Interviewer: James A. DeVinney
Production Team: A
Interview Date: April 13, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1085-1087
Sound Rolls: 138-139
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Slim Coleman, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 13, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
First, I'd like you to tell me early expectations of Jane Byrne.
Well I think, ah, we, we had some high expectations. I think that's true especially right after she won the primary. Ah, it was an easy race for the general election against the Republican candidate so she was already assumed to be the mayor. We were real excited. We thought we had beat the machine. Ah, we didn't really know Jane Byrne. Ah, some of us had only talked to her five or ten minutes but we voted for her because she said she was out fighting the machine. Ah, we picked up the newspaper, ah, two days after the primary and found that she was, ah, had gone to, ah, vacation in Miami with a group of developers, ah, who were some of the main financial people for the, ah, ah, machine and then, ah, ah, a week later, ah, she announced that she had made peace with, ah, the evil cabal that she'd campaigned against. So, but even in spite of that we felt that given the fact that, ah, ah, Black, Hispanic and low income White and liberal White communities had really come out in much larger numbers than ever before and had elected her and beat the machine, ah, when she had no campaign organization at all, ah, that she'd be accountable. One of, one of the, ah, first things that we did was set up a meeting with her with about, ah, 25 different housing groups. And we said we wanted a separate Department of Housing. There had never been a Department of Housing in the city of Chicago. And we wanted a Department of Housing, ah, and we wanted, ah, a new Commissioner of Housing and, ah, we wanted to get some action especially on the question of affordable housing. And she set up a Department of Housing, ah, and appointed a new commissioner. It wasn't a commissioner that we had asked for, but, ah, we didn't know too much about him. He was kind of a, somebody who had been in the Department of Planning before at a low level and we didn't know who it was. It turned out he was a really good, strong first ward person with, first ward is where the, ah, ah, organized crime is the strongest in the city of Chicago, and, ah, ah, it took us about a year and a half to find out this was really going backwards, not forwards. But we had high expectations when we set up the department and said she really wanted to work more closely with community groups, ah, and again in, in about a year and a half we found out that, ah, business was probably being done more freely, ah, with the developers behind closed doors, ah, and, ah, than it had been done before.
Tell me about change, then. When did you start to see Jane Byrne as something other than the ideal?
Well, like I say, it began to grow from the second day after she won the primary, we began to get indications, ah. I think that, ah, the housing question was one of the first ones that really broke open. Ah, that she was, ah, interested in doing downtown development deals and not and really turned her back on neighborhood housing programs that people were trying to get going, ah.
Tell me about the downtown development deals.
Well, you know, ah, ah, Charles Swibel, ah, who was head of the Chicago Housing Authority, but also one of the largest developers in the city, ah, and was, was one of the evil cabal that, ah, she s- said she said she was going to campaign against, became her main advisor. And if you wanted to do a housing project you really had to go see Charles Swibel, ah, so there were a series of them, ah, one of the ones, ah, that got the most attention was Presidential Towers, ah, which was a, ah, a building that was originally supposed to be, ah, low and moderate income housing. Ah, it was on the Near West Side, ah, and they made an act of Congress actually to, ah, with, ah, Jane Byrne's friend, Dan Rostinkowsky, Congressman Rostinkowsky, to use what were low and moderate income federal moneys, ah, to produce buildings that wouldn't have any restrictions, rent restrictions, and they really are now, they rent for, start at a thousand dollars for an efficiency apartment. Ah, and, but it was a monstrous program, it was millions and millions of dollars.
Were you part of any attempt to lobby against this?
Yeah, ah, I was president at Chicago Rehab Network, which was a group of 23 different housing organizations that were all involved in trying to create affordable housing in the, in the neighborhoods, ah, and president of the Heart of Uptown coalition here in, in our community. Ah, and, ah, so, you know, we protested and yelled and screamed and stuff like that but, ah, it seemed to go right ahead.
OK, let's step down here for a few moments and see how things are going.
OK tell me about Cabrini Green and why you demonstrated against it.
