Steans Center > Egan Office > Our Work > The Council of Elders
Traditionally, Elders are the wisdom-keepers selected by their peoples as caretakers of the sacred teachings, experiences, stories and practices of their cultures passed down generation after generation. The Egan Office recognizes the intellectual, scholarly and cultural contributions of some of Chicago’s Elders who have played an active role in politics, education, and in the environment. The Council of Elders works closely with Egan’s staff and students to share their collective wisdom and knowledge to reinforce the vision and mission statement of the Egan Office.
Structural and systemic racism and violence affects each of us different. Patricia Novick, a Egan Fellow, recently shared the parallels and differences that she identified from protests today and protests she took part in the 60's.
"In the 1960s, I was very active in the civil rights movement. As a member of the northern staff of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I marched, I leafleted, I picketed, and I boycotted. My late husband, Al Raby, was one of Dr. King’s friends and closest advisors.
I have a few observations about what I perceive as similarities and differences between the activism of today and of those days. From a broad perspective, we can start with this chart from the Pew Research Institute, which shows the percent of Americans who said they “trust the government in Washington to do what is right” always or most of the time.
In 1964, that percentage was 77. In the last year shown on this chart, 2019, it was 17. One would imagine that it might be even lower today. (Needless to say, the chart is quite different when broken out by race and ethnicity—except for the Johnson years, where the judgments of whites and African-Americans tracked very closely.) (You can see all the charts and data at https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/)
I’m not saying that the trust in government in the 1960s was wholly warranted, but it was the time of the Civil Rights Acts and Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and his promised “Great Society.” I would suggest (without attempting to speak for today’s protesters) that perhaps the demonstrators of the 60s had a stronger sense than today’s protesters do that they were “petitioning the government” for action with some reasonable hope of being heard. This can be overstated, but as a generalization, it might be worth considering.
In a recent study, a political scientist asked young people about their views of the best ways of making progress. The results said that “for young people of color, the most popular answer is organizing in communities. For young whites, it is community service and volunteer action. Federal elections fall well down the list.”
We generally marched with a fairly specific agenda, albeit with an implicit or explicit larger message. We would march for better housing, or fuller integration, or better schools, with the overarching message that society was far from its ideals. In general, I would say that today’s marchers could be seen to have that the other way around: a general message—Black lives matter—with some specific demands, particularly with regard to policing. To the extent that these generalized perceptions of mine hold up, I would say that it is more true today than it was in the 60s that many protesters recognize that the whole system of government, and its societal underpinnings (racism, classism, sexism, white privilege, and so on), need to be strongly shifted toward equity and justice.
The divisive Trump presidency, supported by a seemingly amoral Republican establishment and its media friends, surely accelerated today’s protests. In another Pew study, from last month, Americans were asked how they feel “when thinking about the state of the country these days.” 71 percent of the respondents described themselves as “angry,” and 66 percent said they were “fearful.” Fewer than half said they were “hopeful,” and just 17 percent said they were “proud.” It is within that context that today’s protesters march (again, recognizing that the results are probably more severe among African-Americans and Latinos than among whites). Despite the anger and fear, I think today’s protests have been a crucial renewal of hopefulness that together we can (and must) make a better future.
On a personal note, I will say that in the 1960s when I marched, there were more hostile crowds and less police protection than there has been in the recent marches. You name it, and people threw it at us in the 60s. At a housing-related march in Marquette Park in 1966, there were 800 marchers and five thousand screaming protesters throwing things. Dr. King was hit in the head by a rock, my husband was hit in the back, and a dozen others were injured. A week before at the same location, 60 demonstrators were injured. A policeman deliberately burned my hand with a cigarette. Bags of feces, cherry bombs, and smoke bombs rained down on us along with the curses. Police were there, and they tried to look like they were attempting to control the screaming mob, but they made very little real effort. Those of us who were arrested were thrown into police paddy wagons like so many sacks of potatoes.
