The Southside clergy go counter-economic: Over My Shoulder #37, from Off the Books by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 5 of Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh’s recently published book on the underground economy in the Southside of Chicago, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.

When Mayor Richard J. Daley died in 1976, Chicago’s black leadership saw clearly an opportunity to mobilize for greater electoral power. Their hope was fulfilled in 1983, when African American congressman Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago. A victory for African Americans, Latinos, and progressive whites, Washington’s election was also a clear indication that the political machine now dominated by whites could be effectively challenged. In the first flush of victory, churches buttressed a powerful citywide organizing initiative, built around voter education and registration and led by progressive Chicagoans, that helped defeat the machine candidates. Black clergy labored to enfranchise the black community; this movement—as its leaders liked to call it—spanned all levels, from the grassroots to the middle and upper class. Temporarily, at least, it appeared that Chicago’s South and West Side black communities were politically unified and in line with liberal whites to successfully deflect the white vote.

A different and largely ignored outcome was the effect of Washington’s political mobilization within poorer communities like Maquis Park. Johnnie Xavier’s Milky Way description seems like an exaggeration. His view that black leadership continually capitulates to predominately white machine bosses does not make total sense, particularly given that the city had just elected an African American to the city’s highest office. However, black clergy had not been key spokespersons for African American interests. Political unity among black leaders did not necessarily mean political parity. There remained an enormous gap between the cathedrals and the storefronts in terms of their capacity to procure resources and effect social change. As with all political movements, in the efforts to elect Washington, there was a double-edged quality to the organizing initiative: namely, either join or be cast aside. One scholar writes, In Harold Washington black people had drafted a standard-bearer with the credentials and progressive orientation to be their candidate for mayor. Community leaders from all sections of Black Chicago were forced to keep step with this new electoral upsurge or be cast aside. At the least, one must conclude that Johnnie Xavier’s candy bar analogy proves accurate in its allusion to the persistence of some long-standing cleavages within the black clergy.

In the campaign itself, some of the disparities among clergy could be discerned. At one point, Xavier and Wilkins met with Minister Brantley Martin, perhaps the most powerful member of the Maquis Park clergy. Martin had the capacity to mobilize thousands of voters, and it was rumored that if Washington won, Martin’s success in getting out the vote would be reflected in an appointment as a high-paid city commissioner and numerous contracts for firms owned by his congregants. Xavier and Wilkins said they threatened Martin, telling him that they would take the votes of their congregants to another candidate if they were not told exactly what they would receive in return for supporting Washington. Martin recalls what happened when the two walked into his office:

I told them if they took their votes away, I’d see to it that they couldn’t stay in the community no more, said Martin. Simple as that. I would perceive their behavior as a destructive force, no more, no less. They were injuring the livelihood of the people who walked into their place every day for help. That’s how important the Washington campaign was for black folk.

That’s a pretty amazing statement, particularly from a member of the clergy, I said.

You wanted the truth. These guys just didn’t trust anybody. I mean, I gave them hundreds of dollars. I sent my people over to fix their church, I bought them a new roof. I mean, to come in here and say I was not helping them. I had had enough.

The storefront clergy’s awareness of their limits relative to the preachers with larger congregations may not always have been displayed so dramatically, in such direct confrontation. It could simply have manifested itself in differences in perceptions, with powerful people understanding fairly clearly what Washington’s election could bring about and the grassroots clergy being only cautiously optimistic. A director of a storefront church in the eighties, Pastor Barnes, said, It was just that you knew everyday that you were hoping that you would get something for what you were doing. Those guys never worried, they always knew what they were getting.

Ultimately, it would be Harold Washington’s death, in 1987, that showed just how fragile political relations were among Chicago’s black stakeholders. His passing shed light on who might be cast aside if viewpoints became too difficult to reconcile. But even as Washington came into power four years earlier, it was possible to discern signs of discord, or at least differing and perhaps irreconcilable perspectives, within the black leadership. Part of the fragility arose from the movement’s having been built around Washington’s charismatic power as mayor—he was famously able to quickly mend cleavages as they arose—rather than through a more deliberate attempt to inculcate leadership and participatory democracy at all levels, so that the death of a leader might be survived by the appointment of a successor. As William Grimshaw has observed,

concern with elite self-interest points to the basis for the inability of the Washington coalition to survive his death. Washington’s inclination was to win over opponents rather than to exclude and punish them in the machine tradition… Washington’s reforms were not institutionalized as much as personalized. When he died, therefore, the reforms were put in jeopardy and promptly undermined by the very elements he had tolerated and left in place.

