Interviewer: Madison Davis Lacy, Jr.
Production Team: A
Interview Date: April 13, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1082-1085
Sound Rolls: 137-138
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Nancy Jefferson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 13, 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.
Let's start with the story of 4 A.M. in the morning and Daley has died and all of you have gathered down at City Hall. Tell me what that was about. What happened?
Well, we understood that the mayor had died in bed. Frost, Wilson Frost was the president pro tem of the City Council and, and to us that meant that he was the next man in line to take the seat until there was another election. And, ah, we were just all down there to make sure that happened. Ah, and to give him the encouragement cause, that, that should happen. And I remember ah, some of us, you know, like quote leaders, met with him the night before to insure him that's your seat and you take it, you know. Which, he, you know, had every confidence that he would do that. And that, that morning, I'll never forget that we all decided we'd better be there at 4 o'clock 'cause we knew the other side, quote, ah, Richard J. Daley's people were going to fill up City Council and we couldn't get in. So, everybody was there at 4 o'clock in the morning. Ah, but, ah, we lost, ah, ah, Wilson Frost just did not, whatever, whatever considerations they put up on him, he could not take that seat and it was a great disappointment with us is that, ah, all he had to do was sit down in the seat we said and let the courts prove that you shouldn't set in the seat. Ah, and he could not do that that day, ah, I'll never forget it.
Tell me now, a little bit further in time, about the snow of '78 and that story you told me about, people's disappointment with Bilandic.
Well, I think, you see, I think really Frost, as little as we know, Frost now had taken the seat, you know, just led to what we saw that, that the machine politics were and then Bilandic come on as, as the, as the, as the poli--as the person that that group selected to put in there. And, and he, he could not relate to, they had already won by not taking, by Frost not taking the seat. Bilandic came in and then the great snow came and it was just like God had ordained it, you know. So that we could prove his, that he was not the person that respected the, the population. Ah, the big snow came and Bilandic was still disrespected because that was the trend that was going, that we don't have to, you know, do what the, what the general population of Chicago, which is, primarily a Black population. ah, he, what he did was, when the snow came and then transportation paralyzed this city. You know everything was paralyzed in this city. Ah, he began to do snow removals were not done in the Black community and to pass up, which was a insult, the greatest insult out of all time, was that, people were standing on el platforms and I'll never forget that evening, at 4 o'clock in the evening, he ordered those els not to stop in Black communities, to go right through Black communities, taking those riders that passed through the Black community to Oak Park, to, the first stop would be Oak Park and then farther west, ah, it was the same on the South Side and every side of town was to pass up the Black community**. And the Black community people became irate because it was a personal affront, affront, a personal insult and they went to war, that's, that's how Bilandic was removed. And then Jane Byrne came. Ah, at, well after the snow, after the, ah, ah, that, that episode of paralyzing the city and how he paralyzed the people, ah, with any kind of snow removal. Ah, then when the snow began to settle down and was melted, you know, the snow left such debris, such chaos in the community, again, he decided to clean up other communities and not clean up the Black community. Jane Byrne took the opportunity and, ah, it was, of, of, when she began to run, used to stand at the el stops and remind people of what he did, ah, why he should not be there and that what she would do, ah, if we, if people would elect her. And we did. We went to war**. We said, "She's got the answer. She's a person to move Bilandic out of office." So, we always say, he got removed with the great snow.
Lets stop down now.
You said that Jane Byrne's, ah, School Board appointments were flash appointments, sent the Black community a signal. Tell me that story.
