Interviewer: Madison Davis Lacy, Jr
Production Team: A
Interview Date: June 1,
Camera Rolls: 1098-1099
Sound Rolls: 145
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ed Gardner, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 1, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
You told me you were inspired when you started your business way back in 1964. And you were a schoolteacher then. Tell me that story. How did you get into that?
Well, you know, when you got a wife and four kids, you're making, making ten thousand dollars a year, ah, you wonder how you're going to make it to send those kids through college and so forth. Ah, and we just felt that we had to do something else beside just um, ah, became a--Not that it wasn't a good job as a teacher, assistant principal, but the dollars were not there. Addition to that, that was the time that Dr. Martin Luther King struggled in the south. And we felt so inspired that the, particularly those young Blacks youngsters who were giving up their lives in many cases, and Whites, too, suffering so that we could probably have a better life for all of Black Americans throughout the nation. So we just kind of felt that um, maybe we could do more than just being a schoolteacher. And we felt that our best chance to go into business. I was not a picketer. I was not a marcher, but I felt that I could somehow--I was naive enough, felt that I could build a major corporation supplying jobs for hundreds of people. I was just that naive, you know. And so I was selling hair care products out of the back of my car, up and down 47th Street, 63rd Street, making twenty-five percent profit on a part-time basis. So I think I can make one of these proc--So I started going down the basement, stirring my pot there with some wax and petroleum on a hot plate. And I got a product that looked pretty good. I said, "Gosh, this is a good product. I think I can sell it to the beautician." Talked to the beautician, said, "Mr. Gardner, where ever you got that product from, don't ever bring it back here again." It was just that bad. But again, I wanted to build a major Black bus--I went back and started stirring the pot again. No chemistry background. No business training, but I wanted to be an entrepreneur and a business person. So we finally improved the product, took it back. She said, "That's great. Leave it just like it is. Don't change it." And from that point on we started building the present multi-million dollar Soft Sheen Products Company. But it was all based upon the fact that we wanted to do more of what Dr. King was talking about. He says, "If you open those doors, who's going to walk through there?" Now we had to have businesses to supply jobs, so we wanted to supply those jobs. And that's why Soft Sheen was built from the very beginning.
All right, stop down for a second
Coming now to around I think it's 1982. You're sitting in your office and you're called upon by Renault Robinson. What, what happened? What did you guys talk about?
Me and ah, Renault Robinson called me he was, as far as I was concerned, a very active person in politics and social movement, former policeman, ah, been an officer of the city of Chicago but somehow survived and was still a major political leader in the city of Chicago. And Renault called me, he says, "Ed, we, we need help ah, with the political campaign." So I said, "Well, come on by." And I thought it was a donation which we were probably going to do. And he came by and explained very clearly to us that our problem was voter registration. Blacks are not registered. And ah, so my son Gary and my daughter, they were here. And they said, "Well, Dad, why don't we devote ah, our last quarter of advertisement--instead of using s--to advertise Soft Sheen, use it to ah, get Blacks to register to vote." And that was a lot of money. That was about a quarter of a million dollars we allocated for advertising that period of time. So we just decided that let's go with it. And what we did was to um, dedicate not only the dollars, but the time and the creativity of our marketing department , advertisement department to really get involved behind voter registration. And Renault was surprised that we wanted to do this. But we knew things were not going to change in Chicago unless we got Blacks registered. If you're not registered you cannot vote, so don't tell me about how you don't like Jane Byrne or Mayor Daley unless you are registered to vote. So we felt that we could do the creative job in, in alerting and alarming the Black community as to their responsibility to become registered voters. And we had the equipment to do it plus we had the dollar. At that time we had been in business since 1964 to the present time, we were probably a successful Black business built on dollars from the Black community. We felt here's our chance to return those dollars and do enormous thing as far as making life better for, ah, Black Chicagoans but Blacks all around the nation to take this as impetus in a, and a movement in the right direction for the future.
So, now the voter registration drive has its impetus. How did people say in the middle class and the other parts of the business community respond to this? This was like a first wasn't it?
