The ‘nuts and bolts’ heroes of the civil rights movement

US National Archives and Records Administration

Black History Month provides an opportunity to pull back the curtain and turn the spotlight on individuals who made a difference in the successes of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. I had the privilege of working with these individuals while participating in the many demonstrations and rallies that occurred in Chicago between 1963 and 1968.

The men and women who organized the nuts and bolts of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement may not be as well remembered but it was they who provided its essential vision and energy. They expressed their leadership by handling the “nitty gritty”. Their dedication gave the movement “legs” and the ability to move beyond speeches and good intentions.

Being ready to be ‘hit over the head’

Consider Al Raby. He quit his job as a teacher in the local school system, enabling him to devote his full energies to shaping the strategy and tactics as the movement tackled discrimination in education, employment and housing.

In 1965, after two years of demonstrations and marches with no change in the policies of the Chicago school board, Raby signaled his commitment:

“We have come to the point where we have to be ready to go to jail. This business of orderly demonstrations is not going to do a blessed thing. We have to be ready to get hit over the head and to be jailed for our beliefs”.

Raby was indeed jailed – several times.

Raby’s leadership took another turn during the riots that occurred during the summer of 1965. At the height of trouble a police car was dispatched to the headquarters of the movement to bring Raby to the west side. He felt it necessary to work with the “establishment” in an effort to stop the violence that undermined the image of the movement. At considerable risk to himself he spoke to the rioters.“I understand your anger but your actions are hurting what we are fighting for: ending all forms of discrimination in this community”

Al Raby’s leadership and service to the community did not end when the civil rights movement passed from the scene in the late ‘60s. He served in the Peace Corps and played a key role in the election and administration of Mayor Harold Washington. Like the mayor he died far too early in his career. Chicago has not forgotten him - in 2004 a high school was named for him.

'Walking history’

Tim Black is a special hero of mine. Today at age 93, Tim is still active, speaking and writing about the unfinished civil rights agenda.

Timuel Black. Chicago Reader, CC BY-SA

Tim has been referred to as “Walking History”. He has no peer in his grasp of the civil rights scene. As a teacher, as the leader of the former Chicago branch of Negro American Labor Council (the national organization founded by A. Philip Randolph) and as a writer and commentator on race relations and the social agenda facing our country, Tim continues to be an incomparable resource.

Despite his age, he maintains a full schedule and is completing a major oral history project, Bridges of Memory, that presents the life stories of several generations of blacks, starting with those who grew up in the South and moved to Chicago.

I worked closely with Tim as we planned campaigns to increase employment for minorities at large corporations.

On one occasion Tim had to make a difficult decision. The logistics for a major demonstration at Motorola’s show room were in place when the company agreed to meet. Against the wishes of the militants who wanted to go ahead with the protest, Tim agreed to call it off, observing that the goal of the movement was change -— not punishment.

The chief of staff

The third leader who “needs an introduction” is the Rev Al Pitcher. He held a faculty appointment at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and worked tirelessly as chief of staff, first for Al Raby and then later for Jesse Jackson.

I was able to observe him first hand since he lived with us one summer during the height of the Chicago campaign. He outlined his philosophy of not creating new institutions but, rather, working within existing organizations to help them become more effective.

As a white person in a movement that required leadership from the African American community to be calling the shots, Al viewed his role as supportive and staying as much in the background as possible. At the same time the planning of scores of events needed his attention. I asked Al whether he enjoyed his role as manager of all details. He responded,

“No job is too small for me. I am the person who has the only key to the storeroom. If I didn’t keep control of it, we’d never have any supplies on hand. My job is to serve, whether it’s a small assignment of disciplining rambunctious youngsters or making important policy recommendations to Al Raby.”

His willingness to tackle the nitty-gritty was illustrated by the role he played in planning for a visit by Martin Luther King.

Al had to organize transportation so people could travel from their communities to the center of Chicago for what was hoped to be a massive march that King would lead. This meant contacting bus companies, assessing the transportation needs of many different communities and merging those of certain localities in order to conserve expenditures. This was an operation as complex as a military invasion. It did not require much imagination. What it needed was attention to detail and many hours of work and endless phone calls.

A proving ground for ‘diamonds in the rough’

These vignettes of three leaders who played key roles, but today half a century later, might not be remembered, illustrate the potential of the civil rights movement to bring forth talent waiting to be developed.

Similar to the labor movement, the civil rights movement was a proving ground for “diamonds in the rough.”

Where else in our society could people with this leadership potential find expression for their energies?

Many activists without substantial formal education wrote brilliant letters of protest -— letters filled with anger but also containing valid points and persuasive arguments.

Their lives are an inspiration and a call to those willing to work on today’s unfinished civil rights agenda.