civil rights – Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop Chicago Community Stories Mon, 08 Jan 2018 18:45:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 1963 school boycott Mon, 21 Oct 2013 20:18:17 +0000 Tuesday is the 50th aniversary of the 1963 Chicago school boycott, and a commemoration at DuSable Museum features a panel discussion and a screening of highlights from Kartenquin Films’ documentary-in-progress, 63 Boycott

The panel — on “Lessons from the 1963 Boycott – The Struggle for Quality Education in Chicago Then and Now” – features Rosie Simpson and Fannie Rushing, leaders of the ’63 boycott, along with CTU president Karen Lewis, historian Elizabeth Todd-Breland of UIC, and Jasson Perez of the Black Youth Project.

The free event takes place Tuesday, October 22, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the DuSable Museum, 740 E. 56th Place.

On October 22, 1963, 250,000 CPS students boycotted school and thousands marched downtown.  They targetted the segregationist policies of CPS superintendent Ben Willis, under which students in black schools were crammed into classrooms and mobile units and taught in split shits, while nearby white schools had empty classrooms.  Spending on white schools was 50 percent higher than black schools.

In May, Ben Joravsky wrote about the documentary, giving some background on filmmaker Gordon Quinn’s involvement — and drawing some parallels with public education struggles today.

The People’s World has a retrospective that highlights the role of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations and the Congress of Racial Equality.  NewsOne credits the Chicago Area Friends of SNCC — a group which held its own commemoration two years ago.

At the time Newstips noted:

“The boycott and a demonstration by thousands of students and supporters in the Loop was a huge success.  The outcome was somewhat limited, though:  Willis was forced to resign, but school segregation continues to this day, [Sylvia] Fischer [of Chicago SNCC] said.

“In 1980 a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice resulted in a court ordered desegregation plan, but by then many white familes had moved to the suburbs, and many others had moved their children to private and parochial schools.  By the 1990s, two-thirds of Chicago’s white students were in private schools.   Today the city has a majority black public school system and a majority white private school system.

“The court order was lifted in 2009 over the objections of civil rights groups and students, who pointed to continuing inequities in Chicago schools.  In a blow to school desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007, in a 5-to-4 decision, that using race as a factor in public school admissions is unconstitutional.”

Corporate lobbying group draws fire Thu, 08 Aug 2013 00:17:36 +0000 A broad coalition of labor, community, environmental and faith groups will protest the 40th anniversary annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC.

The meeting takes place August 7 to 9 at the Palmer House, 17 E. Monroe; the rally takes place there on Thursday, August 8 at 12 noon.

Long a major but shadowy behind-the-scenes player, ALEC came to prominence in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s killing, when the group’s role working with the NRA to promote Stand Your Ground legislation became known.

With funding by major corporations and membership by one-third of the nation’s state legislators, ALEC provides model legislation in a wide array of areas.

The group joins corporate America’s economic agenda with a right -wing social agenda, according to In These Times editor Joel Bleifuss.  He joined Rey Lopez-Calderon of Common Cause and Brian Echols of Concerned Black Men on a recent episode of Chicago Newsroom to discuss ALEC.  (Watch it here.)

“They’re a great example of the power of Corporate America in American politics,” Bleifuss says.

In 2011 In These Times first exposed ALEC’s use of model bills — despite its tax exempt status which prohibits legislative activity — to undermine public employee unions and privatize government.

Charge tax fraud

“We think it’s tax fraud,” Lopez-Calderon says.  Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy recently filed a complaint with the IRS charging ALEC with filing fraudulent tax returns.

ALEC has gone after collective bargaining rights, clean energy legislation, and campaign finance reform, Newsroom panelists relate.  The group is behind a series of restrictive voter ID laws as well as SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial “Show Your Papers” law.

Echols notes that, on behalf of private prison corporations, ALEC has pushed the War on Drugs’ harsh sentencing laws, targetting African Americans and vastly increasing the nation’s prison population.  Now they’re pushing laws that will increase the detention of immigrants on behalf of the same corporations, Lopez-Calderon notes.

