March 8, 2013
Jim Polk, in the red sweater above, led a group of friends in the late 1950s in the Grier Town community of Charlotte. They operated under the banner of the Eastside Council on Civic Affairs.
Their successful effort to extract justice from city officials was done privately. To this day, few of the residents of Charlotte know the history.
For a Black History Month presentation at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum in 2007, Polk and the other surviving members of the Council told some of their story. The original of these words is on the Forum website.
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Feb. 28, 2007
Average citizens ‘created a movement’
A small group of average black citizens “created a movement” in late-1950s Charlotte by insisting not only that it was time for equal services but that it was time for whites in positions of power to sit down with blacks as equals.
Several original members of the Eastside Council on Civic Affairs met Tuesday with the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum to outline their work. Led by Jim Polk, the group talked about their methods, their successes and what they see as the long-run positive impact of their experience.
Unlike the more widely known civil rights struggles that focused on nonviolent protest and public shaming, Eastside Council members took the private route. Promised that there would be no publicity, powerful whites sat down with Council members and heard out the group’s complaints. Change followed, first to equalize levels of garbage collection between white and black neighborhoods, then at job sites as the group focused on breaking down barriers to employment.
All those present at the Tuesday Forum are named in the photograph above. Excerpts from the comments:
Jim Polk: “A group of guys in Grier Heights would come together and talk about what we considered some problems and some opportunities in the community. We met and talked about things like education, beautification or other concerns of the community, and things we heard people talk in the community, their desires and their goals and aspirations. And we tried to work on those things.
“I guess one of the things that really launched us, if you will, was a program that we started working because of sanitation problems. Sanitation in this case was that we discovered that across the creek from us, which was Myers Park, the garbage man would drive up, go in the back of the house, pick up the garbage can, and go back to the [truck]. So they were getting full service. And we felt, why were we not doing it, because they ask us to roll our cans out the street for pickup. So we talked about why should we not have the service, and we were taxpayers. And most of the guys in the group at that time were homeowners.
“And we started to explore that and do some checking and talking to people and talked to the then-city manager and other people. And the result was that they said OK, we will start collecting your garbage in the rear of your house provided you have a can that will meet regulation. So we made sure we bought the right sized garbage can so there would be no problem with that. And that worked out.
“What that amounted to at that time early on was: As you know, in order to get groups going or to work with people, you really need a “stop-sign victory” to get something going and to continue. As Paul Jones, a former Model Cities director here used to say, You need to do something with high visibility and early impact. People will work together, they will believe they can make something happen, and they will carry on. So that was our stop-sign victory.
‘Man in the chair’
Polk: “It was effective, so much so, that a number of guys on the westside said how did you guys do that – we need to know how to make that happen. And they formed a group over here similar to the Eastside Council. We met with them and talked about how we got this whole thing going. And they in effect started to talk to the city about – results being that in the black community in Charlotte they were getting the same services that all other citizens in Charlotte received. And rightfully so….
“After that we realized what was required to make some things happen. We started to do what we called, ‘the man in the chair.’ The man in the chair was bringing together folk in the city of Charlotte who had political clout or whatever was necessary to make some things happen.
“It was a conference held in Willie Davis’ living room around two card tables and some folding chairs. And we would reserve at the end of that table the guest for the night, and we would talk with them about the things we thought they ought to know from us.”
Willie Davis: “We came to believe you can get things done by going directly to people who are responsible for what happens in the community. He mentioned the man in the chair: We realized that the people who were making the major decisions had not taken the opportunity to talk to all the community, but just that part of the community that they thought was important. On the other hand, and some of us are aware of the fact that God used ordinary people, and we had ordinary people. The people who made up this Eastside Council on Civic Affairs – and we took that name because we were interested in doing things across the spectrum; we were not going to focus on any one thing, so we called ourselves the Eastside Council on Civic Affairs.
“We realized that we could go to people and the only thing they could do is say no, we don’t want to talk to you, I won’t talk to you. So what happened: we started going directly to individuals. We started with the garbage situation, realized this is working, and started calling someone else. We’d get on the telephone, call individuals and said to them, I’m calling from the Eastside Council on Civic Affairs, wonder if you will sit down and talk with us. By that time they recognized that this person was doing something outside the box, but nevertheless it must be OK – because I was calling from my job, and my job was where I was not supposed to be calling from. And they knew exactly where I was calling from. They knew it must be more than an everyday call.