About 500, ah, mostly poor Whites, some Blacks and Hispanics, but most- most poor Whites, joined about 500, ah, Black Cabrini Green residents, ah, to demonstrate against, ah, Jane Byrne. Ah, we had something in common. Jane Byrne had moved into Cabrini Green, ah, and the Black community that lived there was saying, ah, that was a charade, ah, that she really intended to turn Cabrini Green in, Cabrini Green into condominiums and in the meantime was just ripping them off, ah, ah, the, ah, and in Uptown she had, ah, gone back on a series of agreements, ah, that would have built about five thousand units of low income housing at a time when the gentrifiers were moving, ah, on Uptown. Ah, the, the issue was really poor Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites, ah, that, ah, Jane Byrne represented a group of people that wanted to gentrify the inner city and run us out. And in the meantime, ah, we were losing affordable housing through fires and arson and burnings, ah, through rent increases or through abandonment, ah, and no new affordable housing was being built. So, that was, that was why we went down there, got a lot of press at the time, ah, because she was trying to show that she was a good person, going to go live in Cabrini Green and people used to say that, ah, "Well Jane Byrne lived in Cabrini Green, that's the first condominium at Cabrini Green." We're going to have all Jane Byrnes and we're not going to be here, ah, that's what that was about.
OK, tell me about the POWER. What was it and why did it come about?
People organized for welfare and employment rights. Ah, it really started, ah, with, ah--
Just start again.
POWER was People Organized for Welfare and Employment Rights, ah, and it started really with a group of welfare rights groups in different communities. One out of the Heart of the Uptown Coalition, I was the president of that group at that time, ah, that, ah, so we wanted general assistance payments to go up to something that you could live on. General Assistance was a kind of State public aid payment for people that were disabled or unemployed. And, ah, we wanted, they wanted to drop the general assistance payments down to about 115 dollars a month. You couldn't find a place to rent anywhere in the city of Chicago for 115 dollars a month, even a little room. So they fought, ah, through the, ah, spring of 1982 and went to the legislature. They really just got no respect. They couldn't get a legislator to talk to them. Ah, ah, so after, ah, the final resolution of it, which actually we got to, we got a compromise at 144 dollars a month, which again, was not enough to pay rent, much less anything else, ah, We had a meeting, ah, said, "We're going to have to get some respect out of these politicians. The only thing that they respect is votes. And, we're going to have to get our own folks registered" We were four in a group, the group then called POWER, with about 23 different, ah, community based organizations around the city and determined to go register people at the Public Aid and Unemployment offices**.
Tell me a little bit about that. I mean you had very unusual voter registration programs. Tell me.
Well, we had to fight to get, ah, registrars from the Board of Elections, ah, to come out, ah, so we had to file a lawsuit, ah, that said that Board of Elections could and would, ah, send deputy registrars. They let us do a little pilot program in the middle of the negotiations about the lawsuit, ah, for ten days, ah, they said, "You can, we will send you out registrars but you have to have a van, ah, that they can sit in, in front of the public aid office. We won't let you go inside you have to have a van outside." I think, they, there were about 38 public aid and unemployment offices and I, I, I really believed that they don't, ah, didn't think we could come up with a van to put outside each one. Ah, and we got on the radio and asked people to please, ah, donate their van for the day each day and we ran it five days a week. Ah, and we'd go around with leaflets and, ah, inside the public aid office and get people to register. There, through the whole program, which was really just about 30 days long, we registered 43,000 people at those, at public aid and unemployment sites, those 38 sites around the city, ah, that, I think showed people that it could be done, that large numbers of people really were unregistered in the city of Chicago and that they would register. When you were at the public aid office or an unemployment office, ah, we said, "Well, we, we want you to register to vote. We want to get rid of Byrne, Thompson and Reagan. We had three evil people here and we got to get rid of them. If you don't think it's a problem, look at your welfare check." Somebody would come out, ah, having just been cut off from public aid by their case worker for some ridiculous, ah, situation, and, ah, they'd be mad and they'd say, "All right, I'm a registered voter. I'm going to get rid of them." We really didn't have to argue very much. People would come out angry and say, "Give me that thing. I'm going to register to vote." And it, it, you know, it expanded to other special sites where we did voter registration in, ah, in about a two and a half month, two month period really. We registered, ah, 97,000 people to vote, all told, before the regular inner precinct voter registration, where, with the help of, ah, Ed Gardner from Soft Sheen and, ah, some commercials that he put on the radio, we registered 150,000 so that, ah, the total was 250,000, ah, that were registered really within a two and a half month period.
