by Bob Roman
Working Together for Justice” was the theme of the 51st Annual Eugene V. Debs-Norman Thomas-Michael Harrington Dinner. In keeping with the tradition of these events, it brought together a broad cross-section of Chicago’s left to honor two individuals, Timuel Black and Jane Ramsey, who have spent their lives working for social justice and building coalitions as a means of doing so. The Dinner was held on Friday evening, May 1st, the international Workers’ Day, at the Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro hotel in Chicago’s Greektown.
The Dinner Committee had been talking about Timuel Black for the past several years. Apart from being a member of DSA, he’s an interesting person, having been involved, one way or another, in what seems like every other fight for justice in Chicago for the past 70 years or so. Often enough these were not particularly public roles, such as when he organized Chicago’s participation in the 1963 March on Washington: some 3000 people on two “Freedom Trains.” Though sometimes they were specifically public, as when he ran for alderman against Claude Holman. The cumulative effect is that if you are on the left in Chicago and involved in politics in any serious way, you know the name Tim Black if not the person. The award was presented to Tim Black by Clarice Durham, a chum from high school and every bit as much a political activist as he.
Jane Ramsey was the perfect compliment to Timuel Black, or perhaps Tim Black was to Jane Ramsey. Jane Ramsey is the Executive Director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), a position she’s occupied for some 30 years, apart from a tour of duty as Mayor Harold Washington’s Director of Community Relations. More than many other similar organizations, JCUA has been active in building coalitions for social justice. For JCUA, it’s not so much a mode of operation or strategy or tactic as part of the organization’s genetics. It’s what they do. And they’ve applied this to issues as diverse as housing (including gentrification and homelessness), civil liberties, opposition to racism, labor rights, and immigrant rights. Most notably, JCUA has been involved in defending immigrant rights in the notorious Postville, Iowa, immigration raid, and they’ve been active in supporting the Congress Hotel strike. The award was presented to Jane Ramsey by Sidney Hollander, DSA member, past President and current board member of JCUA.
As an aside, note that one of the founders of JCUA and its earliest Executive Director was the late Milt Cohen. Milt Cohen was also a Co-Chair of Chicago DSA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was an honoree at the 1989 Debs-Thomas Dinner, and that award was presented to him by Timuel Black.
Our Master of Ceremonies this year was DSA National Director, Frank Llewellyn. We felt it was especially important that he have that role this year as the DSA National Convention will be in Evanston, Illinois, in November. In addition to pitching the National Convention to the Dinner attendees, he provided them with a summary of what DSA has been doing on the national level.
Kim Bobo, the Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), was to be our featured speaker. Due to a family emergency, she had to cancel all her appearances that week, including the Dinner. But she nominated, and we accepted, the Reverend C.J. Hawking as her replacement. C.J. Hawking is the Director of the local affiliate of IWJ, Arise Chicago. Some of you with longer memories will remember the role she played in support of the striking workers at A.E. Staley in Decatur. Indeed, she has co-authored (with Steven Ashby, her husband, who she met through the strike) a book on the strike, Staley: the Fight for a New American Labor Movement. (See http://www.staleybook.org.)
C.J. Hawking spoke mostly about the work of Arise Chicago. In particular, she focused on the efforts of Arise Chicago, in conjunction with workers centers, to expose and recover wages stolen from workers by their employers. These are not just employers with their thumb on the scale. It’s frequently quite blatant: hours worked off the books, sub-minimum wages, etc. Like all robberies, sometimes it’s an act of desperation by a marginal enterprise. But often enough it’s done simply because it can be done with no consequences. There is effectively no wages and hours enforcement, until and unless a group like Arise Chicago intervenes. C.J. Hawking provided examples of victories that often resulted in workers collecting considerable sums of money.
The tradition of doing a “Debs Day Dinner” started very much as a fundraising exercise in the days of the old Socialist Party of America. It was very much like the Jackson Day dinners held by Democratic Party organizations or Lincoln Day dinners held by Republicans. This Dinner, today, still accounts for a large majority of Chicago DSA’s income. But its purpose has long since ceased to be just money. If it were just money, the ticket prices would be about double what they are. The Dinner is also an educational event, through speakers such as C.J. Hawking. The Dinner is a networking event, where people can trade ideas and make connections. It’s an outreach event for those with left politics but unfamiliar with democratic socialism.
And it’s also a social event where people are reminded that they are not alone in the struggle for justice. We hope that message, and our appreciation, is heard by those that we honor.
Photos by John Scott