How IU’s Thomas Atkins Proved that “Power is Colorless”

Thomas Atkins, 1961, Arbutus yearbook, accessed Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

Residents at Smithwood Hall, a racially-integrated women’s dormitory at Indiana University, pelted objects from their windows on April 8, 1960. This did little to drive away the students who surrounded the building, singing segregation songs with lyrics like “Glory, glory Governor Faubus, the South shall rise again” and “Let’s all go to n****r haven.” Not until campus police arrived did the emboldened protesters finally disperse. The reason for their ire? The university had just elected its first African American student body president, Elkhart native Thomas I. Atkins. In fact, he was the first Black student to serve as president of a Big Ten school.

Protesters apparently targeted the dorm “commonly regarded as the key housing unit in campus elections” because residents voted narrowly in favor of Atkins, 388-372. As Thursday night crept into Friday morning, sisters at Alpha Phi discovered a burning cross—a signature of the Ku Klux Klan—on the white sorority’s lawn. It was rumored that some felt the sisters’ voting apathy resulted in Atkin’s victory. Under the cloak of darkness, approximately 400 students congregated at the center of campus, some waving Confederate flags and others shouting that “a bunch of beatniks” had engineered the victory. Before they could hang an effigy of Atkins, campus police broke up the protesters. The hate-filled demonstrations resumed Friday evening, when another fiery cross was found near housing for married students. Leo Downing, dean of students, noted wryly, “‘Our so-called ‘Klan element’ was really stymied in this election. . . . They either had to vote for Atkins, who is a Negro, or for [Mike] Dann, who is Jewish.'”

Campaign poster, 1960, accessed accessed Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

Atkins, described by the Indianapolis Recorder as a “mild-mannered honor student and speaker pro tem of the student senate,” responded graciously, stating he would ignore the protests as “‘not representing the Indiana University student body.'”[1] The backlash he experienced would follow him throughout his prolific civil rights law career, but his time in Bloomington helped him learn how to withstand it.

No stranger to adversity, Atkins recalled that after contracting polio at the age of five, doctors told him he would need to use crutches his entire life. Three years later, he was walking unassisted and in 1982 told the Boston Globe “‘One thing [polio] did was convince me that nothing was impossible.'” Developing tenacity at a young age served him well when Elkhart’s elementary schools “accidentally” integrated after the Black school collapsed and the town could not afford to rebuild it. Fearing for his safety, the third grader lined his pockets with rocks the first days he attended the desegregated elementary school.  As a teenager at Elkhart High School, he accomplished what he would at IU: being elected as the school’s first Black student body president.

* * *

The backlash at Indiana University failed to tamp Atkins’s ambitions and the following month, the Muncie Evening Press announced he was the school’s first student to receive the U.S. Experiment in International Living grant. This allowed him to temporarily live in Turkey, where he gained insights for his thesis, “The Role of the Military in Turkish Society.” The Senior, who stayed with an Istanbul family of three, returned home in October and concluded that Turks “cannot see how the United States can propose to lead the free world and still have racial prejudice at home.” The following month he was one of three IU students nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, which would fund three years of study at England’s Oxford University. So esteemed was Atkins that he was selected as one of twelve Board of Aeons students to advise university president Herman B Wells. In one instance, President Wells called upon him to convince discriminatory Bloomington barbers to cut Black students’ hair. Wells and Atkins convened a meeting with the barbers and, through compromise, got the barbers to agree to cut students’ hair regardless of their race.[2]

While setting himself up for professional success, Atkins made a significant and controversial decision in his personal life. Seven years before the landmark Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court ended bans on interracial marriage, Atkins married white South Bend native Sharon Soash. Reportedly, the couple met playing with the Indiana all-state high school orchestra, and in college carpooled to the South Bend-Elkhart area from Bloomington during holiday breaks. Soash had served as Atkins’s student body campaign manger and recently graduated from IU with a history major.

“Parents Against Mixed Marriage,” Terre Haute Tribune, January 1, 1961, accessed Newspapers.com.

So taboo was their romance, that  just before the wedding one photographer staked out at Thomas’s mother’s house in an attempt to snap a picture of the couple; he was quickly rebuffed. While Soash’s father considered Atkins to be a gentleman, he tried to talk her out of the marriage. Unable to be dissuaded, they tied the knot in Cassopolis, Michigan because, according to the Boston Globe, interracial marriage was illegal in Indiana. The newlyweds planned to return to Bloomington and live in a married housing unit, where they no doubt experienced their share of harassment. Now with a spouse to consider, Atkins decided to withdraw from the Rhodes scholarship nomination process.

The South Bend Tribune reported that both Atkins planned to pursue careers in national diplomacy, a field undoubtedly in-demand during the early Cold War years.[3] Thomas was well on his way to this goal after earning a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which enabled him to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University. While there, a Ford Foundation fellowship allowed him to train in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies and earn his Masters in 1963. In fact, the Indianapolis Star reported that Atkins earned an astonishing twelve educational fellowships, five of which were from Harvard. Despite his international ambitions, he ultimately chose to fight on the “homefront” while working towards his law degree at the Ivy League school.

That homefront was Boston, where Black parents’ charges of de facto segregation in its public school system had routinely fallen on deaf ears. Atkins turned up the volume as the local NAACP branch’s executive secretary. His knowledge of the law, appreciation of educational opportunities, and ability to withstand racially-charged backlash, made the 25-year-old an ideal advocate for the city’s Black youth. Atkins and other NAACP leaders organized a series of protests beginning in the spring of 1963, like the June 18 “Stay Out for Freedom.” In lieu of school, approximately 8,000 junior and high school students met at ten designated “Freedom Centers,” like St. Mark’s Social Center, where they discussed the Black liberation movement and learned about citizenship. The organizers’ goal was simple: get the Boston School Committee to admit that de facto segregation was present in the district. Atkins summarized “We have not asked the committee to sign away its soul in blood, but merely admit that such a condition exists.” However, the committee refused to concede this fact—and would continue to do so for years.

The assassination of Medgar Evers, a Black WWII veteran and Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary, just days prior to the “Stay Out for Freedom” event underlined the need to fight for racial equality. Atkins served as master of ceremonies at a June 26th memorial service for the slain activist at Parkman Bandstand. Over 15,000 Bostonians turned out to pay their respects and march against injustice. Recognizing that protest must be coupled with policy in order to be effective, Atkins and other leaders hosted a voter registration drive at the memorial service.

Boston Globe, July 29, 1963, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Adding to their tactical repertoire, on July 29 Atkins and other activists blocked School Committee members from entering committee headquarters, threatening to do so every day until members agree to meet with NAACP’s Education Committee. Picketers handed out pamphlets to passersby about the “deplorable conditions of the Roxbury schools” and marched carrying signs that read:

“Stop Jim Crow Teacher Assignments”
“Why No Negro Principals?”
“Would You be Patient?”
“Don’t Shoot Us in the Back”

The battle lines firmly drawn, Chairman of the School Committee Louise Day Hicks responded that “Parades, demonstrations and sit-ins may appeal to the exhibitions, but they will not help the Negro school child who everybody admits does need help.”

Fed up with being stonewalled, Atkins, on behalf of the NAACP,  issued an ultimatum to the School Committee the following day, stating it had until August 2 to meet or face bigger demonstrations. Atkins wrote, “It is launched with utmost regret, for the Branch would by far prefer the relatively quiescent atmosphere of the bargaining table to the commotion and clamor surrounding a picket line.” In issuing the ultimatum, Atkins advised the School Committee to consider:

Whether they are willing to accept the moral responsibility for this demonstration and as to whether they are willing to accept the political responsibility of having another debit chalked up on an accounting sheet which already show many more debits than credits in the areas of civil rights.

When that meeting did take place, School Committee members refused to discuss segregation. The longer the dispute went on, the more entrenched both sides grew. Although critical city officials categorized the conflict as a battle of semantics, Atkins and other leaders refused to move the goal post: without addressing segregation’s existence, equality would be impossible. Local reformer Susan Batson explained that de facto “was the most evil kind” of segregation because “no one is responsible and some say it doesn’t exist.”

Boston Globe, September 6, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Surely, the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August—at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech—further empowered Boston leaders, who organized a “sleep-in” at School Committee headquarters. Such demonstrations drew the ire of committee member Joseph Lee, who called NAACP protesters “frauds, mountebanks, and charlatans.” Further, he contended:

they are clearly doing all in their power to obstruct the education of the Negro-American school child in Boston, so that they can perpetually pose as a potential Moses to lead the deprived pupil out of such imposed intellectual bondage–and at the same time pose as saviors to gull [sic?] a handsome living out of white dupers.

To these allegations, Atkins responded as he did to the IU demonstrations, with measured aplomb, stating, “I think it’s amusing.” He suggested that white residents and school committee members were shaken because “The Negro wasn’t proud of being a Negro before. Now he is. There isn’t a Negro Problem in Boston—there is a Boston problem.” But when it became clear that the committee would not recognize segregation, Atkins focused on leveraging the Black vote.  If activists couldn’t get committee members to change their minds, they would change committee members.

“6000 March for Rights in Boston,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

That summer, Atkins arranged for mobile registration booths to sweep the city in preparation for the elections. Before an audience of 6,000, gathered at the dilapidated Sherwin School on September 23, he urged, “Don’t complain-vote!,” foreshadowing the pleas of President Obama in 2016. Atkins framed voting as a form of self-help; to not do so would allow the school system to continue to “insult” and “ignore us.” He reminded the crowd that “Abraham Lincoln didn’t free you! He issued a document that has been studiously ignored for 100 years!” While Black and white children played on the playground, their parents sang emancipation anthems like “We Shall Overcome.” The audience also participated in a moment of silence to honor of the victims of the Birmingham bombing that took place just days earlier, another somber reminder of the injustices Black Americans faced.[4]

“Playground Integrated,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

With all hands on deck, the NAACP branch set out to collect voters’ signatures, registering 600 new voters in the predominantly-Black Ward #12 by the time polls closed on November 2. This was double the number of new Ward 12 voters registered in 1959. Now all that was left to do was wait as the election results rolled in.

Despite all their picketing, press conferences, and political campaigning, Atkins and fellow activists were dealt a blow when voters reelected each of the School Committee members. In fact, chairman Louise Day Hicks received more votes than even the mayor. Bostonians all but confirmed they agreed with the policy of “separate but equal.” But Atkins’s ability to mobilize Black voters helped sow the seeds of enduring political activism. According to the NAACP, 80% of eligible voters in Black wards turned out to cast their ballots, a percentage staggeringly higher than the 58% turnout in Boston’s other wards.

Atkins’s campaign to desegregate the school district—an effort that would require years of agitation—served another purpose, the Boston Globe noted. The city no longer looked to the South for news of the “Negro revolution.” Chants of liberation resounded in Boston’s streets, and the Globe reported civil rights is now “on the lips of cab drivers and politicians, housewives and factory workers.” The Globe added that the Civil Rights Movement is not an “accidental ripple of the national wave of protest. It is well-planned and seriously developed by a small, devoted band of persons,” Atkins, being one of them. He “has been instrumental in the carrying out of the vigorous, new approach” of the NAACP. The Boston transplant helped inspire a new militancy in the fight for Black liberation, which would culminate later in the decade with the Black Power Movement.[5]

Thomas Atkins, as NAACP executive secretary, leading a beach-in at Carson Beach to advocate for open public facilities in 1975, Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

The 1963 electoral defeat hardly took the wind out of Atkins’s sails. He worked for educational and employment equality when elected Boston’s first Black city councilman in 1967.  Richard Hatcher’s election in Gary, Indiana—making him one of the first Black mayors of a large US city—that same year spoke to incremental gains in political representation for African Americans. In the tumultuous year of 1969, Atkins earned his law degree and went on to become a nationally-renowned civil rights lawyer. He continued to  work with the NAACP to fight for Boston’s Black students in the 1970s and 1980s, overseeing the safe implementation of busing as a means of integration. In trying to mitigate the harassment and violence directed at Black children bused to new schools, he perhaps recalled his own childhood fears of attending Elkhart’s newly-desegregated school.

An NAACP survey inquiring about the challenges South Boston High School students faced in the 1970s confirmed the inadequacy of the education they had received. Atkins recalled:

I was sitting in my office one night, and I reached into my briefcase and here were these forms. So I took them out, and I began sort of absently to read through them. As I read through one after another of these forms, what I saw was that these kids couldn’t spell. They could not write a simple declaratory sentence. And as I read these forms, none of which were grammatically correct or spelling proper, I just started to cry. It was impossible to explain the feeling of pain on the one hand, but on the other hand, I knew we were right.

Indianapolis News, November 9, 1967, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Anguish spurred action and Atkins became what The Times, of Munster, Indiana, described as “one of the most active and successful civil rights lawyers in the nation.” He filed segregation suits against school systems in Hammond and Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Benton Harbor and Detroit, Michigan; and San Francisco. One activist noted “There’s no place where Tom Atkins wasn’t influential.” According to his son, this prolific work made him a target of death threats and ultimately he left his Roxbury home for the protection of his family. His son described Atkins “running chicken wire over windows to block Molotov cocktails and installing spigots throughout  the seven-bedroom house to connect the hoses for fighting fires.” [6]

* * *

In 1994, Atkins returned to his alma mater for the dedication of IU’s new Thomas I. Atkins Living/Learning Center. On a campus once pockmarked with fiery crosses, stood a residence hall that focused on “academic excellence and cultural awareness-specifically, the culture and history of African and African-Americans.” While social progress had been made since the 1960s, racial issues persisted. The dormitory hoped to change that by facilitating discussions among various races and improve how students related to one another. With the new center, the campus also hoped to attract more Black students, an issue Atkins addressed at his 1994 visit. He said “Leadership is not made of being the first follower. . . . IU needs to get out in front and I don’t think the university has done that sufficiently. I hope IU accepts the challenge to get it done.” After all, “without education, the door is locked” to American minorities.

Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

In his 50s, doctors diagnosed Atkins with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was determined to overcome it through grit and hard work, as he had when afflicted with polio, stating “I believe miracles are usually man-made.” As the disease progressed, the Boston Globe noted he “continued to assist on cases even after he needed his son to translate his slurred speech and a special computer arm to help him peck out sentences.” The indomitable Atkins succumbed to the disease in June 2008, just months before voters elected Barack Obama the nation’s first African American president. His historic election came on the heels of work done by fearless leaders like Atkins, who the Boston Globe described as a “humanist” with a “steely resolve.”  His time in Elkhart and Bloomington helped cultivate this unique blend of empathy and empowerment, best summarized by one of Atkins’s favorite sayings: “Power is colorless. . . . It’s like water. You can drink it or you can drown in it.” [7]

Sources:

[1] “Another Cross Burned After Negro’s Win,” The Times (Munster), April 10, 1960, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Campus Demonstration Follows Election of I.U. Negro Student,” Rushville Republican, April 8, 1960, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Segregation Demonstration Held at I.U.,” Anderson Herald, April 10, 1960, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Whites Attempt to ‘Hang’ in Effigy, Negro Prexy [sic?] at IU,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 16, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] “3 Seek Rhodes Scholarship,” Indianapolis Star, November 6, 1960, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Foreign Study Grant to Indiana Studied,” Muncie Evening Press, May 27, 1960, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Thomas I. Atkins, Rights Champion and City Councilor, Dies,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2018, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Turks Believe Race Prejudice Moral Question,” Indianapolis Star, October 3, 1960, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.; Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “Atkins a Campus Activist since 1960,” Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] Erin Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, accessed Boston.com.; John H. Gamble, “Atkins and Bride Look to Career,” South Bend Tribune, January 1, 1961, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Parents Against Mixed Marriage,” Terre Haute Tribune, January 1, 1961, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Student Leaders in Interracial Nuptials in Mich.,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 7, 1961, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; “Thomas I. Atkins, Rights Champion and City Councilor, Dies,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2018, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; “White Girl Marries Negro I.U. Leader,” South Bend Tribune, December 31, 1960, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] “14 Get Wilson Grants at N.D.,” South Bend Tribune, March 13, 1961, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; “15,000 to Mourn Evers Here,” Boston Globe, June 26, 1963, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Atkins Named Director of Federal Bank,” South Bend Tribune, January 9, 1980, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; Boston Globe, July 29, 1963, 1, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; Boston Globe, June 17, 1963, 1, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Elkhart Native Seeks Boston Mayoral Bid,” Indianapolis Star, May 13, 1971, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Fellowship to Elkhartan,” South Bend Tribune, June 1, 1962, 20, accessed Newspapers.com.; Ian Forman, “De Facto Sleeping Giant in Mrs. Hicks’ Smash Win,” Boston Globe, November 6, 1963, 1, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Hub School Boycott Planned by Negroes,”1963 Year of Ferment for Negroes in Boston,” Boston Globe, December 25, 1963, 43, accessed Newspapers.com; Boston Globe, June 13, 1963, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “Does Bias Win Votes in the Hub?,” Boston Globe, August 20, 1963, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “‘Don’t Complain-Vote,’ Atkins Urges Negroes,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “How Hub Negro Protest Gains,” Boston Globe, December 8, 1963, 75, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Mrs. Hicks Asks Brooke Help Halt School Boycott,” Boston Globe, June 14, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Richard J. Connolly, “New Demonstrations Due: Hot Words Fly in Sit-In Fight,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1963, 1, 22-25, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Some 3,000 Boston Negro Pupils Boycott Classes in Mass Protest,” North Adams Transcript (Massachusetts), June 18, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Text of a Statement Read by Thomas Atkins, Executive Secretary of the Boston Branch NAACP, Concerning Direct Action to Be Taken Against the Boston School Committee,” July 30, 1963, Boston Public Schools Desegregation Project, Northeastern University Library Digital Repository Service.