(During the mob’s violence, Dr. King would often halt the march and have us all kneel down to pray and sing for several minutes. The direct incorporation of religiosity or spirituality does not seem to me to be as characteristic of today’s demonstrations.)
I don’t want to minimize the real danger associated with today’s protests (particularly in an era of mass shootings), or the presence of violence initiated by law enforcement personnel. I only want to say that it was almost a certainty in the 1960s that if you marched, someone was very likely to at least try to injure you physically.
In the 60s, protests were often led by recognized national or local leaders. Today, the leadership is more diffuse, thanks largely to social media. The recent protests occurred in some form in all 50 states. That wasn’t happening in my day. And the protesters are far more diverse today. I think today’s protests are more natural outgrowths of communities that those of the 60s, in part as a result of social media.
In my day, as today, repressive figures sought to link the protests to nefarious sources, including “communists” and “outside agitators” back then, and “terrorists” and “radical leftists” today. Always, “People who hate America.” In both cases, the repressive response has been phrased in terms of “law and order.” It worked in the 60s, leading to the election of Richard Nixon on an explicit law and order platform. Some left-leaning people today have urged against the destruction of monuments to Confederates and others of bad character, saying that it will increase a backlash among moderates. They told us something like that about our activity back then, for example that we shouldn’t march in white neighborhoods. The feeling of a delicate balance between acting for justice and losing important electoral supporters seems to be an issue that has persisted over time.
I was hopeful back in the sixties. I was hopeful at some other times, and I was filled with hope in Grant Park on the night that Barack Obama was elected. I thought my old dreams were coming true. I have been despairing since 2016, and when I first saw the demonstrators marching down State Street, where I live, a few weeks ago, my heart was breaking with the feeling that my life’s work, and the work of so many people I have known and loved, seemed to have amounted to so little. As I joined with the demonstrators, my hope raised as I experienced the diversity, integrity, and determination of those I marched with. Today I see more hope, though I still despair at how little has been accomplished and how much there is to do. Maybe, just maybe, the time is more right now than it was then.
In the 1960s, our marches were often intended to draw attention to problems that many people had chosen not to see. Today, in the news and on social media, we all have been confronted with the ugliest aspects of American racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, institutional violence, and other issues needing correction. There is no escaping those realities and the choices that are required. I will not give up Dr. King’s famous description that the moral arc of history may be long, but it bends toward justice."
On January 26th, 2019 the Council of Elders partnered with National Lewis University's MPA program to host a political forum on gun violence and Chicago history in preparation for the 2019 mayoral election. The discussion was in circle formation which helped encourage intimate conversations with speakers, students, and community members. We were lucky to have Jonathan Peck, Tom Tresser, La'Shawn Littrice, and Deveda Francois speak on these topics and council member Prexy Nesbitt moderate. The was a great event, and we look forward to future partnerships such as this to have more deeply needed conversations to have a better informed and engaged community that sees the interconnections of history, politics, and social justice.
Carlos Heredia has held many activist roles in his life as an organizer, educator, and writer. Carlos grew up between Chicago and Mexico City and started his activism and organizing through soccer as a teenager by finding how it creates community and acts as a form of cultural retention. He went on to be highly involved in student activism in his years in college, starting the Organization of Latino American Students or OLAS that pushed to create the curriculum for Latino Studies, created a magazine, and they worked in the community to create clubs in high schools and the community. He started teaching about Mexican-American culture for burgeoning Latino Studies programs across Chicago as a student because of the need for teachers and his passion for the material. He helped create Casa Aztlan and went on to both work in Little Village, Pilsen, and the Southwest side in general in different community organizations as well as teach at different universities across Chicago. Carlos has been deeply involved in activism, organizing, and education for the betterment of Latinx communities ever since his childhood. It was an honor to be able to have breakfast with him and find inspiration in the wisdom he offers from his expertise. We are happy to apply this wisdom to the work that we do at the Egan Office.