Yes, ah, you know, after Jane Byrne, ah, was, what did all that and she, you know, quickly said that she was going to get rid of the evil cabal and that's what she called that group inside of City Council. And, ah, ah, she, and she did very well in, in the beginning 'cause she did have, you know, she got in right after the snow and all that stuff and, and she did a massive clean up in all the communities, you know. Everybody gained really respect and confidence in her. But, I guess the evil as we determined the evil cabal got to Jane Byrne and said, you know, better stop your action. Ah, so her first, ah, signal that we got was that we had put in a lot of effort, people had in Chicago, both Black and White, in, in, in quite--in reform of the school and that was permissive transfers and, and opening up the classrooms in, in White communities so that Blacks could go in and, ah, and that was done through the School Board. Ah, she quickly, ah, changed that Board and put, and appointed to the School Board some, ah, groups, ah, women that had been in objection to transfer, permissive transfers. And that sent a signal to us that what Jane Byrne was doing, ah, that was our first signal, ah, then, ah, it was other kinds of things that, that the evil cabal, as she called it, began to put the muscle on her and that she changed. She absolutely changed a whole 180 degrees.
Now, you told me a story about how you went to the State Legislator around public assistance cutbacks and there's a story associated with that.
Yes, you know the public, the public aid, ah, department of course is run by the state, you know, ah, mostly and, ah, the public, all things began to move together, you know, with the, with the evil cabal, with Jane Byrne, with the change, ah, the public aid, the public aid people got a severe cutback in public assistance. Ah, we took a group to public aid, to Springfield, to the legislators about the public aid cutback. And, so we were told by the legislator, your people don't vote, you know. And which was the truth. They, these public aid people were not voting and we just came back and took that as, as a lead to organize public aid recipients to vote** and we went to the Board of Election to set up, ah, ah, voters registration in public aid offices, ah, and that's where we got the balance of power of, of people, ah, 'cause they were the voters and that changed things with us, it changed things a lot.
Was that the formation of POWER?
That was the formation of POWER because we wanted to empower the public aid people to do exactly what the legislators said, vote.
Tell me a story about how people came to be aware of the power within them.
They, they became aware because they, they saw.
Sorry, We got to stop there--
Describe to me how POWER got formed.
POWER really got formed by empowering welfare recipients on their, on the cutbacks and it, it was really personal to them. You know, and I always say that, that personal agendas become collective agendas, OK, and that's how POWER was formed because it was a collection of welfare recipients that had gotten cut back and they were told, and we were told that when we went to the legislators about that cutback, they said, you don't vote. So POWER said, we will vote and we will vote that legislation out that does not respect us and, and vote ourselves in as to what's happening to our welfare check. So POWER was formed on those basis, on those premises.
You've been a community organizer for a long time. What was unique about the formation of POWER?
Well what was very unique about it was that it was a, a, again it was a, a personal, people's personal agenda, enough of it becomes a collective thought. And, and that's what we got to do. You got to, you must answer to person, person and if it's enough people are violated by whatever there is, it becomes a collective thought and that's your organizing tool.
Stop down. Very good.
At what point did you feel, how did you turn against Jane Byrne. Tell me that.
Yeah, I, I really believe it was the school issue that, that, and it was a very difficult time for me as a person because I was one of the persons that worked very hard to make sure she got that seat. And it was a very difficult time because she began to move in so many directions at such a rapid speed. Now, the school issue, was, was most, ah, devastating and the most, ah, I guess penetrating because the school, we all know education, you know as we do now, was the base of our community. And, and, and as, and as you may know that it became a national piece that I took over to the school board. I absolutely sat in the chair one day and began, and, when they began to take a vote on this permissive transfer and we was trying to get them to base, what were they basing their vote, vote on? They did not have the paper work and, and now I had, was, I was one of her appointees to the Chicago, to the Chicago Police Department and that day I had 300 people in, ah, the Board of Education, that we were championing our cause and I moved, ah, that day around, I had given a signal to my group, if they take the vote and they have not based their vote on, on, on what we know is right, they could not justify that vote they were taking that day, and, it's a big picture on my wall where I, ah, and Frances Davis from Operation PUSH, we, I sat down in Kay Rhoder's (?) seat. Kay Rhoder was the president at that time, ah, who was also the racist that Jane Byrne had appointed. Ah, that began the turning point with, with Jane Byrne. And then as she began to rampantly, and of course she called me in after that, and she say to me, didn't I realize that I was her, in her cabinet, 'cause I was appointed to the Police Board and that I was in her cabinet, did I realize what I had done? Cause she, what she did when she called me in, she called in Jesse Jackson and me and she, ah, ah, you know, just very irate that I could not do that as an appointee, ah, to the city administration. Ah, she had all of her Black members of the City Administration and I'll never forget how she sat me in a circle, ah, as to, you know, whip me in line. And I knew right that, we, we had to move and move as rapidly as she was doing. Ah, then after that became the ChicagoFest, you know that was one of the other real, ah, portions of, before that it was CHA.