The tenuous nature of such alliances was reflected in the black clergy. Churches that brought out the black vote for Washington were a varied lot, with differences in denomination, political orientation, size, and relationship to local residents. They may have been unified in their response to racially based discrimination, but their interests could diverge considerably. Those in poor communities struggled with unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction in a way that black middle-class churches did not; conversely, the black middle class now demanded a fair share of city patronage and contracts, two issues that were very low on the list of priorities of an unskilled, jobless population living in substandard housing.

An important subgroup within the Southside black clergy were those who felt unable to advance their concerns in the Washington administration. Pastor Wilkins’s feelings represent frustrated clergy in Maquis Park who, after Washington came into power, grew at odds with him.

We said [to him], We need jobs, we got people with drug problems, we got people who need help, who need housing. What we got back, and I mean this is coming from black folk! We were told, We have to be careful because we can’t be seen as the poor people’s mayor. On one side of their mouth, they were for the people, but they were afraid to give the people what they wanted, because they would look soft. Giving of your heart. If that’s soft, then the Lord is soft. It was very frustrating not to get money for places to help people with their problems.

Father Michael Wilson, a white Southside progressive priest who supported Wilkins, remembers that eventually a segment of mostly black grassroots and storefront clergy began splitting off from the Washington agenda. Wilson deemed their return to servicing communities with noncity resources the embrace of a self-help agenda.

I really felt for Pastor Wilkins, Brother Patterson, Minister Hortons, and those folks. See, when Washington was mobilizing, you had a real neat group of what I will call grassroots and storefront ministers, priests—basically preachers who were really at the roots of the African American community. Daley never gave them attention, and, for that matter, neither did their own leadership. They did things for themselves, they responded to people with very minimal resources. Washington’s election was going to change that, at least that was the public promise made to them: he was going to build housing in those poor areas, he was going to give schools better classrooms, more medical clinics. But really, none of that happened, or at least not enough. So Minister Hortons, well all those people really, they all went back to helping themselves. Self-help I call it, because they must be given the credit for working by themselves with very tough problems around poverty and addiction. And then, then the gangs came, and well, you know the rest. I mean after that, that’s when you really had a separate, disenfranchised group. And I don’t mean just the people, but also the clergy. That’s when hope dissolves, when the clergy are not brought into the center.

When asked about his own view of ruling black leaders and the turn to self-help, Pastor Wilkins recalls a pivotal meeting in 1986 that he convened with clergy who were much closer to Mayor Washington—the so-called big preachers who were generally thought to be the most powerful figures in the Southside black community. Along with Brother Patterson, Johnnie Xavier, Minister Hortons, Father Michael Wilson, and others, he approached the big preachers—Minister Kevin Ashland, Minister Brantley Martin, Pastor Harold Brusser, and Reverend Calvin Lamar—to forewarn them of increased social problems in the black community. We asked them for specific kinds of help, Wilkins recalls. Brother Patterson, who joined in the conversation, listed the demands.

I can remember it like it was yesterday, said Brother Patterson. Down in Woodlawn, at First Baptist, sitting across a long table, like we was coming to the altar! The five [big preachers] sitting there, stone-faced, look like they lost even their hearts. We said, help us build housing, help us get medical care, help us stop police from beating on us like we were dogs, help the soup kitchens because we have homeless, meet with the gang leaders and hear what the youth are saying. What else, I can’t remember?

Then, Pastor Wilkins continued, They told us they were not sure what they could do. That’s when I realized we had a whole new boss system in Chicago. Black preachers! It was like being down South. They got what they wanted, wasn’t interested in helping everyone. Just taking care of themselves. That’s when I threw up my hands. I knew then, I knew then…

What he’s trying to say, Brother Patterson interrupted, is that that’s when we knew we were doing the right thing, but that we were going to be alone. Like we were before Washington came. There was nobody who was going to hear these cries. No one was really going to take that hard look, in themselves and in the community, seeing what was going on. That’s when we all got back together and said, Okay, let’s just do this, do it with our hearts and what we have. ‘Cause we ain’t getting no more, at least not from these so-called preachers.

The outcome of the meeting, according to those present, was that Wilkins and his colleagues realized that they would not be able to call on the mayor to address their constituents’ needs. What Brother Patterson calls the big-ticket items in Maquis Park, like high unemployment, gang crime, and housing shortages, were not going to improve appreciably in the immediate future as a result of rising black power in City Hall. But it was not entirely clear that the preachers’ alternative self-help program would be a viable means of addressing community concerns. In fact, there was no such self-help strategy in place, says Pastor Wilkins, only a feeling that whatever was going to happen was going to be coming from us—but no one knew what to do. By the mid-1980s, the only clarity the preachers had achieved was the recognition that City Hall would provide them only limited help.

