Michael James : Back to Uptown, 1965-1966

Two men, Uptown Chicago, 1966. Photos by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
Back to Uptown: Bye-bye California,
Chicago here I come, 1965-1966

I was glad to be back in Uptown, progressing along my path with another left turn and a big step into America.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | December 9, 2013

[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.]

The West Oakland organizing project over, I planned to leave Berkeley. But in the late fall of 1965 I was still there. I had classes. I was thinking about conflict, and how you could bring conflicting groups together. I met others who were already doing community organizing, including Mike Miller who is still at it in 2013, and Mike Sharon with whom I’ve lost contact. I was going to be a community organizer, either in Newark or Chicago.

That fall I lived with friends, for a time with John Williams, who taught me a lot about cooking and politics, and then at Julie Miller’s. Julie was a politically active student friend from Los Angeles. I studied and took in doses of politics and culture. In addition to sociology classes with Nathan Glazer and Hebert Blumer (a renowned academic who had played football at the University of Chicago and then professionally with the old Chicago Cardinals), I went to talks, rallies, demonstrations, films, and musical events.

The playwright and poet LeRoi Jones had become Amiri Baraka. He came to campus and his anti-white rap shook me up. My more knowledgeable pals Davy Wellman and Joe Blum helped me to understand Black Nationalism. A few years later Black Panther leader Bobby Seale would distinguish between revolutionary and reactionary nationalism. “You don’t fight fire with fire, you fight fire with water, and you don’t fight racism with more racism, you fight racism with solidarity.”

Simply put: dig yourself and others.

There were large marches into Oakland, against the Vietnam War and against the racist Oakland Tribune and its rightwing Republican owner, former Senator Bill Knowland. I saw the great guitarist John Fahey along with Country Joe and the Fish at the Finnish Hall. On Telegraph Avenue I bought and listened (over and over) to Joe’s EP Section 43. And I began going to concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.

Also in San Francisco I took in a movie I’d read about, Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, a flick about gay men in prison and their fantasies. The article in Studies on the Left reported on the SF Police Department’s harassment of a theater showing the film. This was all new to me; I didn’t have much consciousness about gays at the time.

I liked the film; it featured a black prisoner and a white one, breathing and whispering through a straw between their neighboring cells. I found it pleasant and sensual; it sure bumped up my learning curve on such matters.

I visited what I now considered my second home, the Williams compound in the Carmel Highlands. From there I explored down the coast. I climbed foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and went to a rodeo in the old mission town San Juan Bautista. The rodeo was different than my early rodeo experience in Madison Square Garden — this one was small, outdoors, and heavily influenced by Mexican culture.

Charlie Mingus, Monterrey, California, 1965.

And I went to the Monterey Jazz Festival. A jazz fan since my mid-teens, I’d been to shows and concerts in Greenwich Village and NYC’s Town Hall. I was at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1961, and went to many sets in Chicago. The Monterey Jazz Festival was my first jazz event on the West Coast. I took some pictures of Charlie Mingus hanging out in the concession area before his short set.

At Christmas time I went home to Connecticut. My brother and I, in a tradition started accidentally by our Dad years earlier, went to get a tree late on Christmas Eve; as usual the tree seller had long gone. My Dad returned to the lot to pay the next day, but no one was there. In subsequent years Beau and I didn’t even make that much effort, so later in my life when I sold trees at the Heartland Café, I never got too upset if some went missing and unaccounted for. Karma.

I’ll always remember that particular Christmas, especially for the warm vibes I felt while listening to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, over and over. I suddenly appreciated them, and saw both them and the Remains at the Chicago Amphitheater the following year.

After Christmas I went to Newark, New Jersey, to visit Tom Hayden and others who worked in the Newark Community Union Project, in a black community. Then I went to Chicago and visited the National Office of Students for a Democratic Society, which was located at 63rd and Cottage Grove.

While in Chicago I visited a snow-covered, gray, and very cold Uptown, where I met with two JOIN Community Union organizers, Peter and Stevie Friedman, working in what was then a predominantly Southern white community. Next I headed down to the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana, where SDS was holding one of its conventions. My only recollection of that meeting is of when I leapt off a table to break up an altercation between a black community person from the Newark Project and Bob Speck, a Navy vet from the Austin SDS chapter.