Let me stop right there, Tell me about the CHA.
It was the CHA, ah, ah, business, Jane Byrne, people began to, ah, really get upheaval about what was going on at CHA, what was going on with the gangs at TCHA and how the CHA and, and HUD was, was handling the folk, the folks in CHA, all the CHA problems. She moved in CHA with a battery of, ah, of ah, policemens, you know, it was some kind of a fluff, non substance. That was her answer to CHA problems. And, and, and the whole community went wild over how she approached the CHA problems, and they were many, and that was, ah, the gangs in CHA and what she, what was she doing about that? Ah, the rental structure in CHA, what that was, began to look like. And especially the Cabrini Green area because everybody began to see that they were, that, everybody felt that that property was, was being handled that way because, as we said, the gold coast got tired of looking at the soul coast. And so the soul coast began to rise up and the gold coast was right next to them. And Jane Byrne began to talk about taking over Cabrini Green and with developers and all of that and people began to move to see that this woman was, was out of sync with that.
Now she actually pulled a stunt once where she moved into Cabrini Green.
She moved into Cabrini Green.
OK, tell me that story.
She, when she moved into Cabrini Green, as she began to see that people were uprising and then she said that, you know, to get the safety into Cabrini Green, she was going to move in there. And she moved in with a, in one of the apartments. It was beautifully done, you know, just before she moved in and, but it was, she never stayed there one night. Everybody knew that you know. It was, it was a stunt. Ah, it was well protected. She was well protected going and coming, you know. So she was proving, trying to prove that she had a handle on Cabrini Green but the people knew different. It was just a stunt.
Let's stop down.
How did you change the minds of the people here to believe that their votes could make a difference.
Well I think POWER, when we organized a group called POWER, the POWER group, ah, that welfare group, which was non-voting population. I think they never realized. I think that people thought that they had to accept whatever legislation that came to them whatever, when they said, cut, cut your welfare, they had to accept that. There was nothing they could do about it. And when that legislator said, they don't vote, and then we started to organize the collective mind of individuals and, and say that your one vote can make a difference. You know, if everybody takes the position that my vote counts and collectively they do, even one vote can make a difference and people got it. They got it because it was personal. And they, and they decided to try it and it worked and that's what, I think that gave a base of, of, understanding the voting power in this city that has never been before because it, we were used to the old machine, we were used to, ah, they going to do what they want to do anyway so what, why should I go vote, and it, and it worked for, for several years because, ah, ah, the old machine always had, ah, say out of 80 thousand folks they controlled three thousand votes, that, that was all that ever elected an alderman or anything. Three thousand people came out and that's what they got, three thousand, two hundred, all that. So, 70, 80 thousand folks never bothered even go vote and that was exactly what the machine wanted because they were elected by the three thousand people. They didn't want these uncontrolled people out here to ever think that their vote counted and we made that happen through power.
ChicagoFest, big thing. Tell me the story of ChicagoFest.
