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A Tale of Three Cities

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

by Nicholas Lemann
Knopf, 410 pp., $24.95

During the 1950s, the black population of Chicago more than doubled, fed by a stream of Southerners, many of them from the Mississippi Delta, where sharecropping as a way of life was coming to an end. As many as two thousand a week passed through the Illinois Central train station, the Ellis Island of this immigration. Many were recognized by blacks hanging around the station, waiting for the arrival of friends or relatives, ready to show them the glories of this Promised Land.

Others were waiting there, too, many to be of help—“reporters, academics, reformers, and liberal clergymen,” as Nicholas Lemann describes the scene. Cardinal Stritch, of the Roman Catholic archdiocese, sometimes went himself, and more often sent his emissaries. Racism would move north with the blacks, many had predicted; but a formidable combination of interests was opposing that development.

The stream of blacks, begun in the Forties and drying up only in the Eighties, would severely tax the resources of this northern city, the one Lemann wisely chooses as a test of them all. If blacks could make it anywhere, it would be there, not in New York or Detroit or Philadelphia. If they should fail in Chicago, then they must be doomed indeed.

Lemann puts together with great skill the array of institutional and personal sources of aid, many only partly visible at the time, available to the incoming blacks.

  1. First, there was Mayor Daley. After the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, Daley would be remembered as a repressive mayor (though even in 1968 the blacks of Chicago stayed quiet, thanks to programs Daley had deployed to insure their quiescence). Blacks had been the winning bloc in his first election, and they remained indispensable to his political base. Besides, Daley was indebted to, and a benefactor of, the Catholic liberals of Chicago—including R. Sargent Shriver—who would play a large role in the War on Poverty.

  2. Blacks had been part of the Chicago machine even before Daley, with the patronage benefits accruing from that position. Arriving Southerners would be processed as nineteenth-century immigrants were in Boston and New York, given jobs for their votes. Congressman Ralph Metcalfe showed the path to power in the machine that was followed by Harold Washington.

  3. The University of Chicago had a great and activist sociology department doing research in, and offering new conceptual tools for alleviating, ethnic tensions in that most ethnic of cities. Two scholars in particular, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, would have a great influence on government policy dealing with Chicago’s (and other cities’) blacks.

  4. Chicago was 40 percent Catholic in the 1950s, and its archdiocese, under Cardinal Stritch, was the most liberal of any big city’s, with activist priests like Jack Egan and laymen like Ed Marciniak. Marciniak helped bring Daley and Martin Luther King together for the first time, and felt hope for the future when the two men took pictures of their children out of their wallets for some mutual congratulating.

  5. Chicago also has a heritage of gritty and realistic social work descending from the heroic Jane Addams. Its 1950s avatar was Saul Alinsky, who had talented young assistants on the scene, like Nicholas Von Hoffman. Alinsky also had good relations with Cardinal Stritch, who ran interference for him with Mayor Daley.

  6. Going into the 1960s, Chicago had excellent ties with Washington policy makers and legislative resources. These ties were typified by, but not confined to, Mayor Daley’s close Kennedy connections. Sargent Shriver had run Chicago’s Merchandise Mart for Joseph Kennedy and still had political aspirations in Illinois, perhaps to be the state’s senator.

  7. The Kennedys became interested in urban problems even before the civil rights movement pushed them into the protection of endangered blacks.

With all these forces on the side of black incorporation into the political and social life of Chicago, what went wrong? Well, in Lemann’s account, practically everything.

For a start, the whole approach to city problems was subtly skewed by the entry point that was chosen: juvenile delinquency. This was the urban problem that had attracted sociological attention in the comparatively placid 1950s. Liberal concern over it is still marked by the 1957 musical West Side Story. When Tom Wolfe grumped about Leonard Bernstein’s Panther party in 1970, he spent much of Radical Chic poking around for historical antecedents, but missed the real and obvious tie between the Panthers and “the Jets.” Many scholarly articles on delinquents led to the publication, in 1960, of Cloward and Ohlin’s Delinquency and Opportunity. The authors were soon being used as consultants to the new Kennedy administration, which meant to bring peace to city streets. This explains why the war on poverty emerged from that unlikeliest nest, the Justice Department:

The juvenile delinquency committee was the passageway that led [Robert] Kennedy from his background as a conservative lawman into the political persona for which he is remembered, as the soulful champion of the downtrodden—it connected the two versions of himself. Delinquency was at first blush a law enforcement issue, so attending to it was consistent with the main thrust of Kennedy’s career thus far; it didn’t have the soft, abstract quality that he associated with most of the leading liberal issues and personalities. Unlike other criminals, though, delinquents were people he could identify with personally. They were troubled adolescents just as he had been—outsiders; the most common nickname for delinquents at the time, “young toughs,” was a marriage of two words that carried the most positive possible connotations for Kennedy.