You know, I tell you brother, the one thing we did, you know, my son said, look let's not say that Soft Sheen is behind this. We ran radio commercials for two or three weeks. Come alive October 5**. Real sharp commercials that would alert and really, ah, get our Black community behind it. And they kept saying, well, we're, whose paying for all these? There were many spots, something like 14 and 15 spots a day. But also, once we advertised on, on a station, we had the station also match our spots. So we had a large number of spots running every day. But we had that power and the strength as a major advertiser to get them to do this**. Ah, so, we did say, saw she was behind it and finally one of the disc jockeys said, look this is going on long enough. We're going to say Soft Sheen is putting up the dollars for this commercial. We didn't mind it but we felt that we didn't want people to say, well here's Soft Sheen use it for some type of advertisement ploy to help them sell products. We wanted to be known as a company that's going to try to increase voter registration in this city of Chicago in the Black community. There's no reason for us to be here and not take part in helping to run this city. And if you got a quarter of a million Blacks not even registered, then don't tell me about Jane Byrne or Richard Daley or anybody else until we do our job. So, we felt that, ah, the registration job had to be done. We did it and we had the, the, not only the dollars but most important, most important, we had the minds. We had the sharp, creative Black minds who came through Black colleges because of what Dr. King did during that period of time, whose parents had the dollars to send them through school because of what Dr. King did. All this was made possible because of Dr. King, when we were staring back in 1960, well 19, yeah, '64 when we were just getting Soft Sheen started.
Now you said also, you told me once that you had meetings here on your company grounds of people who wanted to be involved. Tell me.
Well keep in mind, we were never involved in politics. We knew nothing about the Democratic Party or, or the various segments of it or strength of the, of the Black politicians. We heard their names but we didn't know who were the power movers and shakers in the community. Ah, so you see, you're going into that arena, you know, Soft Sheen Products Company but we wanted to get folks registered. Ah, it was a difficult period of time because, ah, Operation PUSH had been registering folks for some time. Now, you know this idea of, of Soft Sheen becoming the, the lead segment of voter registration was really started by our community, I mean by our business and that was by my son Gary and our advertising department, Brainstorm Advertising, which my daughter runs and our marketing department. They wanted to do this project. They did not want to become part of PUSH's program. And we met Reverend Jackson, we told him that, Reverend Jackson, we know Operation Push has their voter registration drive but, drive but our folks are Soft Sheen, we want to do this our way. We feel we have the expertise and the dollars and we want to control the situation so, ah. He understood. I don't whether he liked it not. But he probably prefers in Operation Push but he accepted that. And we began to hold meetings here on our ground, on Soft Sheen Products Company, and we brought business leaders from all over the city who never before met with this young upstart Soft Sheen Products Company to get involved in politics. But they respected us. They respected our leadership. And for the first time they were not so much in competition. You weren't competing with Push versus a West Side Politician, so forth. You had this, this new leadership developing and they all rallied around us and they just did a marvelous job of helping to make that, that whole drive successful. We put the dollars, we put the creativity but the little people got out there and did the street work that had to take place for registration to be successful.
OK, let's stop down.
Tell me about the little people and how things were organized and rolling before that October 5.
Well you know you keep in mind that Soft Sheen Product Company was the major corporation at that time involved in voter registration. But the work, the masses were done by the little people throughout the city of Chicago. Those were the ones who put up the streamers and stickers throughout the city. They passed out the buttons. They kept shouting, come alive, October 5. I remember one time I walked into a gas station and I wanted some gas. I paid for my gas. And the fellow said, this fellow could hardly speak his name. He wasn't the sharpest fellow in the world. He said, last thing he said, have you registered to vote? Now, you know, to me when, when I reached the, the person who you think is insignificant in this city and voting is important to him. To me and we were extremely successful. And that's what you had happen. Now certainly, ah, the middle class Blacks and, and the smaller business they got involved too. But, they got involved after the momentum started going and the momentum was really done by the masses of Black Chicagoans who did not have those big dollars. They only had the numbers and desire to change things in this city. And that was so rewarding. I think that, ah, one night, ah, the night of the registration was finally finished and we knew we had gotten the numbers in. I went by Operation Push. I was by myself driving my car. It must have been about 10 o'clock at night I guess by then. And I walked into Push and I just wanted to thank them for all the help they gave our folks in, in helping to get voter registration as successful. And they, ah, were surprised to see me at that time of night driving around. I think it was around, you know, PUSH around 48th and Wilbur, , not, not, not the, well not the worst part but kind of place where you think twice before walking into the area, say 9, 10 o'clock at night by yourself. And so, ah, when I got there, ah, they was pleased to see me and I thanked them and so forth. And they said, look we don't want you to go on back to your car by yourself Mr. Gardner and they gave me an escort back to my car, which showed this togetherness. They respected, here this Black businessman, not only has he put his dollars in, here he comes by by himself on voter registration day and, and to thank us for and we appreciate and we respect him for that. So it was a community that really respected everyone that was involved.
