The JOIN Community Union was our effort in Uptown, Chicago, to build solidarity and create an organized force for change, especially among poor people of Southern origin.
[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]
UPTOWN, Chicago in 1966. I called it “Hillbilly Harlem.” Uptown was the regional capital of poor Southern white migrants moving to the North. The migration of Southern whites began when they came north in the 1940’s for war industry work, and accelerated after WWII when factories flourished in and around Chicago.People arrived from rural and urban areas throughout the South, with the majority coming from Appalachia.
I had lived in Uptown in the summer of 1964 when I worked as a participant observer for a Notre Dame study of Southern white migrants. Daytime had found me hanging out with older guys, often drinking, rolling cigarettes, and playing the guitar under the El tracks next to Graceland Cemetery. Now I was working with others in JOIN Community Union, a community organizing project initiated by SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP).
When it first started, as a project to organize the unemployed, JOIN stood for Jobs or Income Now. But when organizing the unemployed didn’t pan out, JOIN evolved into a “community union,” uniting folks to fight around issues that affected their lives, like housing, welfare, and police brutality.
Young radicals like myself went into cities around the country trying to organize “to build an interracial movement of the poor.” JOIN was our effort to build solidarity and create an organized force for change among poor people of Southern origin and others who lived in this community on Chicago’s North Side. We intended to help our nation live up to its stated vision of equal opportunity for all.
In Uptown, we met a lot of folks while leafleting in front of the Unemployment Compensation Office on Lawrence Avenue. The backbone of JOIN was welfare women. The leadership included Dovie Coleman and Dovie Thurman, aka Big Dovie and Little Dovie — confident and forceful black women.
Southern white women on welfare were aware of the goings-on in the civil rights movement and looked to these black women for leadership. One was Virginia Bowers from Arkansas, who became the JOIN office manager. Key organizers included Harriet Stulman, Alice Keller, and Vivien and Richie Rothstein.
Vivien and I had worked together what had been the West Oakland Community Union Project. In future years she became an organizer in Los Angeles of Vietnamese immigrants. Richie forged links to unions and set up a JOIN School to help community people learn about the power structure, welfare, police, and housing matters.
Post-JOIN he wrote about education for The New York Times and worked on education policy at the Economic Policy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. In his Uptown work he was serious, smart, dedicated and, as I now realize, inspirational. He didn’t always appreciate my rebellious youthful behavior.
The government’s new War on Poverty was active in Uptown, headquartered on Montrose (now a gym in the increasingly gentrified neighborhood). We believed the War on Poverty didn’t encourage community people to take action or make decisions on the big issues of jobs, housing, education, and welfare. It too often focused on superficial, harmless programs like where to plant trees.
JOIN held weekly meetings that featured speakers, theatrical skits, and singing. The group-sing was enthusiastic, if sometimes off key, and included mountain tunes, spirituals, and traditional union songs. Sometimes we altered the lyrics to reflect current conditions.
We showed films we got from UE’s (United Electrical Workers’) treasure-trove of labor documentary and training films. We rented films from a distribution house, including the previously banned Salt of the Earth about striking mine workers in Silver City, New Mexico — though The Hank Williams Story turned out a larger crowd.
Regular attendees were a unique, interesting, somewhat motley crew of Uptown residents.
Regular attendees were a unique, interesting, somewhat motley crew of Uptown residents. We had our share of wino attendees, including a Greek fellow named John. Once I carried a drunk John into Cook County Hospital, when his frostbitten feet prevented him from walking.
Each week there was an increasing number of young guys from the neighborhood, hanging in the back of the room. One Southern kid named James Osborne had a job with the War on Poverty and also hung around JOIN. At a meeting in Washington, D.C., he spoke up and asked Sargent Shriver, the War on Poverty’s head man, a question that was apparently too challenging. James lost his job — and distanced himself from JOIN.
A short time later he married a nun who worked in the neighborhood and they opened the Book Box on Lawrence (now Shake Rattle and Read) by the Green Mill. Later, in 1968, we held training sessions in its basement for a short-lived outfit called the National Organizing Committee (NOC), which recruited college students to be community organizers.
While I liked to joke that the meetings reminded me of a Bruegel painting, a mass of tortured and rough-edged peasants, there were of course plenty of sharp and effective people among the ranks, including Sarah, a Russian who had participated in the Russian Revolution and by 1966 was selling papers on Argyle.
Carl, a physically challenged welfare activist, came, as did Eugene Feldman, a retired teacher and former Communist. Feldman had organized sharecroppers in the South during the 1930s and shared pamphlets from those times. We knew we were part of an ongoing, long tradition of organizing and fighting for peoples’ rights.
A highlight of many meetings was a JOIN Theater agitprop skit that focused on the likes of Mayor Daley, urban renewal (poor people removal), landlords, and welfare and police brutality. My younger sister Melody James founded this project. Melody studied drama at Carnegie Institute and San Francisco State, so I asked her to come to Uptown to organize a peoples’ theater. After her JOIN work she returned to San Francisco and became a member of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe.
For JOIN Melody put together a lively mix of community people and student organizer types. JOIN Theater performed on various stages around town and in an empty lot on Clifton Street. Following the City’s massive urban removal of people in that part of the neighborhood, they performed before a large crowd, calling on the city to build a Hank Williams Memorial Playground in the space where Truman College stands today.
Over the spring and summer of ‘66 young guys began coming around JOIN. Near the old Wilson Avenue pool hall where Al Capone was said to have played, Reverend Maury ran a program for young guys. As we were less concerned with life after death than a better life in this lifetime, the Reverend’s hall became fertile ground for recruiting and we quickly made inroads.