The view from City Hall did not necessarily coincide exactly with the perceptions of Wilkins, Barnes, and the other modest Maquis Park clergy. Bill Owens was a senior advisor for Mayor Washington, in charge of liaising with Southside Chicago communities. He says that many of the storefront clergy could not adequately articulate their demands; they were angry, and even when they discussed specific issues like unemployment, their demands were abstract (Deal with the youth who are unhappy and turning to gangs) rather than rooted in specific programs, and therefore were not helpful to the city administration.

They would come into my office and start spouting on about how the community was going down the drain. Crime, gangs, drugs, people dying. And then they’d say that Harold Washington was responsible! They would just moan and never say exactly what they wanted. I’d say, okay, we’ll get you each ten jobs for the summer for kids. They’d say, Ten is nothing, we have thousands of people who are hopeless. I’d say, true, but let’s reduce that by ten and then we can move on.

Owens went on to say that the smaller clergy often lacked the organization to receive assistance from the city. They did not have a staff and did not have the capacity to build affordable housing (which the city might fund). Some did not have a charter or were unincorporated, so they were unable to receive money from many external parties, like foundations, charities, and city departments that contracted with local organizations to provide social services to families.

Minister Kevin Ashland, one of the big preachers and a critic of Pastor Wilkins at the time, openly described the hostility of the powerful religious bosses toward Wilkins and other storefront clergy members. In particular, he points to one of the specific self-help initiatives the storefront clergy developed to reduce crime: instead of working with police, around 1985, he says, the grassroots ministers worked directly with gangs and other criminals to solve crimes and restore order.

Black people in Chicago, then and now, have only been as powerful as the preachers around them. You know what political bosses are, right? Well, we were religious bosses. There were probably ten of us on the Southside, maybe two or three in Maquis Park. I fought long and hard to get at the table, I could do things for my parishioners: I could call the mayor and say, We need more money for this school, we need a new traffic light. These are not small things. Did the other ministers need to get our permission before they went and got in the mix with the gangs? Well, some would say no. I would have hoped that we would have been consulted, at the very least, because, well, there are consequences.

If you’re working with a beat cop, then I can’t work with him—or his commander. If you’re helping gangs smooth out their business, I can’t get the police to get them to stop. There are consequences. The white folk downtown, all they see is that there’s some crazy preacher trying to help gangs deal drugs or pimps get money from their prostitutes. Now we were trying to control what information got out [of Maquis Park]. We didn’t want to hurt our own ability to get things done. And I don’t know if there weren’t long-term problems. You help the gang leader, he becomes more powerful. Then what? He’ll kill you.

But what about the argument that you [religious bosses] were not doing anything to help people day to day? I mean, didn’t someone have to help keep order?

I’d call what they did messing about. And you see what happened. We grew apart for many years. A lot of the friendships? Well, they can’t be repaired now. And who was hurt? The people. For many years, all these preachers, if they wanted something, it’s the gangs they call, not us. Now the gangs are in jail and they’re calling us. Of course, we’ll help, but not all the time, and not without some recognition of what they did. So that’s what I mean when I say there were consequences. There’s a real divide now in the community. I’m a man of faith, but I’m not so sure it can be healed.

Ashland’s link between the clergy and street gangs points to some of the long-term consequences of the kind of self-help being developed by Wilkins and other storefront clergy. Namely, in terms of the kinds of issues they were taking up, there was a chasm growing between those at the elite churches and those working at the grassroots. As a result of citywide political transformations, a social cleavage in the black clergy had risen beyond the level of backroom griping. Pastor Wilkins and his colleagues were losing hope that participation in the Washington movement would bring about desired improvements in quality of life for local residents.

As a consequence of the meeting, the grassroots and storefront ministries perceived that their work must be supported without resources from the now black-controlled city administration. Effectively, this meant they would have only limited access to city and state funds. They also could not build on patronage jobs as vehicles to increase donor contributions. And they stood little chance of reaching black middle- and upper-class supporters of religious causes; these patrons had risen in number and stature as a result of Washington’s mobilization, but they typically aligned with the larger Maquis Park churches that were embedded in the Washington coalition. Consequently, in 1987, at the height of the Washington administration, the preachers’ focus had grown inward. This meant that they were increasingly attentive not only to local issues, but also to local sources of manpower and funds as opposed to external resources from the municipal, civic, and philanthropic community. In an economically depressed Southside region, this meant a closer relationship with the underground economy.

— Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh (2006), Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. 231–241.

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