitation under which Negroes suffer in Chicago and in other northern cities.

1. Education: … slum education is designed to perpetuate the inferior status of slum children and prepare them only for menial jobs in much the same way that the South African apartheid education philosophy does for the African.

2. Building Trade Unions: Building trade unions bar Negroes from many employment opportunities which could easily be learned by persons with limited academic training.

3. Real Estate: Real Estate Boards restrict the supply of housing available to Negroes to the result that Negro families pay an average $20 per month more in rent and receive fewer services that persons in other neighborhoods.

4. Banks and Mortgage Companies: Banks and mortgage companies charge higher interest rates and in many instances even refuse to finance real estate in slum communities and transitional communities, making the area easy prey for loan sharks.

5. Slum Landlords: Slum landlords find a most lucrative return on a minimum investment due to inefficient enforcement of city building codes as well as inadequate building codes, overcrowding of living space, and a tax structure on slum property which means the more you let the building run down, the less you pay in taxes.

6. The Welfare System: The welfare system contributes to the breakdown of family life by making it more difficult to obtain money if the father is in the household and subjects families to a dehumanized existence at the hand of impersonal self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

7. Federal Housing Agencies: Federal housing agencies will not insure loans for purchasing real estate in Negro communities and make little money available for financing any low-cost housing or renovation of present housing.

8. The Courts: The courts are organized as a tool of the economic structure and political machine. Judges are political appointees and subject to political influence.

9. The Police: The police are little more than “enforcers” of the present system of exploitation and often demonstrate particular contempt for poor Negroes, so that they are deprived of any sense of human dignity and the status of citizenship in order that they may be controlled and “kept in line.”

10. The Political System: The established political system deprives Negroes of political power and, through patronage and pressure, robs the community of its democratic voice in the name of a Democratic Machine.

11. The City Administration: The city administration refuses to render adequate services to the Negro community. Street cleaning, garbage collection and police protection are offered menially, if at all.

12. The Federal Government: The federal government has yet to initiate a creative attempt to deal with the problems of megalopolitan life and the results of the past three centuries of slavery and segregation on Negroes. (295-96)

Tackling all this was no small task, even in contemplation. They knew they were confronting something a bit different, and that required a change in strategy:

In the South concentration on one issue proved feasible because of a general pattern of state and local resistance. However, in Chicago we are faced with the probability of a ready accommodation to many of the issues in some token manner, merely to curtail the massing for forces and public opinion around those issues. Therefore, we must be prepared to concentrate all of our forces around any and all issues. (296-97)

Mobilization is always key seems like, another main section:

MOBILIZATION OF FORCES

Though we always fought hard that more was going on. You can do a lot just moving people to one meeting and then another, but we never thought that changed enough either in terms of consciousness or lasting change.

The SCLC saw their main targets as members of churches, students, and the unemployed. Like we did at SAJE, they thought about how to create small groups that could themselves deal with smaller issues but come together in a larger force, and they came up with the same idea decades before we did — someone there agreed with us that mobilization wasn’t enough:

In two or three selected neighborhoods, household units must be organized into some type of union to end slums (or householders union, tenant union, or community union). These neighborhoods would be organized on a door-to-door basis to bargain collectively with landlords and the city in an effort to change the conditions which create slums. It would provide protection against eviction and exploitation and help resolve many immediate problems, but its main function would be to band together to demand that the conditions which create slums be ended. This would be a tremendous power in dealing with both political and economic factors which affect life in the slums.

Some explorations are under way in Longdale, East Garfield Park, Kenwood and Englewood. (298)

We too thought in terms of stages, always moving from one to the next, escalating, getting bigger, being strategic about that. That, I am sure, was a direct result of the ways that this kind of strategic thinking continued through various groups in the movement, even if some of the details that would have been so useful to us were lost:

DEVELOPMENTAL APPROACH TO ACTION

During the first phase of the movement organization and education are the primary purposes. This will be done largely through mass meetings, neighborhood rallies and work shops and should continue through the month of February. Demonstrations must also be thought of as educational and organizational tools, and there may be some occasions which call for demonstrations. When this is the case, it must be clear that the purpose of the demonstration is to dramatize and so define this incident as one link in the chain of economic exploitation which occurs in slum life.

