How far we’ve come; how far yet to go

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In 1961, public schools were still struggling to implement the landmark Brown vs. the board of education decision (c. 1954) that outlawed segregated schools. In some parts of the country, Black people were still being lynched for looking at a white person

In 1961, public schools were still struggling to implement the landmark Brown vs. the board of education decision (c. 1954) that outlawed segregated schools. In some parts of the country, Black people were still being lynched for looking at a white person the wrong way. Lunch counters and bus terminals remained segregated. And, throughout the Jim Crow South, Blacks risked jail, even their lives, for trying to exercise their right to vote.

Despite notable civil rights victories such as Brown and the Alabama bus boycotts, many segregationist laws and attitudes remained unchanged in 1961. Black-white interaction and multicultural coalition-building was limited. The lines separating people by race, class and culture were clearly marked, which made the efforts of a diverse group of Chicagoans all the more remarkable.

That year, led by former Chicago Urban league President Edwin C. “Bill” Berry, Kathryn Dickerson, Sherman Abrams and Hank Schwab crossed the color line to organize the first Golden Fellowship Dinner. They saw the event as a way to raise money to expand the organization’s economic and social programs, and its base of supporters. Each tapped their personal networks, engaging friends, family members, lawmakers and business colleagues who believed that racial inequality and segregation was dead wrong.

How dare they do such a thing in 1961? The year marked the start of a tumultuous decade that saw the assassinations of a president sympathetic to civil rights and two of our beloved Black leaders (Malcolm X and Dr. King). But seeds of change were also planted. On August 4, 1961, a baby boy named Barack was born who would grow up to achieve the unthinkable in those days.

The Civil Rights Movement is viewed by many as Black history. But more accurately, the movement represents American history. From the student-led sit-ins to the Freedom Riders to the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1958) was waged not only by Black activists but also by multiracial sympathizers who fought side-by-side for racial and social justice. Some paid with their lives, like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, Jewish members of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). Their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam along with Black CORE volunteer James Chaney, murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

But they didn’t die in vain. Even in the midst of great tragedy, diversity strengthened and empowered the Civil Rights Movement to reach a tipping point. Dramatic changes in laws, thoughts and actions followed. The African American community needs diverse leadership to meet deep challenges, and the Chicago Urban League is still committed to it.

If we truly embrace the notion that our destinies are connected, then modern-day civil rights activists must recruit and embrace like-minded individuals whether or not they share the same culture, experiences, or skin color. As long as they are committed to defend and support what is right.

The Golden Fellowship Dinner (GFD) is one of Chicago’s premiere galas and among the most diverse in terms of financial support. On November 12, the Urban League will carry on that tradition as author, comedian and radio personality Steve Harvey and R&B superstar Patti LaBelle headline the 50th anniversary Golden Fellowship Dinner at the Hilton Chicago. This year, the theme is “Honoring Our Past, Empowering Our Future” to remind us that the kind of leadership that broke the chains of oppression in the past is the same kind of leadership we need today to take on new challenges and move forward. I’m speaking of diverse leadership.

In the 1970s, Berry was criticized by some Blacks as too moderate and co-opted by the white establishment. Berry shared that one Black activist told him, “You spend too much time with white people and not enough time with us.”

To his credit, Berry remained undeterred, as did his successor James Compton, who carried on Berry’s tradition of multicultural coalition-building. Compton will be the honored recipient of the prestigious Edwin C. “Bill” Berry Award at this year’s gala.

It takes courage to stand up to the status quo – sometimes, even among your own people. The Chicago Urban League got out in front back in 1961 to diversify its base, and it’s stayed out in front. The organization has survived 95 years not because its leaders created silos around Black

America to deal with problems, but because they took an integrated approach to promoting racial unity for the future.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

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