[5] Robert L. Levey, “How Hub Negro Protest Gains,” Boston Globe, December 8, 1963, 75, accessed Newspapers.com.; “N.A.A.C.P.: Vote on ‘Racial Basis,” Boston Globe, November 6, 1963, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Political ‘Consciousness’ is Sweeping Negroes,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 2, 1963, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[6] Associated Press, “Negroes Win Many Races,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 8, 1967, accessed Google News.;”Discrimination Charges Aired,” The Times (Munster, IN), August 8, 1978, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Education for Blacks is Issue–Not Busing,” Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN), September 9, 1981, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.; Felicia Gayle, “Integration Suit Begins,” The Times (Munster, IN), July 27, 1979, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Steven Hansen, “Activist Profiled,” The Times (Munster, IN), August 24, 1978, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.; Eric Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, B3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “NAACP Lawyer Faces Arrest,” South Bend Tribune, July 26, 1978, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “New Boston Councilman,” Indianapolis News, November 9, 1967, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; David M. Rosen, “Boston May Call in U.S. Marshals,” The Republic (Columbus, IN), October 8, 1974, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.; Howard M. Smulevitz, “IPS Desegregation Plan Calls for Busing of 41,000 Pupils,” Indianapolis Star, November 14, 1978, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.; Howard M. Smulevitz, “Ohio Decisions Seen Lending Weight to Dillin’s Busing Stand,” Indianapolis Star, July 3, 1979, 9, accessed Newspaper.com.; Transcript, “The Keys to the Kingdom (1974-1980),” Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1985, accessed PBS.org.

[7] “A Boston Pioneer and his Mark,” Boston Globe, July 1, 2008, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.; Lejene Breckenridge, “Achievements of Ex-Elkhartan Honored at I.U.,” South Bend Tribune, January 3, 1995, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Lauren Fagan, “Civil Rights Attorney, Elkhart Native Atkins Dies,” South Bend Tribune, July 2, 2008, B3, accessed Newspapers.com.; Eric Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, B3, accessed Newspapers.com.; Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “Exploring the Culture of Color,” and “Atkins a Campus Activist since 1960,” Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

THH Episode 46: Giving Voice: Adrianne Slash & Aaron Welcher

Transcript for THH Episode 46: Giving Voice: Adrianne Slash & Aaron Welcher

Weiss Simins: I’m historian Jill Weiss Simins sitting in for your regular host Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice. In this episode, I speak with Indianapolis community leaders and social justice advocates Adrianne Slash and Aaron Welcher. Our conversation follows the latest episode of talking Hoosier History, which covered the civil rights work of Rabbi Maurice Davis, and considered lessons about white allyship to Black led movements for equal rights. I hope you enjoy the show.

[Music Intro]

Weiss Simins: Hi, I am Jill Weiss Simins and this is Giving Voice. For this episode of giving voice, we’ll be talking with two Indianapolis community leaders Adrianne Slash and Aaron Welcher. Adrianne is the former President of The Exchange at the Indianapolis Urban League. She writes columns for the Indianapolis Business Journal and the Indianapolis Recorder. She has served on the board of the Jewish Community Center and she currently serves on the board of the Civil Rights Commission. She’s run for public office and consistently advocated for social and economic justice and better political representation for Black Hoosiers. We are also joined by Aaron Welcher, the program and communications coordinator at the Jewish Community Relations Council in Indianapolis. Aaron works to build coalitions of Jewish, Black, LGBTQ+, and other groups and faiths to further social justice for all Hoosiers. He is passionate about ending systemic issues like anti-Semitism and racism, addressing the eviction and housing crisis, and pursuing justice for people who are immigrants and refugees. Thank you, guys, so much for being her today um, I really appreciate the work you’re doing and looking forward to hearing more about it. So, I want to hear a little bit from you both about how you landed in these leadership roles. Adrianne, let us know a little bit about your background and what you are working on now.

Slash: Thank you and thank you for having me. I am a third-generation civil rights and social justice champion. My father’s father, my father, they’ve all been in this realm spent very lofty, I would say accidental, but passionate careers in the space and I have found myself to be here as well. Um, but landed here after just trying to go to work and come home every day and realize that there is a lot more to be done. And people called me into the space and I started off in 2014 helping with the focus on youth initiative, which then we were able to use as a vehicle to launch the exchange of the Indianapolis Urban League and connect to the National Urban League and Young Professionals Network. And that’s really where it all was birthed um, had the opportunity after doing that to connect directly uh with a couple of other initiatives here in the city and in doing so I was building quite a community record and in 2015 got asked to run for office based on it. Didn’t win, but I had a mentor tell me that if you’re a good candidate you will always have stuff to do. And that was the absolute most correct advice, or statement ever made to me. The opportunities have just continued to return themselves; it’s a labor of love to continue to work in this space.

Weiss Simins: Thanks, Adrianne. Aaron how did you get to where you are now and what’s something that you are working on currently that you are excited to share?

Welcher: Yeah, so I really, I never pictured myself really working within the community relations field. Although, it seems so natural now and I love it. But I really was looking for being able to do public policy. I’d interned for uh former Senator Joe Donnelly and then when I was in that office advocating for the Jewish community, helping connect that office more to the Jewish community and through that I met my uh boss Lindsey Mintz the executive director and she asked if I wanted to apply for this role and so that’s really how I kind of got into this space and I really love it because, it’s not only the public policy, but its connecting people to genuine stories and building those genuine relationships hand in hand and one example of that, which goes with my current work uh is really working on the Equality Act right now and bringing a faith voice to that, which would allow LGBTQ+ people to be a part of this civil rights act and so that’s been very powerful to working in that sort of faith space. And connecting people to each other.

Weiss Simins: Thank you, guys. Um, so one of the reasons that your both here together is that you have worked together a couple times including with the JCRC’s Black Jewish Partnership. Um, can you tell us a little bit about how your work has intersected?

Slash: Sure, so I would go back and say 2014-15, somewhere in there uh I was volunteer at the JCCC, when we launched the unity project and got an opportunity to work directly with Lindsey and David at JCRC, and we were really looking to connecting the two communities together through arts and culture and conversation starts to form and you start to get synergies around historically our two communities working directly together. Historically, advocating for each other. Historically, helping one another. We also tiptoe around and stumble into the messy things that happened in the 60s when we somewhat separated. And so, we find ourselves here today when we’re looking for policies that still have yet to be passed, hate crimes opportunities that need to be enhanced. The opportunity to work together and advocate for one another is greater today than it’s been, and we decided to start the Black-Jewish partnership here in Indianapolis. Not just for today, not just for a group of people, but to build organic genuine natural relationships between our two communities that can transcend issues but give us places to have difficult and complex conversations.

Welcher: Yeah, I think what was beautiful…I didn’t get to go to this part uh of The Black Jewish Partnership, but it really culminated in a trip to Washington D.C., where the group visited the Holocaust Museum and the uh African American History Museum to and really get to know one another’s history, but from what I have gathered from the participants, one of the things that was really impactful was the having someone who was standing there next to you and being able to unpack that in a way that really built understanding and empathy and friendship from it. I think that it was really building uh basis of friendship that still is a lot of the connections that are still going on today and I know that uh, a lot of the members who have kids, their kids are friends now and do Shabbat dinners and things like that and so, it was a really meaningful part of the Black Jewish Partnership and I think now and that where we’re at now is really how do we grow it and keep doing successful programming around it and having these conversations, because they really are so foundational to understanding both our communities and then…and the intersection of our two communities too that there are Jews who are Black also and so that inherit intersection that exists within our communities.

Slash: Yeah, I think that the…I think Aaron hit the nail on the head. The most impactful part of the trip was going through the museum and I think we all opened and made the choice to be vulnerable with that person we were partnered with, but not necessarily because we wanted to, but because you can’t help but see the humanity in someone and in the artifacts in a museum, when you are with someone who is directly impacted by what you are looking at. And so I really do believe that it is the foundation, but it is also the reason why you know in a pandemic world we can hop on a Zoom and look at something that has happened in the news that is ridiculously controversial, uh involving both of our communities and have a space where we can actually talk it out, understand each person, not even each sides, but each person’s viewpoint and empathize with one another in the same way that we did inside of that museum. And if there’s ever been anything needed more today its people who can have crucial, hard conversations about issues that are happening in the world.

Weiss Simins: It seems like understanding uh the other group’s history has been an important part of what you are saying. I’m glad you brought it back to the relevancy of history, as you guys know the…this interview will be on the heels of our most recent Talking Hoosier History episode about the civil rights work of Rabbi Maurice Davis in the 1960s, especially his march with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. And one of the things that really struck me in that research is Rabbi Davis as a real historical example of how white Hoosiers can be allies for Black neighbors and one of the things that he did was really educate himself on history and to get that empathy and then defer to Black leadership. So, I was just wondering “what does this look like today?” How do white Hoosiers be successful allies in current movements for Black justice and power, in what ways can they be helpful and what ways harmful if you feel like speaking to that as well.

Slash: I think that what you just said has so many important factors to it, so the biggest part for me is um, it’s always important to know that you don’t always have to be the messenger. You don’t have to be the spokesperson. You don’t have to be the featured photo. It’s okay to elevate the voices of they that are carrying the banner right. It’s okay. To get it out of the way and I even say that in the Black community we have, we have been through it in the past 365 days and I wouldn’t say that’s just us and not others right. So, there’s a lot of that but it’s okay to provide air support. So, I am not a frontline protestor, but I know I was invited to a lot of meetings to talk about frontline protestors and my biggest role there is to amplify their messages. To make the connections back to them. To make sure they understand do not quote Adrianne go back to the frontlines and quote the person who is out their making the demands, their demands are appropriate. Their demands are necessary and it’s important that you hear that I stand with them. Right, and so I think that it becomes a really hard space because when it comes to community leadership sometimes ego happens. Right, but when it comes to being an ally we ask that people not only amplify the messages, but when people don’t want to hear them or are asking for a better spokesperson that we double down and really amplify the messages and get out of the way and I think that the movement of today is very different from the previous movement, because it doesn’t have one spokesperson. Today’s movement has many and it’s important to give all of them their voice.

Welcher: And I think that’s uh beautifully said and I’m you know pull out a little bible here since its Passover, uh torah and if you know the story of Moses and his brother Aaron. Aaron actually was the spokesperson for Moses, because as we are taught in the torah that he burned his tongue as a baby so he actually had, even though he was a leader, he wasn’t necessarily the spokesperson for the community and I think that that intertwines beautifully with how to be an ally that everyone has their role to play and play to that strength, and to make sure that you are working in harmony together. And that’s how…and that’s really how the Jewish community in a lot of ways looking back on our history there, was able to be free from Egypt and so I think now bringing it to today a lot of times well-meaning full white people end up talking more than they do listening and think they get it, or trying to prove to themselves that everyone that they get it so much that then they end up being hurtful and harmful to the movement and end up silencing. And I think another thing to where it gets a little complicated with the Jewish community, is it’s a religious minority community so I think in a lot of ways it’s hard for some Jewish people to see that while yes anti-Semitism exists, yes there’s very real threats to Jews, they don’t want to see that they are also very real threats to other communities and other long histories of oppression and in this country, in this city and our neighborhoods and so I think that willingness to look and say two things can be true. Jews can be threatened today and so can Black Americans. So, I think that willingness to take that and really internalize that and then move forward and I think the other thing that people, this is kind of more coalition work, but is when you look at a coalition when you have these meanings it’s who can I ears, can I reach, how can I be that help be a messenger to the people who aren’t going to listen to the message from where its coming from. And so really making sure that you are amplifying the messages that are being shared. In rooms that people unfortunately might not have access to.

Slash: And I would also just like to kind of add on to that briefly. Don’t be a translator and you know for lack of better terms whitewash the message. Don’t make it more palatable for people the moment that you go from allyship to being an accomplice is when you are really just there to provide support to the message in its true form. I know that a lot of times, specifically when we are talking 2021 civil rights you hear a lot of people say oh gosh well where’s the…whose the real spokesperson or can you point me to a website or where’s there material or do they have a real bank account, they don’t and that’s okay they’re numerous messengers, there are numerous activists who are doing the work, they’re doing a lot of really great things. The way that you support them is giving energy to their message. And don’t water it down and don’t try to change it.

Weiss Simins: So, if you could get somebody to just start somewhere, if you could recommend to somebody to just do one thing, where should we be putting in the work to address the issues that disproportionally impact Black Hoosiers, would it be the eviction crisis, police violence, health care access, or am I just naming symptoms of a larger problem of disparity?

Slash: I would say that the disparities are deep, but the disparities are really are really steeped in you know something I think that we all know, there’s to America’s there’s the haves and there’s always going to be the have-nots and the question is what barriers did you put up to make the have-nots further away from you as a have. And so, where education is concerned, if we were able to get equitable resources into all communities to make sure that education equity was a real thing that would be a great place to start. Based off of our access to quality education that that pretty much connects to our access to quality futures whether its behind bars, whether it is in front of a fast-food counter or it’s sitting at a desk. All those things are variable based on equitable education and our ability to build pipelines into sustainable careers that can actually sustain a family, all pretty much start back at how we provide equitable educational resources. The next thing that comes after that is access to food, access to quality housing, it’s all kind of baked in at the same time and so when you are advocating for equity it is always good in my opinion to start at the most foundational thing and that’s access to equitable quality education.

Welcher: Yeah, I mean I completely echo that that was one of my policy areas I really focused on when I was in undergrad was education and our education system for a long time historically was viewed as a social service, and that changed recently, but it really wasn’t recently, but uh I think that it really started changing in the 1970s, but really even before that though the schools were providing food and showers and were a community spot for learning and then when it shifted it became this pipeline to prison and unfortunately, depending on where you live and how you look and how you’re dressed and the color of your skin and a lot of schools dictate how far you can get in life and that’s not how education was meant to be. And this is you know, were not even thinking about all…when segregation was happening the amazing, amazing, amazing education that was coming out of the Black community that unfortunately was really defunded after they started busing Black kids to white schools. And so that even the equity looking at history and current policies of okay I want this to benefit, benefit the Black community to fight racism all these things, but how, whose it benefitting and who is uncomfortable, who has to have more energy and who is losing things to make the society better. And I think that’s something that’s really hard for a lot of people to also look at is like, is that question of whose doing and who’s being harmed by it, what is supposed to be well intentioned policy.

Slash: Yep, I always say if I can teach someone the best in DEI, if I could just teach people to be advocates the question they would be asking is who does this help and who does this hurt, when they are looking at policy. And to meaningfully continue to follow the line to that question. Who does this help and who does this hurt and by you know having people? Have that conversation with you, you are humanizing the people that it’s helping and humanizing the people that it’s hurting at the same time. And a lot of times you are doing the hard part of making someone who is intentionally leaving someone out, say it and make it plain, because that way you take away the excuse of well I didn’t realize it was gonna do that.

Welcher: And I think to circle back to another part of the question what’s something you can do or how do we address these issues and I always go that we have to look inside our own communities to, we have to look at and be honest that there is racism within pockets of the Jewish community. There is xenophobia within pockets of the Jewish community, just as we know that there is anti-Semitism that exists in the Black community and then there’s homophobia that exists in all these communities, like all of our communities two things can be true. Again, we can…you can be oppressed and also have it within your own community too. And being open about that, being honest about that and say how can we educate and start fighting it, within our communities too. That’s how you are going to make some real change, but that means, you can’t shy away from that it happens because it makes you uncomfortable. Um, unfortunately I guess what oppression is uncomfortable and it’s uncomfortable to the people that have been living it for the hundreds of years.

Slash: Its interesting because with the Black Jewish Partnership we had some really hard conversations when we were in DC, and one of the hardest conversations that I believe that we had, we were talking about some older members of our communities and how they tend to view one another, words that they say, you know reinforcing tropes that are untrue and pushing harmful language that were common things, like specifically baby boomers in the Black community really say some harmful things that they don’t realize are harmful, they think that they’re norms. And then it turns into almost a fight, at any given time I had the pleasure of being a columnist for public publications over the years and I’ve had people ask me why are those not things that I am writing about and its interesting because one of the main reasons is because, it’s a house discussion that we’ve gotta also continue to fight internally before we can bring it out externally and fight the battle in the field, if that makes any sense. But we had this conversation within our partnership and it’s hard because when you are dealing with age and you are looking at having conversations and dealing with things with your elders, they’re saying this is true, it’s fact. And you’re like it’s actually not and its hurtful, stop saying that. And then they want to drive you down these lines and it’s a lot of work to undo, but that’s why I think it’s important that Aaron said what he said. We’ve got racism, we’ve got xenophobia, we’ve got some of the worst things that historically happened amongst our elders, because we are products of a politically correct generation and so we know better and we are trying our best to do better, but it becomes very difficult with members of your community that you A. can’t police, but B. also need to bring along on their own personal journeys, and so I think the toughest think that happened the Black Jewish Partnership was having to realize that each person is one person and they can’t speak on behalf of an entire population of people. And so that we’ve had some long out drag outs on that uh whether its Nick Cannon, whether its Tamika Mallory, we’ve had to have some conversations and I think that one of the things that we’ve agreed overtime, is I can Adrianne L. Slash, I can speak for her, I can’t speak for any other spokesperson. I don’t know where their thought processes come. I can educate everyone in my sphere and I can be responsible for dealing with my sphere that’s it.

Weiss Simins: Well, you guys are both out there doing that work. I appreciate it and want you to get back to it so I feel like I could talk to you forever, but I just wanna ask you one last thing. As younger activists, doing this work right now how are you feeling about the future? Are you hopeful? Are you frustrated? Are you exhausted? It’s been a long year tell me how are we doing with this work?

Welcher: I, you know I think I’m feeling a little of everything. I know that um, but I have a lot of hope I think that each generation…so I am a younger millennial I was born in 1995. So, I think I am on the cusp I get to see my two younger siblings and their friends and the conversations they are having and just the openness and willingness to learn, which is exciting and gives me hope that that their just running that generation is running and isn’t stopping and that’s really exciting to see. At the same time, there’s also a whole bunch of things being thrown around on social media. There is a whole generation that isn’t that is growing up with the internet at their fingertips and we’re seeing hate messages be able to be spread like that we’re seeing new tactics from white supremacists, let’s just name it who go online and create fake accounts, create memes spread them and then cause rifts between communities through online spaces or make it so that hate becomes easily digestible and you start to believe that so there’s real…its really scary actually what’s happening online and I hate being like a fear-monger, but I think that’s really going to be the new frontier of the battle against hate. I would say it’s really going to be how do we address media literacy on online and I think it’s really complicated, and I think then it’s also kind of tiring and exhausting year for me personally, because when you think about our communities and you think about all were seeing and hearing and in election year and all of that you…we called it statement fatigue you felt like we were writing a statement every other day and you wanted to call it out, and you wanted to name it and you wanted to address it, but there’s also a point where you just couldn’t, there is so much happening and so I think that really that’s been a really big growing and learning process for me. It is understanding that it’s not going to end overnight and unfortunately its going…it’s a marathon, we’re still running that marathon, so we also needed to do what’s best to make sure that we stay able to run that marathon, making sure that we check in with our friendly and friends and we’re taking care of our mental health, and we’re doing everything that we need to be healthy advocates, activists out there for a very long time.