Phase 2: By the first of March, community response and live issues should have evolved to the point where some consensus has been reached around specific targets. At this point we should be able to develop the detailed day-by-day strategy which would seek to demonstrate the total chain which enslaves us. Demonstrations should be scheduled at points which should reveal the agents of exploitation and paint a portrait of the evils which beset us in such a manner that it is clear the world over what makes up a slum and what it is that destroys the people who are forced to live in a slum.

Phase 3: By the first of May we should be ready to launch the phases of massive action, but just as no one knew on January 2, 1965, that there would be a march from Selma to Montgomery by March of that year, so now we are in no position to know what form massive action might take in Chicago. However, as we begin to dramatize the situation, we will be led into forms of demonstration which will create the kind of coalition of conscience which is necessary to produce change in this country. (298-99)

And of course, every campaign needs its goals and objectives, and they looked to change both individual consciousness as well as policy and external structures.

OBJECTIVES

Our objectives in this movement are federal, state and local. On the federal level we would hope to get the kind of comprehensive legislation which would meet the problems of slum life across this nation. At the state level, we should expect the kinds of tax reforms, updating of building codes, open occupancy legislation and enforcement of existing statutes for the protection of our citizens. On the local level we would hope to create the kind of awareness in people that would make it impossible for them to [be] enslaved or abused and create for them the kind of democratic structures which will enable them to continually deal with the problems of slum life. Among these would be active community organizations, a coordinated and powerful civil rights movement, religious institutions which are prepared to minister to persons in urban society as well as to the structures of that society. We would also hope that from this would emerge several pilot projects and institutions which might be of some permanent significance. (299)

Sadly, that list of objectives that Martin Luther King nailed to the door of city hall like Luther himself didn’t quite seem to live up to all of that. But I don’t know enough to quibble with the actually policy changes proposed, all I can say is I think established organizations often don’t ask for enough, putting a small win above getting anything close to what people really need in a campaign big enough to inspire people. But that’s an aside.

Following this document comes an interview with Linda Bryant Hall, member of CORE in 1966 and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations – I love that they contrasted these two things. It raises all the key issues about the importance of local organisation and power, and how that connects to national organisations who have their own agendas. She talks about King’s presence in Chicago, how happy everyone was that he was coming — because how could you not be? But that despite their own organising proposal, he hadn’t thought enough about the differences, and seems like as well, he hadn’t expected a full working partnership.

After he came here, it was quite obvious–at least to me–that this was a more diversified community and the tactics were going to have to be a little different here. What happened is that when he came in, I think what he tried to do was to try and take that kind of style he had operated with in the South and just plant it down here in Chicago, as if it worked there it would work here, too. Not taking into consideration the difference that would be here. (311)

In Chicago they had already brought community organizations together to work under in a group called the triple CO, an umbrella group. In the words of Bryant:

We needed him to lend us his strength, to lend us his name. And we wanted him to come and join our movement–not come in and lead it, because we already had leaders. So when he came in to try and discount what was already here, I think, he offended quite a few people. (312)

She goes on to talk about the march to Cicero (one of those all-white no-go-or-you-will-be-hurt-real-bad neighbourhoods for people of colour, I am finding every single city had a number of those) and the drama and confusion around that, how the CCCO decided to go through with it but they hadn’t done the leafletting, knocking on doors, all the things to get people to the march. There is so much work involved in pulling off a good march most of the time, but people came anyway, they just put down what they were doing and joined up.