“They’ve viewed this as a long-term way for corporations to make money,” he says, adding that ALEC helped create the Corrections Corporation of America.

Schools and prisons

ALEC is also behind efforts to push charter schools and the privatization of public education.  In Illinois the group’s model bill created the Illinois Charter School Commission, which has the power to approve charter applications that have been turned down by local school districts.

One major beneficiary is K12, a nationwide purveyor of virtual charter schools now moving into Illinois, Echols notes.

“My view is they’ve got them coming and going,” he says — making money providing inferior education on the front end, then making money from incarcerating young people who can’t find gainful employment and are forced into the street economy.

According to Lopez-Calderon, ALEC’s guiding light is Margaret Thatcher, who pioneered the idea of finding ways for corporations to profit by taking over public sector functions.  (He adds that “in terms of Thatcherism,” Mayor Emanuel “is lockstep with this agenda.”)

Recently ITT reported on ALEC’s promotion of scores of  laws to erode wage and labor standards by undermining minimum wage, prevailing wage, and paid sick leave protections.

Senator Dick Durbin has announced he’ll hold hearings this fall on the role of ALEC and the NRA in spreading Stand Your Ground laws.

For extensive background, see the Center for Media and Democracy’s website, ALEC Exposed.

King Day: Occupy the Fed, foreclosures, schools Sat, 14 Jan 2012 01:29:58 +0000 The civil rights movement, the Occupy movement, and community organizations will come together for a series of events marking Martin Luther King’s birthday this week, including a demonstration Monday at the Federal Reserve led by African American clergy including Rev. Jesse Jackson.

At the time of his assassination, King was organizing an “occupation” of Washington D.C., and after his death thousands of people occupied Resurrection City there from May 12 to June 24, 1968, demanding jobs, housing and an economic bill of rights.

In other King Day activities, housing rights groups are stepping up the drive to occupy foreclosures, and teachers and community groups are demonstrating against school “turnarounds.”

Over a thousand community activists are expected for an Occupy the Dream event (Sunday, January 15 at 3 p.m. at People’s Church, 941 W. Lawrence), where elected officials will be called on to support jobs and tax reform, including closing corporate tax loopholes and instituting a financial transaction tax.

It’s sponsored by IIRON, a regional organizing network that includes Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, Northside POWER, and the Northwest Indiana Federation. Occupy Chicago has endorsed the event.

“We are organizing in the tradition of the civil rights movement,” said Rev. Dwight Gardner of Gary, president of the Northwest Indiana Federation.

“In Dr. King’s very last sermon, he warned us not to sleep through a time of great change like Rip Van Winkle,” he said. “This is a moment of great change and we must put our souls in motion to occupy his dream.”

At the Fed: National Day of Action

Monday’s action at the Federal Reserve (Jackson and LaSalle, January 16, 3 p.m.) is part of a national day of action to “Occupy the Fed” by the Occupy the Dream campaign, with African American church leaders moblizing multicultural, interfaith rallies in 13 cities.  They’ll be emphasizing racially discriminatory practices by banks which have resulted in high foreclosure rates, as well as the issue of student debt.

“There needs to be economic equality, there needs to be jobs for all, there needs to be opportunities for the next generation,” said Rev. Jamal Bryant of Occupy the Dream.

“It’s consistent with the Poor People’s Campaign of holding people accountable who have benefited from the labor of working people and used their influence to create inequality,” said Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago coordinator of the effort.

On Tuesday, Northside POWER and other groups will visit Bank of America (135 S. LaSalle) at 3:30 p.m. to demand help for a North Side family facing foreclosure; the bank has refused mediation for the family, which has applied for the Hardest Hit foreclosure relief program, said Kristi Sanford.

They’ll also visit Attorney General Lisa Madigan, demanding she withdraw from the proposed settlement of the robosigning fraud case by state attorney generals and the U.S. Department of Justice.  The settlement would fine banks “a pittance” and absolve them of all liability, Sanford said.  Attorney generals in New York and California have withdrawn.