We got to know these young guys, many of whom readily shared their accounts of police harassment and brutality. By the fall of 1966 Rev. Maury closed his operation. In its stead Bob Lawson, a JOIN organizer who had played football at Berkeley, gathered a group of young Southern guys that included Ralph Thurman, Hi Thurman, Bobby Joe McGinnis, and Jack (Junebug) Boykin.
They started a new group, which was friendly to but officially independent of JOIN. They called themselves The Uptown Goodfellows and opened a hangout-clubhouse space on Wilson at Kenmore.
When the police killed a young man named Ronnie Williams, who had moved to Uptown from Kentucky, it set off activity protesting police harassment and brutality.
When the police killed a young man named Ronnie Williams, who had moved to Uptown from Kentucky, it set off activity protesting police harassment and brutality. The Goodfellows and JOIN together organized a march on the infamous Summerdale 20th District Police Station. Over 300 people marched, mostly but not only, white Southerners.
Summerdale had been implicated earlier in a stolen-goods ring. The “Summerdale Scandal” led to the hiring (and brief tenure) of a forward-thinking criminology professor from Berkeley named O. W. Wilson as Police Superintendent. Our march called for an end to all police brutality but singled out a particularly hard-ass cop named Sam Joseph.
My own interaction with Joseph was limited to a short exchange of wise-ass remarks after he shined a flashlight into my car. I was parked down at Montrose Beach with Susan Ring, who was from a progressive home in the Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville. Her mom worked for the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) and her dad was a butcher I jokingly referred to as the “Marxist butcher.”
Susan and I were making out when Joseph and his sidekick shined the light into the car and knocked on the window. Later Susan ended up marrying Junebug Boykin, who was my main street mentor.
The Summerdale march gave people a sense of unity, direction, and power. What followed from JOIN and the community was the founding of a program called Citizens’ Alert. This was an earlier version of the Oakland Black Panther Party’s practice of following the police and observing their activities. Citizens’ Alert is still active in Chicago, calling attention to police misbehavior. Activist Mary Powers has long been its leader.
The police response to the march was more hard-hitting on young guys in the neighborhood and an attack on JOIN. My college roommate Patrix Sturgis and my sister Melody were at the JOIN office when the 20th District Chicago Police burst in, ransacked the office and arrested them, claiming to have found a small amount of pot. Though it received less media coverage, they were later acquitted, after the police were found to have lied and planted the marijuana.
Housing was another major concern of folks in the hood. Buildings had mice, rats, and roaches, repairs weren’t made, and people were locked out when rent was late. We held rent strikes and demonstrations around housing issues. A group of lawyers who helped JOIN included Irv Birnbaum and Ted Stein. They worked with organizers and tenants, often going to housing court with them.
We tried to stop evictions. I made my way into a number of basements, turning on gas or electricity after landlords or their managers had turned the utilities off, and was once arrested when I informed an officer of the tenant’s rights and the law. Tenants at a large building on Broadway near Irving Park went up against a slumlord named Gutman. On a Sunday morning Rennie Davis and I went to his apartment building on the northwest side and hung a leaflet inside his vestibule: “Your Neighbor is a Slumlord!” We also put one on every car on the street.
In short order Gutman settled with the tenants, and that particular building became part of an improved housing initative by the Kate Maremont Foundation. A prolonged rent strike with marches at the “Sampson Building” on the 4100 N. Kenmore block led to an agreement and the formation of a tenant’s council.
JOIN did welfare advocacy, demonstrated at the welfare office, and called for fair treatment by the Illinois Department of Welfare.
JOIN did welfare advocacy, demonstrated at the welfare office, and called for fair treatment by the Illinois Department of Welfare. We worked closely with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and the Latin American Defense Organization. These demonstrations and marches exemplified the potential for building an interracial movement of the poor. Actions involving primarily black, brown, and white organizations helped lay the early groundwork for rainbow coalitions to come.
One spring afternoon the photographer Danny Lyon gave me a ride on his Triumph motorcycle to Molly Hagen’s apartment on Hyde Park Blvd. on the South Side. Molly’s crib became a regular destination. I would head there to hang out, smoke weed, and eat. I met Curtis Hayes (now Muhammad), who had worked with Molly in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Eric Gill, from Belize, who worked on cars and had a job in the steel mill, and an assortment other characters, including a salesman for Duncan Yo Yo.
That summer I bought a 1963 Triumph 650 TR6 motorcycle from Clay Highland, who I knew from Lake Forest College. On the bike, sometimes with Molly on board, I explored Chicago and its far-flung neighborhoods, communities, and off-the-beaten-path treasures. I loved late night cruising up and down Lake Shore Drive, the green tunnel of Lower Wacker Drive, the smell of chocolate production on Kinzie, and the blast furnace at Finkl & Sons Steel on Armitage.
In addition to country music joints in Uptown, I went to hear Paul Butterfield, first in Old Town at Big John’s (where I had first seen Steve Miller), and then at the Blue Flame on Drexel Blvd at 39th Street, where he played with Howlin’ Wolf’s old band. At a meeting of activists from various projects around town I met a law student named Bernardine Dohrn.
Days later Bob Lawson and I took an exhilarating ride on my Triumph to the SDS Convention held in Clear Lake, Iowa, the place where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper had gone down in an airplane. While there we got word that both the JOIN office and the new Movement for A Democratic Society office in Rogers Park had been busted. People were out of sorts.
Wearing a cowboy hat, I stood up and quoted Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize.” This moment was my introduction to the assembled SDSers, and I left Clear Lake as part of SDS’s leadership, a member of the National Interim Committee. Before heading back to Chicago I reintroduced myself to Bernardine by sending her a post card: “Nice meeting you; how about we take a ride together on my motorcycle?”
[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]