These Civil Rights Movement veterans were participants in last April’s conference, “The Global Sixties: Social Movements for Civil Rights, Decolonization, Human Rights,” hosted by Dr. Fannie Rushing of Benedictine University and SNCCChicago. SNCC, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was founded in April 1960 as a complement to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) following student sit-ins at a Greensboro, NC Woolworth that refused to serve African Americans. This year's conference will be February 28 & 29, location TBD. More information is available at snccchicago.org.
The Bronzeville historian & friend to many
Timuel Black was born in Birmingham, AL on Dec. 7, 1918 and came to Chicago when he was less than a year old. The Bronzeville of his youth in the 1920s and 30s, “was a place of much poverty and some wealth, a center for music and sports and a terrain where demonstrations could break out at any time,” according to his archive at the Carter G. Woodson Regional library, 9525 S. Halsted St.
During World War II, Black served with an Army supply unit that landed on the beach in Normandy at D-Day June 6, 1944. The war’s life-changing experience for him, however, was seeing the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald in central Germany in April 1945.
Nearly 250,000 people had been imprisoned at Buchenwald and at least 56,000 had died of disease, malnutrition, beatings, medical experiments and executions. Inmates of the camp included political prisoners, Afro-Germans, gypsies, homosexuals – and Jews.
“What I saw and smelled took my mind back to my ancestry of slavery from Africa and having many Jewish friends, what fascism and Nazism was like,” Black said. “They were treated not like human beings but like animals or worse and I got the sense that the black experience in America is simply dramatized by color but is universal in terms of negative human behavior. I left the Army with a dedication that I would spend the rest of my life bringing people together to make this world a better place to live.”
Coming home to a segregated Chicago, Black earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Roosevelt University and a master’s degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Chicago. He taught at DuSable High School (his alma mater), and at Hyde Park and Farragut High Schools; he was also assistant director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Chicago Teacher Corps and served as a dean and vice president for academic affairs at Wright College and Olive Harvey College, respectively.
In the late 1950s, Black participated in the Chicago League of Negro Voters, which challenged City Hall’s control over the African-American vote. As a teachers’ union activist, he was elected president of the Negro American Labor Council (NALC). A. Phillip Randolph, the national president of the NALC, tapped him to be Chicago coordinator for the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Energized by that experience, NALC members were joined by NAACP, CORE, SNCC and the new Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) to stage a boycott of segregated Chicago Public Schools on Oct. 22, 1963. Roughly 250,000 students participated.
Harold Washington and Black had been classmates at DuSable High School and so he worked to elect Washington mayor in 1983. Black met his wife, Zenobia, during the campaign and she later said they dated, married and spent their honeymoon doing voter registration for him. Since “retirement” in 1989, he has taught at Roosevelt University, DePaul University and Columbia College and worked on the Black Metropolis Oral History Project. An autobiography of his 101 years, “Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black,” was released last year.
You were the one who saw Dr. Martin Luther King on TV in December 1955 and as a result asked him to speak at the Hyde Park Unitarian Church, a speech that was moved to Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago in order to accommodate more listeners in April 1956. What did Dr. King say that moved you so much?
That he was tired of the inequality, the burden laid on his people. It was a humorous but accurate statement borrowed from Rosa Parks [who started the Montgomery, AL bus boycott in 1955 after she refused to give up her seat to a white man after working all day as a seamstress]. It was not a ‘physically’ tired but a ‘socially and economically’ tired of being treated unequally.
“If ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ as it says in the Declaration of Independence, then ‘I am tired of being treated as an unAmerican human being.’ Parks was simply saying ‘I am tired of all this bull’ and Dr. King could use it as an expression humorously but accurately in an America where all human beings were supposed to be equal.”
In 1966 Dr. King brought the Civil Rights Movement up from the rural South to Chicago, in a battle to end slums and housing segregation. Why did he choose Chicago over other northern cities like Cleveland or New York?
When he was discouraged by some leadership from being in either one of those cities, he was encouraged by similar leadership here because they had already participated in voting and school desegregation protests. Also, he had many friends here, such as the Rev. Abraham Patterson (A.P.) Jackson, minister of Liberty Baptist Church at 49th Street and King Drive, who had been an older schoolmate of Dr. King at Morehouse College in Georgia - and a classmate of mine at DuSable.
In addition, Chicago had been an organizing center for many years. If you had difficulty getting into the [white] union local, sometimes you could break segregation by organizing an African-American union local – for steelworkers, autoworkers, even musicians. The parallel institutions would eventually be incorporated into the larger union.