Sanford said an effort to occupy a foreclosed home and launch an eviction resistance campaign is also underway.

Working the grassroots against eviction

Meanwhile, groups organizing against foreclosure and eviction have come together in the national network Occupy Our Homes, and they’ll go door-to-door Sunday and Monday, reaching out to families facing foreclosure and their neighbors.

Training sessions for canvassers will be held on Sunday, January 15 at 10 a.m. in Albany Park (at Centro Autonomo, 3630 W. Lawrence) and Monday at 10 a.m. on the South Side (Sankofa Center, 1401 E. 75th) and the West Side (a foreclosed property at 2655 W. Melvina and the Third Unitarian Church, 311 N. Mayfield), and volunteers will canvass those areas from 11 to 3 on the respective days.

Homeowners will be connected with legal resources and encouraged to consider staying in their homes after foreclosure, said Loren Taylor of Occupy Our Homes.

The foreclosure process is unfairly stacked toward lenders, banks have engaged in “massive, massive fraud,” and the banks which refuse to help homeowners have received government bailouts in the trillions of dollars, Taylor said.

Participating groups include the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, and the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, which has worked with renters in foreclosed buildings.

School marches mark King’s Chicago legacy

Also Monday, demonstrations against educational inequality – and against school “turnarounds” – will take place in areas made famous by Martin Luther King’s 1966 Chicago campaign.

At 10:30 a.m., the Chicago Teachers Union and community allies will march for education justice and “quality schools for all” at Marquette Elementary, 6550 S. Richmond, just south of the park where King was hit by a brick while marching for fair housing in 1966.

Today the school is 99 percent black and Latino – and slated for a “turnaround” by Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL). CTU argues that all schools should have small class sizes, a well-rounded curriculum, and supportive services.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, Blocks Together and other supporters of Casals Elementary, 3501 W. Potomac, will go door-to-door to inform neighbors of parent efforts to stop the transfer of that school to AUSL.

And at 1 p.m. on Monday, North Lawndale residents including members of Action Now will hold a press conference and march from Dvorak Elementary, 3615 W. 16th, past the site where King lived in Lawndale in 1966, to Herzl Elementary, 3711 W. Douglas.  They’re opposing Herzl’s “turnaround” by AUSL – and they fear Dvorak is next, said Aileen Kelleher of Action Now.

Parents maintain that CPS neglects neighborhood schools serving low-income minority children, setting them up for failure so they can be turned over to AUSL or charter schools, Kelleher said

Constitutional clouds over eavesdropping statute Tue, 08 Nov 2011 23:16:26 +0000 Things aren’t looking so good for Illinois’ controversial eavesdropping statute.

A downstate Circuit Court judge recently ruled the statute unconstitutional, and in Chicago another Circuit Court judge is considering a similar argument.

Meanwhile two federal cases challenging the constitutionality of the law are wending their way through court.

‘Smart phones and dumb laws’

Lawyers from several of those cases will discuss the law at a forum on Smart Phones and Dumb Laws, Wednesday, November 9 at 6 p.m. at DePaul University Law School, 25 E. Jackson, Room 241.

Among those participating are Robert Johnson, who successfully defended Tiawanda Moore against felony eavesdropping charges this summer; Mark Weinberg, who’s representing Chris Drew in a similar case; Jed Stone, who represents Gregory Koger in appealing convictions stemming from videotaping a statement at a public meeting of the Ethical Humanist Society two years ago; and Adam Schwartz of the ACLU, which is challenging the law in federal court.

Civil rights attorney Chris Cooper, a candidate for state’s attorney who’s written on systems that protect abusive officers, will also speak.  He’s challenging State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who has enthusiastically embraced the eavesdropping statute.

Among the questions to be addressed, according to a release: “Why does Illinois have this dumb law?”  The law in question makes it a Class 1 felony to audio record law enforcement officers in public.

