Interviewer: Madison Davis Lacy, Jr.
Production Team: A
Interview Date: April 14,
Camera Rolls: 1088-1090
Sound Rolls: 140-141
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Lu Palmer, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 14, 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.
Your organization, Chicago Black United Communities, first got kicked off by Thornton Burns support to appoint Tom Ayers as president of the School Board. Tell me what happened around those School Board appointments. How did that go down?
Well, Chicago, the Chicago School System, collapsed financially. And Jane Byrne who was then the mayor was mandated by the State legislature to appoint a whole new School Board which was unprecedented. We got word that she was only getting input from the Chicago Urban League and from something called Chicago United. Both of those agencies, ah, did not represent grassroots Black Chicago. So, we just said we weren't going to stand for it. To make a very long story short, we became involved in, in, in the process of getting Black members on the school board. Out of that fight, and it was a long tough fight, we put together what came to be known as the Chicago Black United Communities, CBUC, we called it C-BUC and, ah, it led to the first Black president of the School Board. We not only kicked out Tom Ayers who was a suburbanite who was head of Commonwealth Edison. In other words, he had that suburban, ah, establishment record. So, we were able, through court, through the courts, to knock him off the Board so he could not become president which is what Jane Byrne wanted. And as a result we got elected the first Black school board president.
Now moving ahead in time talk to me a bit about the political education clinics that you conducted here. Why were they important? What did you do?
Well, I guess I'd have to back up some to put the clinics in context. Ah, we decided in 1981, we meaning C-BUC, that the time had come to have a Black mayor in Chicago. We were up here in this very room talking one night in our regular meeting and we had a, a, a list of Black mayors on, on the wall. There were more than 200 Black mayors. And somebody said, "Well why can't we have a Black mayor in Chicago?"** And, ah, the feeling was, that was impossible, just utterly impossible. But, if two hundred and three or four cities across this nation, some large cities, could have a Black mayor, we just felt that, you know, Chicago could. So, we began planning. This was in '81, 1981 and on August 15th, 1981 we sponsored a city-wide political conference and the theme was "Toward a Black Mayor." Now, you know, ah, starting something in '81 with a goal in '83, that's unusual for us. I mean we usually start two weeks beforehand. But the next election was '83. So, out of that conference, let me tell you a little story about that conference. It was so successful. It was just enormously successful. And as chairman I was giving the, ah, the summary at the end of the day and as I was talking, thanking the people for the kind of input they had given, all of a sudden, I broke down and started crying. And Jesse was there, Jesse Jackson, ah, rushed up to put his arms around me and closed out the session for us. And I thought, you know, "Why in the world did I break down like that?" It was not characteristic of me. I came to the conclusion that I had, we had witnessed something that day that was just utterly unusual. And I was convinced, totally convinced, we're going to pull this thing off because of the way that conference went off. At the conference, we did two things. We set two strategies. I had developed a slogan. I never realized how extraordinary effective slogans are. But I introduced at that conference a slogan, "We shall see in '83." And that became the, the watchword for the next two years. And over the period of time, "We shall see in '83" became, ah, internalized in the hearts and the minds and souls of our people, to the point, that two years later when Harold actually announced he was going to run, the first thing out of his mouth was, "We shall see in '83." Now to your question about the political education clinics. The second strategy was to begin a process of educating our people about politics. Until then there had been sporadic, political education processes, but they were never sustained. Ah, so we said, "We have got to teach our people first, what is politics, secondly, how can we make politics work for us and not for them?" So, my wife, Georgia, organized these political education clinics. And they were set up as four consecutive Saturdays and on the fifth Saturday then we would have a graduation. It was really extraordinary. Most of the people in those political education classes had never been involved in politics before. They, they were just people, grassroots people. And to get a pol- what we called it, a political education degree, that they could put on their walls. It was just a, an extraordinary experience for them, I tell you. Another story about, ah, those clinics, incidentally we ended up graduating better than two thousand people over the period of, when we started them in late '81 until the election in '83, but the first class we have, up here in this room, you see we, we were such a poor group, we didn't have any heat. We had no heat. We, and, and we would not have had a place to, to meet. We had been put out of three or four different churches and other halls. My wife and I are buying this building and we just camp in and, and made it usable and we met up here. But we didn't have any heat. Didn't have a stove. Didn't have a furnace, now, the first graduation exercise that we had was held on a day that was a record cold day in Chicago. It