At the end of winter break I rode with fellow SDS members from Chicago to Los Angeles, and made my way back to Berkeley. Early in the New Year of ‘66 I was at a SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) benefit at the Fillmore, featuring Grateful Dead, Quick Silver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, and comedian Richard Pryor.

In the back of the hall I met and talked with Stokeley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) who was then head of SNCC. I shared with him my intention to leave Cal and go into a community, either Newark or Chicago. He told me in no uncertain terms to “Work with whites, we’ve got plenty going on in the Black community. We need more support from within the white community.”

California girls. Carmel, California, 1965.

That was it. Bye-bye California. Chicago here I come.

But it took a while longer.

I had a graduate paper to write on organizing the poor. I was comparing three efforts: the Saul Alinsky model from his Industrial Areas Foundation, the conflicting and self-constricting efforts of the Government’s War on Poverty, and the “be one with the people” and “let the people decide” projects of SDS and ERAP. My research findings of course declared the SDS efforts best, and I spent the winter of 1966 in the Highlands writing about poverty and organizing.

While there I battled a raccoon that raided the bird feeder every night. Laying in wait, I was inside writing with a baseball bat nearby. I attached bells to the feeder and when they jingled I leapt into action. I went for the animal with a mighty swing, missing as the raccoon jumped free ahead of the bat.

Back up in the Bay Area I ran into someone at a Paul Butterfield concert who said, “I thought you left for Chicago.” I replied: “Soon — I’m finishing a paper.” I was. I was also having a real fine time in my final weeks as a California resident.

But bye-bye California and hello Chicago did come to be. One Sunday in early April, JOIN organizer Burt Steck and I began heading east in my 1957 Ford convertible, to the heart of the nation.

On Monday night we stopped on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona and slept on the ground beside the Ford ragtop. In the morning we found that we had actually slept very close to the edge of Canyon de Chelly. Driving on a dirt road we stopped to pick up a hitchhiking Navajo kid. His mom came running out from the bushes and they both got into the car.

The small woman had a blanket she was bringing to a trading post. I just happened to have with me a box of broken abalone shells I had literally thought about “trading to the Indians.” They made great buttons. When we reached the trading post I gave them to the mom. She smiled. Inside I arranged for the trader to send me a buckskin, which I later traded to Austin SDS friend Bob Pardun for a very nice cowboy shirt.

Over a thousand miles and 20 hours later, Wednesday morning found us parked and asleep in front of the U.S. Farmers Association (USFA) office in Des Moines, Iowa. Two policemen tapped on the window and woke us up. We engaged in friendly and humorous conversation about Berkeley, the FSM, and heading to Chicago to organize the poor. They did ask about marijuana; I shared that I had tried it, but assured them we didn’t have any.

We were in Des Moines because a new SDS friend from the University of Nebraska, Carl Davidson, had told me about a radical farmer named Fred Stover. Stover had been a Department of Agriculture official in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, had supported the progressive, Henry Wallace, in the 1948 presidential campaign, and opposed the Korean War. He had been accused of being a member of the Communist Party in his youth and had been forced out of the leadership of the National Farmers Union (NFU). That led to his founding of the USFA, a progressive offshoot of the NFU.

When Fred arrived he took us out to eat, treating us ravenous boys to a big Iowa breakfast. We had a good talk. I really liked Stover. I myself had been a member of the 4H Club (“Head, Heart, Hands, and Health”), and have always liked agriculture and farmers, particularly those on the progressive side of the political equation.

By mid-afternoon Burt and I were in Chicago in Uptown. I immediately became involved in a small demonstration at the Price-Rite TV Repair Shop on Argyle. Mrs. Hinton, an East Indian on welfare and a JOIN member, had tried to return a broken used TV set she had purchased from Price’s. They refused. JOIN organizers and community folks were picketing out front. One of the Price brothers and I got into some macho posturing and arguing. Eventually Mrs. Hinton got her just due. The Price brothers were from Appalachia; eventually they would become JOIN supporters themselves.

It was a good day. I was glad to be back in Uptown, progressing along my path with another left turn and a big step into America.

[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 michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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