This march was community people. These people had not attended any workshops on nonviolence; they had not listened to any lectures on love and loving your fellow man at all; they were just people who were angry about what was happening and wanted to do something. (315)

I dream of marches like that.

Chicago…SCLC’s campaign didn’t meet it’s own goals. It was a bit of a shock to their system. I feel like this city was a turning point, a Northern city but one where residential segregation was deeply entrenched and very violently defended (see Arnold Hirsch’s work, or Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis–a book I absolutely love and am in some awe of intellectually, yet still haven’t quite managed to blog in all its massiveness). It definitely seemed at the time to highlight differences between north and south, rural and urban, fall into that gap between Martin and Malcolm. With calm hindsight, I don’t feel those as opposing things so much and even at the time I know they weren’t experienced as complete binaries by folks in the movement the way press portrayed them. But now I’m writing about things I might not know enough about. In terms of the nitty gritty on analysis and strategy though, as well as the insight into what role a national organisation should play when there is plenty of local organisation, this little section was awesome.

For more on organizing…

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Father John Groser, Rebel Priest of the East End

groserbookThis book uncovers for me some of the contributions of certain priests of the Church of England to the struggle for a better world here and now. It is a tradition I knew very little of, being more familiar with Liberation Theology such as that written by Gustavo Gutierrez and Camilo Torres, learned through the words and practice of some of the people I respect most in the world like Leonardo Vilchis and Don Toñito.  So I was happy to find this, a booklet Manifesto of the Catholic Crusade in the early 1920s by Father Conrad Noël:

if you would destroy the kept Press and fight for freedom of expression; if you would destroy the Capitalist Parliament and build a People’s Republic; if you would abolish classes, artificial distinctions, snobbery; if, while you know the most deadly tyrants are not kings but financiers, speculators, captains of industry, you would also, with St Thomas of Canterbury, destroy that nest of flunkeys, the Court; if, while you measure swords with the New Plutocracy, you are ashamed of that ancient fraud which calls itself the old Aristocracy…We offer you nothing–nothing but adventure, risks, battle, perhaps ruin; with the love and loyalty of comrades and the peace of God which passeth understanding.’ (15 – William Purcell ‘Birth of a Rebel’)

Father John Groser gave it to William Purcell telling him it was ‘a bit unbalanced, but still pretty splendid, don’t you think?’ (14). Father John was himself entirely splendid I think — how else could such a volume as this exist, written in sections by various colleagues and friends and a few pages from his son to keep alive his history and legacy and the vitality of his praxis? No activist could ask for a better tribute to their life’s work.

This form means this book is full of not only of struggle and theology, Marxism and Christianity, but also delightful glimpses into the character of the man, as well as the East End’s past and its life during two world wars. This is one of my favourite stories, of a church I hope to know better soon, and comes from Rev. Denys Giddey, Groser’s last curate at St George’s:

One evening in the blitz a small bomb dropped in the Rectory garden, which had at one time been part of the churchyard. We found that the explosion had disturbed some human remains. Father John went off to get a spade and told me to fetch a prayer book. I was then required, in the light of search-lights and various explosions, to read the Committal as he re-interred the remains. (56 – Kenneth Brill ‘Of Lawful Authority’)

I love the note that Groser takes it as understood that senior police officers see their duty as protection of property above all else. Then there are these splendid words — Charles Dalmon’s hymn for St George’s Day:

God is the only landlord
To whom our rents are due,
He made the Earth for all men
And not for just a few.
The four parts of Creation,
Earth, Water, Air and Fire,
God made and blessed and stationed
For every man’s desire. (79 – ‘Parish Priest’ – Kenneth Brill)

He was only ever parish priest in Stepney — Christ Church on Watney Street to be exact, though it no longer stands. It was destroyed early on by German bombs in WWII — I think it is hard for us now to imagine lives touched by not just one but two such great catastrophes — Father John was a chaplain on the front lines in WWI and this is part of what radicalised him and brought him to the East End in the first place.