Slash: Mhm, I think that that’s so accurate for me personally I’m extremely optimistic about Gen Z and their ability to take the movement so much further than it’s ever gone. I always ask the question with the first arrival of the civil rights movement: did we go far enough? I don’t think that we did, I we left a lot on the table and I think that a lot of stuff we left on the table is really foundational to having equitable opportunities in this country. And so I look at Gen Z and this is why I say it is important to provide air support to the messengers who are in the field, and so the work that many of our younger activists are doing is a by any means available, not just by any means necessary, but you know any means available were going to get this message out and so I’m extremely hopeful to that we,  I am an older millennial and as an older millennial we’ve had the internet for some time now, you know we were playing around in chat rooms when they first, but we weren’t doing the work that these folks are doing when you seem them on clubhouse or if you watch what they are creating inside of the different platforms in the ways that they are messaging and so I’m excited to see a generation that is using every tool available to do the work. Yes, there is some harmful stuff that does exist. I actually think that the positive activism is outweighing the negatives and it is that media literacy that’s important. I also think that generation alpha is actually really good at they read something and they’re like that’s not uh real source, because on school they are not allowed to use Wikipedia. They’re not allowed to use certain things and so they know what’s not a real source and how to find one, and so I look to our two upcoming generations at not as the savior, but I do think they are the light. And I think that we have to allow that to be a case of the downfall is baby boomers like got what they wanted out of the Civil Rights Movement and then retired. Gen X was kind of like this is all the pie that they left me so okay whatever. And then uh millennials come through and were like okay so no this isn’t okay, there are still killing us, they’re still hunting us, still using bad words and slurs, we’ve got to deal with this and then Gen Z is dealing with it and so I am extremely hopeful, but I also know that we have some older generations that will need us to move them along in order for this to work and I think a lot of this misinformation does come from those older generations that aren’t moving along. (Laughs) And so hopeful, optimistic, but there is a small place of extreme concern and and we gotta do the work to get that.

Welcher: I’m excited and we say this all the time. I am excited for when we as a Jewish community and white people, but especially as the Jewish community stop pointing at photos from the 1960s and saying we were there at the civil rights, and we can start putting photos today and yesterday and being like we were there now.

Slash: Yeah, and it’s interesting the pictures look the exact same, the fight looks the same and its okay that you got your street cred back then, but did you help get the street cred right now? Because you know we have to have that and at a lot of times that’s the uncomfortable argument that we have to have with our elders. If you don’t find the cause worthy today, but you did then, you might be the problem. Because it’s the same fight.

Weiss Simins: Wow, thank you guys. Perfectly said. I appreciate your work. I appreciate you coming on Giving Voice sharing your experience and expertise so thank you so much.

Slash: Thanks for having us.

Welcher: Thank you.

Weiss Simins: Once again, this has been Giving Voice. To learn more about the work of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council visit INDYJCRC.org. To learn more about the efforts of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission visit IN.GOV/ICRC and if you want to learn more about Rabbi Davis’ civil rights work, listen to the Talking Hoosier History episode about Rabbi Davis’ walk with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Join us next time for an episode of Talking Hoosier History about the South Bend Blue Sox and professional women’s baseball in the World War II era. Thanks for listening.

A Marriage Tested: How the Allens Overcame Personal Tragedy and Systemic Discrimination

J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen with family, courtesy Civil Rights Heritage Center, accessed Shannon Nolan, “Indiana’s First Female African American Lawyer Worked in South Bend,” abc57, February 2, 2019.

* See Part 1 to learn about the Allens’ work for equality in the judicial system and World War II employment.

When the clouds of World War II lifted, South Bend activists and attorneys J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen had achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. The couple, who had opened their own law firm in 1939, had uplifted the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, and creating jobs. But institutional oppression and immense personal loss that followed in the war’s wake appeared to test their marriage. In these modern times of social unrest and pandemic-related stress, we can draw strength from the Allens’ ability to not only weather personal tragedy and systemic discrimination, but serve their community.

As the early Atomic Era unfurled, J. Chester plunged back into his fight to fully desegregate South Bend’s Engman Natatorium. The effort had begun in the 1930s and resulted in the park board’s meager concession of allowing Black residents to swim a few hours per week, when white residents were not there. In 1950, J. Chester and a group of attorneys, including white lawyer Maurice Tulchinsky, appeared before the parks board to again make the case for integration. Seemingly racism cloaked in Cold War rhetoric, one board member told the men that Tulchinsky’s involvement hinted at communist impulses. J. Chester replied, “‘You don’t have to be a communist to defend equal rights, opportunities and treatment for all people under the law. The Constitution and Bill of Rights mandate it.'” Threatening to file suit unless board members agreed to end segregation entirely, the lawyers at last won their long fight for equality, likely with the aid of Elizabeth Allen.

Flyer, Ruth Tulchinsky, Voice of the People, February 13, 2009, St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collections.

Oral history interviews and secondary sources suggest that Elizabeth drew up the original complaint and advised behind the scenes, pointing out that African American taxpayers helped fund the pool and therefore deserved to use it. Her name does not appear on official documents, perhaps because she was still in law school or because the lawyers feared that her involvement as a Black woman could hurt the cause. If Tulchinsky was accused of working on behalf of the Communist Party, one can only imagine what nefarious influences board members would assign Elizabeth if she was involved in the effort publicly.

A series of interviews with the couple’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, bespeaks the constant frustration Elizabeth experienced from having to shelve her ambitions due to gender and familial norms and/or racial discrimination. In 1936, Elizabeth declared her candidacy for state representative, but withdrew, perhaps, because as interviewer David Healey suggested to Irving, she was “always overshadowed by circumstances” or “convinced that your father would have a better chance of winning.” Irving agreed that this sense of disappointment was probably compounded by the “loss and loneliness,” resulting from J. Chester’s absence while he served in the Indiana General Assembly between 1939 and 1941. Elizabeth could be “explosively judgmental” about J. Chester’s legislative efforts, accusing him of being too accommodating to white voters while campaigning. Perhaps this criticism stemmed partly from never having a chance to campaign for office herself.

International Hod Carriers and Building Laborers’ Union formal gathering, circa 1950s, Elizabeth Allen fourth from left and J. Chester Allen fifth from left, second row, Streets Family Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Irving imagined the scrutiny she experienced as a Black female lawyer in South Bend during the “Dark Ages” of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He remembered his mother coming home and criticizing local judges “who she just despised and felt mistreated by.” This likely included Circuit Judge Dan Pyle, who in May 1952 fined her for contempt of court during a hearing in which she served as counsel. The South Bend Tribune reported that the “woman attorney” was fined for refusing to “abide by his instruction to refrain from dictating a lengthy statement for the court record.” Pyle ruled her “out of order in the request and demanded that she be quiet.” Irving recalled the incident, saying “she took it racially and cursed him out basically . . . and ended up in jail. Daddy got her out and got the whole thing, I think, squashed.”

Institutionalized discrimination and the stressors of working in the public eye seemed to breed resentment that spilled over into their marriage. The Allen household, while loving, was also highly-charged, in part because Elizabeth and J. Chester diverged sharply when it came to political allegiance and temperament. Irving recalled, “you were never sure whether the issues were where the vitriol was coming from or whether it was personal stuff that was being argued out through the politics.” But from a young age, Irving learned to tune out his parents’ disagreements. He stated there was “often too much venom involved in the . . . arguments about politics or nuances of how black folks could best be served in South Bend or the country.”

In Irving’s opinion, his parents were incapable of relaxing and resetting, prioritizing the needs of others over themselves in their work with organizations like the NAACP and Hering House. He noted that money was another source of tension for the Allens. Although they were attorneys, systemic racism affected their success and often meant they didn’t get the “big” cases. Determined that their children would get a good education, efforts to save for college proved stressful due to the lack of lucrative cases.

Elizabeth Allen serving as Judge Protem in the South Bend City Courts, submitted by state historical marker applicant.

Irving suspected that the “pressures of work had enormous bearing” on his mother’s “existence.” Of his parents, Elizabeth had a poorer “capacity to separate work from the rest of her life. . . . I would just imagine the shit she took. Must have been unimaginable . . . unimaginable. And where’s it gonna go? It’s probably gonna come home into the relationship with her husband.” It surely did not go unnoticed that newspaper articles referred to her husband as “Attorney J. Chester Allen” and her as “Mrs. J. Chester Allen,” despite being an accomplished attorney in her own right. Probably equally frustrating, Elizabeth was subjected to scrutiny about her appearance and mannerisms in a way her husband undoubtedly was not, exemplified by this 1950 South Bend Tribune description: “feminine, but brusque. She has a no-nonsense attitude that contradicts the ultra-feminine hat on her head.”

Despite the many obstacles Elizabeth had to overcome, she received public recognition in 1953, 1955, and 1960, when she served as Judge Protem, filling in on occasion when the city judge was absent. “Her Madame Honor” was likely the first woman to wield a gavel in South Bend’s courtrooms. While a temporary role, Irving believed that the appointment was symbolic, honoring her legal career. Elizabeth worked to carve out educational and career opportunities for other Black women, generally relegated to domestic service in that era. Recognizing that de facto segregation would endure despite the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, Elizabeth sprung into action, hosting an emergency meeting for the United Negro College Fund. She also worked to get Black women into her Alma Mater, Talladega College.

The Allens opened their house to Black Notre Dame students who had nowhere to stay due to discrimination and the housing shortage exasperated by World War II. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that in the 1940s many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings. Elizabeth had worked during WWII and post-war years to improve housing options and clear local slums because “delinquency and crime are resulting from sub-standard housing.” In the 1950s, J. Chester helped a group of Black Studebaker workers navigate discriminatory lending and real estate practices to form a building cooperative called “Better Homes of South Bend.”

Baton twirlers in the annual Better Homes’s Elmer Street Parade, August 1962. Photo courtesy Vicki Belcher and Brenda Wright, accessed Better Homes of South Bend, 97.

By the middle of the decade, twenty-two families of the co-op had moved in along North Elmer Street and helped build a vibrant community, filled with  activities like family cookouts, kickball, and building snowmen. Irving described a “haunting aspect of the Better Homes story.” Although they had “outstanding credentials as good citizens and an established law practice,” the Allens encountered difficulties purchasing a home of their own. Perhaps such discrimination led J. Chester to further leverage housing reform when he was elected the city’s first Black Councilman in 1959. He quickly got to work trying to prevent the displacement of Black families as new developments arose. As Councilman he also got more African American appointed in city government. One Indianapolis Recorder writer was optimistic that Allen’s “devotion to the law as the shield of liberty” would enable him to “protect the rights of minorities and at the same time guard the welfare of the majority.”

J. Chester’s and Elizabeth’s work served as a tide that lifted many boats in St. Joseph County. But the couple soon experienced a devastating personal blow. Their daughter, Sarah-whom Irving described as a “brilliant student” at Central High School-was awarded honors at Wellesley College, before attending Tennessee’s Fisk University. In 1960, the South Bend Tribune noted an “illness forced her to leave college.” She had since been working as a secretary at the family’s law practice and receiving psychiatric care in her hometown. Shortly before dinner at the Allens’ house one summer evening in 1963, the family discovered that she had died by suicide. Only 27-years-old, Sarah undoubtedly possessed the astuteness and determination of her parents, but suffered from the era’s limited treatment options for mental health issues. Days after her passing, loves ones paid their respects at the city’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. James and the city council passed a resolution expressing sympathy for the loss of Councilman Allen’s daughter.

J. Chester with daughter, Sarah, South Bend Tribune, May 6, 1959, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

One can only imagine the impact such a catastrophic event had on the family. Perhaps it contributed to the fragmentation of the Allen and Allen law firm, which Irving said “kind of came unglued” in the early part of the decade. It’s possible it was the trigger for Elizabeth’s own hospitalization in the 1960s. Surely it contributed to the 1965 South Bend Tribune announcement of the couple’s separation after 37 years of marriage. Ultimately, the Allens chose not to go through with the divorce, perhaps a testament to their tenacity and love.

Work and community uplift likely became a haven from grief for the African American couple. In the years after her daughter’s passing, Elizabeth seemed to focus on advocating for women. She served as legislative chairman of the 1964 National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, leading a workshop on “The Role of Business and Professional Women in the War on Poverty” at the organization’s annual meeting. Towards the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Elizabeth served on the board of St. Joseph’s first Planned Parenthood clinic. According to Irving, his mother was a feminist before the term existed. She would “go to war over women divorcing or getting beaten up by their husbands,” but, being ahead of her time, she fought a war “without any constituents.” Nevertheless, she was “‘incredible example to women—black or white.'”

South Bend Tribune, January 9, 1962, 23, accessed Newspapers.com.

J. Chester poured himself into education equality as the first Black member of the South Bend school board of trustees in 1966. One editorial contended that he was an ideal representative of Black educational interests, citing his “Quick intelligence, independence of thought, hard work and a genuine affection for his home community.” He used his legal skills in 1967 to advocate for equality, appealing a verdict that ruled the Linden School building, a Black school, could safely reopen despite a classroom ceiling collapsing during the school day.

While continuing to grieve, sons Irving and J. Chester Allen, Jr. pursued their professional goals. Their parents were determined that they would attend East Coast schools because, Irving noted, Black Americans had to be “twice as good” as their white colleagues. He earned his medical degree at Boston University in 1965 and practiced psychiatry in Massachusetts. Like his parents, J. Chester Jr. beat the drum for equality, leading an NAACP march protesting the police force’s refusal to hire a Black officer. He told the South Bend Tribune, “‘Maybe we’ll fill up that jail of theirs until they get tired of seeing us in it and hire one of us to get rid of the rest of us.'”

Nancy Kavadas, “Niles Area NACP [sic] Groups Conduct Orderly Demonstration,” South Bend Tribune, February 9, 1964, 8,  accessed Newspapers.com.
“Wednesday Rites for Judge Allen,” South Bend Tribune, December 27, 1983, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.

Like his parents, J. Chester Jr. was able to break racial barriers; he was sworn in as St. Joseph County’s first Black Superior Court Judge in 1976. Three years after J. Chester Jr.’s historic achievement, his father passed away. The man who had apparently stumbled upon South Bend did much to even its playing field for minorities. Black residents were better educated, politically- and civically-empowered, financially stabler, and able to enjoy the city’s facilities because of his tireless efforts as an attorney and elected official.

Unfortunately, his son’s promising career was cut short in 1983. J. Chester Jr. died of natural causes on Christmas Day, the same day his father was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1900. Matriarch Elizabeth Allen was now a widower who had lost two children. But her life was never defined by tragedy. In disregarding an admissions officer’s advice to forgo law school in favor of marriage years before, she started down a path canopied by improbable accomplishments, bitter disappointments, professional accolades, and personal heartbreak. Her fortitude and persistence meant that future generations would endure fewer obstacles than she did.

Behind her walked another Black female attorney from Chicago married to an ambitious Black attorney: First Lady Michelle Obama. The two women experienced the highs of professional accomplishments as a minority, the frustrations of sacrificing for their husband’s ambitions, public critiques of their appearance, and allegations of being too outspoken. Unlike Michelle, Elizabeth’s story has largely yet to be told, but South Bend writer Dr. Gabrielle Robinson and IHB are changing that by installing a state historical marker in 2021. Elizabeth, largely overshadowed by her husband, will quite literally have an equal share of recognition with this marker.

“Golden Anniversary,” South Bend Tribune, March 5, 1978, 31, accessed Newspapers.com.

Sources:

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Jellison Takes Petition to Run for Congress,” South Bend Tribune, February 16, 1936, 23, accessed Newspapers.com.

Mary Butler, “Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Lays Down Law to Family,” South Bend Tribune, July 30, 1950, 39, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Circuit Judge Fines Lawyer for Contempt,” South Bend Tribune, May 10, 1952, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

“First Woman Presides City Judge,” South Bend Tribune, November 19, 1953, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Field Chief Will Meet Fund Group,” South Bend Tribune, March 25, 1957, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

Program, “Leaders for Workshops on Three Areas Affecting the Urban Family,” Woman’s Council for Human Relations, [1968], accessed Michiana Memory.

“Hon. J. Chester Allen,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Adult Award Winner,” South Bend Urban League and Hering House, Annual Report, 1960, p. 5, accessed Michiana Memory.

“Sarah Allen Found Dead,” South Bend Tribune, July 25, 1963, 43, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nancy Kavadas, “Niles Area NACP [sic] Groups Conduct Orderly Demonstration,” South Bend Tribune, February 9, 1964, 8,  accessed Newspapers.com.

“Divorce Cases Filed,” South Bend Tribune, March 5, 1965, 30, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Irving Allen Wins Degree,” South Bend Tribune, June 10, 1965, 46, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ruth Copeland et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. South Bend Community School Corporation et al., Defendants-Appellees, 1967, 376 F.2d 585 (7th Cir. 1967), May 8, 1967, accessed JUSTIA US Law.

“Family Plan Unit Names Officers,” South Bend Tribune, January 26, 1968, 31, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Rites for Allen Wednesday,” South Bend Tribune, May 12, 1980, 21, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Wednesday Rites for Judge Allen,” South Bend Tribune, December 27, 1983, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Allen, Former Civic Leader and Attorney, Dies at 89,” South Bend Tribune, December 28, 1994, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

Marilyn Klimek, “Couple Led in Area Racial Integration,” South Bend Tribune, November 30, 1997, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown Publishing, 2020).

Email, Dr. Irving Allen to Nicole Poletika, March 19, 2021.

THH Episode 45: “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Transcript for “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Written and Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

[Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Selma and “How long, not long” speech at Montgomery, Alabama. Song “Avinu Malkeinu”performed by Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation Cantor Aviva Marer with organist Dave Strickland]

Justin Clark: On March 7, 1965, white state troopers violently attacked a group of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama – an event remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Newspapers across the country ran images of police beating and tear gassing African Americans who had been marching to protest the suppression of Black votes and the recent killing of activists. They did not finish their march that day, nor a few days later when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a group of protestors back to the bridge. They knelt in prayer but dared go no further. That night, March 9, a group of white men killed white Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. In response to this violence against Black protesters and their allies, protests erupted across the country.

Dr. King called for religious leaders representing all faiths to join him for a final march – to cross the bridge, journey to Montgomery, scale the steps of the Alabama capitol, and show the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and the world that their movement was righteous and unstoppable.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and a prominent advocate for civil rights in the city, answered Dr. King’s call.