Well, as you know, the ChicagoFest was about contracts and, and, and who got the contracts and, and where it was and money, it was a big money deal, very big money deal. Outside Jane Byrne brought in, ah, ah, some, some person from outside, you know, got millions of dollars for the ChicagoFest and people were going. And one day, just a, just an ordinary man, and we were not satisfied because nobody, no, no person that we knew, Black, or Hispanic, ah or White poor communities ever got a, a popcorn concession in there or contract and we began to understand what that were, we were all ballyhooing and giving it, ah, it's, ah, credence plus its, its money, ah, and yet we were not there. And so, and we were disturbed about that. We couldn't get into Jane Byrne and, ah, you know, everybody was cut out with everything. And, ah, some guy just called up one day and said, you know, just, just some person called Jesse Jackson one day on the radio and he says, Why don't we boycott Jane. He was a nameless, faceless person. So, he said, why don't we boycott the ChicagoFest, let's just boycott it. So, Jesse took it up, he really took it up and said, you know, well, let's, I'll meet with somebody. He met with Dorothy Tillman, me and some other folks and, and said, this guy called up and said, let's boycott. Let's try it. And we tried it. And it was, it worked and it sent Jane Byrne out of her seat.
At what point thereafter did you realize that there was a possibility to elect a Black mayor? Tell me the story.
After that and, ah, got that level of understanding that, that, that what we could do, ah, we began to say, what about a Black mayor? You know, let's get a mayor in this town, a progressive mayor. And we talked for days and days in basements of Lu Palmer and other kinds of folks and, and, and looking at who and what and all that. And I think we were dealing with not so much as who as to what we wanted, what kind of person we wanted. We was, first ironing all of that out, and, ah, and then, I, I think it was Lu or somebody that, that talked about, let's, let's look at Harold Washington**. Let's look at Harold Washington. Then folks were going to say, Yeah, let's look at Harold Washington, you know. Ah, ah, because he had run, you know, he had attempted to run before, you know, like in '77 or something like that and very little low key thing and he lost and all that, as mayor, he put out that sign. And so that brought to people mind, let's look at Harold Washington. Ah, we began to look at Harold Washington to do what we wanted to do. It was first what the people wanted and then they, ah--
OK, tell me what you were talking to us about the difficulties and how you go about changing people's heads.
Well, you know, it was very difficult as I say that, ah, you know, especially with the welfare people that, that finally organized the POWER group with. You see, well the obstacles that were, that was before them. They had to make some hard decision based on how they had lived. They had lived with a precinct captain intimidating them, watching their every move. And they, that was, that was deep consideration. It was also who was placed in the welfare offices. See, the welfare offices were manned by all those politicians, ah, that placed those folks there. You know the case worker, all of those people, were politically appointed. Those people had to make a hard decision based on, can I live, even with this cut check, I know my check is cut, you know. But, also, I may be cut off, period if I follow this group that's telling me about voters will change what's happening to me. Those was hard decision based on their former intimidation, have lived like this for years with, with control and now these people are saying to me, we can change this by me voting. That was hard to do. It was hard to convince these people that, that it could be done and that we would stand with them. Now there were some people were, they, they, you know, we, I remember at least six or seven cases right at 2417 Rockwell, the Rockwell Gardens, where people, and this was Quigley's regime, here big Ed Quigley ruled the West Side and where they, and those people were absolutely, we put them back in. They were put out and we, we formed a group to put them back in and we sent them right back in and stood guard with them that nothing would happen to them. Because see what happened to them that we had to prove to them that the larger community now was a part of, of their personal problem and that's, that's how it, how it worked out.
Lets talk about Harold a bit more: You were at the point where you were telling me about Harold and your consideration of him as a potential candidate. Condense for me that moment at which you realized that it was possible to elect a Black mayor and that Harold was the man.
