WHITES AND BLACK HISTORY
By Douglas Patton
Jim Harris, a husky African American who could have easily found work as a boxer, burst into the 10 x 12 non-descript Dupont Circle office, shouting every known profanity. The white guy with him, George Strawn, attempted to calm him down. But without warning, Jim pulled out a .38 pistol and stuck it in my face. I didn’t believe he’d shoot, but the way his hands were shaking, I thought the gun might discharge accidentally. I couldn’t give any hint that I was concerned about any of it, however.
The duo had been assigned by a national union to assist the campaign of the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a Baptist minister and former civil rights leader who was vying to become the first elected congressional representative from the District of Columbia. A skeletal political operation of primarily local African Americans existed by the time I arrived. However, most of them were novices who lacked broad and critical expertise.
Still in my 20s, I was considered an old hand because I had been involved in several other elections. Consequently, the decisions surrounding Fauntroy’s bid were to rest with me, although that was never publicly articulated. Shortly after taking control, I tapped a pool of seasoned operatives, who were mostly white; they and I acted as architects while sculpting staffers into professionals adept in the art and science of political campaigning.
The work performed by my team and myself would ultimately extend beyond Fauntroy, becoming a significant contribution to the empowerment of African Americans in the nation’s capital. It would be part of the continuing, though oft-unacknowledged history, of whites’ involvement in the struggle to end racial discrimination in America, which spanned from the anti-slave movement, the southern civil rights movement and these opening chapters of the 21st Century.
In 1971 when I helped lead Fauntroy’s election bid, I hadn’t completed that analysis--although I had been a volunteer for the Washington Urban League, thanks to introductions to its director Sterling Tucker made by David Rusk, son of Secretary of State Dean Rusk. I also had assisted in the “Rumor Control Center” operated by the League during the riots following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Acting as a reconnaissance team, my friend Bill Oldaker and I also had driven his blue Jaguar through parts of the Cardozo and Columbia Heights neighborhoods where rioting and looting were most intense, trying to assess the damage. We failed, at that moment, to fully appreciate the situation and the irony of our actions. I later became the Volunteer Coordinator for the June 19, 1968 Solidarity Day March, which was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign.
None of those experiences quite prepared me, however, for Jim’s pistol-wielding. He and George worked for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME), which represented a sizable number of government workers. That union also represented garbage workers, who, in 1968, brought Rev. King to Memphis in support of their strike. He was assassinated on April 4th while in that city.
The night before Harris and Strawn charged into the office, I had seen William Lucy quite by accident at an event. The African-American chief of staff to AFSCME’s president, he wanted to know “How are my guys?” Without missing a beat, I offered that Jim and George seemed to have become fixated on a couple of bars adjacent to the office. Next thing I knew, I was facing two hostile attitudes and one pistol. Thankfully, Strawn persuaded Jim to put away the weapon.
A “Wild West” feeling generally permeated the office: One morning, I asked Ricardo Thomas, the campaign’s official photographer, where were the keys for one of the cars that Lucy had entrusted to me for the campaign’s use.
“Rev. Orange took them,” Thomas said, referring to one of the civil rights activists from the SCLC who had come to help Fauntroy.
John Wilson, my African-American “co-campaign manager,” hearing the exchange asked “Where is Orange?”
“Downstairs at Arby’s [restaurant],” replied Ricardo.
John opened his desk drawer, pulled out a .38 pistol, shoved it in his belt and left. Minutes later, he was back. Without explanation, he threw the keys on my desk, returned the gun to the side drawer, and casually took a telephone call.
When things settled, I asked Ricardo what had happened. “John scared me,” he said, relaying the episode frame-by-frame.
“Rev. Orange was going through the order line at Arby’s. John told him to give him the car keys,” continued Ricardo.
Well over six feet, dwarfing John’s five feet eight inches, the Rev. Orange didn’t react. “John goes up to [him] and sticks the gun in his stomach and says ‘Give me the keys or I’m going to blow your ass away, right now.’
“And the rest is history,” Ricardo said, concluding the tale.
How had I, a white guy from rural Iowa, landed in an office working with a bunch of black people with hair-trigger tempers who possessed guns they weren’t afraid to use?
THAT’S a good question.