was day when the, ah, the, ah, what do you call it, the wind chill factor went to 80 below zero. And we were up here, maybe a hundred or more of us, see the people came, they brought their spouses, they brought their families. It was like a regular graduation. It was a prideful day. And there was no heat in this building. Do you know that not one person left? We were up here easily an hour, hour and fifteen, an hour and twenty minutes, and we went through our ceremony with overcoats, scarves, gloves. I mean it was cold. And that was another signal to me, you know, we don't like cold weather. And I said, "If, if our people will sit through this kind of a ceremony as long as they did in much cold, we're headed somewhere." And that was a second signal to me that we were going to elect a Black mayor in '83. Incidentally, ah, the pol- the political conference, after the political conference, we, we said, "We must be sure that just nobody pops up and runs, not just anybody. We got to have us a serious candidate." So we did a survey and we came up with 92 names. We, we put out thirty-five-thousand survey sheets and seventeen-thousand were returned, unbelievable, utterly unbelievable. Out of that we got 92 names and we took those 92 names, boiled them down to 10, the highest 10, top 10. The person at the very top, I mean way out above number two, was Harold Washington who was a congressman then, ah, South Side congressman. So, we said, "OK now, we got ten. How are we going to handle it now?" I called each one of those ten people and I said, "Would you run? Is there any circumstances under which you would not run?" Four of them said, "Under no condition." So we had six. So, we called a Black mayoral plebiscite. And that word plebiscite really kicked some people off and ticked some off because they didn't know what it meant. So this was a kind of, among other things, a teaching process. And people heard this word, "Pleb--what in the world is a plebiscite?" And we began to teach them that, you know, when, when, when a people comes together, a people, when people come together around a, an important issue and vote to decide which way they should move, that's a plebiscite. Well to make another long story short, we held a plebiscite. Bethel A.M.E. Church and this was in 1982, ah, and--
We got to stop here.
Continue on talking about '82 and the plebiscite.
Well, we, we had to decide. See, we, we, we wanted this to be, ah, a classic example of people selecting candidates, ah, this was a genuine draft. Ah, at the plebiscite we had six names left. And we held a plebiscite at Bethel A.M.E. Church. It was jammed, just utterly jammed. So, in essence what we did was to present those six names. We did not have the people, those six people there, but we just presented their names and the people voted. Once again, Harold Washington was far and away the number one choice**. So it became clear that African Americans in Chicago wanted Harold Washington as the major, as the only, really, Black candidate in 1983 for mayor. Well, ah, Harold was reluctant. He was really reluctant. Ah, and I said, "Harold, look, you, you won the survey. You know you've won the plebiscite. Now, what do you want?" So, Harold said, "Well, you guys are going to have to register some more Black people." In those days we just had few, relatively few registered voters. No way in the world we could have done much of anything with the number of Black registered voters on the rolls and Harold as an astute politician, he said, "You going to have to get me some more Black registered voters." So we said, "How many?" He said, "At least 50,000." Well, that seemed like a Herculean task, ah, but some things were happening which made it so much easier for us. Ah, the mayor then was Jane Byrne and our people had literally elected Jane Byrne because she passed herself off as a reformer and we thought we'd much rather have a reformer and we'd take a chance on a woman because the men had been blowing it. Ah, so we put Jane Byrne in but Jane Byrne quickly turned, ah, her back on those who believed in political reform. But she made a couple of extraordinary errors, so far as Black people were concerned. And on one, in one instance, she, ah, appointed two White women to the Board, having dumped two Black men, to the school board. And, ah, these were two strong Black men, which is, I presume why she dumped them. And the White women that she put on the Board were racist. One of them was an avowed racist. She was a, a member of what was called, the Bogan Broads, they named themselves, the Bogan Broads. A section of Chicago is known as Bogan and it's a very racist section of town. There was a permissive transfer, ah, plan going on where our kids were bused into White schools and the Bogan Broads would meet our little 2 and 3, second and third graders and throw eggs at them and, and yell at them and scream and just harass them terribly. But one of these woman, one of these women was a Bogan Broad named to the School Board. The other woman who was named was not quite as overt a racist but we certainly considered her a racist. At any rate she just, Jane Byrne just energized the Black community with these two, ah, ah, appointments. She also did re- much the same thing in naming members to the Board of, ah, Chicago Housing Authority of public housing. She changed literally the complexion of the board, the board was majority Black. She switched it around so it became majority White. And of course Black people just, just hit the ceilings. Ah, so what this did was to politicize, help us politicize Black people. So when Harold said that, you know, we had to get 50,000 registered voters. We said, OK, we'll, we'll, we'll, we'll go after it.