It’s not a bad question. The Chicago Tribune has called the statute “indefensible” and the Sun Times said “it’s time to take another look at the law.”

Jurors in Moore’s case thought the law was dumb, at least as applied to her; she’d used her cell phone to record Internal Affairs officers who were trying to talk her out of filing a sexual harrassment complaint against another cop.

Ruled unconstitutional

In September, Judge David Frankland of the 2nd Illinois Circuit ruled the law is unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment right to gather information on public officials performing their public duties.  He also found it violates due process rights by “subject[ing] wholly innocent conduct to prosecution.”

Frankland dismissed five felony eavesdropping charges – punishable by up to 15 years in prison for each count (yes, 75 years total) – against Michael Allison, who tried to tape record his trial for violating a local eyesore ordinance because he couldn’t afford to pay for a court reporter.

Crawford County States Attorney Tom Wiseman is expected to appeal the ruling – which means the Illinois Supreme Court would consider the constitutionality of the statute.

In a hearing in Chicago yesterday, Circuit Court Judge Stanley Sacks said he would ask Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to weigh in on constitutional questions in the prosecution of street artist Chris Drew.  Drew was arrested for selling art on the street without a permit – he was seeking to challenge the constitutionality of that ordinance – and charged with eavesdropping when police found he had taped the arrest.

Federal lawsuits

The ACLU is asking a federal appellate court to block future prosecutions of its staff for monitoring police conduct at demonstrations.

In March, Louis Frobe of Lake Villa, Illinois, filed a federal suit against the village of Lindenhurst and three Linderhurst police officers, arguing the eavesdropping law violates his First Amendment right to gather information on public officials.

Frobe was arrested after he began videotaping the scene where he’d been stopped for speeding, believing the officer who’d stopped him was wrong about the speed limit that applied.

“Cell phones give everyday people amazing power to document injustices, protests, and misconduct by police and officials,” but the Illinois eavesdropping statute sharply limits that power, forum organizers say.

A few weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of people watched You Tube videos of a New York cop pepper-spraying young women from Occupy Wall Street.  The videos garnered national attention; lots of TV stations aired them.

In Illinois under this statute, whoever took those videos could well have been prosecuted as felons.

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Remembering Chicago SNCC Fri, 21 Oct 2011 20:13:16 +0000 The story of Chicago SNCC – and of Freedom Day, a massive boycott of Chicago schools demanding desegregation on October 22, 1963 – will be discussed Saturday at an event marking the opening of the Chicago SNCC archive.

Chicago SNCC veteran Sylvia Fischer will interview comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, and the SNCC Freedom Singers will perform as part of the program, Saturday, October 22 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the DuSable Museum, 760 E. 56th Place.

The archive, which includes oral histories along with posters, photographs, and correspondence, is housed in the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted.  An exhibit featuring items from the collection and videos of oral histories runs at DuSable through December 23 (reservations for Saturday’s event are full).

Chicago Area Friends of SNCC was one of  a number of groups in northern cities formed to support the work of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, which faced jailings, beatings and killings as it organized voter registration drives in the South.  In addition to raising funds and marshalling public sentiment, Fischer and others often housed activists who came north for a break from the constant tension, she recalls.  “It was a very busy home, with people coming and going,” she said.

The Chicago group went further than others, though, becoming involved in local struggles.

Following the March on Washington in August 1963, the group initiated a boycott of Chicago Public Schools that was backed by a broad coalition and joined by 250,000 students, demanding an end to segregations of Chicago schools.

As the city’s black population expanded into white neighborhoods, school boundaries were redrawn to keep black and white students separate,  Fischer recalls.  “You would have two schools side by side, one white and one black, and the white school would have empty classrooms and the black school would be overcrowded,” she said.  The black schools “sometimes had to resort to double shifts, and then they brought in Willis Wagons,” trailers used for classes and named for the school superintended, Benjamin Willis, who resisted all efforts at desegregation.