Dr. Rozell "Prexy" Nesbitt
Who made the African connection
A meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King when he was a junior in College gave Dr. Rozell “Prexy” Nesbitt a preview of his life as an educator and activist against African colonialism.
Nesbitt, who was raised on Chicago’s West Side but who graduated from Francis Parker, a private high school in Lincoln Park, was very restless after spending a year in Tanzania. His mother suggested he visit the Warren Avenue Congregational Church, 3101 W. Warren Blvd. His family were members there, where Dr. King had a base for his northern civil rights campaign to end segregated slum housing.
“I worked very closely with a wonderful man who was one of King’s main lieutenants, the Rev. James Orange,” Nesbitt said. “He was organizing people into the union to end slums, going house to house on the West Side. He helped with issues they had with their housing, formed them into a union. We would call landlords, work on home repairs. The goal was to strengthen their capacity to deal with these slum conditions.
“Dr. King was calm, a great leader because he was a great listener. He was also thinking about another project in Rhodesia, which would become Zimbabwe. I had a two-hour session with him about that very question. He was interested in taking the movement there. One of his lieutenants, James Bevel, had actually gone there. Meanwhile, the Rhodesian government had thrown out the faculty at the University in Rhodesia because they were involved with the anticolonial movement and I had studied with them in Tanzania. The backdrop was, I was originally supposed to go to Rhodesia but at the last minute, I think the Rhodesian government, acting in concert with the FBI, turned me down. They investigated my family, and a number of people, including my father, had been union organizers. Early on I saw the collaboration between the United States and these colonial governments.”
“King was very conversant with other colonial situations in the world,” Nesbitt said. “That’s why I think the best speech he ever gave was “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York April 4, 1967. It really laid out how comprehensive and deep his world view was as he laid out all the connections between militarism, racism; the only thing missing was sexism, but that was yet to surface. He took up the Vietnam War big time and got heavily, heavily critiqued for that.”
In the speech, Dr. King noted that “for a shining moment” just a few years before, he thought federal poverty programs would help people both black and white. But now he knew “that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehab of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continue to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
Nesbitt graduated from Antioch College in 1967 and continued his education at the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, Northwestern University and Columbia University. While in Dar Es Salaam, he volunteered with FRELIMO, the Mozambique independence movement, because it was led by Eduoardo Mondlane, who had married an American woman at the Warren Avenue Church and who was a friend of his family. Mondlane was the son of a tribal chief and had received bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology at Oberlin, Northwestern and Harvard, respectively. He taught at Syracuse University and worked as a research officer at the United Nations before going home in 1962 to lead the movement for liberation from Portugal.
After completing his own PhD in 1975, Nesbitt became the national coordinator for the Bank Withdrawal Campaign for the American Committee on Africa. He made more than 100 trips to Africa, many in secret during South Africa’s colonial days of apartheid.
“I arranged meetings with liberation movements and the Black Panther Party, Rising Up Angry [youth movement] and Heart of Uptown, Helen Shiller’s organization. In Chicago there’s a tremendous community of people who did anti-apartheid work.”
He also worked to end colonial rule in Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, taught African history at Columbia College Chicago for 33 years, and was a senior program officer with the MacArthur Foundation.
“You can’t separate the struggle against repression and racism in the U.S. from multinational corporations and their exploitation of African workers and African resources,” he said. As an example, he cited the strategic mineral “coltan,” which is used in mobile phones, electric cars, optical and medical equipment. Central Africa provides one-quarter of the world’s supply of coltan, in mining areas controlled by armed factions and organized crime.
The Freedom Singer
Bill Perlman was 18 years old in May 1965 when James Forman asked him to become the only white member of the Freedom Singers: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretaries who did grassroots Civil Rights organizing for voting rights among blacks in the South and also singing at fundraisers in the North to support that work.
“I think James thought it would send a good message that the group be integrated,” Perlman,said.
The struggle for desegregation and then obtaining voting rights for African Americans in the South was no stretch for Perlman, whose mother worked for International Legal Defense in the 1930s and ‘40s and whose great-grandfather edited an anarchist newspaper in the early 1900s.
“I am what is known as a ‘red diaper baby,’” he said. “Everyone in the family was politically active. We were raised with a sense of commitment from the time we could talk. For me it was like going into the family business.”