Now, tell me, what was this POWER going to be for, what, what were you moving toward eventually with the right to vote?
Well, I, I, I think when we really started, ah, we wanted to get rid of Byrne, Thompson and Reagan. We wanted to get some respect, ah, on the issues of housing, of whether we were going to be able to stay in the inner city, ah, whether we were going to be gentrified out, on the issues of education, whether it was going to be a dual track, ah, education, one for 10 percent that were going to get, ah, decent jobs and the other 90 percent that were either going to get McDonald's jobs or be moved out. On the issue of health care, where our hospitals were closing and we were denied. All those kind of issues, general assistance, employment, all those questions that we'd been fighting on, ah, I don't it really had consolidated so much around a political plan, ah, but we wanted some power behind those issues. And I think that's why the word power came from the first coalition. At the same time, ah, we had been urging ah, Harold Washington to run, ah, since the spring of 1982. And the, ah, in the back of everybody's minds, even through the summer was, "If we can register enough folks," in fact Harold said, when we asked him to run, he said, ah, he said, "Well, go out and get me 50,000 people and I'll run for mayor." So, in August, we brought him, ah, the first, ah, in Sept- on September the first we brought him copies, ah, to his desk, stacked the copies like this, said, "Here, Congressman, here are 92,000 new registered voters. Now, will you run?" And he said, "Well, I got to think pretty hard about it now." But, ah, so we were definitely moving toward a mayor's race. I think, probably because Byrne had raised expectations and people were so angry that she had really gone back into the machine and, right away, ah, some of them just, ah, very racist things that she had done in terms of the School Board, ah, in terms of the Chicago Housing Authority. The general disrespect to the neighborhoods in the city of Chicago. And this, we used to say Reagan had a trickle down theory and that Byrne had a trickle out theory. That Reagan would kind of trickle down on us and then Byrne would trickle out on us. That meant that build up development in the Loop, ah, and then in the neighborhoods you'll benefit somehow from this. Ah, just like Reagan said, "Let the corporation make a lot of money. Somehow you guys who, that are unemployed out there will benefit." So there had been, there must have 350 demonstrations a year against Jane Byrne at City Hall, right in front of her office. Everybody was focused right on the fifth floor.
OK, lets stop now
OK, tell me your story of the dinner.
Let me start it this way. For really almost 20 years, ah, Chicago was unique in the sense that in poor White neighborhoods, in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, in Mexican neighborhoods, in Black neighborhoods, both on the South and the West Side, grassroots community organizations had found ways to work together on different issues. It was a unity that I think that the machine and the power structure in general didn't understand. It wasn't based on cutting up the piece of the pie. It was based on, we had something in common and we worked together on those particular issues that we had in common. We had come to, ah, a pretty good common analysis of what was going on in the city, that the city was not being planned, we were not in the future plans of the planners of the city of Chicago, The, ah, a lot of those different issue coalitions were brought together in a, what we call, an All Chicago City News Dinner in 1982 where Harold Washington was the keynote speaker. Ah, and it, ah, you could that in every, in the room there were about 150 tables and at each table were, you'd have the, the 27th ward group against higher utility rates. And at this table you'd have the, ah, third ward group for better education, ah, in other words all these different grassroots organizations, we had found enough in every ward in the city, that we could cover, ah, 42 wards. We had organizations to go out there and do the work in 42 wards. This was before the voter registration drive. In face one of the goals that we set at that dinner was, we're going to register like crazy this summer. The, ah, I think Harold's, ah, Harold was kind of surprised, ah, he came, he was a congressman then, ah, somebody that we really thought a lot about anyway and had worked with on other issues. He came to the dinner and he listened to the speeches and, ah, he listened to, ah, the, ah, different people that was in the crowd, ah, enthusiasm that he talked about, he saw in the crowd. And he, he, you know, Harold was a politician and he looked at all the sides, saying, third ward, fourth ward, fifth ward, 32nd ward, 46th ward, we, we really got this, we kind of got the cover here, we got the wards covered and there was a lot of people, lot of enthusiasm, ah, so we were, I was introducing him, ah, and, ah, and I said, ah, I want you all just to think about this. Suppose that you had a problem where the police had busted into your office and, ah, you got so mad you couldn't get any, any, any, ah, redress for it. So you went down to the fifth floor and you walked up, you know that little guard that sits there, the sergeant and you say, "Sergeant, I want to see the mayor." And the sergeant went back and, ah.
