I didn’t learn how the group got started. When I joined them in the fall of my senior year in college, in 1967, they included a mixed racial group from Bloomington and Normal, several men and women, working a variety of jobs, laborers and professionals, a few Illinois State University professors, never more than a dozen people at any meeting. They met to talk about the issues of race and class in those Twin Cities and to identify and participate in actions that might improve those relationships. The era of street demonstrations seemed to be ending, and some of these people clearly had been involved in that kind of action, but they were looking for other things to do.
I had first met some of them when we demonstrated against a dentist at the edge of campus, who would not serve an African-American client. At the edge of campus yet! The obvious place for students to go if they were having a toothache! She invited me to come to a meeting of ‘us.’
They never had a name. They didn’t seem to have or be an organization. As usual some people were more vocal than others, and they spoke respectfully to each other, even when they disagreed about what they should do. When they decided to do something, they went ahead with those who were ready, even though not everyone ever took part in everything they did. They were simply ‘us.’
They talked about education and they placed books and articles in accessible places and took part in forums. They talked about legal actions and involved some lawyers. They talked about electoral politics and recruited a candidate for alderman. That’s where I found a place, canvassing neighborhoods for the candidate for alderman. Bloomington had never had a black alderman. They didn’t succeed in that campaign, but it set the stage for another try, which was successful.
I remember going house to house, having the door slammed in my face by some white folks, given a respectful but distant hearing by some, and welcomed by a few. (It was good experience for ‘cold calling’ on behalf of a church and its message.) Mostly I remember the houses of black and Hispanic folks. In those days, when we came to their doors, my fellow-canvasser and I were welcomed. So much so, that often we were invited inside to sit at table, and our hosts offered us something to eat. At noontime, instead of a reprimand for interrupting their meal, we were offered a dinner, and such a dinner it was! Stereotypical as it may sound, fried chicken, greens, home-baked bread, applesauce, and hominy were on the menu that day, and I didn’t mind any stereotypes at all as I enjoyed it.
When I think of Thanksgiving, a number of such events come to mind, but none more gracious than that one, nor as promising of a better future.