Making Civil Rights History in Chicago, Quietly

Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, owed a portion of his success to campaign manager Al Raby, a quiet hero in the early days of civil rights. Commentator Robin Washington (no relation) is editorial page editor of The Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota.

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ED GORDON, host:

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement. The organizers held close ties with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, upholding the same value of nonviolent mobilization.

Commentator Robin Washington holds this remembrance close to his heart. His family played a crucial role in this ambitious civil rights campaign.

Mr. ROBIN WASHINGTON (Editor, Duluth News Tribune): Whenever I hear the name Al Raby, I just have to laugh. I can hear my mother's voice saying Al Raby, we created Al Raby, and I was there at the creation.

Wait, I know, most of you are saying who's Al Raby? If you're from Chicago, you should know. He was the campaign manager responsible for Harold Washington's election as Chicago's first black mayor in 1983. And I mean responsible. More than 90 percent of the black vote went for Washington, every one of which was needed to put him over the top in the racially divided city.

Al Raby understood that and got that vote out. But the Al Raby my family knew, or helped create, was a shy young man 20 years earlier. He had a girlfriend -and her name I don't know - who attended a meeting of a group called Teachers for Integrated Schools. It was most likely at 1424 North Orleans Street, the organization's headquarters. I know that because it was our house and the meetings were in our living room.

One of the founders of that group was my mother, Jean Washington(ph). We aren't related to Harold Washington, but my family did know him decades before he became mayor. She and a handful of other radicals were also officers of the Chicago chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the NAACP. But to better organized neighborhood groups for the sit-ins and marches against segregated schools and housing they felt they needed an umbrella group and dreamed up the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations. The only thing was, who would lead it?

Everyone from the police chief to the superintendent of schools to the mayor knew who my mother's band of radicals were. What was needed was somebody they didn't know. And that's when this quiet young man that nobody knew named Al Raby walked into the room.

He agreed to be president of Teachers for Integrated Schools, and later the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations. If it sounds familiar, it's just like another quiet young man named Martin Luther King, who showed up in Montgomery in the earlier decade before to lead a bus boycott. Both of them rose to the occasion.

Eventually, Raby got to know King and in 1966 brought him to Chicago to see if the tactics that freed African-Americans from Jim Crow in the South would work against poverty and discrimination in the North. But that campaign didn't work as well for King, partially because Chicago's powerful boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley, co-opted some of King's anti-poverty messages as his own.

Daley, who was no one my family admired, also wasn't as foolish as his counter parts in the South. Instead of siccing dogs and fire hoses on King, he held meetings with him and gave him police protection.

All of the above are gone now. Harold Washington died in 1987, Al Raby the next year, and my mother in 2003. After two black mayors, Chicago went back to a white one. Mayor Richard M. Daley, the boss's son. It's hard to say if the city is changed much. It's as segregated as ever and home to some of the poorest black people in the country, but also some of the richest. And if we were thrilled when we elected Harold Washington in 1983, you can only imagine what it was like to give the country it's only two black elected U.S. Senators: Carol Moseley Braun in 1992, and Barack Obama in 2004. A lot of that is thanks to a young man who came to pick up his girlfriend at a meeting in 1963 and left to lead a movement.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minnesota. This is NPR News.

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