In the documentary American Revolution 2, there is an incredible scene in which a white Appalachian labor group hosts a speech by a Black Panther, Bobby Lee. The time is 1968, and the place is Chicago. And this isn’t an accident. Nor is it an accident that these were white Appalachians. We all know about the Great Migration, where black people fled from hard apartheid in the South to soft apartheid in the North. Less vivid in the national imagination was the flight of the white proletariat from the South – West Virginia, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, etc. In the 1960s, this was not a blank in our national imagination, but a reality that any community organizer had to deal with, and any business, small or large, took the opportunity to exploit. In Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (which my friend Scott Saul, the guy who wrote Becoming Richard Pryor, had me watch), one of the enduring motifs is the relationship between the reporter and this very southern accented poor white woman. I’m pretty sure Wexler must have read StudsTerkel’s Division Street, since the sociological spread in the film uncannilyparallels the book.
It is more of a coincidence, perhaps, that our last election, the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was born in a Chicago suburb, Park Ridge. And that our current president, Barak Obama, was a community organizer in Chicago. It is odd that this has gotten so little play, as there are differences in styles between Clinton and Obama which, to my mind, evoke the different voices that Terkel captured in his book, and which have falsely been generalized as simply feminine and masculine (as though these large structures thoroughly capture a negative twenty questions space – the space of identity). In Terkel's book, you get a strong sense of the difference between growing up in a wealthy Chicago suburb and organizing a working class Chicago neighborhood. Which I want to get to.
Terkel begins his book with some interviews connected to a community issue that makes stark divides that cropped up in the Democratic primary. In the early sixties, Chicago boosters wanted a state university in Chicago. They settled on a multi-ethnic neighborhood that was around the Hull House complex, famously associated with Jane Addams. You couldn’t get more symbolic in pitting the technocratic liberal against the old movement liberal. Terkel interviewed a remarkable activist, Florence Scala, who campaigned vainly against the urban clearing. And I’ll take it from there in my next post.