Well, eh, what we did was, we were considering what we needed, you know, after all the flurry with Jane Byrne and the disappointment with her and her leadership and, and, and the ChicagoFest, the CHA business, the school business that she had done. And we saw it was just back exactly where it was or even worse, and, ah, we, we began to, to analyze what is it that this city needs, you know. Not only for Black people but for good government. What are we talking about? What, who do we need? Now, what do we need and then we would decide who. So, we began to look at Harold Washington because he had, you know, some one raised the issue that Harold tried it in '77, might be a good candidate. And we began to say let's form a committee that go talk to him. And we did that. Ah, right out of Lu Palmer's house basement. And we formed this committee that, to go talk to Harold. Ah, Harold laid down some tough assignments to us, ah, you know, he said, Oh, you know, ah, first of all, you all got to give me 50 thousand votes to tell me that you're serious about, you know, me, I'm, I'm, I'm in congress. I'm doing fine. I don't need to do this. So, he, he laid down some, some, large, you know, rules and we called them I guess plumb lines and he said, Get me fifty thousand votes and a hundred, and, and, ah, we said, OK, we'll go out and do that. So we went out and did that, you know, this POWER group was already formed, you know. Ah, we, we calculated how many votes that is, you know, with other folks. So, we went out and got the fifty thousand and came back to Harold. Harold said, no, ah, I need, you know, we got to get 100 thousand dollars, you know, to show me your serious. And he laid out then, we, we were doing that and then he said, ah, we, we, got to have a hundred thousand votes, you know. Ah, he really gave us a lot of challenge that we met. We absolutely met them all because we felt, well this is the guy, you know, this is the guy. And, and, and that's how he captured the spirit of the people because we had to work with the CHA, the ordinary people that were, the non voters and, get them registered and get them, you know, registered to vote and all of that and we were working with such a broad spectrum of people, based on what was laid down that would answer to their personal interests, see. It wasn't the man first, it was the condition first. And that's how people got on. And this man was to carry out the condition of the people.
How do you remember Harold fondly?
OK give me something in the story about Harold that you will always carry with you as a memory of him. The individual, the man, the intellect. Tell me something.
Harold was, ah, it was just so many things that, that, that you carry with you with, with Harold. He had a, and, and I think I heard somebody say this, Harold had, Harold and, and this is, Harold had the ability to make common people like me feel very royal and, and he had the ability to, to, to make the royal come down to talk with the common people. I, I'll never forget that, ah, you know, about three summers ago, we were involved with this West Side stadium building stuff and Harold appointed me to help get that together to get the felt needs of the people in, to see if there should be such an animal out here. Now for thirty years I have been trying to talk to William Wirtz, you know, big multi-millionare who, you know owns all this stuff out here. And we could never get to him. I never would and I remember one day that, ah, I got a phone call from Wirtz who was on his yacht in Florida, ah, that, ah, ah, with the brigadier general of the Air Force and he called me and said, ah, I want to come, I want to get an appointment with you. And, you know, I was flabbergasted and I said, you know, "Why?". He said, Harold Washington, I tried to meet with Harold Washington about the West Side problem out there. Harold Washington told me I had to meet with you. And that was the greatest day of my life because I, we on the problems, he owns all this land out here, we have been trying to do something with him, with the land and Harold Washington ran him into us and that's what I mean, he made that man common. He says, I, you know, I'm the chief executive officer but that's their side of town, you have to meet with them. And we had been trying for years. So we all, you know, relish that and he was that kind of a man. Just many incidents like that that Harold Washington put people together, linked them together, made them understand, ah, what they had to do and made us understand who we were.
It's election night, the primary, the primary election night and the results have come in and you realize that Harold has won, how did you feel?
Oh, it was the greatest moment of our life. Because I know that, I know that how hard we had worked to sit down, the conditions by who we, who we wanted, you know, what we wanted and then decided on who we wanted to carry out our conditions. And, and, and, and he understood it. He only, he understood so thoroughly that he was an instrument to carry out what the people had set forth. And everybody got it. Everybody got it. The welfare people because the POWER group and their vote counted, you know. And, and, and they understood that when he won that primary, my vote really did count, you know. And we, and it was just like, we danced in the street. We danced in the street. We, absolutely, it was the greatest feeling we ever had in life. It just, everybody felt empowered, you know, whatever it was, whether it was the welfare, whether it was me with the, as the leadership of the West Side, it was, everybody was empowered** at last to do what we wanted to do, personally and, and our personal agendas came together as a collective force.