Hold up just a second, you got pickup right in the middle of that story.
So you're going to pick up the story where you introduce Harold Washington--
I'll give you the cue
I won't need it.
And introduce the Mayor.
We talked about all the issues and it was my job to introduce Harold Washington, then the congressman. Ah, so I said, "Well, I want you to imagine," and I used a sister who actually spoke, and I said, "Marian, if, ah, if the police had just broken into your office, you know, like they do, they just knock down the door and come in like their looking for somebody and tear everything up and you're so angry you went down to the mayor's office and you walked up to the mayor's office and that little desk there where the sergeant sits and say, "Sergeant, I want to see the mayor." And the sergeant said, "All right" and he went back, ah, and you were waiting for somebody else to come out, ah, and tell you to go away and that they really didn't want to hear your problem, ah, and, ah, instead out came the mayor and he looked him in the face and he said, "Harold, I got a problem." Well, Harold put his head down on the desk and he couldn't stop, he couldn't stop laughing at everybody and he started yelling and cheering and there was actually about five minutes worth of ovation, ah, and then finally Harold got up to speak and he said, "Well, my momma always told me to, ah, come when I was called." And then he gave a speech, which he called a Tale of Two Cities, ah, which really was a keynote, ah, for, ah, what the campaign was to be for the next nine months. He said that we had Reagan in Washington, D.C. and we had a Reaganite posing as a Democrat, ah, on the fifth floor of City Hall and that really was the issue that the machine was, instead of the cities coming together, ah, and, then we're going to say, "No" to Ronald Reagan and what Ronald Reagan is doing to the cities, that we had, under the name of being Democrats, that the machine and Jane Byrne actually said it, "Let's give Reagan's policies a chance." You know, we said, "Who's going to win when Reagan's policies give us a chance?" And he said that was the Tale of Two Cities and we began, really, in some ways, began the campaign right there in, ah, April, ah, of 1982.
Tell me about how the power of registration snuck up on people, they didn't see it coming.
I think that, you know, the machine had had such total control over the vote, ah, in, ah, in Chicago for so many years, ah, except, with the exception of 1972 when Hanrahan was defeated here. I think they never took us seriously. They thought we were just some ragtag protestors and probably weren't more than a few hundred of us in the whole city. And I think they never thought we could get together citywide in any kind of way, so when we started registering people to vote, they said, "Well, you'll never get people to register." Well, when we'd registered a quarter of a million people to vote, ah, then they said, ah, "Well, you'll never get them to vote." So then, we in November, ah, gubernatorial election when they all voted. Then they said, "Well, you'll never get them to vote for Harold." It was like they really just could not believe it. I remember one of the reporters, ah, saying, ah, "Slim, yesterday you were a nutball and today you're a civic leader," based on the fact that 150,000 people had gotten registered in a few weeks. I think they really were shocked. They didn't believe that they would register. They didn't believe that people would vote and they certainly didn't believe that they were organized for a successful campaign in 1983.
Now, you got all the way through the primary and then the results come in, Harold Washington defeated Byrne and Daley, what did you feel about them?
Well, you know, that night, ah, we were real tired. I mean, just be honest, you know, ah, there had been, ah, so much emotion all the way through the year, ah, we never doubted that we were going to win. I know that it, wouldn't have seen that from reading the press accounts, where it said that Harold was, ah, 10 or 15 percentage points from having a chance at winning and so forth. But we really were fully confident, all the way, you know, since the August before, ah, since the voter registration really. We know we, we would win. We had the votes. It was just a question of turning them out. Ah, there was a, a little bit of a tough time, ah, when the first results came in because they brought in the Northwest and the Southwest '-ers side, results first, ah, and then when they, ah, far, when the South Side results started coming in and we seen that Harold had, ah, 90 percent margins and there were 85, and 87 and 88 percent turnouts. Ah, it was clear that we were going to win and, ah, we kind of said, "Well, now we got to roll up our sleeves and go to work." We knew we, it really, it wasn't a big surprise to us that night. I know some people think that it was. Everybody was very excited and very enthusiastic but we were not surprised. The media was surprised and kept running stories about how surprised everybody was that they won. We weren't surprised. We were always thinking, "Well what are we going to have to do now, we got a tough general election and then, how are we going to run this government?" I mean, we didn't even know what City Hall looked like on the inside.