--We may have to get that answer again--
Tell me that story about how you went to Push that night.
Well, you know, we had.
Give me that story again how you went to Operation Push.
OK, well you know the, the theme of the voter registration campaign was, come alive October 5. And that was the big date. If we could have registered those 250 thousand new Black voters, that total is we had a chance of becoming, having a Black mayor for the first time. So, on that night, we had on 47th and King Drive a outlet where we have something like 40 telephones. And those folks, the little people now, were manning those phones all day long. I walked in those phones were just ringing like the dickens. And, and I said, well guys, looks like we're going to have a victory. So that night I came back to see just how things were going. I went into Operation Push around 10 o'clock at night. And they were surprised to see me, here Ed Gardner now, this fellow owned this multi-million dollar company now. He's come taking the time out at 10 o'clock at night to come by and see how we're doing and to thank us. I walked in, I, I thanked them for all the support Operation Push had given us and all the people who support the program at the very beginning. And they were just surprised first to see me. And they said, did you come by yourself? I said, "Yeah, I drove." Ah, and they said, they seemed to be apprehensive about me being there at that time of night by myself. So when I left they said, "Mr. Garner we're going to walk you back out to your car, thanks for coming." But it showed how we were really together as a family and very much concerned about one another.
Now, What did the middle class effort, both in terms of money and what effort mean to this campaign?
Well, it was, you know it was very important because once the, the campaign, we had the folks register to vote, that wasn't all. You still had to vote. And so it meant we had to have a, a body of particular Black businessmen who had the dollars, not big dollars like we had, but they could bring in those 10 and 15 or 20 thousand dollars. Ah, they formed a committee and we met nightly sometime. We said, look, we got to advertise where the dollar is coming from. Somehow we managed to get those dollars to pay for the advertisement. It got to the point that one time, well look, we don't have enough money to do this right. We're trying to raise something like 200, no, a million 250 thousand dollars. We didn't have it. So what had to happened some of us had to sign notes, myself, George Johnson, John Johnson, so forth. We signed notes for over 50 and 60 and 100 thousand dollars to be sure that the monies were there to do the advertising. The banks would loan the money but they said, Ed, look, in case this thing goes down we want to hold you responsible for paying 100 thou--thousand dollars back to our bank. So we all signed notes. Businesses like ours, even smaller businesses sign off on their note. And here's where you had the Black folks with money coming together. Keep in mind now, these are businesses that got started here in this city from the dollars from this community. So we're putting those dollars right back into a worthwhile cause.
What moment did you actually know that, that electing a Black mayor was doable?
Well, I think once we had it registered, that was the fire, that was the signal, but really it didn't take place until that victory day because you still had Jane Byrne pretty strong, you know, in there and Richard Daley pretty strong in there. But, but we kind of felt that once we had the numbers we had a chance of winning. And we did everything that should have been done to alert folks to vote. And we found we were getting something like 80, 90 percent turnout in various precincts we knew had a chance to win. And that night, when I walked down to the hotel where the victory party was, got out of my car and I saw Black folks parking their car all up and down the outer drive. Now, you never seen anybody park their car on the drive. When I walked to this hotel I said, ah, oh, something's going on. When I saw us lined up on both sides of the outer drive, cars parked and the police were just as courteous to us. "Good evening Mr. Gardner," as we walked in, you know. And I walked into this hotel and there was just throngs of people, you know. And they were just so excited. You could, you could hardly squeeze through, you know. But they were so happy and they were so pleased. They knew those folks were responsible for it. They didn't know Ed Garner four months before. They knew old hair cutter, but they knew Ed Gardner when I walked in that hall because of our contribution, leadership role we played in getting the folks registered to vote. And it was, I think, one of the most exciting periods in the history of the city of Chicago for any White or Black community.
What, ah, what does it all mean? Since you were inspired by Dr. King. Got Harold Washington elected, Black mayor of Chicago, which a lot of people thought was impossible. Tell me something about the legacy of this and the meaning for young people.