So what Harold did was--
What, what Harold, what, what Jane Byrne did was to help us politicize Black people. So when Harold asked for 50,000 new registered voters, she helped us, she being Jane Byrne, helped us register 150,000. Ah, you may remember the ChicagoFest Boycott. The boycott, ah, Jane Byrne loved the ChicagoFest. It was her baby. It was a big thing. Big summer festival and so, and so, one morning on a talk show, radio talk show, a woman called Derek Hill who was the host and said, "Derek, we ought to boycott the ChicagoFest. Jane Byrne loves that ChicagoFest so much, let's show her and let's boycott the Fest." And Derek says, "It sounds like a good idea." His next guest was Jesse Jackson. And Derek says, said, "Jesse, Reverend Jackson, ah, this lady just called and said that we ought to boycott the Fest to show Jane Byrne something." So, Jesse said, "Well that sounds like it's doable." So, he called me and eight or ten other people and we met over at PUSH, and didn't have but eleven days. We put together the most amazing boycott you will ever want to see. We picketed around, ah, Navy Pier where it was held. And, ah, anytime a Black person approached the ticket booth to buy a ticket we'd have a, a, a team there talking them out of going in there. And I'll bet you 99.9% of our efforts were successful. We were so successful at the boycott that one of our marshals told us that a White woman came up to him and she say, "You know, I feel so sorry for you people." And he said, "Well, why?" She said, "Because they won't let you all in the boycott, in, in the Chicago Fest." And he say, "Well, they'll let us in." "Well, I didn't see any of you in there." And there was hardly no Black people inside the Fest. But that was not what was significant. The significant thing was that we used the boycott to politicize our people around voter registration. We just kept laying on voter registration as we talked about ChicagoFest and the boycott. So when we hit the streets to register people, this is the truth, we didn't have to go get them and buttonhole them. We didn't have to pull them. All we had to do is set up a table on the street and said, "Register To Vote," and people came from out of the woodwork. We ended up with more than 150,000, this was a coalition. This was not just C-BUC, this was a coalition of groups that really put on a boycott and a political, ah, I mean a voter registration drive. It was, it was just unbelievable.
OK, let's stop down now.
Tell me a little bit more about Harold's reluctance to be drafted for this mission of mayor of Chicago. Did he think that you were trying to shoehorn him into it?
Well, he probably did. Ah. Shortly after he said we had to get these 50,000 registered voters, we called another meeting at Bethel A.M.E. Church and it was a voter registration meeting and we formed what was called, "The People's Movement for Voter Registration." Our speaker was Harold Washington. You see we were, we were constantly pushing Harold in front on everything. Ah, at that meeting Harold made a strange speech, it was really a strange speech. And he started talking about, "It's not the man, it's the plan." And when he finished speaking, I walked over to Harold, I said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "What's this man and the plan business and when are you going to give us a, a, a kind of concrete, ah, time frame?" Because see, by now, things were picking up. Things were really picking up in terms of a Black mayor. Harold said to me on the platform of Bethel while the program was still going on, Harold said, "I, I'm not going to run." And I looked at Harold thunderstruck**. Renault Robinson was sitting on, ah, I beckoned for, I said, "Come here, Renault," I said, "Harold said, he's not going to run." So, Renault said, "We got to deal with this." Ah, and, for a couple of days we started talking among ourselves, why is Harold so reluctant? We generally felt that as a congressman, Harold was in his milieu, he is a, he was a legislator. He was a State Rep. He was a State Senator, then he was a congressman. That was his thing. Now, we were asking Harold to come out of the legislative into the executive and, ah, I am convinced that he was totally comfortable being a congressman and did not want to get into the legis- I mean to the executive branch.
We've got roll out, we're going to have to go back and get that again.
Tell me why were these political education classes going forth?
Well, you got to remember that in '80, '81, our people had been through decades of machine politics in Chicago and they had been forced out of any real involvement. And they really knew little about the political process. So we took, ah, two thousand people who knew, they didn't even know the difference between a ward committeeman and an alderman and that's about as elementary as you can get. They knew nothing about what a State Rep was to do, what a, what a State Senator was, they just did not know anything about the political system. So it became absolutely essential that we develop a cadre of people, number one, who were informed and number two, who had been trained on what to do out there in the streets, insofar as campaigning was concerned, and that's what it, that's what developed, er, over this, ah, year and a half period of political education.
OK, Let's go back to or forward to Harold's reluctance. There was a meeting in your basement after the plebiscite. Describe that to me.