The black schools had the newest teachers and the oldest textbooks, books that had been handed down from white schools, sometimes in inadequate numbers, she said.  At the time the Chicago Urban League found that teachers in black schools earned 85 percent as much as teachers in white schools, and operating budgets for black schools were 66 percent of those for  white schools.

The boycott and a demonstration by thousands of students and supporters in the Loop was a huge success.  The outcome was somewhat limited, though:  Willis was forced to resign, but school segregation continues to this day, Fischer said.

In 1980 a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice resulted in a court ordered desegregation plan, but by then many white familes had moved to the suburbs, and many others had moved their children to private and parochial schools.  By the 1990s, two-thirds of Chicago’s white students were in private schools.   Today the city has a majority black public school system and a majority white private school system.

The court order was lifted in 2009 over the objections of civil rights groups and students, who pointed to continuing inequities in Chicago schools.  In a blow to school desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007, in a 5-to-4 decision, that using race as a factor in public school admissions is unconstitutional.

Chicago SNCC’s story is relevant “as an example of the kinds of things that can be done,” Fischer said.  “It’s a model for young people in search of answers.  They have to come up with their own answers, but there is some guidance from what’s been done in the past.”

She and her colleagues have spoken in several high schools – some of them with entirely African American student bodies, she notes – and she’s concerned that “there is just no history being taught, there is no African American history being taught.  Whatever they know is what they get from television.”

War on Drugs: 40 years of failure? Thu, 16 Jun 2011 20:20:24 +0000 Cook County president Toni Preckwinkle will speak at a rally Friday to “end the war on drugs” – while the White House steps up efforts to defend its drug policies in the face of growing criticism.

A broad coalition of civil rights, health, policy, faith, community and student groups will hold a Rally to End the War on Drugs on Friday, June 17 at noon at the Thompson Center, Randolph and Dearborn.   It’s the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs.

Participants cite the racially discriminatory impact of the nation’s drug policies – they’ve been recently tagged “the new Jim Crow”– and the expense and inefficiency of addressing health disorders through the criminal justice system, while support for treatment lags.

Meanwhile the White House released a report showing that Cook County leads the nation in the proportion of individuals testing positive for drugs following their arrest.  This shows that “drug addiction is too often the root of crime in our communities,” U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told the Sun Times.

It could be read another way, said Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy:  “When treatment isn’t available and you arrest people for drug possession, they are going to test positive.”

“It’s exactly why the war on drugs is failing – because we’re not getting treatment to people,” she said.

Curious timing

The numbers in the White House report are not new or suprising.  Two years ago an ICDP report found that Cook County had the highest proportion of arrestees testing positive for drugs among urban centers.  Kane-Willis said that’s been the case for some time.  ICDP’s report recommended increasing resources for treatment and diverting low-level drug offenders to community programs.

Untreated substance use disorders cost Illinois $4.6 billion a year, including $1.16 billion in costs for the criminal justice system, ICDP estimated.

The timing of the White House report was curious, coming one day before groups across the country mark the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s declaration of war.

On Tuesday in Washington DC, members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition attempted to meet with Kerlikowske to present a report criticizing the Obama administration for failing to follow through on promises to reform drug policy.

LEAP includes police officials, judges, prosecutors, and federal agents who call for legalizing drugs.  Norm Stamper, who like Kerlikowske is a former Seattle chief of police, was part of the delegation Kerlikowske refused to meet.

The report (pdf) notes a stark irony:  “While the Nixon administration’s public messaging carefully stressed punishment, it directed resources primarily toward public health.  Today the Obama administration’s press releases emphasize public health while its funding requests are actually weighted toward punishment.”

Last week a group of world leaders including Kofi Annan released a report calling the war on drugs a failure and advocating new approaches, including legalization and regulation, especially of marijuana, as a way of  denying profits to drug cartels and reducing violence.  The recommendation “was swiftly dismissed by the Obama administration” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Plenty of drugs

Sponsors and participants in Friday’s rally here echo many of the same concerns.