The Civil Rights Movement was a Black-led and Black-centered struggle for justice, but Jewish Americans made up a disproportionate number of the white activists who joined the campaign. Rabbi Maurice Davis stayed committed to this fight, even in the face of threats to his life. His advocacy stands as an example of how white Hoosiers can be allies for their Black neighbors as they continue the unfinished work of Dr. King and other leaders for Black equality, rights, and power.

I’m Justin Clark, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

It’s worth saying again. Black Americans led the fight for civil rights. Some Jewish Americans joined their fight. Many did not. The story of Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights Movement has sometimes been inaccurately told with a sort of “white savior” narrative. This inaccurate framing detracts from the lessons we can learn from the intersection of Black and Jewish civil rights work about allyship and about the strength of interfaith work for equality.

First of all, not all Jews are white. There is a severe lack of scholarship on how Jews of color interacted with the Civil Rights movement, but primary sources show that their struggles for rights were mainly taking place at a local level. Newspaper research shows that in the 1960s, Black Jews were struggling to be seen and accepted by the rest of their Jewish community, demanding access to the resources provided by Jewish organizations. More historical research is needed in this area.

Second, the “whiteness” of Jewish Americans, even of European descent, was conditional. They were tolerated by their white, Christian neighbors, as long as they did not draw attention to their differences or interfere with the Jim Crow social order and laws. And Jews were kept from positions of prestige or power in many cases. In the South, where they made up only one percent of the population, few Jews joined the Civil Rights movement initially. As Northern Jews increasingly spoke out against segregation in the 1950s and some Southern rabbis added their voices to the integration effort, the Ku Klux Klan retaliated. Synagogues were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami, while unexploded devices were discovered in several others.

Northern Jews had built larger communities with more secure relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors and had gained more political and economic power. Thus, they joined the movement in greater numbers. In Indianapolis, the NAACP and the Jewish Community Relations Council (or JCRC) began working together as early as 1948 to desegregate a local movie theater. By the 1950s, prominent Black leaders like Attorneys Henry Richardson and Willard Ransom called on the JCRC to join the campaign against school segregation and employment discrimination – an area where Jewish Hoosiers were also impacted, though to a significantly lesser extent. And by the late 1950s, the JCRC also joined the fight for open housing – that is, suitable housing for Black Hoosiers in non-segregated neighborhoods. Again, Black organizations like the NAACP, led these struggles, but Jewish leaders and organizations joined the fight at their behest. While there were certainly moments of tension or misunderstanding, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Black leaders called upon the Jewish community and appreciated their support – likely in part because Jewish activists deferred to Black leadership.

So why did Jews join the movement in greater numbers than other groups?

[Song “Sim Shalom” performed by IHC Cantor Aviva Marer and pianist Alex Pryrodny]

For some, the call was faith-based. The Jewish concept of tzedakah, which is Hebrew for “righteousness,” but refers to the moral obligation to helping those in need, is a central belief. So is the concept of tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world” and calls on Jews to work for social justice. Others became involved in the Civil Rights struggle as a natural progression of the largely liberal political ideology of many Northern Jews, who were overwhelmingly Democrat. Some became involved because they were still struggling for their own equal rights, though to a much lesser extent than Black Americans. The lessons of the Holocaust also drove home the link between intolerance and violence. Many Jews saw a general strengthening of the laws protecting minority rights as something that also protected the Jewish community. For most, it was probably a combination of these motivations.

Rabbi Maurice Davis entered the fight for civil rights by the early 1950s in Lexington, Kentucky, where he served as Rabbi of the Adath Israel Congregation. There he worked for the desegregation of schools and universities, addressing meetings and rallies, issuing public statements, and generally speaking truth to power. In 1954, he railed against segregation on public transport and in schools, as well as discrimination in employment and housing. Calling out white privilege, Rabbi Davis stated:

Rabbi Brett Krichiver: “The truth is that equality of opportunity is the inalienable right of the Negro as well as the white . . . We have perpetuated an evil in our land because certain financial advantages accrue from it.”

Clark: Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921, Rabbi Davis earned his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and served as a student rabbi, before accepting the Lexington appointment in 1951. During this tenure, he rose to prominent positions in regional and national Jewish organizations such as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, making him an ideal leader for a large synagogue like the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, or IHC.

In March, 1956, Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the IHC, arriving in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the congregation, which was in the process of planning its new temple at 64th and Meridian, still the location of the IHC today. As the new IHC Rabbi, Davis would continue to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors.

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel [quote] “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that his son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool on North Illinois Street. The Rabbi told his congregation that Jay unfortunately learned first about the club’s “wonderful slide” and then its anti-Semitic policies. Jay summarized the situation as only a child could, stating: “Gee whiz, dad, it isn’t fair.” The Rabbi then had to explain the difference between legal segregation and social segregation to his son.

Rabbi Davis responded to discrimination not only when it was personal. He believed that it was his duty, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. Two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis told the Jewish Post that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of leadership to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and to [quote] “speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

In 1959, Rabbi Davis helped revitalize the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, made up of interfaith religious leaders and representatives from the NAACP, Indiana Civil Liberties Union, local philanthropic groups, and government agencies. Their agenda included addressing discrimination in housing, education, employment, law enforcement, and health care. He soon became the council president and focused much of his work on ending racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and helped create segregated neighborhoods.

In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis “honorary chairman,” a leadership position serving under the African American NAACP president, Rev H. L. Burton. The Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on Rabbi Davis’s efforts to fight segregation and inequality through these organizations.

By 1962, he had a regular Jewish Post newspaper column in which he shared his views on issues of the day and advocated for civil rights. His columns were often fiery calls to action. He told his readers:

Krichiver: “ . . . this land of ours is the land of all of ours. It does not belong first of all, or most of all, to any special segment of the population. It is not the private domain of any group by right of inheritance, or color of skin, or ‘manifest destiny.’ America is a multi-racial, multi-religious nation, and we Jews above all others ought to know this, applaud this, support this, and defend this.”

Clark: In September 1963, he used his column to respond to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama where four African American children were killed “while putting on their choir robes.” Rabbi Davis, however, blamed not just the bomber and not just the racism and negligence of the governor and police chief, but [quote] “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful argument against injustice was shaped by the legacy of the Holocaust. He continued:

Krichiver: “Segregation and discrimination lead to bombing and lynching as surely as anti-Semitism leads to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And any man who walks that path, has not the right to be amazed where it leads. We who know the end of the road, must say this openly, and believe this implicitly, and practice it publicly. And privately. And always.”

Clark: Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis would receive a bomb threat of his own.

By 1965, the Civil Rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with the police attacks on peaceful Black protestors. That “Bloody Sunday” in Selma included the brutal beating of civil rights leader, and future U.S. Representative John Lewis. When Dr. King issued his call to religious leaders to join him for a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Maurice Davis answered.

When David H. Goldstein of the Indianapolis JCRC and Rabbi Davis arrived in Selma, Alabama, they joined thousands of other activists at Brown Chapel AME Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival:

Krichiver: “As we approached Selma we saw the Army begin to position itself. Jeeps and trucks filled with soldiers, hospital units, and communications experts clustered along the way . . . The road leading to the church was lined with National Guardsmen, recently federalized.”

Clark: While President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Goldstein and Rabbi Davis met with rabbis and Jewish leaders who had arrived before them. These rabbis explained that they had been unable to buy a meal or place to stay  . . . because Black Selma residents insisted on giving the Jewish activists whatever they needed.

Goldstein and Rabbi Davis also looked to find out from these rabbis where they could get kippahs or yarmulkes, a traditional Jewish head covering and religious symbol. A shipment was supposed to have recently arrived for the Jewish activists to wear during the march. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be clearly visible as a show of support and numbers. They told them, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Goldstein and Rabbi Davis had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Shabbat services behind bars on Friday, they announced they would hold another service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, [quote] “Over 600 Negroes and whites, Jewish and non-Jews joined in the impromptu Havdalah services for one of the most unique of its kind in history.”

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, those in attendance, regardless of their faith, donned yarmulkes “in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations.” In Selma, they became known as “freedom caps.” Davis reported:

Krichiver: All the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

[Song “Sim Shalom”]

Clark: Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Rabbi Davis was asked if he would represent the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When he agreed, he was pulled up onto the platform next to King during the reverend’s sermon. He explained:

Krichiver: “Nothing but the word ‘magic’ can quite describe what it is he does to so many. When King speaks, you are not an audience. You are participants. And when he finished we were ready to march.”

Clark: The thousands of demonstrators were organized into rows, with the first three rows chosen by Dr. King. Rabbi Davis stated:

Krichiver: “Before the march began a list of 20 names were read to accompany Rev. King in the first three rows, and my name was one of them. I marched proudly at the front . . .”

Clark: A now-famous picture captured this moment. Wearing garlands of flowers and linking arms, Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunch, and Civil Rights activist and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Heschel make up the center group of the front row with Rabbi Davis’s smiling face just behind Dr. King in the second row. He described the scene:

Krichiver: “On the street we formed three rows of eight, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.”

Clark: When they arrived at the infamous bridge, they paused to remember those who came before them and had been attacked by the state police. The interfaith march continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen, and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers took pictures of the marchers. Rabbi Davis explained:

Krichiver: “This is an Alabama form of intimidation. I kept remembering that these were the same state troopers who two weeks earlier had ridden mercilessly into a defenseless mass of people . . . We kept on marching.”

Clark: The marchers passed people who “waved, wept, prayed, and shouted out words of encouragement” and others, “whites who taunted, jeered, cursed” or “stood with stark amazement at this incredible sight.” At one point they passed a car painted with hateful signs “taunting even the death of Reverend Reeb.” Other signs read “Dirty communist clergy go home” and “Integrationist scum stay away.”

Rabbi Davis marched for twelve hours without sitting down or eating. Unfortunately, he did not get to finish the march. Instead, he was called to fly to Cincinnati that night to be with his father-in-law who had been admitted to the hospital with a serious illness. When Rabbi Davis finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.

When he answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Rabbi Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Rabbi Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. He told the caller he was contacting the police, but the man replied: “It won’t do any good to call the police . . . it’ll be too late when it goes off.”

Police searched the house and found no explosives.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Rabbi Davis took the phone off the hook at 2 A.M. so the family could sleep. Letters arrived as well, full of “unbelievable filth, ugly statements,” and intimate knowledge of his larger civil rights work.

Rabbi Davis stated vaguely that he was required to take “protective measures” to ensure his family’s safety. The rabbi did not expound at the time, but later his children recalled that they had a so-called “babysitter” who carried a .45-caliber revolver under his jacket. From his statements to the press, it seemed the Rabbi was most hurt that the threats were likely coming from fellow Hoosiers. He told the Jewish Post:

Krichiver: “Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.”

Clark: Like Dr. King, Rabbi Davis did not dwell on the darkness of humanity but used it as a chance to shine a light of hope on the potential of his fellow man. Just days after the threats on his family, the Jewish Post published a section of a sermon in which Davis explained why he felt called to join King in Selma. Davis stated that many people had asked him why he went. And he had trouble at first finding the right words. He liked the Christian term of “witnessing,” that is, seeing God in an event. He also liked the Hebrew term that Rabbi Abraham Heschel used: “kiddush ha-Shem,” that is, sanctifying God’s name. But in his personable manner, he ended up giving a simpler explanation to the Post:

Krichiver: “I know now what I was doing in Selma, Alabama. I was worshiping God. I was doing it on U.S. 80, along with 6,000 others who were doing precisely the same thing, in 6,000 different ways.”

Clark: He stated humbly:

Krichiver: “Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.”

He called others to join him in the larger march for civil rights. He referred to injustices that needed to still be righted in order to unite all of humanity as a “brotherhood postponed” and tasked his followers with making sure that while such unity is delayed, it is not destroyed. The way to achieve justice was not only to pray, but to act. He wrote:

 Krichiver: “Brotherhood postponed. The time has come, and it has been a long time coming. The time has come to worship with our lives as with our lips, in the streets as in the sanctuaries. And we who dare to call God, God, must begin to learn the challenge which that word contains. ‘One God over all’ has to mean ‘one brotherhood over all.’”

Clark: Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He held leadership positions with the NAACP, the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, Community Action Against Poverty, and the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations.

He never forgot his march with Dr. King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a new federal holiday incidentally created through a bill authored by Black Indiana legislator Katie Hall. Rabbi Davis recalled:

Krichiver: “The first national observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I hear them say the words, pronounce the name, and in the twinkling of an eye I am suddenly in Selma, Alabama with some 80,000 other people; Jews, and Protestants, and Catholics, and atheists, and agnostics . . . We were there because of a man whom we admired as much as we loved, and whom we loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.”

Clark: Today, of course, Dr. King’s work for equal rights for Black Americans remains unfinished. Over the past year, many white Americans woke up to the violent realities of being Black in the United States and added their voices to the recent protest movements. Advocates such as Dr. Uzodinma Iweala, author and CEO of the Africa Center in Brookyln, stress the crucial role of white allies, as long as the work remains centered on “the importance of respecting and supporting Black people.” White privilege gives white Americans the ability to enter spaces of power and decision-making that are closed to Black Americans. Therefore, advocates stress that white individuals have a responsibility to recognize that privilege and use it to demand equality for their Black neighbors. Silence is complicity.

Writing for The Root, Janée Woods Weber, a social justice advocate and host of the podcast Driving the Green Book, explains that there are right and wrong ways to be a white ally to Black equality movements.  Woods explains that to become an effective white ally, you should first research the history of Black oppression in your community. Know the stories of anti-Black violence and the link between economic disparity and prejudice. Do the work to educate yourself on the issues. Do not put the onerous on Black educators, friends, or colleagues who have known about and experienced prejudice their entire lives. Woods explains:

“People of color cannot and should not shoulder the burden for dismantling the racist, white-supremacist system that devalues and criminalizes black life without the all-in support, blood, sweat and tears of white people. If you are not already a white ally, now is the time to become one.”

Potential allies can look to the lessons left to us by Rabbi Davis and other white Americans who effectively served the civil rights cause. Rabbi Davis demanded accountability from his own community and called on other white Jews to join the effort – making them see social justice as a core part of being Jewish. Rabbi Davis also deferred to Black leaders and their goals, putting his efforts where Black leaders identified problems and answering Dr. King’s call for aid from white allies. Most important, Rabbi Davis not only spoke against racism and discrimination; he took action. He was even willing to risk his life – something Black activists did every time they marched.

Today, much of the work for social justice and advocacy in the Jewish community is being led by Jews of Color. During a webinar organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which can be accessed through the Jews of Color Initiative website, teacher, writer, nonprofit CEO, and advocate Yavilah McCoy calls on white allies to ask themselves: “What am I willing to give up? What am I able to learn, and what am I willing to contribute to halt the perpetuation of racism and white supremacy in this country?” She and other Jews of Color are asking white allies, especially white Jewish allies, to be a part of doing the work to “reallocate and reapportion” power, privilege, and resources to create equality. White allies can look to such voices in their community telling them how to help.  And like Rabbi Davis found, if you’re willing to go for that walk, you will not walk alone.

[End of “Avinu Malkeinu”]

Once again, I’m Justin Clark and this has been Talking Hoosier History.

Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. To view the historical sources, a full transcript, and links to the websites and articles mentioned in this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins. Production and sound engineering also by Jill Weiss Simins. A special thanks to Rabbi Brett Krichiver, senior rabbi at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, for bringing the words of his predecessor to life. You may have noticed that two songs performed in Hebrew stand out in this episode. Both were sung by talented IHC Cantor Aviva Marer. The first, Avinu Malkeinu, was written by Max Janowski. Cantor Aviva recorded at Central Synagogue in NYC with organist and music director Dave Strickland. The second, an arrangement of a traditional folk song called Sim Shalom, was arranged by Bonia Shur and the cantor was accompanied by pianist Alex Pryrodny.

We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes

Jill Weiss Simins, “Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis, accessed Indiana History Blog.

Krista Kinslow, “The Road to Freedom Is Long and Winding: Jewish Involvement in the Indianapolis Civil Rights Movement,” Indiana Magazine of History 108, No. 1 (March 2012): 1-34, accessed JSTOR.

Howard Sachar, “Jews in the Civil Rights Movement,” A History of Jews in America, accessed  My Jewish Learning.

“Jewish Views on Civil Rights,” accessed Reform Judaism.

Janée Woods Weber, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People,” The Root, August 19, 2014, accessed https://www.theroot.com/12-ways-to-be-a-white-ally-to-black-people-1790876784.

Scott Simon Interview with Uzodinma Iweala, “How White People Can Advocate for the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Weekend Edition, July 11, 2020, accessed npr.org.

Music Credits

THH Episode 44: Giving Voice: Karen Freeman-Wilson

* Transcribed by Benjamin Baumann

Nicole Poletika: I’m Nicole Poletika filling in for host Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I have the pleasure of speaking with Karen Freeman-Wilson, who served as Mayor of Gary, Indiana from 2012 to 2019. And is currently President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. A Harvard Law School Graduate, Freeman-Wilson has had a prolific career, which includes serving as Indiana Attorney General. She has sought to advance social justice, as a Chairperson of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and as Director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. If you haven’t already listened to our latest episode, which covered the 1972 National Black Political Convention, I suggest you do so now, as we reference it during our conversation.

In this episode we discuss how the 1972 Convention impacted Freeman-Wilson, as well as Gary’s legacy of black political empowerment, modern activism, and how black women can get a seat at the political table.

And now, Giving Voice.

Poletika: Well, I’m here today with Karen Freeman-Wilson former Mayor of Gary, Indiana and current President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Um, were really excited to have you here Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Freeman-Wilson: I’m excited to join you.