“I promised them, OK, if you come and meet with us there will be no press, no one will know about it. Just come and meet. So at the meeting they would probably get there at nine-thirty, ten o’clock.
Malachi Greene: “Let me say this: At the time there were no black people in the quote power structure of the city of Charlotte. So we’ve got a bunch of black people calling the white members of the power structure asking them to come sit in this chair. We don’t know any other place in the country where things happened like that.”
Davis: “There’d be only one person. Just one person outside the council would come meet with us. I don’t remember ever calling someone and, by the end of that conversation they telling me no I won’t come. Now, I might have to talk three or four minutes before they would agree, but they would come because they had the assurance that it’s OK, you’re not going to tell anyone I came.
“So the meeting would get started about nine o’clock. They would drive up around nine o’clock. We were just sitting there around the table, waiting for them to come. And they would come in … yes, nine at night, so they could leave their community, and go back to their community.
Greene: “Without anybody knowing that these white power guys, rich white men, powerful men, had gone to a black community to see, to be regaled by a bunch of black guys.”
Davis: “In an article over there, some of the people who attended included John Belk, Jim Whittington, who was the mayor pro-tem, the superintendent of schools at that time, Craig Phillips…. J. Ed Burnside was at that time president of the Chamber of Commerce and was a banker, the mayor, Stan Brookshire at that time; Dr. Louis Patrick, who was pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church and was pastor to many people of influence. David Gillespie was one of the editors of the Charlotte Observer and a former editor of the Gastonia Gazette; and Dr. John Cunningham, president of Davidson College….
James Ross: “To put this in perspective, we’re talking about 1950-something…. What’s important about these guys meeting someone? What we’re talking about something that was unheard of in these United States … asking to sit down as equals.”
Greene: “What this said was that you got a group of people who decided that they were going to make a difference. They were going to change this thing. And they were persistent. Understand, there was no black city council person, there were no black school board members, no black county commissioners, no black nothing. No executives at the government level or at the private level….”
Davis: “We had no persons who had a lot of money. On the other hand, we had some guys who felt, I’m as good as anyone else, so let’s sit down and talk. When you look at the backgrounds of people, we all had one thing in common: We were all from Griertown, but that was about the only thing… no black persons of influence.
“People would sit down with us, and it was not always a friendly exchange. We were very direct. In fact, there were times when people might have felt that ‘you fellows must think that you are something. Who are you to tell us what we ought to be doing?’
“We only knew we were taxpayers. But we knew what they were doing across the creek….
“When I would go in the principal’s office, I was working at AG [Alexander Graham Jr. High]. They finally allowed a black person to come and work at a predominantly white school. So I would go in there, leave my classroom, get on the telephone and call and talk to these persons… And we would go from one person to another. And many of them would say, Who are you guys to tell us what we ought to be doing?
“At one of our meetings we got this thing, ‘I can’t find people who are qualified to work. I would hire somebody. So we’d say, OK, let’s get started. That moved us into the formation of the bureau….
Polk: “These guys that we named, and some others, would go back downtown, and they would talk about having the experience in the chair. We learned that. We were told. They’d talk – it got to a point that in Charlotte North Carolina, among the hierarchy, the chamber guys, all those guys would say, ‘If you are a white man and you haven’t been in the chair, you don’t amount to much in Charlotte. [laughter] They said it, we didn’t.
“It was interesting. You’d get some subtle feedback and you’d learn what was going on….
Polk: “Others heard about it. The Southern Regional Council printed some things about it, to the extent that others outside the community heard about it. And we were fortunate that a guy who was writing an article for Harper’s Magazine stopped in Charlotte and learned about what was going on and finally met with us. And as it turned out it was Phillip Stern, who was one of the Stern family members of the Stern Family Foundation. To make a long story short, after some calls from New York and Washington and back and forth, the Eastside Council ended with a grant of $60,000 from them to start what was probably the first or second community manpower training program in America. About the same time Leon Sullivan was starting up OIC in Philadelphia [Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc.]. It is interesting that of course we didn’t know what this was all about. The executive director of Stern lived in New York, and visited with us one time and brought down a guy from New York University. On an envelope we kind of diagrammed and set out a manpower training program. And that was putting together the elements, and use of the Department of Labor and private funds and all the federal funds directed toward employment and training. And that was the kickoff of the Charlotte Bureau of Employment and Training.”
Greene: “Instead of using a welfare approach to economic uplift, the approach was economic development. It was jobs. It was developing entrepreneurs and businesses. I found that to be unique in running around the country looking at stuff….”