“The war on drugs is not working,” said Tio Hardiman of CeaseFire.  “There are plenty of drugs in the community.  And it definitely has a direct impact on the level of violence.”

“Drugs are easier to get, the level of potency is up, and prices have gone down,” said Kane-Willis.

Under the War on Drugs, the U.S. prison populations have risen from 500,000 to 2.5 million, with no decrease in drug use, said Mike Rodriguez of Enlace.  He said Latinos are increasingly overrepresented in prison populations as a result.

“It’s spawned the growth of a prison industrial complex and pushed the U.S. to become the number one nation in the world in incarcerating its own people, ahead of China, Iran, and North Korea,” said Dr. Calvin Morris of the Community Renewal Society.

“It’s not so much a war on drugs as it is a war on certain communities,” he said.  “We know drug usage is across the board, it’s as much in the suburbs as the city.  But the whole police focus is on poor communities.  We are profiling entire communities….

The New Jim Crow

“It’s the New Jim Crow,” Morris said, citing Michelle Alexander’s book of that title.  By focusing on communities of color, “the war on drugs gives a legal rationale to take away the vote, to refuse employment, to refuse housing” to people who would have faced straightforward racial discrimination 50 years ago.  “It calls into question the American ideal of justice for all.”

ICPD has found that Illinois ranks first in the nation for black-to-white disparities for locking up drug possession offenders.  A recent legislative study (pdf) carried out by the Center for Health and Justice of TASC, another sponsor of Friday’s rally, found that African Americans here are eight times as likely as whites to be sentenced to prison in cases where the only charge is drug possession.

More than half of those entering prison on drug offenses have been convicted of low-level possession offenses, according to ICDP.  The legislative report found that Cook County courts are being “inundated” with low-level drug charges.

“It’s a very expensive and inefficient approach,” said Kane-Willis.  “It’s a lot cheaper to provide prevention and treatment” than to address problems through emergency rooms, the court system, and prisons.  But it can be very difficult to get into treatment, she said – and Illinois cut treatment funding in its most recent budget.

Politicians who are afraid of being “soft on crime” need to be “smart on crime,” she said.  “Treating substance use disorder through the criminal justice system is not being smart on crime.”

“There is no justice in the war on drugs,” said Morris.  “It is devastating communities.”

Groups coming together tomorrow are aiming at creating a larger, on-going coalition to push for reforms, said Nancy Michaels of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice at Roosevelt University.

Several students from local chapters of Students for Sensible Drug Policies will also be speaking Friday.

Other sponsors include the AIDS Foundation, New Day Network, Protestants for the Common Good, Chicago Justice Project, John Howard Association, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and more than thirty churches.

Charge swastikas in workplace Wed, 27 Apr 2011 20:44:03 +0000 Warehouse workers from Joliet will be in Chicago Thursday morning to file discrimination charges against their employer.

Workers at the Kraft/Cadbury’s warehouse in Joliet will file charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that warehouse operator DB Schenker has refused to address discrimination claims and has created a hostile work environment, Warehouse Workers for Justice announced.

They’ll hold a press conference at 10 a.m., Thursday, April 28 at the offices of the EEOC, 500 W. Madison.

The complaint charges that when workers approached management about swastikas on the walls, they were told that African American and Latino workers were putting up the graffiti “to get attention.”

The swastikas have not been removed from public areas of the warhouse including the break room and the men’s room, according to WWJ.

King Day: Hazel Johnson, jobs crisis, public workers Sun, 16 Jan 2011 19:39:13 +0000 On more than one Martin Luther King Day, Chicago columnist Vernon Jarrett wrote columns highlighting the role of E.D. Nixon, the local organizer who recruited King to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

His point was that while history focused on King–  the way it always focuses on great leaders — the vast grassroots movement he shepherded was far more than a mass of aggrieved followers.  It included hundreds of local leaders, deeply rooted in their communities, many of them maintaining struggles over decades with remarkable tenacity and determination, often at great risk, and far outside the limelight.