You must have felt a little bit different, but it's another night now, Jesse Jackson is at the '84 convention. He speaks. Tell me how you felt then.
Great. Yeah, that finally, that same transcending of, of that vote, my personal vote counted and here we got this man up here now speaking as, as being in the presidency, where we got him to and that we did this, you know. I think it was, it was equally a, a jubilant affair because I was a delegate then, ah, ah, it was, it was great. It was great.
OK, Stop down.
Since this series transcends so much of the movement and you've been a captain, a soldier and a stalwart of the movement, what's it all meant? What's it been about? Why do you keep on keeping on?
Well I think it, that you must, because you do see some, some signs. You see a lot, you know, there, there's been a lot from the King days until now. Ah, had there not been a King, ah, there would not have been a, a Jesse. There would not have been a, a Harold. That just wouldn't have been, you know, there was, it started with that. And, and you can change if, if you stay in there and hang in there long enough, as, as, as the POWER group, you know, that meant a lot to me. Is so, that I've seen those people go from, from the welfare rolls to understanding what that voting power was all about and what their life was all about. And you must continue to do that. It's sort of like, ah, you know, I, I came from, from the country, from, backwards country, and we used to, ah, I always think about this. We used to, ah, have a big bell in the yard in Miss, Miss Burton's yard, you know, where I had to wash the dishes. And whenever anything happened and you had to pull that bell with, ah, the rope to get it to ting, especially on cold days. Ah, you, you'd, to get that bell to ring for dinner time at, at 12 o'clock, you--my job was to, as a little girl, is to pull the, the bell, you know. It was a rope on the big bell and so you, and sometime your hands would get raw from trying to get a ting out of that bell. Because if you get the ting, the bell will ring. And so I used to, you know, be pulling the bell, pulling the bell, and my hands sometime would be raw inside from trying to get the ting on a cold day. But finally I kept pulling. I'd say, you know, look, listening for the ting. And once I got the ting, I had it made, you know. I knew, even though my hands was raw, and I, I look at life at that. You keep pulling the bell and you'll get a ting, you know, here and there, but you must keep pulling and, and, and things happen, things happen, because as I said before, it had not been a King, had not been Rosa Parks sit down, had not King took on the mantle, ah, to, King took, they, you know, they had a platform first just like we did with Harold. ah, and then suggested King, you know, he didn't come first. They suggested him. And that's exactly what this is all about is that we must continue to do that because there will be others that will take up the mantle and people understand perfectly. One thing that we do since Harold Washington that he moved this city to an enlightenment that you will never, you'll never, I don't care who comes, they will not turn the people back to where they were. You can't do it. It's impossible 'cause too many people caught on.
Stop down. Exelecent.
So what did you people want from the mayor?
We, our platform said, you know, we just had a plumb line that we drawed and that platform said that we wanted a, a mayor that would look at this city, that would say, it could not be bought and sold to the highest bidder, that it had, that it must be fair government, fairness in government because when we looked at what had happened that made us protest the way the, the people were intimidated in CHA by the politicians, that wasn't right. And we wanted a, a mayor that un--that knew that that wasn't right. And that he would carry out the kind of a policy that destroyed that. We talked about how do you really reform a government that is corrupt, that, that didn't open it's books, that we didn't, had no contracts were for Blacks, that people were not cut in fairly and, and it wasn't only Blacks it was people in the city, poor Whites, Blacks, or, there was a, a group that, that, that was, got all the contracts in this city and, and kept it where they wanted to keep it. There was the school issue that, ah, decided on no permissive transfers and all of that and we wanted a, a, a mayor that was fair, for good government, and that included everything that was good government. And it was a lot of those kinds of things that was laid down, ah, that we had been protesting against and then when we took that platform to, to Harold Washington and we said, this is what we want. And we have decided on you to look at you as being the person to carry it out. He knew very well what he was getting into.