Interview with Bernard Lafayette
QUESTION 8
JUDY RICHARDSON:

BERNARD LAFAYETTE:

One of the things the movement did was to fish for issues. While there were a myriad of problems that exist, what are the, what is the single problem that you can come up with, and this is one of the things that Martin Luther King was very good at. He could get on one issue and he could stay on it until something was accomplished. So one of the things we did was kind of fish around, began to see which of these problems would lend itself to, ah, dramatizing. As it were in Chicago we found out--



BERNARD LAFAYETTE:

One of the things the movement did was to fish for issues because there are always a lot of problems in any community where we worked. Like Martin Luther King for example, one of his successes was the fact that he stayed on one issue until something was actually accomplished and sometimes, you know, people should do that. In Chicago--




JUDY RICHARDSON:

What was the point of ?

BERNARD LAFAYETTE:

One of the things that the movement always did in any community and that we also did in Chicago and that was to, ah, fish for issues. There are many problems in a community, just a myriad of problems in that sort of business. But the important thing is to try to find one issue that's predominant and stay with that issue until you're able to get some resolution.



JUDY RICHARDSON:

BERNARD LAFAYETTE:

Well, one of the things the movement did was to actually fish for issues. While there were a myriad of problems in the community, the important thing was to identify the most predominant problem and be able to work on that particular problem until there was some, ah, results. And that was one of the things that was very important about the way Martin Luther King approached problems in a community. In Chicago it was important for us to try a variety of things so that we could begin to flesh out, so to speak, some of the real issues and problems around which people could be organized. It was important for us to get the people involved. It was very interesting when Jim, James Bevel, SCLC organizer from the South, came when I was here in Chicago initially, and he was up for a little vacation from the South and he said, "Well, what are, what are you talking about? There's no problems up here. Everybody look like to me they're eating and look at all those people, they're fat and they're, you know, fine and healthy and, and Daley is good to everybody. So what's the problem down here? We don't have any problems." Well, he was sort of teasing, but trying us to think critically about what really was the problem. Because, while you saw no signs of segregation, there were obvious, ah, obviously conditions that were affecting Blacks more so than other people for an example. But when you began to look at the problem, it was not simply a Black and White problem. There were problems that affected Blacks but they also affected a large number of Whites. And I think that this is the thing that was different about some of the things we approached in the North. The lead poisoning for an example, we began to, ah, work on organizing people in, in the tenant's union. And as a result, like one time my secretary didn't show up, secretary to the tenant's union, who is a local, ah, woman, who was a single parent. And I asked what happened because she was always very fateful. And she said, "Well I had to take my kids to the hospital." She said, "One of them had been eating some paint chips from the wall and the doctor that, ah, you know, they had all kind of problems, cause vomiting, and it could cause brain damage." I say, "What?" I mean, you know, just was not aware that, ah, that was one of the things in the slum. It occurred to me that a baby, even in the crib, would not be safe because you had peeling paint that come down from the ceilings and that eating that, those paint chips meant that that person could be permanently damaged. So it did not matter whether you had good schools or good housing and good recreational programs when you have a brain damaged baby. So that became the issue. And we began to organize, ah, anti-lead poisoning project. And we began to address the, ah, local government, the Daley machine and the Health Department and it was, I was stunned because we began to talk about all these problems, health problems with children who were helpless and, ah, they'd say, I would say, "Why don't we have a screening program on the West Side of Chicago so we can determine how many of these kids already are affected by this problem and have lead, you know, in their blood?" And he said, "Well if we did that, the hospitals would be filled!" And, that really shocked me. That he was more concerned about the hospitals being filled rather he would simply let the children die and continue to be victims of the problem. So I was really angry about that. And we went back and organized the community. And one of the things that's important is to get people in the community to take responsibility for the problems. So I pushed these high school students and I said, "Look here is the problem. These babies are dying and these are your sisters and brothers by the way and children in your community and somebody has to take responsibility, you know, would you do it?" We organized a group called SOUL, Student Organization for Urban Leadership and they began to, ah, have meetings and we began to figure out what we could do. So we decided what we would do, we found a chemist from Lying-In Hospital and he helped to develop a litmus test. So we said, what we'll do is go around and collect the urine and at least test the urine to see if they had corproporphyrin which is a byproduct of lead. And these students put on lab jackets and they felt really good and they went around and they had to learn how to get the urine. Because you have to get the urine from the girls different from the boys, and so they had to learn these different techniques like putting their hands in water. But they got excited about it and people were willing to do something about the problem. So what we did in effect was to dramatize the problem. Although we could not solve the problem, it's important that people who are victims of the problem, can learn how to dramatize the problem. As Jim Bevel says, "People who are oppressed have to learn how to cry dramatically and effectively in order to get help from others who can help."