Let me stop down for just a moment here.
Tell me about getting people to register.
In looking back and being real honest, I think that the most successful voter registration was done when people did it to defend themselves, not necessarily to elect a candidate. Whether it was they were trying to defend their rights to get public aid, ah, they were trying to defend their housing, defend their education and all for those kind of issue campaigns, where people were really defending basically their economic rights or the rights to self determination in the face of the kind of racial insults and discrimination that they faced under the Byrne Administration. When they wanted, when they wanted to defend themselves, ah, then they registered to vote. And they really, that really was talked about on the street. It wasn't so much, we can win this seat, ah, that came about really after Harold was elected, people started talking like that but the first and most massive voter registration was, if we don't get registered to vote, they're going to continue to disrespect us. They're going to continue to walk over our basic economic rights and rights to self determination, so we got to register, ah, I guess people got, people registration was a way not to be invisible. And in that sense, large numbers of people responded. More people responded to that point of view of registering, registering to vote really as a method of self defense, to become invisible, to, ah, get respect, ah, then ever were registered to elect a particular candidate.
Were people ever afraid?
To register to vote? Oh, yeah, a lot of people, ah, afraid to register to vote. And once you get registered to vote, ah, then they know where to find you. And everybody's got a problem. Anybody that makes less than $15,000 a year and some people make a lot more have a problem with some bill not being paid or some traffic ticket or some, whatever it is, ah, and I- then I think people were generally, this was a very intimidating political machinery here for years and years and years and, ah, if you didn't vote right, you got cut off from public aid and they came and threatened you. If you didn't vote right then the building inspector came by, you know, into your house or into your business, you know, or to where you worked. You could lose your job, not just with the city but in the private sector because they had tentacles in there if you didn't vote right. If you weren't registered, you didn't have any problem with that. If you just stayed out of that system altogether, it's like the Mafia, if you didn't get involved with them then you couldn't get hurt by them. A lot of people got hurt by the political machine. So, if I just stay out of that mess, don't register to vote, I'm not on the list.
I'm not involved with the Mafia or the machine and I can just go ahead and try and live my life. So, there was a lot of fear. They're really was a lot of fear. And then it's embarrassment, you know, people that had not been, ah, part of that process, ah, which is supposed the basic American citizenship right, ah, they don't like to go in and say that I don't really know what this is all about. They think I'm going to go in and it's probably more complicated and I'm going to have give some information that I don't have or show that I really don't know what this form looks like, you know, so people, there was an embarrassment, ah.
What do you say to them to turn them around?
Show them the form. This is all you got to do.
I mean on the bigger things, the fear and all those things?
Ah, they're not going to leave you alone. That's what we had to tell people. They're not going to leave you alone. You think that you can just stay uninvolved, but look at the building next to you where arson for profit burning people out and those babies died. They're not going to leave you alone. Look at when the next time you want to go and go to the hospital and they turn you down, ah, and your wife, ah, is dead, ah, because she couldn't get into the hospital. You left them alone but they don't leave you alone. They want this land back. You know what this city now that they abandoned for so many years, that they deindustrialized, that they sent to gent[SIC] the jobs all over the world to, they want it back. This land is gold and they want you off of it. They're going to run you out of here. If you, you can't leave them alone and think they'll leave you alone. They're coming after you. You better get ready. You better do something. You don't really have a choice. Your back's against the wall this time, ah, and people knew it. They felt it and they said, "Well, this is one thing I can do. So, I'm going to try it."
Anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to tell me about?
No, I think, ah, you know everything I know.
I doubt that very much but thank you anyway. OK, that's a cut. Good.