Kennedy, on the move, wanted quick answers. His epiphany on the delinquents came in a hasty briefing Lloyd Ohlin gave to him at breakfast and in a car taking the attorney general over to testify on the Hill. Late in the car ride, something finally clicked with Kennedy: “Oh, I see—if I had grown up in these circumstances, this could have happened to me.”

Robert Kennedy’s involvement with the delinquency program was guaranteed when David Hackett, Kennedy’s athlete-hero from his days at Milton Academy, became its chief supporter in his circle. Hackett, after his own magic prep school days, celebrated under the persona “Phineas” in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, had been drifting rather aimlessly until Kennedy, to the astonishment of the more successful strivers around him, brought him to the Justice Department. Kennedy had several reasons for rejoicing in a program that meant Dave had finally “found himself” again.

Meanwhile, over at the White House, John Kennedy had his own reasons for doing something about poverty. Myth links this with a reading of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, though Lemann has the word of Walter Heller and William Capron that Kennedy never read the book. He read, instead, Dwight Macdonald’s more acidulous and “tough” review in The New Yorker. But Kennedy had pressing political reasons for a gesture toward the lower-income brackets, to make his proposed tax cut politically defensible. There was the ordinary scuffle over the bureaucratic housing of any poverty program—should it be in the Department of Labor, or in HEW, or in Bobby’s widening community action project in Justice? Wherever it went, it would be infected by the Cloward-Ohlin approach that percolated out of seminars at the Shriver house, or from the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency where Hackett was recruiting activists like Dick Boone.

Cloward and Ohlin had studied juvenile gangs not merely as stray deviations but as embodying principles of organization in a situation without more conventional forms of social structure. This was construed, rather broadly, in Washington to mean that gang leaders were just Bobby Kennedys deprived of more legitimate channels through which to rise. Instead of pouring more police money and energy into a vain attempt to suppress these youthful energies—like dumb Officer Krupke chasing members of the Jets in circles—a smart government would recruit the misdirected energies of the gang leaders and organizers. This was a true Kennedy approach. It was not namby-pamby “social work” of the sort they associated with the do-goody Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson. It resembled, instead, the approach they would be taking to Vietnam. One could go around the bureaucracy, ignore old-fashioned police tactics, “win the minds and the hearts” of indigenous fighters, and use a cadre of imaginative free agents to build up a “native” community, self-defending and self-governing.

Thus was born the idea of “maximum feasible community participation” in programs meant for the poor. This would lead to comic episodes like Sargent Shriver’s consultations with the Blackstone Rangers on the best way to spend federal money in the ghetto. Jeff Fort, the murderous leader of the Rangers (now the El Rukns), had great fun with the money before going off to prison. Like the chaplain in Waugh who tried to humor a prisoner’s creative desire to “work in wood,” the people behind these Community Action Programs got their heads sawn off.

Things were already going wrong at the local level. In Chicago, Alinsky had to choose the neighborhoods he wanted to “save” very carefully—they had to have certain resources left to them (jobs, a minimally disciplined black component, a minimally tolerant white one). But when he found the right showplace to validate his theories—Englewood—he was overridden by his ally, Cardinal Stritch, who wanted to save endangered parishes in Woodlawn. Counting Stritch’s support more essential than the ideal conditions he hoped for, Alinsky sent Nicholas Von Hoffman into Woodlawn, where the eponymous organization became a success story for community action, one praised across the nation. But the structural weaknesses in the situation were being hidden. The overselling of the Woodlawn Organization’s short-lived triumphs seemed to vindicate principles that Alinsky had never really adopted. The Woodlawn Organization would be used to justify money given to gangs like Jeff Fort’s.

And the hub of all the spokes in Chicago now refused to turn. While the poverty fighters were studying the psyches of young gang leaders, they neglected that larger object of wonder, the scorned politician’s ego. By circumventing “the bureaucracy,” their domestic Green Berets were defying the city machine, the Democratic organization, elected and appointed officials with fiefdoms and perks under challenge. The machine, after all, was an even more visible organizational structure than the gangs—and one, for all its faults, with a better record of benign results in the black community.

Robert Kennedy had resented the payoffs and deals with white and black leaders he had made to win black support for his brother in 1960. He had wanted to show these people he could do what they were commissioned to do, and had failed. His dealings with vicious white leaders in the South did not make him more patient with less racist but also recalcitrant political leaders in the North (though he kept his own regard for the tough Catholic, Mayor Daley). As a senator from New York, Kennedy would even start his own personal program in Bedford-Stuyvesant as a model of “counterinsurgency” community development. By the time Dr. King went to Chicago, Daley was the foe of all “outside agitation.” What he had seen of their “help” looked more like aid to criminals than to less-developed communities.

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