Perlman was beaten up and arrested during James Meredith’s “March Against Fear,” which started June 7, 1966. Meredith, who had been the first to integrate the University of Mississippi, started the march from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS to promote voter registration. On the second day he was shot by an unknown gunman. Within hours, SNCC and other civil rights groups such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) vowed to continue the march.
A plantation owner also shot at Perlman when he attempted to get water for a young woman marcher after Dr. King and the media had left. “Absolutely, the media was a shield,” Perlman said. “When the cameras were around, people were much less inclined to get violent with the marchers.”
Perlman met Dr. King on the Meredith march and again at a rally in front of the United Nations building when Dr. King was speaking and the Freedom Singers were performing.
“He was impressive,” Perlman said. “I don’t remember the conversation. We were introduced, we shook hands. It was a time in world history when there was sort of a magical group of people who were leading organizations: Malcolm X; Jim Farmer, the head of CORE [who had organized the Freedom Rides to integrate interstate buses in 1961]. The right people got together and the movement formed and took off. I think now we’re waiting for another magical time.”
During the Meredith march, Willie Ricks used the term “Black Power” for the first time and SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Ture) picked up on it, Perlman said. SNCC’s nonviolent stance began to wane as African Americans were getting impatient for change.
African Americans began to feel they needed to create something of their own, and not be deferential to whites, according to the SNCC digital archive. During a late-night vote at their national conference in December 1966, SNCC members voted to expel whites by a vote of 19 for, 18 against, and 24 abstaining.
“Oh, yeah, it was upsetting to a lot of people,” Perlman said. “We felt we were making good progress and it should be important to show that multiple races can live together.”
Dr. King responded to SNCC’s appeal for Black Power in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?" Blacks would not gain political power through separatism, he wrote.
Perlman continued with music and did theatre before he obtained his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at age 33 with an emphasis on audio and recording. He then worked in cable TV for 35 years and as a charter pilot. He was also elected to county government in western Massachusetts and has served on its executive committee for 21 years.
“I take a position far to the left and am vocal and outspoken.” He serves on the police and fire departments and works hard for a local agricultural fair. This nonpolitical work allows him to disagree on political areas but still remain friends. He’s proudest that he supported a local women’s shelter around domestic violence by getting men to obtain the necessary signatures in various towns to put the shelter on the county’s agenda.
Being a Freedom Singer was a cherished experience for him. Members have kept in touch and gathered for SNCC’s 40th and 50th anniversaries in 2000 and 2010, for the annual conferences hosted in Chicago by Dr. Fannie Rushing, for the Smithsonian Institution’s Folk Life Festival, for the Selma, AL bridge crossing commemoration every March and for funerals, “which unfortunately are happening more often,” Perlman said.
Vendor A. Allen shares his stories of integration
When I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the Legend, the Man and the Dream, I think I how times seem to be the same and how my thinking has changed.
Yes, I remember the message of integration between whites and blacks working together. The message was so relevant. At the same time, some people understood and some took it for granted.
From my experience, the Board of Education took the message seriously: it reacted with the Chicago Public Schools busing program of 1970. I was in 6th or 7th grade at John D. Shoop School, 11140 S. Bishop St., and was one of those selected to participate. We were transported to Mount Greenwood School at about 9:30 a.m. everyday and stayed until 3 p.m. It was only about a 10- to 15-minute ride west of us.
The program was designed to bring black and white teenagers together for education – not only from teachers but from each other. We were told to be ourselves and the white kids were told the same thing.
I think the purpose was so we could learn about each other’s cultures. It was a wonderful experience because in hindsight, it was sort of like being introduced to the other side of the tracks. We couldn’t understand the reason for going to school across the tracks in the Caucasian neighborhood but now I see it as an opportunity to get to know people I would not normally mix with. For me, it was an introduction to the real world.
We discussed each other’s slang and felt each other’s hair. We talked about our hobbies and after-school activities. Some people even dated.
We had thought we were reserved to our little community, but with the busing program, a whole new world was open to us. We saw our similarities more than our differences. We all wanted to fit in and be accepted by our peers and to excel in education.
It was an eye-opening experience and I find it still valuable today. Even though I did not value the lesson then, I do appreciate it today.
Because of the busing experience, I’m less afraid to integrate and socialize with people of different colors, ethnic and social backgrounds. It was helpful because I view people in a less judgmental way. I understand a lot of my prejudices stem from my ignorance, of assuming things I had no experience in. So with the busing program, I gained hands on, personal (and even work) experience.