This sentence is so reminiscent of Arthur Morrison’s opening to Mean Streets, but here these streets are transformed — the power of struggle certainly but I will allow religion as well:

Few, however, can take part in the Eucharist without a pang of regret for the ugly building, in an ugly street, in an ugly society, within which Groser ensured for them a vision of transcendent spiritual and material beauty which they are unlikely to enjoy again in its full glory this side of the grave. (96 – Brill, Parish Priest)

All of these things are grand, like his friendship with George Lansbury, his support for the docker’s strike, multiple arrests and police beatings. I’ll probably write more about those. It still surprised me to find him president of the Stepney Tenants Defense League. It began in 1938 when he gave space in vicarage for young solicitors and law students to interview & advise tenants, and clearly just snowballed from there as these things do. In May 1939 the League issued a broadsheet titled:

PERSONAL APPEAL FROM FATHER GROSER

In the nine months of our development we are able to say that we have beaten back the Landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney. Your organisation has not only given the lead to the people of Stepney but also to the whole country. Our aim is to continue to wage the war against high rents and bad housing conditions. As well as your demand from the organisation the protection it offers, your organisation demands from you an understanding of the enormous problems that face it in it its fight.

There are 4 points on what tenants should do:

(i) Persuade neighbours to join the League and attend Meetings.
(ii) Set up committees in your streets and blocks of Buildings.
(iii) Bring in loans and donations for a thousand pounds to fight back against the powerful Landlords’organisation and to retain what has already been won.
(iv) Remember the struggles of the tenants in Brady Street and Langdale Mansions and the other strike centres are the struggles of every one of us. (101 – The World His Parish – Brill)

The League announced Tenants’ Week, gave a public showing of the film Tenants in Revolt (need to find that), and did a charabanc (charabanc!) outing to Hastings.

What did they do that we didn’t do in LA so many decades later? And we thought we were inventing it all (I know already how silly that sounds, but we didn’t really know what we were doing — I guess there aren’t so many ways to do it). I look back on my years of doing this same work and I am both thrilled to be part of this movement that stretches back over years and simultaneously dismayed that it fucking stretches back over so many years. The League even organised a fund tenants could pay rent into while on strike. Groser held thousands of pounds in this capacity. We are still doing this same thing and it makes me both happy and sad. It does emphasise to me, however, that until housing ceases to be a commodity that people profit from and instead becomes homes to be lived in and treasured, there will be tenant organisers just like us another hundred years from now.

Still, I am proud reading the events of Tuesday, 20th June 1939, when tenants of Alexandra Buildings on Commercial Street (45-55) ‘built barricades of tables, doors and sofas at each entrance and a “drawbridge” to resist the bailiffs. Six were arrested for obstructing and assaulting the police.’ They held pickets at the landlord’s offices while both the Mayor & Bishop of Stepney, Rabbi Brodie and Father Groser argued the tenant’s case inside with landlord 2 hours. Bringing politicians, priests, rabbis together to pressure slumlords to do the right thing? Shit, we did that too — but no such barricades sadly, and no drawbridge. That was a stroke of genius. The article in the next day’s Daily Herald stated Landlord Tarnspolsk agreed to stop evictions and negotiate. The barricades came down again.

Then war came, changing everything for a few years. Slowly Groser moved away from the League. But not from his politics.

Another favourite story is of the time Groser recited the following poem of G.D.H. Cole when preaching evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. The verger conducted him to the steps of pulpit carrying a staff and bowed to him, Groser surprised him by bowing back, then said:

For I tell you one thing success cannot stomach the sight of,
And that’s failure, the sort that you can’t get away from or write off.
But that shabbily, shamblingly, haunts you and cringes for pence,
Am I wrong thus far, though I cause you offence?