Poletika: So I know you grew up in Gary and as a small child you recall uh Richard Hatcher’s exciting mayoral election in 1967, and you remember the 1972 National Black Political Convention. So I know the historical record is missing recollections from local residents of the convention, so I was hoping you could tell us what you remember from the convention and how it shaped your personally or professionally or both.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, I was 12 at the time and it was exciting to know that a National Convention was coming to Gary, Indiana. It was the talk of the town, uh people had a sense of pride that not only it was a national convening, but it was a convening of black people and because Gary only had one hotel at the time, a number of the people stayed in the homes of Gary residents. And we were able to host someone in our home. So, what I recall was the fact that they were convening to talk about an agenda and it seems odd for a 12 year old to remember that, but because I was an only child I found myself in a lot of rooms where adults were. And so, you know of course you just pay attention to what they are talking about and they were talking about black political agenda. Westside was a newly built school at that time and so it was a source of pride as well and so the fact that they were going to Westside, I remember seeing the signs from each state. So, you saw that people from all over the country were in the Westside gymnasium. There were people that you saw on television, of course Shirley Chisholm was there and she was someone that everyone took pride in. We knew that she was someone running for um President…John Conyers at that time was the Congressman from Detroit and you would occasionally see him on television, and one of the figures that everyone knew, even though he was just over in Chicago was uh Reverend Jesse Jackson. So, with all of those folks coming to Gary, talking about a Black agenda and really engendering a sense of pride in Gary residents that this subject matter, which was very important that was very weighty, and was all being led by our mayor, Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher. Who was of course a source of pride for us locally and nationally, uh it was a big deal.

Poletika: Yeah, um and I remember he said that like you mentioned there was only one hotel so people stayed with residents, um and he said that some of the locals actually made life long friendships with the people that came in from outta town. Did you have that experience with the people that you hosted?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, to be honest my mom and dad had most of the interaction with them. So, I can’t even…I remember they were from Detroit, but beyond that I don’t remember much about them. I do know that there was at least one or two times because we were regular travelers to Detroit, because of relatives that my mom communicated with them. So, yes um there were friendships that came out of that and even from folks who were younger and who were activists, they were able to come together around subsequent convenings not the magnitude of that, but certainly subsequent convenings. And an interesting thing happened when we had sort of this convening, I believed it was back in 17 the 45th anniversary I believe. And people who had been here came back and they talked about it so that was uh real source of pride and interest for Gary residents who had gotten older, but who still remembered.

Poletika: Right, and you would have been mayor at that time.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, I was the mayor at that time.

Poletika: Wow, that’s full circle.

Freeman-Wilson: It was.

Poletika: When the convention was here, were you in close proximity to the delegates? Did you get to actually observe any of the caucuses, in there kind of brainstorming?

Freeman-Wilson: I did not. Again, I went to Westside during the convention once to kind of see the general session, but I never had an opportunity to share with the caucuses at that time.

Poletika: You got to kind of be around the thinking though and.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, it was uh…you know it was a lot of energy in the room. Of course, um there were a lot of people there and they were sharing their ideas. I heard the speeches. Uh I remember, hearing Jesse Jackson speech, he was young so as a 12-year-old, you’re always gravitating around those folks who were closer to your age and that was always something that was exciting to see and hear from him.

Poletika: I bet and I know um, some people have kind of said that he was made in the convention with that speech so.

Freeman-Wilson: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. You know of course he was a um, an associate of Dr. King and after Dr. King’s passing. He was known because of operation breadbasket in Chicago, but I think he took the national stage in a significant way during that convention.

Poletika: So you, are a trail blazer yourself, um having been elected Gary’s first female mayor in 2012. And I know that black women were largely excluded from organizing the uh ’72 convention and um we had just talked about Shirley Chisholm. Uh I know some African Americans just refused to endorse her, because she was a woman.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, that is correct.

Poletika: And it can be argued that women have more political influence than ever before, but in your opinion what uh obstacles do black women still face and how can they get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, you know that’s an interesting question about the political influence of black women, because you’re right to the extent that we constitute the um workers and campaigns, and we are certainly reliable in terms of a source of a voting block and to ensure that people go to the poles. Uh when it comes to thinking about who will run for office, who will be the representative, even though black women are more than capable uh we often are looked over or are pushed aside. In favor of black men. And um, I don’t think its either or, it has to be both and, but very often there is more sexism in politics than there is racism.

Poletika: Interesting, yeah and I think Stacey Abrams is a good example of that and she came so close to holding office but didn’t quite get there.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely.

Poletika: Do you have any advice for those wanting to get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I certainly uh would encourage folks to continue to be engaged and be involved and you should not concede the fact that you won’t get a seat at the table, you can take a seat at the table. You have to work a little harder, fight a little harder, and push and be aggressive, but don’t mistake being emphatic and uh being focused, with being uh aggressive or pushy, which is something they always want to hang on women. But, I think that people need our representation, they need our voice. And certainly, the folks that we are representing need to have us in that room. So, its important that we, ensure that we get a seat at the table.

Poletika: Dr. Peniel Joseph described the convention as quote: “The most important political, cultural, and intellectual gathering of the black power era.” And it seems to me that Gary’s legacy of this black political empowerment is often kind of dropped from the narrative, which is unfortunate. So how do you envision Gary’s future in terms of political or socio-economic parody for black residents?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think that it is important to remember Gary’s role in the black power movement. In the narrative of that day about self-determination, as a result of the Gary convention you got Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. You got Wellington Webb in Denver, Colorado. You got uh, so many black mayors who were the first black mayors in their communities. And that led to economic empowerment in those communities. I think the challenge for Gary was that there was so much pushback on the political power that was gained by Mayor Hatcher and that was in many parts because Indiana had such a history of segregation and racism that people immediately reacted to his election in Gary in a negative way. Before he had an opportunity to lead and to govern there were folks who were making plans to not only leave town, but incorporate a city that was indirect contradiction of the existing Indiana law and that was Merrillville on the Gary border. And so, incorporate a town, because there was a law at the time that said that no town could be incorporated within 3 miles of a second-class city. There was a buffer zone. And uh not withstanding that fact you had legislation that was passed in the general assembly ironically in uh 1972 that allowed Merrillville to incorporate and as a result you saw growth in Merrillville, because that accelerated white flight. And so, as a result of that occurrence, Gary’s economic downturn was accelerated and that became Gary’s legacy unfortunately. I think now, there’s an opportunity to develop and create a new narrative uh from Gary because of the partnership that we were able to develop with the existing governor in Indianapolis and that Mayor Prince is continuing. I think there is also an opportunity because we were able to lay groundwork under the Obama Administration that can now be continued under the Biden Administration.

Poletika: Hmm, interesting point. And I know uh Mayor Hatcher had a city council that was in opposition to him and kind of blocked him.

Freeman-Wilson: Early on he did. Uh by the 2nd or 3rd term he was able to get things done. A lot of the development infrastructure, when you look at the Genesis Convention center that was built then. When you look at the Adam Benjamin Transportation Center that was built under his tenure. The Hudson Campbell Center, the Sheraton hotel that was ultimately torn down because everything has a lifespan right, but all of those things were accomplished under his tenure. The um housing…the affordable housing that was created during his time here all of those things occur.

Poletika: So, I have one last question for you. Based on your experiences as mayor and director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and your various other leadership roles. What’s your advice for black activists and political hopefuls about how to make systemic change? Is it through the ballot, is it through public demonstrations, a combination?

Freeman-Wilson: I think it’s all of the above. There can’t be any one methodology. And I think that one of the things that is important to understand and that demonstrations will get you in the door to a table, but once you get to the table you have to have a negotiation strategy that will create long term systemic change. And so often people understand and are engaged at the protest, but they forget the strategy that has to be employed to create the systemic change and it’s not just uh from a political standpoint, but it has to be from an economic standpoint.

Poletika: Yeah, I know that there’s the Black Lives Matter organization and there’s the Black Votes Matter organization, seems like there working together.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, because the two aren’t mutually exclusive and there has to be a Black Economics Matter, as well.

Poletika: How do you think that you would leverage economic change?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think you leverage economic change in working with city and state government. Later today, I’m gonna be on uh panel with the State of Illinois where there gonna be talking about goals for black businesses. That’s important and so when you uh look at cities, when you look at states who will do business with black folks that ultimately allows them to employ black people in many instances and to transfer wealth in the black community. Because what we are seeing is an increasing gap and uh and many refer to it as uh racial wealth gap. How do you amass wealth uh, you amass wealth through business and you amass wealth through home ownership and so there has to be a focus on both of those mechanisms, along with the education that typically leads to wealth accumulation in those areas. So that you can ultimately ensure that you’re reducing the racial wealth gap. And government has a role to play in home ownership, in doing business with black folks and encouraging others, because you can’t just gain wealth by doing business with uh state government or the federal government. You have to do it with the private sector, because even when government turn downs occur private sectors uh, businesses will continue to procure goods and services.

Poletika: Right, and that’s why representation I am sure is so important. People like you being at the table and fighting for those measures.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, that’s been one of our major areas of focus at the Chicago Urban League.

Poletika: Well, I can’t wait to learn more about your uh work with the Urban League, um how can people learn more about you and your work?

Freeman-Wilson: By looking at our website chiul.org, by following me @karenaboutgary and certainly on Twitter.

Poletika: Alright, well thank you so much for speaking with us, it was a real pleasure to talk with you.

Freeman-Wilson: Thank you so much.

Poletika: If you are interested in learning more about the National Black Political Convention check out our post at blog.history.in.gov and check out Dr. Leonard Moore’s book The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972. Please follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana History, subscribe, rate, and review talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.

THH Episode 43: “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Transcript for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Written by Nicole Poletika and produced by Jill Weiss Simins.

Justin Clark: Leaders mounted the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to counter systemic oppression, which kept many African Americans in poverty, subpar housing complexes, and inferior schools, while keeping them out of voting booths, political office, and good paying jobs. Public demonstrations like the Selma-to-Montgomery March, the Watts Uprising, and Poor People’s Campaign drew widespread attention to the plight of African Americans. And the Black Power Movement, which produced African art and Black studies courses, strengthened “black consciousness” and bolstered racial pride.

But, Black activism and uplift was often met with violence and North Carolina minister Benjamin Chavis recalled that:

Olon Dotson: “I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement.”

Clark: For the most part, by the end of the decade, those in power continued to resist institutional change that would, in Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher’s words, grant Black Americans “’their fair share of the pie.’” So, Black leaders embraced a different strategy: channeling collective outrage into political reform, transforming the Black Power Movement into the Black Political Power Movement. The site of this “political experiment” for Black liberation? Gary, Indiana.

I’m Justin Clark, filling in for host Lindsey Beckley, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Forging a new Black political strategy would prove challenging, as Martin Luther King’s death created a leadership void, in which differences grew between the two major ideological factions: integrationists and Nationalists. Integrationists, like Congressional Black Caucus and NAACP members, sought to work within the two-party system, pressuring elected officials to meet the needs of Black Americans. They also sought to elect more Black leaders at the local and federal level. Let’s take a quick detour to discuss the complexities of the Nationalist faction.

Nationalists generally sought to establish a self-governing nation, in which Black institutions oversaw Black communities. However, historian Leonard Moore noted that Nationalists were not monolithic. Some sought to replace U.S. capitalism with socialism, by violent means if necessary. Others, Dr. Moore wrote, believed that “the key to black liberation” depended on “the reclaiming of African values and culture.” Territorial nationalists, like members of the Nation of Islam and Republic of New Afrika, called for a separate “geographical home” for Black Americans. While the Nation of Islam imbued many African Americans with a sense of identity and empowerment, it operated as an extremist group that espoused Black superiority and directed hateful ideals at LGBTQ+ and Jewish Americans. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Nation of Islam has “maintained a consistent record of anti-Semitism and racism since its founding in the 1930s” and grown more extreme under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. It is important to address the organization’s problematic aspects, but also to clarify that not all Nationalists belonged to the Nation of Islam or espoused its rhetoric.

Nationalist leader, poet, and founder of the Congress of African Peoples, Amiri Baraka began prioritizing political activism by the early 1970s. He increasingly recognized that the resources and connections of political office holders were necessary to make enduring change. Baraka sought to establish some form of collaboration, or what he called “unity without conformity,” through a National Black Political Convention in 1972.

Gary, Indiana, a city literally built along racial lines, would be the unlikely site of this historic gathering. U.S. Steel Corporation gave birth to the city in 1906, converting acres of swampland and sand dunes into what would become an industrial mecca. Gary’s expanding steel market shaped the city’s built environment and encouraged population growth. Between 1906 and 1930, increasing numbers of European immigrants, Black Southerners, Mexicans, and white migrants flocked to the region looking for work in the steel industry.

Businessmen and steel mill managers settled North of the Wabash Railroad tracks, in Gary Land Company’s subdivisions. The cost to live in this area excluded many newcomers—primarily African Americans and immigrants—from its paved streets and lush rows of trees. Instead, minorities lived on the Southside—an area neglected by the Gary Land Company—often in tarpaper shacks, tents, and barracks that lacked ventilation. The city’s social construction ultimately resulted in its implosion. Beginning in the 1950s, waves of white residents fled from the city’s growing Black population to the suburbs, taking their businesses with them. This retreat robbed the city of tax dollars and residents of employment opportunities.

Gary’s 1967 mayoral election represented a longing for change in the majority-Black city. Thirty-four-year-old African American lawyer and Democratic candidate, Richard Hatcher, would respond to this call. The Michigan City native earned his law degree in 1959, which he quickly put to work as Lake County prosecutor. He also served as a private practice attorney, representing plaintiffs in school segregation lawsuits. According to historian Leonard Moore, Hatcher used his expertise to challenge police brutality and founded Muigwithania, a group of young black professionals “dedicated to black liberation.” It was this leadership prowess and social activism that made him an ideal mayoral candidate.

Since 1938, Gary’s mayors had belonged to the Democratic Party. And yet, the party supported Hatcher’s Republican opponent in the 1967 election. Although lacking funding and partisan support, Hatcher’s message of equality and racial uplift resonated with Gary’s disenfranchised voters. The leader made history on November 7, when he was elected one of the first African American mayors of a large city, along with Carl Stokes, who was elected Mayor of Cleveland just hours after Hatcher.

Mayor Hatcher quickly got to work meeting the demands of his African American constituents, establishing new low-income housing developments, diversifying the city council, and granting minority businesses government contracts. Given this progressive record, Gary soon made the list of National Black Political Convention hosts. Ultimately, planners selected the Steel City because it symbolized Black political empowerment and because other cities had reservations about accommodating so many African Americans.

On March 10, 1972, approximately 3,000 state delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the country poured into Gary for the weekend. Many of them marveled at the city’s helpful police force and congenial atmosphere. North Carolina delegate Benjamin Chavis recalled:

Dotson: “when we first saw the sign saying ‘Welcome to Gary’ and we got [to] downtown Gary, I mean, we thought we were in a different country. I mean . . . to see a city in the United States, given the backdrop now of all this Nixon repression going on, all this sense of disillusionment in some quarters of the nation, to drive into Gary, Indiana, and see streamers, red, black and green.”

Clark: The convention’s significance stemmed partly from the fact that those asked to help draw up the blueprint for equality came from all walks of life. Its architects would not solely be appointed leaders or office holders, but Black Panthers, feminists, college students, pastors, labor leaders, Nation of Islam members, and Marxists.

Because Gary had only one hotel, many attendees stayed in Chicago, IU Northwest dorms, or with Gary residents, some of whom they forged lifelong friendships with. That Friday afternoon, a collective sense of pride spread through West Side High School as delegates headed towards the gym, a packet in hand advertising local black-owned businesses. Music thrummed, vendors sold Afro combs, books about leaders like Marcus Garvey, and soul food like chitterlings, while others recited poetry on the sidewalk about the long struggle for their human rights.  Nationalist Queen Mother Moore, in her colorful headwrap, handed out pamphlets and made the case for reparations. Boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms, joining police and civil defense personnel. The extra security proved necessary after a bomb threat was reportedly called into the Holiday Inn, the convention headquarters.

The convention kicked off with a press conference before state caucuses began developing resolutions to be debated over the course of the weekend. And were treated to a performance by “Godfather of Soul” James Brown that evening. The following day, after a late start, the convention resumed with an address by Mayor Hatcher. In his black rimmed glasses and striped suitcoat, he approached the podium, greeted by a standing ovation. An ideal host for his ability to mediate between Nationalists and integrationists, it was fitting that he delivered the opening address. Hatcher began his speech by invoking the “spirit of triumph and determinism” of W.E.B. DuBois. Warmly welcoming the attendees, which included entertainer Harry Belafonte and Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, he stated the goal of the 1972 convention was the creation of a National Black Political Agenda that would serve as a “dynamic program for black liberation.”

While the “foment” and demonstrations of the 1960s served a purpose, it was time for African Americans to wield political power, to not only advise on legislation but to help create it. He told the rapt audience:

Dotson: “In our infinite patience, we have tried year after year, election after election to work with the two major political parties. We believed the pledges, believed the platforms, believed the promises, each time hoping they would come true. Hoping we would not again be sold out.”

Clark: But no longer. African Americans would pick political candidates to represent them, not the party. And the chosen party must address the “inhumanity” faced daily by every Black American. In addressing indignities, the party must work from the bottom up. National decisions, Hatcher argued:

Dotson: “must be discussed in every nook and cranny of this country, from the tar paper shacks in the Mississippi Delta, to the pine hovels of the Appalachian Hills, from the rank and fetid basement apartments of the 47th Street to the barios of Spanish Harlem.”

Clark: Black Americans must demand that legislators end employment discrimination and meager wages. They must demand a decent public school system and the replacement of inferior houses with those that do “not affront the eyes nor offend the nostrils.” Quality health care must be provided, regardless of one’s means to pay for it. Like in white suburbia, the heroin epidemic should not be allowed to ravage Black youth. Should the government fail to meet these demands, they would lose the support of Black voters, who could “conceivably turn to fearsome tactics” or form a third political party. Mayor Hatcher concluded the rousing speech by asking:

Dotson: “Will we walk in unity or disperse in a thousand different directions?”

“Will we act like free black men or timid shivering chattels?”

“Will we do what must be done?”

“History will be our judge.”

Clark: Lauded by Dr. Moore as a “work of art,” Hatcher’s speech set the tone for the convention. It blended the urgent tone of Nationalists and the pragmatism of the Congressional Black Caucus. But if his speech was a work of art, Jesse Jackson’s was the Louvre. The young preacher and P.U.S.H. founder, wearing an MLK medallion and wide-collared shirt, was met by applause as he took the stage. He began:

Dotson: “‘Brother Hatcher came up North and got a new house in Gary and said to all the scattered tribes around the nation come home. I know my home is too small but come home. We could’ve went to New York City or L.A. But we didn’t have a home there. Come home. Over in this smoke-filled city called Gary one of our Black brothers said ‘Tribe’ come home.’”

Clark: Invoking Nationalist rhetoric, he asked:

Dotson: “Brothers and Sisters, what time is it?”

Clark: To which the crowd cried:

Dotson: “Nationtime.”