Well, you know, I, I think, ah, the election of Harold Washington was the results of a product produced by Dr. Martin Luther King back in the 1960s, '63 and '64. He was really responsible for our company. Now if there hadn't been the motivation and the desire and, and the dedication that particularly young southern Black folks showed to us in the north that they made so many sacrifices under Dr. King's leadership. If they can do this, why aren't we doing more? And so we built that business so that we would be in position when the time came to elect a Black mayor of the city of Chicago. We had the millions of dollars. We had the strong Black minds who knew how to market and, and sell products. They knew how to market and sell a candidate too. And these all took place because I say, what Dr. King started back in the 1960s.
You're also an admirer of Paul Robeson, too aren't you?
Certainly. Well you know, Paul Robeson[SIC] I--
Tell me why you admire Paul Robeson?
Paul Robeson to me, ah, was one of America's greatest heroes. Ah, America must look to this person as one, no matter how, well, how badly he was mistreated by America and he was mistreated in a, in a worst form you could possibly as a person to be mistreated. We mistreated Paul Robeson. When I say, ah, when I say we, I mean America did that. Here is a man, a scholar, an athlete, an artist, respected throughout the world yet America didn't respect him. And yet he still clung to the feeling that this is a great nation and we felt that, ah, very little has been said in the past about Paul Robeson dedication to what America is all about. And he took the, he took the heat many, many years ago when it wasn't fashionable to do it and he made the sacrifices. As great a person as he was, yet America did not respect him. So I think when you see what we see, in Soft Sheen Product his, his picture, his, ah, salutatorian speech there. Those were all things which we want White and Black folks who come to this company to read and know and to respect that great American.
You got involved in politics, why and how?
Well you know we were not a political company. In fact we were just another Chicagoan who felt we were being mistreated. I say we, the Black community on one, Jane Byrne took Blacks off the School Board, off CHA board. Ah, we said, well gosh, how can we stop this? We must be able to do something and, and the only thing we knew to do was what we had the capability of doing, that is, how to market and sell a product. We knew how to market and sell a candidate for mayor. That's what we tried to do.
Renault Robinson came to see you, asking for a donation of something and that turned into the voter registration. How did that happen?
Yeah, you know, Renault as far as I was concerned was a, a major political figure in the state of Chicago, well known, well respected, ah, tremendous leader. And he said, Ed, we need us some donations. I'll be by to see you. And I had never had a conversation with Renault, Renault Robinson before. So, he came by, and he explained the whole problem. He said, you know, we're not going to do anything to change this city because we're not registered, 250 thousand Black Chicagoans need to be registered. What can we do about it? My son and daughter Terry said, they said, well look dad, why don't we, ah, allo--allocate our last quarter advertisement dollars to voter registration in this city**. Now that means we wouldn't advertise Soft Sheen products but we would have the dollars to get behind voter registration. In addition to the dollars we'd have the creative minds, minds that were neutered (nurtured?)[SIC] in the Black colleges and so forth that got their start in our, in our campaign led by Dr. King. They are now turning things back over to the city of Chicago to help make things better because of the training they got in our Black colleges. And now they have the dollars and the minds to do that with. So we felt that here was an opportunity not only to use our dollar but use our brilliant minds that were developed by the Black community to make things better in this city by learning and doing the voter registration drive. Trying to keep in mind, we were not politicians at all. But we knew how to sell a product and we felt we knew how to sell voter registration to this city. And the strong campaign put by, through our advertising marketing department and my son's leadership and my daughter's leadership, they really aroused this city to the importance of becoming a voter. And you had to be a voter, you had to become a registered voter and this is what we did in a drive which was "come alive, October 5." And at that time when it was all over we had 250 thousand new registered voters in the city of Chicago. And that was strength, believe me.
Was there any opposition, resistance among the Black middle class to this effort?
Well, you know, the, the Black middle class was not in opposition but they were, some of them were a little slow in coming around. Those who had been aligned, the political ones I'm, primarily, who had been aligned with the previous administrations. They didn't believe that we could do it. Didn't think that we had the, the dollars to, to register that many votes or the creativity to know how to do it. So they surprised when we did it. And there were some reluctant politicians who were a little slow in coming around but the middle class, ah, Black community with a few dollars, they came by much faster because they were really non aligned. But, ah, once the little people got the excitement going in this city and they were the masses, then those with the dollars soon began to follow. It is just one of the most exciting periods in the history of the city of Chicago.
Thank you. Great.