Headlines in the Daily Herald the following day: ‘Means Test Denounced in St. Paul’s Pulpit’ (105 – The World his Parish)

In 1951, Groser helped to found the Stepney Colored People’s Association. In the article he wrote for their first newsletter in 1952 talking about how Stepney has ‘always been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of London, perhaps that is one of the reasons why it is such an interesting place to live in.’ and that it had ‘always provided a haven for foreigners and seamen…’ (107)

groserbecket1949you thought he couldn’t get much better, and then you find out he performed as Archbishop Becket in the 1949 film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, directed by George Hoellering. I have to hunt that down. So he knew T.S. Eliot, John dos Passos, a few others.

He understood faith, and how Marxists have their share:

‘I believe that God has made the world for that sort of life in the world [a free and equal society], and man will not rest till he attains to it. But it is to me an act of faith which is in accord with my philosophy. It is equally an act of faith on the part of the Community Party. (From ‘Methods of Change.’ A lecture to Watford Deanery School of Religious Study, October 1934, quoted in ‘Socialist Because Christian’ – David Platt)

I enjoyed the point of view of his colleagues writing in the 1960s as though the battle is almost over, as though Keynes solved it all and we were well on our way to utopia. They look back on Father John’s more fiery days as a period over and done. Still, if only all Christians felt this way:

This incarnational doctrine leads to the necessity of the Christian’s identification of himself with human beings in need. In the 1920s and 1930s this led inevitably to participation in the class struggle. (167 – Platt)

There are more wonderful quotes, like these from the 1932 Manifesto of the Christ Church Campaign for Socialism:

“We believe that the principal duty of the Church is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom of perfection, a Kingdom of love, justice, comradeship, beauty, and all that we know as good.”

The first stage in the programme is the establishment of a classless and democratic Socialist State in this country. The second step is ‘the establishment of a World Cooperative Commonwealth of ‘Socialist States’.(176 – Platt)

Can you imagine? Yet this is written as though we are on our way to achieving this, as though it is nothing very radical. This chapter on Father John’s Socialism by his son-in-law David Platt is almost as eye-opening as Angela Davis’s first autobiography where she knows the revolution is just around the corner. What I wouldn’t give to feel that just once, just a little touch of it.

You can tell that he worked with people, knew people. He argued strongly for the need for a transformation of rank and file through struggle and religion:

Sacrifice and cooperation are required when men are no longer driven by fear of unemployment and insecurity and not likely to suffer from their own sins and mistakes as before. Those who fear the development of too much centralisation of power need to be reminded that decentralisation is only possible if there is a sufficient number of people who are able and willing to accept responsibility below. A voluntary and peaceful transition from one order of society to another demands the active participation of all or at least of a sufficient number of people in every area of life to carry conviction and a following. It demands a readiness to surrender voluntarily rights which stand in the way, and a voluntary acceptance of sacrifice and responsibility by people willing a common objective. (‘The Vision of the Church’s Work’. Lecture to C.E.Y.C. Conference in Oxford, September 1950. 181 – Platt)

I shall end this with his denunciation of capitalists, a position I’d like to see more from the church as we still tighten our belts and continue dealing with their crisis: Father John could not be more clear that

their economic position so binds them that they are unable to do that which is necessary to make the Kingdom of God possible for them as for other men…It is these people who are in the position of control in international affairs, and it is the same interest that dictates there…when their economic position is threatened, their loyalty to the Kingdom of God becomes secondary, because to their consciousness the economic factor is the one most important thing in their lives. (‘The Vicar’s Letter’ in Christ church Monthly, December 1935, quoted Platt 185).

There is so much more left unsaid, and a few things to follow up as well, as always: Look up Ethel Upton, social science student from LSE working in Stepney and at St Katharine’s. Find Father John’s own book Politics and Persons. Find Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a novel that examines the horrors of the Means Test Father John spent his life campaigning against. More about the Stepney Colored People’s Association. So much.

If you want more right away, look at the wonderful page from St-George-in-the-East, packed as usual with facts and links.

And more on London’s East End from myself…

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