“For 7.5 million registered Black voters and 6 million unregistered Black voters, what time is it?”

“Nationtime.”

“For Black democrats, Black republicans, Black panthers, Black Muslims, Black independents, Black businessmen, Black professionals, Black mothers on welfare, what time is it?”

“Nationtime.”

Clark: Jackson called for African Americans to unlearn white superiority, to create a third party in order to represent their own interests. This required ego, which he argued they lacked after enduring decades of abuse and oppression. He proclaimed:

Dotson: “when you sit here with your healthy Black body and developed Black mind and put your confidence, creativity, and belief in somebody else who is less intelligent than you, to represent you, your ego has been castrated.”

Clark: Holding the audience in the cusp of his hands, Jackson bellowed:

Dotson: “What time is it?”

“Nationtime!,” the audience chanted, now on their feet, fists in the air.

“When we respect each other, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

“When we get ourselves confident, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

“When we form our own political party, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

Clark: With his electrifying speech, he stepped into the leadership void left by MLK. In the words of attendee Byron Lewis, Jackson “was born in that convention.” Fellow preacher, Ben Chavis, recalled the poignant moment:

Dotson: “everybody raised their fists and stood up, literally, and repeated over and over again, ‘It’s Nation-time. It’s Nation-time.’ . . . Jesse Jackson became the keynoter in terms of lifting the emotional level of the crowd to an all-time high with the call for Nation-time. But it was just not a hollow call. It was just not a rhetorical call . . . I mean, you could hear it . . . reverberating Marcus Garvey. You could hear it reverberating all those prize struggles from the forties, and the thirties, and the fifties and the sixties. I mean, it came to be fulfilled in that moment, of crying that it’s Nation-time, not next year, not next century, but now. In 1972. In Gary, Indiana.”

Clark: To Chavis, “Nationtime” meant unity of purpose. This would be needed when the delegates, energized by the speeches, debated potential resolutions for the Black Agenda. Illinois delegates proposed prison terms and fines for employers guilty of discrimination, as well as employment priority for Black veterans. North Carolina proposed a prisoners’ bill of rights. Indiana was among those delegations that demanded an end to the Vietnam War. California and Oklahoma proposed harsher consequences for hard drug dealers. Discussion and, at times tense debate, centered around topics like forced busing, foreign policy, and whether or not to endorse African American Democratic presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm.

Given the number of issues demanding attention, and the varied backgrounds and beliefs of delegates, some degree of discord was inevitable. But on Sunday, proceedings nearly fell apart. Baraka, clad in a black dashiki, presided over the stage, lined with leaders like Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz. He introduced a draft of the National Black Agenda, incorporating the suggested resolutions. To many delegates, the Agenda disproportionately represented Nationalist objectives, such as opposition to forced busing, which integrationists favored as a means to provide African American students with better education. Some delegates alleged that the Agenda failed to offer strategies for implementing resolutions, many of which they deemed unrealistic. Michigan delegation leader, Coleman Young, vocalized these concerns, as well as his discomfort about ratifying the Agenda before having a chance to digest it or give local activists an opportunity to provide feedback.

Coleman felt that the “Black Magna Carta,” as he dubbed it, was contradictory, with some resolutions supporting separatist ideals and others political integration. The Michigan delegation quickly composed a statement opposing ratification at the convention and read it to the crowd. They then filed out of the gymnasium, with Illinois’s delegation on the verge of following suit. Baraka pleaded with them not to leave, fearful that the disunity would entirely derail the convention. When his armed aids intercepted the Michigan delegates, Young recalled “’We were strapped down pretty well and showed them enough artillery to make it out of there.’” On the precipice of disbanding at best and violence at worst, the anxious crowd was ecstatic to realize that part of Michigan’s delegation had indeed remained. Shouts of “Nationtime!” soon resounded.

Delegates who had traveled across the country would not have to return home without hope or direction. By Sunday’s end, a draft of the National Black Political Agenda had been adopted, and tenuous compromise forged. Conveners founded the National Black Political Assembly, which would meet regularly to follow through on the plans made at the convention. Convention planners tweaked the Agenda in the following weeks, trying to address the concerns of delegates, and publicly released the 68-page document on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday. With the national elections approaching, the Agenda would be taken to the Democratic Party Convention and the candidate who prioritized its resolutions would gain the support of Black voters. These included:

  • proportional representation in Congress and local government
  • creating a National Black Development Agency to spur economic development
  • ending the exploitation of Third World Countries
  • ensuring a minimum income of $6,500 for a Black family of four

The document didn’t go so far as to endorse the creation of an independent party, but argued that “Social transformation or social destruction . . . are our only real choices.”

While many delegates felt uncomfortable with some of the resolutions, like its stance on busing, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Ethyl Payne wrote that the convention was successful in that “It was a political experiment in political participation. They now know what it means to be a part of the elective process.” The delegates and attendees returned home energized, committed to political engagement. Chavis said that, despite disputes:

Dotson: “I felt like I had been to a revival. . . . But not just a revival on the spiritual plane. Although that’s significant. But it was a revival on the political plane. It was a revival on the psychological plane. It was a revival on the cultural plane.”

Clark: The exhilarating event planted the seeds of political empowerment for young observers, some of whom served as delegates’ pages. Gary resident Wayne A. Young recalled that, when he was 12, he accidentally walked into the convention lobby and picked up literature, which:

Doston: “inspired dreams for my city and my country.” . . . “It was sweet to see so many budding and established activists, from Max Robinson to Rosa Parks to Ron Dellums all sitting in the Cougar Den.”

Clark: Although the National Black Political Assembly fractured over the following years, momentum generated at the convention increased voter participation. Black elected officials grew from 1,469 in 1970 to 4,890 by 1980. Dr. Moore poignantly concluded:

Dotson: “Despite the collapse of the National Black Political Convention, it galvanized entire communities around the possibilities of black political power and ‘people went back home, rolled up their sleeves and ran for public office in a way that Blacks had never thought about running for public office before.’ Thus, the presidential victories of Barack Hussein Obama can trace their lineage to Gary West Side High School, where black folk met in 1972 under the banner of the National Black Political Convention.”

Clark: While President Obama’s election was historic, institutional change has been slow to come and Black Americans continue to fight for their “’fair share of the pie.’” They are still disproportionately affected by issues like mass incarceration, unemployment, and barriers to health care. The death of Black Americans at the hands of police and the resurgence of white supremacist groups have generated a new collective outrage. Like the late 1960s and early 1970s, activists are grappling with how to transform this outrage into cohesive strategy.

Attention again turned to the ballot as a means for change with the 2020 U.S. election. Through increased grassroots mobilization and voter participation—goals outlined at the 1972 convention— Black turnout swung election results in favor of Democrat Joe Biden. In fact, AP News reported that Black voters transformed Georgia into a new battleground state, “potentially remaking presidential politics for years to come.” By leveraging social media and tirelessly knocking on doors, groups like Black Voters Matter imparted the relevance of voting to quality of life. Their work helped elect Kamala Harris, the country’s first woman and person of color to serve as Vice President. Black constituents again flexed their political muscle during the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 6, 2021, helping to elect Jon Ossof, the state’s first Jewish U.S. senator, and Reverend Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black U.S. senator. These voters also helped flip the U.S. Senate from a Republican majority to a Democratic majority. Combined with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and presidential administration, this could fundamentally alter federal legislation. It remains to be seen whether the high rate of Black political participation will be sustained and if elected officials respond to the demands of those who helped put them in office. But recent elections and the boldness of organizers like Stacey Abrams have made clear how profoundly Black Americans, once lynched for attempting to cast their ballot, can influence democracy.

Listeners, we would love to hear from those who attended or organized the convention, especially those from The Region. Please see the show notes for her contact information.  

Once again, I’m Justin Clark and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see the sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Nicole Poletika. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Our guest voice for this episode is Dr. Olon Dotson [Gary native and Ball State University professor]. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice [with former mayor of Gary, Karen Freeman-Wilson]. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you for listening!

Show Notes for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

If you organized or attended the convention, and would like to share your experience, please contact IHB historian Nicole Poletika at npoletika@library.in.gov or 317-232-2536.

Sources:

“Black Convention at Showdown Stages,” Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette), March 13, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Oral History Interview, Benjamin Chavis, April 18, 1989, Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, accessed Eyes on the Prize II Interviews.

Gwendolyn Cherry, House of Representatives, “Cherry Notes from Florida,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 2, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Chisholm Candidacy Faces Black Debate,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” News Journal (Wilmington, DE), May 19, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Erik Johnson, “Remembering Mayor Richard G. Hatcher,” Chicago Crusader, Special Tribute Edition, December 20, 2019, accessed chicagocrusader.com.

Sam Levine, “’They Always Put Other Barriers in Place:’ How Georgia Activists Fought Off Voter Suppression,” The Guardian, January 13, 2021, accessed theguardian.com.

Leonard N. Moore, The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018), 2, 64-65, 96-102, 105-108, 112, 130-131, 149, 152.

“The NAACP and the Black Political Convention,” The Crisis 79, no. 7 (August-September 1972): 229-230, accessed Google Books.

Documentary, NATIONTIME-GARY, directed by William Greaves, screened at AFI DOCS 2020.

James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” The Times (Munster), March 12, 1972, 1A, 12A, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ethel L. Payne, “After Gary, What?,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicole Poletika, “City Church: Spirituality and Segregation in Gary,” Indiana History Blog, May 13, 2019, accessed blog.history.in.gov.

Nicole Poletika, “‘Tired of Going to Funerals:’ The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary,” Belt Magazine (January 2019), accessed beltmag.com.

“Race and Voting,” Constitutional Rights Foundation, accessed crf-usa.org.

Jesus Rodriguez, “BLM Organizers See the 1972 National Black Political Convention as a Model. What Can They Learn from It?,” Politico Magazine, August 28, 2020, accessed politico.com.

Kat Stafford, Aaron Morrison, Angeliki Kastanis, “’This is Proof’: Biden’s Win Reveals Power of Black Voters,” Associated Press, November 9, 2020, accessed apnews.com.

“’…We Must Pave the Way so that Others May Follow,’” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ross Williams, “Record Turnout among Black Voters Could Help Georgia Reshape the Nation,” Georgia Public Broadcasting, January 11, 2021, accessed gpb.org.

Wayne A. Young, “A Gary Native Reflects on What ‘Nationtime’ Means Today,” Chicago Crusader, November 24, 2020, accessed chicagocrusader.com.

How South Bend Attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen Lifted the “Heel of Oppression”

Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen, courtesy of Indianapolis Recorder, July 25, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and South Bend Tribune, February 10, 2014, accessed SouthBendTribune.com.

*This is Part One in a series about the Allens.

Marriage is complicated enough. Add in opposing political views, routinely confronting systemic racism and sexism, and coping with the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, and it’s even more challenging. African American attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen experienced these struggles and, while theirs was not a perfect marriage, through compromise, mutual respect, shared obstacles and goals, and love, they enjoyed 55 years together as man and wife. The South Bend couple dedicated themselves to each other and to uplifting the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, creating jobs, and demanding educational equality. The opportunities the Allens created for marginalized Hoosiers long outlived them.

On his way to Indianapolis in the late 1920s, J. Chester’s car broke down in South Bend and, after staying with a family on Linden Street, liked the city so much he decided to make it his home. Or so the story goes. Elizabeth Fletcher Allen, whom he met at Boston University and married in 1928, was likely working towards her law degree back in Massachusetts when J. Chester made that fateful trip. She would eventually join her husband in Indiana, but in the meantime J. Chester quickly got to work serving South Bend’s Black community. In 1930, J. Chester was admitted to the bar and the following year was appointed County Poor Attorney for St. Joseph County.

His arrival was perhaps serendipitous, as the Great Depression had begun rendering African Americans, who were already disenfranchised, destitute. J. Chester served as management committee chairman of the Hering House, which he described as “‘the clearing house of most of the social activities of the colored people as well as the point of contact between the white and colored groups of South Bend. . . . Its activities in the three fields of spiritual, mental and physical training make it indeed a character building institution.'” Through the organization, J. Chester helped provide 4,678 meals to unemployed African Americans, along with clothes, lodging, and medical aid to others in the Black community in 1931.

In addition to providing basic necessities during those lean years, J. Chester took on various anti-discrimination lawsuits in South Bend. In 1935, he helped prosecute a case against a white restaurant owner, who refused to serve Charles H. Wills, Justice of the Peace, in a section designated only for white patrons. That same year, J. Chester served as attorney for the Citizens Committee, formed in protest to the “unwarranted shooting” of Arthur Owens, a Black 18 year-old man, by white police officer Fred Miller. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, noted that eleven eyewitnesses recounted that “the youth was shot by Officer Miller as he stepped from a car with hands raised, after having been commanded by the officer and his companion, Samuel Koco Zrowski, to halt.” The officers had been pursuing the car with the belief it had been stolen.

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Elizabeth Allen-likely back in town temporarily-and other Black leaders organized a mass meeting to protest the “wanton, brutal and unwarranted” shooting. Despite boycotts, a benefit ball to raise prosecutorial funds, and protests by the Black community and white communists, a grand jury did not return an indictment against Officer Miller for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. This, J. Chester said, was due to “blind prejudice on the part of the prosecutor.”

Despite a disheartening outcome, J. Chester continued to lend his legal expertise to combating local discrimination. The following year, he and a team of lawyers challenged Engman Public Natatorium’s ban on African Americans from using the facilities. The team presented a petition, likely prepared by Elizabeth, to the state board of tax commission demanding Engman remove all restrictions. Allen and other NAACP representatives had tried this in 1931, arguing that the natatorium was “supported in whole or in part by taxes paid by residents of the city,” including African Americans. Without access to the pool, they would be relegated to unsafe swimming holes, one of which led to the death of a Black youth the previous summer. While they had no luck in 1931, the 1936 appeal convinced commissioners to provide African American residents access to the pool, but only on the first Monday of every month and on a segregated basis. This was just one victory in the decades-long fight to fully desegregate the natatorium.

Image caption: Photograph of Leroy Cobb and two unidentified men sitting along Pinhook Park. In the era of segregation in South Bend, with city pools like the Engman Public Natatorium barring African Americans from entry, Pinhook Park became a popular location for public swimming, ca. 1947, St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collections.

While it appears that Elizabeth lent her aid to certain events in South Bend, like protesting the shooting of Owen, it is tough to discern Elizabeth’s activities at this time. This is perhaps due to scant documentation for African Americans, particularly women, during this period. Likely, she was working towards her law degree at Boston University, despite being told by an admissions officer “there was not need to come and advised she get married.” Proving the officer wrong, Elizabeth not only got married, but gave birth to two children while pursuing her law degree. She attributed this tenacity to the confidence her father instilled in her during childhood and later said “’To be a woman lawyer you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.’”

Her persistence paid off and after joining J. Chester in South Bend, she was admitted to the bar in 1938. Perhaps her presence inspired in him a sense of security and conviction, resulting in a run for the Indiana General Assembly. That year, voters elected J. Chester (D) the first African American to represent St. Joseph County. Rep. Allen introduced and supported bills that would eliminate racial discrimination in sports, the judicial system, and public spaces. The new lawmaker also endorsed bills that would require Indianapolis’s City Hospital to employ Black personnel and that would mandate appointing at least one African American to the State Board of Public Instruction, telling his colleagues “the legislature should see to it that these children had a spokesman of their own racial group to assure their obtaining a measure of equal accommodation and facilities in the segregated public school system” (Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1939). Writer L.J. Martin praised Allen’s unwavering commitment to serving Black Hoosiers while in public office, noting in the Indianapolis Recorder,

Hon. J. Chester Allen said he had stayed up late at night reading bills for such ‘racial traps.’ He found them, he eliminated them, one hotel sponsored bill in particular would have been a slap at the race. Mr. Allen astonishes me, in the forcible argument for racial progress.

J. Chester Allen (center), South Bend Tribune, November 6, 1940, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.

While J. Chester walked the halls of the statehouse, championing bills that furthered racial equality, Elizabeth was able to make a difference as a lawyer. The couple opened “Allen and Allen” in 1939—the same year she gave birth to their third child. One of the first Black female lawyers in the city, and likely state, Elizabeth quickly forged a reputation as an articulate and ambitious woman. She did not hesitate to express her convictions, not even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Elizabeth sent her a letter expressing the need to integrate housing and provide African Americans with the same government-funded housing white Americans received. Elizabeth’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, told an interviewer that Roosevelt’s response resulted in his mother’s “angry departure” from the Democratic Party. Allegedly, Roosevelt “sent back this long-winded pretentious letter rationalizing the situation . . . that the races couldn’t live together.” Both idealistic, Dr. Allen recalled that his parents’ political discourse over the dinner table “could blow up at any time.”

Elizabeth’s editorial for the South Bend Tribune, entitled “Negro and 1940,” also provides insight into her views. She lauded the “new Negro,” who:

is fearless and motivated by confidence in his belief that he owes to his race the duty of guiding those members whose minds have not been trained to clear thinking, his knowledge that the able members of his race have always from the beginning of this country contributed to the civic upbuilding and a conviction that it is up to him to keep the gains which have been made.

Membership Card, 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

By this definition, Elizabeth exemplified the “new Negro,” dedicating her life to uplifting South Bend’s Black community through her work with the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee and by organizing drives to improve housing for minorities. According to her son, Dr. Irving Allen, Elizabeth embodied the Black empowerment she wrote about, challenging oppression and advocating for those “being cheated out of a decent life.” Dr. Allen suspected that his mother also wanted to effect change as a legislator, but sacrificed her political aspirations to support her husband’s career.

Elizabeth Allen, courtesy The History Museum Collection, accessed Roberta Heinman, “Suffragists and Activists are Among 10 Influential Women in Indiana,” South Bend Tribune, August 16, 2020.

Although Elizabeth felt she had to shelve her political aspirations, she complemented her husband’s legislative work, particularly regarding World War II defense employment. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 created an immediate need for the manufacture of ordnance. While U.S. government war contracts lifted many Americans out of the poverty wrought by the Depression, many manufacturers refused to hire African Americans. This further disenfranchised them as, according to W. Chester Hibbitt, Chairman of the Citizens’ Defense Council, an estimated 54% of African Americans living in Indiana were on relief by 1941.