A longtime Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organizer and president of the Montgomery NAACP, Nixon had led a march of 750 African American men to the Montgomery County courthouse to register to vote – in 1940.  He not only recruited King, he also recruited Rosa Parks, another long-time activist, for the campaign against segregation on city buses.

So it’s more than fitting that on this King Day, Mary Mitchell’s column memorializes Hazel Johnson, who died Wednesday at age 75.

Johnson shared the stage briefly with another great leader, Barack Obama, who worked on a campaign for asbestos abatement at Altgeld Gardens in the late 1980s, before heading on to law school and broader horizons.

Johnson began researching toxic contamination of the far south CHA development after her husband died of cancer in 1969 at the age of 41. She contacted public agencies and demanded information about the toxic waste dumps, landfills, incinerators and refineries that ringed the community, and when she didn’t get answers, she kept demanding.

Johnson – who also pioneered green jobs with training for Altgeld residents in environmental remediation — is the precursor of Van Jones and Green For All, Jerome Ringo (of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley) and the Apollo Alliance; and locally, of groups like Blacks In Green and Little Village Environmental Organization.  And People for Community Recovery continues its work under Johnson’s daughter, Cheryl.

Also part of her legacy is the ban on landfills on the Southeast Side, a long process initiated by Mayor Harold Washington after he toured Altgeld with Johnson in 1986.  In 2004 Waste Management was barred from accepting refuse in the last active landfill in the area.

Jobs crisis

When Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Poor People’s Campaign shortly before his assassination in 1968, it was in response to economic conditions that would look good today.

Unemployment in 1968 was 4 percent, 7 percent for African-Americans.  It’s double that or worse now, writes Isaiah J. Poole of the Center for America’s Future.

Poole calls for reigniting King’s drive for economic action, offering quotes from a sermon delivered by the civil right leader days before his assassination – quotes that ring true today.

Citing the Declaration of Independence, King declared that unemployment threatens its core commitments: “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”

To a political establishment that has abandoned action on the jobs crisis while it funds overseas wars, King declares: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

Poole rejects “the constrictions on today’s political debate, which limit our horizons to variations of the discredited conservative notion that giving business what it wants — few rules to follow and even fewer taxes to pay — will lead to a revitalized middle-class America, when in fact we’ve already done this for more than a decade and what we have gained is a shrinking middle class caught in a race to the bottom.”

The Poor Peoples’s Campaign was necessary, King said, “because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”

Today, “we could use a massive, dramatic confrontation on behalf of the more than 27 million who are unemployed or underemployed today,” Poole writes. “The spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. would certainly be in its midst.”

Public workers

A year ago we noted King’s final campaign was on behalf of public service workers in Memphis.  A year later, attacks on public workers and their unions have ratcheted up considerably.

The Progressive points out that this shifts the blame for the nation’s economic problems away from the powerful and further weakens the meager recovery now underway.

Labor Notes argues it’s based on a number of myths –that public employees make more money than their private sector counterparts, that private enterprise is more efficient, that taxes are too high (the problem is really that tax system is unfair, with working families taxed more heavily than the very rich).

It’s the latest phase of a largely successful, decades-long drive to neutralize unions by severely limiting workers’ right to organize.

The latest manifestation in Illinois is what Labor Notes describes as a billionaires’ attack on teachers unions.  In a sign of bad times, Democratic leaders like Mayor Daley and Rahm Emanuel have endorsed limits on teachers’ strikes, though the last strike in Chicago was decades ago.  Emanuel also wants to cut pensions for existing city workers, although the state constitution bars such action.

Mike Klonsky points out that Emanuel’s “I’ll Hammer Teachers” program ignores the real problems facing Chicago schools and makes it much tougher to attact good teachers. (Miguel del Valle has spoken up forcefully in defense of teachers.)

Ambitious candidates may chase the latest wave of political opportunism, but Martin Luther King – who once vowed to “fight laws which curb labor” — would advise them to get on the right side of the arc of the universe, the one that bends toward justice.