Interview with John McDermott

The first few months of the Chicago Civil Movement has been described in various ways, sometimes as rather unfocused. Can you tell me of your version of what was happening?


I think a lot of, ah, academics and journalists who were not present during those days, didn't really understand what was happening. It may have looked unfocused to outsiders. It really was, in my judgment, a very creative process. Remember what is the Civil Rights Movement? It's a group of volunteers. It's a group of people who are not getting paid, who are acting out of deep conviction, who are protesting unjust conditions and therefor making themselves, ah, unpopular or pariahs in parts of the community, criticized by the media, maybe even risking their careers. They are doing fairly brave and, ah, risky things. And, ah, the question facing the Civil Rights leadership is, "What is it that is going to touch the people so that they will volunteer and form a powerful protest?" You can't order them, you can't pay them. You have to help them see that their personal lives and action, really make a difference. That's what was going on in the early months. It was a testing process. What program, what issue, what method will get through to Chicago including our own people, our own potential supporters? It was an experimental period where different approaches were used. Some worked, some didn't work. And then the movement moved on looking for another approach. So, what looked to some people to be chaotic and sloppy, really I thought was terribly creative. The original impulse was to build a movement to directly attack slums, end slums. Ah, a worthy endeavor but very complex. Slums are caused by myriad, a myriad of causes, the landlords, ineffective laws, maybe problems with the zoning law, the building code, and many landlords themselves are marginal people. It really did not excite people because I think they were aware of the complexity, they may have known landlords in the inner city that they were friendly to. It didn't turn people on. So the movement really kind of moved away from that to the issue of fair housing, access to housing in all parts of the city and suburbs on the basis of merit rather than on the basis of race. That worked.