And while the federal government complained of a labor shortage, J. Chester contended that “Negro workers, skilled and semi-skilled, by the thousands are walking the streets or working on W. P. A. projects, because they happen to have been endowed with a dark skin by the Creator of all men'” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445, p.15). He argued that it was the responsibility of lawmakers to prohibit employment discrimination, not only to eliminate poverty, but to safeguard democracy. Echoing the Double V campaign, Rep. Allen stated that “our first line of defense should be the preservation of the belief in the hearts of all men, black and white alike, that Democracy exists for all of us; that we are all entitled to a home, a job and the expectancy of better things to come for our children.” The continued denial of American minorities’ rights undermined the fight for freedom abroad.

Elected to a second term in 1940, J. Chester led the call for anti-discrimination legislation. Months before President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, Rep. Allen and Rep. Evans introduced House Bill No. 445. If enacted, it would make it illegal for Indiana companies benefiting from federal defense contracts “to discriminate against employing any person on account of race, color or creed.” So popular was the bill that after the Indiana Senate passed it, delegations of African Americans and their children filled statehouse corridors and galleries, carrying “placards advocating passage of the bill, describing the measure as the only thing necessary to provide Negroes with jobs” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445”, p.7).

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Despite the bill’s promising fate, on the last day of session the House kicked it over to the Committee on Military Affairs, where it essentially died. In an article for the Indianapolis Recorder, J. Chester noted that although the bill was defeated,

such state-wide attention had been drawn to the sad economic plight of the Negro workers of Indiana and its attendant dangers that people of both races agreed that the alleviation of the Negro unemployment problem was the number one job of the preparations for war of Indiana and proceeded in for right home-rule manner to do something about it.

On June 1, 1941, Governor Schricker answered the call to “do something about it,” appointing J. Chester the Coordinator of Negro Affairs to the Indiana State Council of Defense. As part of the Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation, Allen traveled throughout the state, appealing to groups like the A.F.L., C.I.O., and the Indiana State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association, which all formally pledged to employ African Americans. Through intensive groundwork, Allen established bi-racial committees in at least twenty Indiana cities.

Based on the “mutual cooperation between the employer, labor and the Negro,” the Recorder reported that these local committees would “go into action whenever and wherever Negro industrial employment presents a problem.” Although his persuasive skills often convinced employers to hire Black employees, historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “Allen sometimes invoked Order 8802 and threats of federal investigation to persuade management to employ and upgrade black workers.”

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “’Job Opportunities for Negroes:’ The Goal of Indiana’s Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan,” Pamphlet No. 4 (January 1943), accessed Hathitrust.

Allen and the bi-racial committees also served as a sort of “middlemen” for white employers who wanted to hire African Americans, but were unsure how to recruit those best-suited for the job. Allen and the committees distributed “mimieographed questionnaires,” which provided” more valuable information with respect to Negro labor supplies, skills, etc. This information was then used with great effect in the mobilization and cataloguing of types of dependable Negro workers for local defense industries.”

Under Allen’s leadership, the Indiana Plan proved incredibly successful, providing employment to those, in Allen’s words, “whose record of loyalty and services dates in an unbroken chain back to the year 1620” (“The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” p.5). According to the “Job Opportunities for Negroes” pamphlet, between July 1, 1941 and July 1, 1942, there “was a net increase of 82% Negro employment, most of which was in manufacturing. . . . working conditions also improved” (p.2). (It should be noted that employers continued to deny African Americans jobs in “skilled capacities.”) In fact, Indiana was awarded the “Citation of Merit” by the National Director of Civilian Defense for “outstanding work in the field of race relations.” So efficiently organized and implemented, other states used the plan as a model to bring African Americans into the workforce.

Indiana State Defense Council, The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, and Governor Schricker’s Negro Employment Committee, “What is the Truth About Job Opportunities for Negroes in Indiana?,” (August 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan’s significance endured long after World War II ended. White employers could no longer claim that Black Hoosiers lacked the skills or competence required of the workplace or that it was “unnatural” for white and Black employees to work alongside each other. Reflecting on the program, Allen wrote in 1945, “Time was when a Negro interested in securing better employment opportunities for his people could not even obtain an audience with those able to grant such favors.” But the Bi-Racial Cooperation plan “has accomplished more for the Negro’s permanent economic improvement than had been done in the preceding history of the state.”

While African Americans were often the first to be let go from defense jobs with the conclusion of war, Allen’s work permanently wedged the door open to employment for Black Hoosiers. Allen, perhaps at the encouragement of Elizabeth, emphasized the importance of creating job opportunities for Black women and in his 1945 article noted that thousands of female laborers “have been upgraded from traditional domestic jobs, to which all colored women had previously been assigned irrespective of training or ability, to defense plants as receptionists, power-sewing machine operators, line operators and other better paying positions where their training can be utilized.”

Elizabeth Allen front left, J. Chester Allen back of the table, Ca. 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Like her husband, Elizabeth refused to accept that Black Hoosiers would be excluded from the economic boon created by defense jobs. In the early 1940s, she established a nurse’s aid training and placement program for Black women in St. Joseph County. Of her WWII work, Elizabeth’s son said that she opened professional doors for Black women and that she saw herself as helping people who were oppressed. Like J. Chester, Elizabeth helped select local men for placement in defense jobs and, according to an October 11, 1941 Indianapolis Recorder article

used the utmost care in selecting the men to go into the factory realizing that future opportunities were dependent upon the foundation which these pioneers laid both in building good will among the fellow employes, and proving to the management that colored are reliable, trustworthy, hard-working and capable of advancing.

While J. Chester traveled the state, Elizabeth tended to the needs of the local community, chairing a drive in 1942 at Hering House for “community betterment in housing[,] social and industrial fields.” In the 1940s, Elizabeth organized various meetings to improve local housing for the Black community, emphasizing the link between substandard residences and crime rates, delinquency, and health. Deeply committed to ensuring quality education for African American children, Elizabeth founded Educational Service, Inc. in 1943, which encouraged youth to pursue social and economic advancement, provided financial aid to “worthy” students, offered individual counseling, and fostered good citizens. All of this while caring for three young children and likely manning the couple’s law office, as J. Chester fulfilled his duties with the Indiana State Council of Defense. Fortunately, Elizabeth later told the South Bend Tribune, “I want to keep busy constantly. I have to be about something all the time.”

When the war clouds cleared, the Allens achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. But they also experienced immense personal loss that appeared to test their marriage. Their post-war journey is explored in Part II.

 

Sources:

The majority of this post is based on state historical marker notes, in addition to the following:

“11,605 Helped by Hering House,” South Bend Tribune, April 22, 1931, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

“11 Witnesses Charge Police Shot too Soon,” South Bend Tribune, April 10, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Seek to Avenge Youth’s Death,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 25, 1935, 1, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Elizabeth F. Allen, “Negro and 1940,” South Bend Tribune, October 1, 1939, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” Pamphlet No. 3, (April 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Mary Butler, “Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Lays Down Law to Family,” South Bend Tribune, July 30, 1950, 39, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Adult Award Winner,” South Bend Urban League and Hering House, Annual Report, 1960, p. 5, accessed Michiana Memory.

“Area Women Lawyers Tell It ‘Like It Is,’” South Bend Tribune, March 9, 1975, 69, accessed Newspapers.com.

Marilyn Klimek, “Couple Led in Area Racial Integration,” South Bend Tribune, November 30, 1997, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 207.

Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Hearth & Hardship: How Hoosiers Have Adapted Thanksgiving Celebrations and Recipes

Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1929, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“The Long Distance Telephone is the Modern Thanksgiving Greeting:” this 1929 Indiana Bell Telephone Co. advertisement will certainly resonate with Hoosiers, who are finding alternative ways to spend the holidays during the pandemic. The ad continues—and we relate—”Distances, however, and the press of modern affairs sometimes seek to rob us” of the mouthwatering aromas of Grandma’s kitchen. Fortunately, the #telephone “takes our voices quickly and easily to the home folks whenever they are, and leaves lasting impressions of thoughtfulness and occasion for real Thanksgiving.”

Despite the stock market having just crashed, Americans in 1929 kept traditions alive and counted their blessings. While 2020 celebrations will look different in many Hoosier households, we thought we would look back at some of the recipes shared in the pages of historic Indiana newspapers, especially those published during periods of hardship. But before you get to cooking, be sure to pick up some skillets, pie dishes, and perhaps some nut crackers (to keep greedy fingers at bay) from Vonnegut’s.

Perhaps bespeaking the tension felt in households across the nation during the Great Depression, Jean Allen told the tale of one woman, who was grateful that Thanksgiving came only once a year (Muncie Star Press, November 17, 1934, 8). The woman “gave each of her children a sound spanking, tucked them in bed, and sat down to plan her Christmas dinner.” Mindful of these struggles, Allen crafted menus that would “save you a lot of work, worry, and wear and tear,” with a focus on “goodness” and cost.

Jean Allen, Muncie Star Press, November 17, 1934, 8.

If Allen’s recipes aren’t your persuasion, check out this  1935 issue of the African American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, which featured all cranberry everything, from tapioca to ice.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 30, 1935, 6.

Just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged Americans into World War II, the Indianapolis Recorder noted that during a “New Deal Thanksgiving,” it was understandable that “some of us didn’t get right into the spirit of it.” Nonetheless, one could take a decorative page from those who did, bestowing their dinner table with lace and yellow chrysanthemums or perhaps a combination of fruit, apples leaves, and red, gold, and white placards.

The following year, the Recorder noted that there was much to be thankful for “in a world and season of great distress,” as Americans were “confronted presently with obligations and sacrifices to be made in prosecuting the war.” While it was natural to despair, and to worry that next year’s Thanksgiving could require even more sacrifices and rationing, the author wrote “the American people generally have enjoyed an abundance of the comforts or luxuries of life not realized by other peoples of the world. We have taken the needs or desires of our daily life as a matter of course.” Bowed over steaming plates, Hoosiers likely prayed for the safety of their sons, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters overseas.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 21, 1942, 5.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 21, 1942, 5.
Kokomo Tribune, November 21, 1938, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

A seasoned procrastinator? The Kokomo Tribune has you covered with some last minute recipes. But before digging in, be mindful of Dr. C.C. Robinson’s suggestions. He advised readers in 1923, via the Muncie Evening Post, to “Remember that cheerfulness is a most necessary asset for enjoying a real meal. If your wife has invited someone who doesn’t agree with your idea on the League of Nations, don’t forget to carry on with a smile just the same. It helps the liver secretions.” Sound advice, in these polarized times. However, we have to disagree with his warning “Don’t think you have to eat everything.” After sampling the fare, be sure to compliment the chef, as it “may make her heart beat a little faster or increase the blood pressure for the time being.”

If you’re looking for a way to use up some of leftover turkey—once the tryptophan wears off, of course—this issue of the South Bend News-Times serves up several ideas.


Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1929, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While this year’s Turkey Day feels a little different, these articles show that historically Americans have adapted to hardship, while retaining a sense of gratitude. Whether you’re making a meal for those closest to you or daydreaming of next year’s meal, we hope you have enjoyed exploring Thanksgiving recipes from years past. Search for more recipes using Newspapers.com. and Hoosier State Chronicles, which provides free access to over 1.1 million pages of newspapers spanning 216 years.

*Additional research provided by Lindsey Beckley.

Putting the Vote to Work: How Women Voters and Poll Workers Rallied during the 1920 Election

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1920, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

A caravan of automobiles, expertly commanded by Evansville women, arrived at polling stations on November 2, 1920. That day, Hoosier women exercised their right to vote for the first time in history. In their decades-long work for enfranchisement, many women found their political voice, gained self-assurance by withstanding public scrutiny, and mastered the art of grassroots mobilization. This served them well on Election Day, when the Evansville Courier reported that “One girl had been held up by some of her boy friends who were attempting to remove the political insigna [sic] from her car, but she was demonstrating the fact that this day had women came into their own and was defending her car and her party valiantly. From somewhere another young amazon came to her rescue. It was a good natured scrap but the girls won.”

Indeed, the activism of the suffrage movement carried over to ballot box. In Evansville, women in “conspicuously labeled” automobiles ensured that no sister was left behind and picked them “up off the streets and hauled to their respective voting places, irrespective of politics.” Hoosier women invoked the communal spirit of the homefront during World War I, when they organized for war work and suffrage. Munster women drove to women’s houses to watch their children, while the “mistress of the house was taken to the polls.” In Evansville, as with cities across the country, “Many women took turns with her neighbor in minding the children while the other voted. That plan worked nicely. The political women workers also took charge of the children while mothers voted.”

Some working women in Evansville arrived at the polls early, so as to miss as little work as possible. Other women, like those employed by the Fendrich Cigar Factory, were given a “half holiday,” so they could exercise their newfound right. On the northside of the city, women went from “house to house,” arranging for housewives to vote earlier in the day. This would “clear the way for factory workers who could vote only between 5 and 6 o’clock.”

Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 13, Indiana State Library microfilm.

Once at the polls, women capitalized on the long-awaited opportunity. In Noblesville, papers reported that it was common for women who encountered long voting lines to insist that men let them vote first. The men obliged. Women at one precinct demonstrated passion equal to that of male voters, as they “became involved in some pretty heated arguments over politics,” but quickly disengaged when polling officials intervened. Muncie women, especially those who worked, voted early and the Star Press reported that “Intense interest was manifested in the campaign issues by the women clerks in many uptown stores and there were many heated debates overheard by those so fortunate to be far back in line awaiting their turn to vote.” As with Noblesville, the Muncie debates dissipated without incident.

Mrs. F. T. Reed, of Indianapolis, wouldn’t let a car accident, which left her “badly bruised and shaken,” keep her from casting her vote. After an ambulance took her home, she rested for a few hours before returning to the polls. Inspector of the Third Precinct of the 18th Ward, Charles H. Taylor, observed that women voted “intelligently, quickly, and manifested more interest in the election than the men.” In Gary, mothers hurried to the polls in the early morning. The Gary Evening Post remarked, “She didn’t stop outside to chat though, just hurried back home and resumed her management of a successful home while all the silly talk about mother neglecting her home and children to vote evaporated.”

Some Hoosiers marveled that women needed little help with the process of voting. In Indianapolis, “Contrary to expectations, women voters did not become confused when they reached the voting booths.” Far from meek or bewildered, one Evansville woman cast her vote so fervently that she ripped the handle off of the machine. The Noblesville Ledger remarked that Hamilton County women, some of whom voted in their “kitchen apparel” so as not to waste any time, “walked into the precincts as if they had been voting all of their lives.” The Tipton Daily Tribune attributed the success of local women in voting “to the interest they took in learning to vote. The voting schools in Tipton and over the county were filled each day with women trying out the system and receiving instructions.”

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1920, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

African American women, who had been so integral to obtaining the vote, too turned out in droves. The Indianapolis News noted that in some parts of the city “colored women swarmed to the polls in greater numbers than men.” According to historian Jill Weiss Simins, party organizers arranged for a cannon blast to rouse residents of the Fifth Ward, who lived in predominantly-Black areas like Indiana Avenue and Ransom Place, to ensure that no voters overslept on Election Day. Weiss Simins vividly depicted the moment:

The Black women of the Fifth Ward’s Second Precinct dressed up in high-heeled shoes and lace up boots, donned coats with wide collars and fur edging, and sported a variety of hats trimmed with satin ribbons. They made their way to 904 Indiana Avenue, walking past several shops, a large dry goods store, and a doctor’s office, and lined up outside ‘Wm. D. Chitwood Fruits,’ a large market that served as their polling place.

Like many white women voters, they endured long lines in the bitter cold and generally voted for the Republican Party. Unlike white voters, their livelihood and well-being depended much more on the results of the election, as Indiana Equal Suffrage Branch #7 president Carrie Barnes contended, “We all feel that colored women have need for the ballot that white women have, and a great many that they have not.”*

Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 6, Indiana State Library microfilm.

The women who staffed the polls displayed the same grit as female voters. In Elwood, women workers did whatever was asked of them, “holding the poll books in the chill November air.” In Culver, Republican women instructed voters how to properly mark their ballots, occasionally ducking into tents equipped with stoves to keep them warm. Hoosier reporters across the state commended the efficiency with which women worked the polls. The Elwood Call-Leader wrote, “The Republican and Democratic chairmen owe much to the efforts of the woman who entered the campaign with a commendable spirit and their participation lent dignity all along the line.”

Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 5, Indiana State Library microfilm.

While Hoosier women suffered no fools at the polls, their presence also produced a kinder, more dignified election than of those past. The Evansville Courier noted that “At the polls there was nothing but courtesy and kindliness, showing that the softening influence of a woman’s presence was felt even there.” The Richmond Item reported that the barbs thrown at voters whose candidates lost were noticeably gentler and that no brawls erupted due to the attendance of women. Even the ballots were cleaner, as the Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “All the ballots marked by the ladies were folded with an exactness and neatness which could easily be detected when the ballot boxes were opened.”

Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 11, Indiana State Library microfilm.

On the evening of November 2, Hoosier women, likely exhausted yet proud, waited as their ballots were counted. Evansville residents watched returns projected from stereoptican slides onto a twenty-four foot wide screen hung from a downtown building. In Muncie, crowds watched returns projected by the Star Press on a screen hanging from the YMCA building. The 1920 election experienced the largest voter turnout in the state’s history, with 71,000 of 76,000 registered women casting their vote in Indianapolis. The Black vote in Indiana, an estimated 45,000 voters, played a large part in the national election and shifted “the balance of power,” according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the victors declared, many women held election parties at sites like the Victoria Hotel and the mayor’s office in Gary.

The 1920 election was significant not only because women skyrocketed voting rates, but because they changed the nature of elections. Hoosier women demonstrated how to conduct an election not only efficiently, but respectfully and with kindness. Evansville Democrat Walter Wunderlich said he had never seen “anything like it before in politics” and that “I wouldn’t go back to the old conditions for anything. I haven’t heard a quarrel all day.” The ingenuity women displayed in getting their fellow voters to the polls, regardless of party affiliation, was truly American. The spirit of Indiana’s suffragists lives on through the League of Women Voters, which formed with the ratification of the 19th Amendment and continues to ensure that voters are informed, empowered, and show up for the democratic process.

* While some southern states disenfranchised Black women through state election laws and voter intimidation, Black women in Indiana faced no legal obstacles to voting.

Sources:
*All newspaper articles accessed via Newspapers.com unless otherwise specified.

“Clean Sweep is Made,” Star Press (Muncie, IN), November 3, 1920, 4.

“Did You Hear That,” The Times (Munster, IN), November 3, 1920, 1.

“Election Crowd Good Natured,” Richmond Item, November 3, 1920, 2.