Well, after the meeting in which, after the public meeting in which Harold started talking about, "It's not the man, it's the plan," we got greatly concerned because we thought Harold was kind of pulling out on us. And we had, by that time, begun pushing him as the candidate because he was the choice of the people. After that meeting, ah, I called a meeting, ah, a smallish, eight or ten people who had been involved in the process, ah, in my basement. And I remember we, we were eating watermelon, typical, and I told Harold, I asked, you know, I asked Harold to come to the meeting. I said, "Harold, you tell me what you told, I mean you tell these people what you told me at Bethel Church." And Harold said, "Well, I'm just not going to run and I never intended to run." And, man, the place almost went up for grabs. And we had quite a time down there with Harold Washington. One or two instances, it was almost necessary to keep, ah, keep him separated from some other people because they were going to go to blows. Well, we were able to, to, to, heh, get over that period. But I am convinced Harold did not want to be a mayor. Harold wanted to remain a congressman. But he never said that to us. He never gave us that signal that he really wanted to remain a legislator. So, he got so far out on the limb, ah, he couldn't pull back. Ah, we're glad he did not pull back because his election in 1983 was a major victory for the Black empowerment movement. And, ah, by the time of election day in this city it was dangerous to even suggest that you might not vote for Harold Washington in our community. So, it was a beautiful, beautiful period in our life. And let me tell you this. Harold's election gave hope, such as I have never seen before. Young kids, I mean 3, 4, 5 years old, school children, with the Harold button, Harold Washington buttons and saying to people, "I can be the mayor too," you see. Then they saw this man as a role model such as we.
Let's stop down.
Harold Washington hoped young people would get involved--
You see, to really understand the importance of Harold's election, you have to understand what both the campaign and the victory did to people, to Black people. Young, I mean 3, 4, 5, 6 year-old kids, so proudly displaying the Harold Washington button. And, you know, during that period of time hardly nobody called him Harold Washington, it was Harold. It was just Harold. And, and I'll tell you a story about them buttons which became button mania. The campaign was so bogged down in what color the button is going to be, what are they going to say, it took, took them weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks to get any buttons on the street. So two or three of the campaign workers designed a button, paid for the button and all of a sudden, there were maybe a thousand or more with that sunburst, blue with a sunburst, and everybody was struggling to get a button. So, while the campaign was trying to figure out what the button ought to be, these three or four campaign workers designed the button which came, became the major official button of the Harold Washington campaign. Man, you, you could not walk in the loop or in, in neighborhoods without seeing thousands of Harold Washington buttons. And people just became energized. On election day I'm in my office and an old man walked in on, ah, those walkers and said, "Could I just rest for a minute?" I said, "Certainly." He said, I said, "Are you on your way to vote?" He said, "Yes." I said, "We'll take you to the polls." You know what that man said? He said, "No, I want to go on my own and vote for that boy."** You know, that, that touched me so. So, you know, we had people going to the, to the polls in wheelchairs. We had people get out of their sick beds because the mood had hit. It was the thing about, ah, a time, an idea whose time has, had come. Clearly, it had come. And when Harold Washington announced on November the 10th, 1982 that he was going to run, a whole city was transformed. And I remember so clearly the date because that's the same day that my sponsor of my radio show fired me because I had been too, too, pushing too hard for a Black mayor. So, it's, it, it was a, it was an experience that cannot adequately be described. It gave so many of us hope and Lord knows we need hope.
Stop down. How are we doing?
Describe the battle over CHA, Chicago Housing Authority appointments, story of your arrest.
Well when you realize that Chicago Housing Authority tenants are easily 90 to 95% Black, it was just outrageous that, that Jane Byrne, the mayor then, would shift the complexion of the CHA Board. Ah, a group of us went to the first meeting of these new Board members and, ah, we created a little confusion down there. And, ah, at the time that I was arrested, I wasn't doing anything. I was just sitting against the wall with my hands crossed and all of a sudden, ah, I was grabbed, handcuffed, along with, oh, six or seven women, I was the only man in this and they threw us in jail for, ah, ah, I guess disorderly conduct. The trial was, they never had a trial, the charges were later dropped. But what they would do in those periods in those days was to remove leaders from the scene, you see. And, you know, that really is an example of how the city was transformed when Harold Washington became mayor. Ah. For example, what they used to do when we would protest what's happening in City Hall, they would put up, ah, ah, barriers to keep us out of the City Hall chambers. After Harold was elected, City Hall opened up, you know, you could walk through City Hall like a citizen. You know, you could go to a department and, and get what you needed because in that department were, were employees who, number one, they felt proud of wanting to help you. And the whole complexion literally changed in City Hall and the city just opened up.
Tell me now about what this all meant. What, what's been bought? What's the price we've had to pay?
Well, the Harold Washington election, I, I've said this before but I'll say it again, more than anything else it gave the Black community hope. A nun once told me that a people without hope is lost. What it also did was to provide an example of what Black people could do if they came together. I used to say in speeches after Harold was elected that this has proved anything we decide to do, we can do it if we simply come together make the necessary sacrifices, work toward a single goal. We could do anything because you'd have to have lived in Chicago to understand what it meant to elect an African American mayor of this city after all the years of what we call plantation politics. So the election of Harold Washington opened up really a new life.
OK, roll out.