“Election is Quietest Ever,” Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 11, Indiana State Library microfilm.

“Indiana Women Wear Boudoir Caps to Elections,” Gary Daily Tribune, November 2, 1920, 1, Indiana State Library microfilm.

“Less Than 5,000 of 76,000 Women in County Fail to Vote,” Indianapolis Star, November 3, 1920, 11.

“Made Fine Showing,” Tipton Daily Tribune, November 3, 1920, 1.

Anita Morgan, “We Must Be Fearless:” The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2020) , 204.

Jill Weiss Simins, “A ‘Record of Protest Against Prejudice’: Black Hoosier Women Vote in the 1920 Election,” Indiana Historical Bureau (2020).

“The Election,” Culver Citizen, November 3, 1920, 1.

“Women Ballot Early and Fast,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 3, 1920, 1.

“Women Filled All Requirements in Election Day Duties,” Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), November 3, 1920, 1.

“Women Had Good Time at Election,” Noblesville Ledger, November 3, 1920, 1.

“Women Hurry to Polls to Cast Ballots,” Gary Evening Post, November 2, 1920, 7, Indiana State Library microfilm.

The Debate over “Decency:” How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade

Advertisement, Indianapolis Star, October 1, 1977, 19, accessed Newspapers.com.

Pop singer, evangelical Christian, and Florida orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant symbolized the contentious battle over American civil rights and national mores in 1977. Grounded in her religious convictions, she launched the “Save Our Children” campaign, which led to the repeal of a Dade County ordinance that would protect the rights of homosexual residents. That October, Bryant flew to Indianapolis to perform and spread her anti-gay rights message at the “Rally for Decency,” alongside controversial southern pastor Jerry Falwell Sr. and Indiana lawmaker Don Boys, who planned to introduce a bill at the 1978 legislative session that would criminalize sodomy.[1]

From the moment Bryant’s plane touched down to the second she departed the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, Hoosier journalists and activists pressed Bryant on her opposition to the employment of gay teachers and her advocacy of gay conversion therapy. Like in Indianapolis, her visits to Fort Wayne and South Bend later that month were met with protest, albeit characteristically polite in nature. One of the nation’s leading gay rights activists at the time, Bob Kunst, credited Anita Bryant’s 1977 crusade with forwarding the gay rights movement by normalizing discussions about homosexuality.[2]

Indeed, her efforts to keep gay individuals from obtaining their rights inspired organized resistance in Indiana. The Michiana Human Rights Coalition formed in direct response to her appearance in South Bend. Her visits to the Hoosier state also catalyzed support for gay rights from those outside of the queer community, many of whom may not have given much thought to the plight of this minority group previously. Catholic and cisgender University of Notre Dame Library employee Charles Early explained why he protested her performance on campus in The South Bend Tribune, noting “I joined in a demonstration opposing Anita Bryant on an issue which did not affect me personally because I believe that the spirit which she represents is ultimately a threat to everyone’s rights.”[3]

Here, we examine Hoosier protest to Bryant’s 1977 visits and how similar resistance across the country effectively ended her entertainment career, resulted in the loss of lucrative endorsement deals, and reflected changing national mores.


Schlafly at the Illinois State Capitol, June 19, 1978, photo: Bettman/Getty Images, accessed Town and Country.

It could be said that the conflicting movements of 1977 constituted a fight for the nation’s soul. Journalist Gloria Steinem, bearing her trademark aviator eyeglasses, mobilized feminists in support of women’s reproductive rights and long-awaited ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would guarantee equal legal rights for women. Leading counter-protests, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, “STOP ERA” button dutifully pinned to her lapel, rallied “pro-family” troops at the White House.[4] Occupying the same battlefield as Schlafly was Anita Bryant, who shared her desire to quell the winds of cultural change and safeguard “traditional” American family values. Of this resistance, Early theorized “Many people today are frightened and disturbed by the unrest and rapid change in American society, and they want to go back to a time when things were simpler and more understandable.”[5]

While Steinem and Schlafly sparred over the role and rights of women, Bryant focused on safeguarding the American family by suppressing the rights of gay Americans. Fearing her children would be exposed to the “perversion” of gay teachers, she successfully led a movement to repeal a Dade County, Florida ordinance that would prohibit teachers from being fired due to their sexual orientation.[6]

The Works (May 1985), 31, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

Anita and her husband Bob Green insisted that they loved gay individuals, so much so that they dedicated themselves to converting them to heterosexuality in order to save them from hell and the “sad” lifestyle they lived. Green recalled:

‘When we were kids, we used to say if a guy was a homosexual, all we had to do was fix him up with a girl and the next day he’d be heterosexual. . . . Well it’s not like that. Anita and I have led many, many homosexuals to the light. But it’s a slow process. It’s an area of sin Christians need to work on.’[7]

Feeling no love from the devout Christian couple was Ernest Rumbarger, an Indianapolis resident and gay contributor to The Works. He recalled that in the 1970s gay men “were finally learning how to communicate with each other in a social setting other than bars” and that “Gay businesses as such were beginning to flourish and, all in all, things seemed to be going rather well.”  That is, until Anita Bryant undertook her “Save Our Children” campaign. Indianapolis police officers arrested Rumbarger and two other men in 1977 for homosexual prostitution in Indianapolis. Rumbarger wrote that he and his partner were two of Bryant’s “better known local victims. We were taken from our home in the middle of the night and held for eight days in jail, incommunicado.” Despite receiving no assistance from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union or Gay People’s Union, a grand jury found Rumbarger not guilty and reportedly offered him an “unsolicited public apology.” The Hoosier wrote “On either coast we would have been carried through the streets and hailed as national heroes” for his triumph over persecution.[8]

The Daily Journal (Franklin, Ind.), October 8, 1977, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Bryant’s campaign emboldened harassment of queer individuals, Hoosier allies mounted resistance to her October 7 visit to Indianapolis. The day before the “Rally for Decency,” the Indiana Coalition for Human Rights hosted a news conference, attended by representatives of the Metropolitan Community Church of Indianapolis, Gay People’s Union, and the Sex Information and Education Council of Indiana. Coalition spokesperson Mary Byrne told the press that allies would picket Bryant’s performance “because she represents a force for evil and persecution. She has inflamed irrational prejudices and fostered fear and hatred.” Attending the protest would be Baptist minister Rev. Jeanine C. Rae, who believed that fundamentalists’ attempts to legislate sexuality threatened the separation of church and state. She argued that withholding human rights from certain communities “‘limits the freedom of all persons-including white heterosexual Baptists.'”[9]

Immediately after arriving at the Indianapolis International Airport on the day of her performance, Anita participated in a press conference, looking, in the words of journalist Robert Reed, “very much like an aging but attractive president of the local PTA.” She and her husband fielded questions about her work to repeal the Dade County ordinance, which she felt afforded gay individuals “special privileges” and would allow them to flaunt homosexuality in the classroom.[10] She believed “God put homosexuals in the same category as murderers, thieves and drunks. Homosexuality is a sin and I’m against all sin. I’m also against laws that give respectability and sanction to these types of individuals.”[11] Her crusade against these laws, she alleged, incited a “national conspiracy” against her. She reported receiving bomb threats and the loss of product endorsements. Reed wrote that her statements were ill-received by journalists, who left the press conference while she was still talking.[12]

Protesters at the Fairgrounds, Indianapolis Star, October 8, 1977, 32, accessed Newspapers.com.

That night, the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum thrummed with cheers and “Amens” as approximately 7,000 attendees absorbed the words of speakers who outlined their plans to “restore decency” in America. The Martinsville Reporter-Times noted that the event “took on the aura of a political rally and a Baptist revival.”[13] Local pastors emphasized the need to elect officials who supported causes like “Save Our Children,” some of whom sat in that very coliseum. Greenwood Rep. Donald Boys advocated for his anti-sodomy law, to be introduced the following year, and for lawmakers to expunge the Equal Rights Amendment. After his bill failed to pass in 1976, the persistent lawmaker wrote, “‘This is the day of equal rights unless you happen to be a Christian, conservative, white male, creationist.’”[14]

Outside of the coliseum, 500 protesters bore the rain, carrying dampened signs that read “Straights for gay rights” and “A day without human rights is a day without sunshine”— a play on the Florida Citrus Commission’s “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine” slogan.[15] Protesters included Fritz Lieber, co-chairman of the Indiana Coalition for Human Rights, who lost his teaching position for being gay. Mary Hoffman, her husband, and three kids also attended the demonstration, believing that Bryant’s message “‘parallels McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler.'” As protesters stoically made their presence known, Rev. Jerry Falwell quipped on the stage, “It’s a shame it’s raining. It might wash off their make up.”[16]

Bryant on stage at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis Star, October 8, 1977, 32, accessed Newspapers.com.

When at last Bryant took the stage, the audience was rapt, hanging onto every word she sang. She occasionally punctuated her religious and patriotic songs with oration—like warning the audience that “if parents don’t rise up and set standards for our children, the humanists, the ultra-liberals and the militant homosexuals will”—which inspired several standing ovations.[17] After her performance, the polarizing figure departed for Nashville, but the momentum generated at the rally carried over to the next day, when a parade of 500, led by U.S. Marine Cleve McClary, marched to Monument Circle. There, 2,000 Hoosiers joined them for an “encore” rally to “restore decency.” Local pastor Earl Lawson, who worked to reform homosexual individuals and sex workers, declared that he would organize similar rallies across the state.[18]

Opponents responded to the continued rallies through the press. Indianapolis newspapers printed an advertisement compiled by sixty-three clergy protesting “the crusade against persons with homosexual orientation.” A few days after the rally, Jerry Briscoe wrote to the Indianapolis News editor that Bryant’s judgment of others “has become devastating to their existence” and contradicted Christian theology. He stated, “God is our ultimate judge—that is, of course, before Anita Bryant came along.”[19]

Athletic and Convocation Center, University of Notre Dame, South Bend Tribune, October 28, 1977, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hoosiers, joined by Cleveland and Chicago activists, again mounted resistance to Bryant when she returned to Indiana at the end of the month. The Michiana Human Rights Coalition formed ahead of her October 26th concert at the University of Notre Dame, with the motto that “All God’s Chillun Gotta Sing.” Protesters planned to march with signs bearing Bible verses and Shakespearean quotes reaffirming human rights.[20] That evening, only 500 of the arena’s 10,000 seats were occupied. The South Bend Tribune reported that Bryant, who led the audience in prayer for gay individuals, unwed couples living together, and divorced couples, “seemed lost in the vastness of the Athletic and Convocation Center.” The number of protesters, both in support of and opposition to Bryant, nearly matched that of concert-goers.[21]

About two weeks before her Notre Dame performance, a protester threw a pie at Bryant during a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Her face eclipsed by whipped cream, Bryant tried to pray for the man before breaking down into tears.[22] South Bend demonstrators determined to make their opinions known peacefully and by demonstrating love. They went so far as to invite Bryant to a “gay” reception in her honor, to which she declined. In lieu of pie, they gave her a bouquet of roses and dropped petals at the feet of counter-protesters.[23]

Charles Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred,” The South Bend Tribune, November 7, 1977, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to Catholic Notre Dame employee Charles Early, the same kindness was not exhibited by counter-protesters, one of whom spat on the seven-year-old daughter of a Michiana Coalition leader. However, Early alleged the “fiasco” that was the concert showed a growing acceptance of the marginalized community.[24] Just three days later, demonstrators picketed Bryant’s performance at Fort Wayne’s Embassy Theater for the 60th anniversary celebration of the Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co. Some carried signs saying “Gay is Okay” and “Anita Bryant is Proof Orange Juice Causes Brain Damage.”[25]

Bryant was met with similar protests across the country and nationwide boycotts of orange juice, endorsed by entertainment titans like Barbara Streisand, John Waters, and Mary Tyler Moore.[26] Gay bars swapped orange juice for apple in screwdriver cocktails. The backlash effectively ended her entertainment career and endorsement deals. She reportedly lost $500,000 in television contracts, was no longer booked for performances, and lost her years-long endorsement deal with the Florida Citrus Commission.[27] Bryant’s crusade ultimately backfired and activists credit her with bringing the issue of gay rights to the forefront. One South Bend Tribune editorial noted that she “stirred a reaction among those whose awareness of and sympathy with the problem previously was minimal but who automatically throw up mental defenses against extremism.” The author wrote that her campaign also prompted examination of the “psychological and physical complexity of homosexuality.”[28]

Bryant promoting Florida orange juice, accessed South Florida Gay News.

In Louisville, Bryant’s crusade inspired some gay and lesbian residents to cautiously come out of the closet.  The thought that “‘We’re all monsters'” inspired one man to be open about his sexuality.[29] Another man interviewed noted that “Anita has made gays aware of themselves.” Reflecting increasingly-tolerant attitudes, that November Harvey Milk became the first openly-gay elected official in California, when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He introduced a gay rights ordinance similar to that which officials repealed in Dade County.[30]

By 1980, Anita Bryant was divorced and financially depleted.[31] Five years earlier, she described the agony of choosing whether to prioritize her family and Christian faith over a career in entertainment.[32] Although she experienced “depressions and doubts, caused by the many sides of me coming into conflict,” prayer revealed to her that she must relinquish ambition and submit to a life of service to her family and Christ. Now shunned by Christian fundamentalists for leaving her marriage, perhaps she related to the lyrics of a song she performed in 1964:

The world is full of lonely people
I know because I’m one of them [33]


Celebrations resounded in courthouses across the country in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage bans in all states.[34] But the 2015 enactment of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the 2018 firing of a Roncalli High School guidance counselor upon discovery of her same-sex marriage, again set off passionate debate about religious and civil rights.[35] The events of October 1977 demonstrate that Hoosiers have historically participated in the debate and protested for what they believe is right.

Notes:
* All newspaper articles accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] Mike Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents,'” Indianapolis News, October 8, 1977, 2.

[2] Interview, “Anita Bryant Confronted in 1977,” Who’s Who, accessed YouTube.

[3] Charles Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred,” South Bend Tribune, November 7, 1977, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] Karen Karbo, “How Gloria Steinem Became the ‘World’s Most Famous Feminist,'” March 25, 2019, accessed National Geographic.; Douglas Martin, “Phyllis Schlafly, ‘First Lady’ of a Political March to the Right, Dies at 92,” September 5, 2016, accessed New York Times.

[5] Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred.”

[6] Barney Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant,” The Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), April 10, 1980, 5.

[7] Holly Miller, “‘Deliverance:’ Anita and Mate Tell Their Story,” Anderson Herald, October 8, 1977, 1.

[8] “3 Arrested in ’77 Freed of Charges,” Indianapolis Star, March 9, 1979, 20.; Editorial, E. Rumbarger, “What Do Hoosiers Have to Be Proud of?,” New Works News (June 1989), 4, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[9] “Anita to Face Pickets Here,” Indianapolis News, October 6, 1977, 3.;  Jan Carroll, “Groups Call Miss Bryant Evil Force,” Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), October  7, 1977, 6.; “Protesters to Be on Hand to Picket Anti-Gay Rally,” Daily Journal (Franklin, IN), October 7, 1977, 5.

[10] Robert Reed, “Anita Bryant: She Draws Line for Hoosier Journalists,” Daily Journal (Franklin, IN), October 8, 1977, 2.

[11] Miller, “‘Deliverance:’ Anita and Mate Tell Their Story.”

[12] Reed, “Anita Bryant: She Draws Line for Hoosier Journalists.”

[13] “Protesters Picket Anita Bryant Decency Rally in Indianapolis,” Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), October 8, 1977, 1.

[14] Letter to the Editor, Donald Boys, State Representative, Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), June 9, 1977, 2.

[15] Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[16] “Anita Stirs Emotions,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette, IN), October 9, 1977, 9.; Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[17] Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[18] “‘Save Our Society’ Circle Rally Held,” Indianapolis Star, October 9, 1977, 59.

[19] “Anita Stirs Emotions,” Journal and Courier.; Letter to the Editor, Jerry Briscoe, “On Peaceful Coexistence,” Indianapolis News, October 10, 1977, 9.

[20] “Support Grows for Gay Rights, Promoter Says,” South Bend Tribune, October 26, 1977, 14.

[21] Edmund Lawler, “Anita Bryant Revival Draws 500 into ACC,” South Bend Tribune, October 28, 1977, 1.

[22] William Simbro, “Pie Shoved in Anita Bryant’s Face by Homosexual—She Cries,” Des Moines Register, October 16, 1977, 3.

[23] “Support Grows for Gay Rights, Promoter Says,” South Bend Tribune.; Jeanne Derbeck, “‘Gay’ Tactic: Show of Kindness,'” South Bend Tribune, October 17, 1977, 1.; Lawler, “Anita Bryant Revival Draws 500 into ACC.”

[24] Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred.”

[25] “Anita Picketed in Fort Wayne,” Indianapolis News, October 29, 1977, 15.

[26] Fred Fejes, “Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The origins of America’s Debate of Homosexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), accessed Springer Link.

[27] Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant.”; N.R. Kleinfield,” Tarnished Images: Publicity’s Great—Up to a Point,” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), May 26, 1981, 36.

[28] Editorial, “Anita’s Woes,” South Bend Tribune, October 31, 1977, 14.

[29] “Anita Bryant has Opened Doors for Gays,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville), October 6, 1977, 1, 4.

[30] “Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement,” American Experience, accessed PBS.org.

[31] Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant.”; Barry Bearak, “Turmoil Within  Ministry: Bryant Hears ‘Anita . . . Please Repent,” Miami Herald, June 8, 1980, 1A, 33A.; Steve Rothaus, “Bob Green: Anita’s Ex Paid Dearly in the Fight,” Steve Rothaus’ Gay South Florida, June 9, 2007, accessed Miami Herald.

[32] Alan Ebert, “For Easter: Anita Bryant’s Painful Progress Toward God,” Anderson Daily Bulletin, March 29, 1975, 30.

[33] Lyrics, “The World of Lonely People,” 1964, accessed Genius.com.

[34] Ed Payne, “Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act: What You Need to Know,” CNN, March 31, 2015, accessed CNN.com.; Bill Chappell, “Supreme Court Declares Same-Sex Marriage Legal in All 50 States,” The Two-Way, June 26, 2015, accessed NPR.org.

[35] Arika Herron, “Shelly Fitzgerald, First Gay Guidance Counselor Suspended by Roncalli, Files Federal Suit,” IndyStar, October 22, 2019, accessed IndyStar.com.