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By all accounts, Robert Lucas was often irascible, uncompromising, and battle-prone. We could use more like him.
Lucas died a couple of weeks ago and was memorialized last night at Rainbow-Push. I only spoke with him once, some years ago, but I've always loved his story. The guy had guts and passion.
In 1966, when he was a postal worker and the leader of the Chicago chapter of CORE, Lucas broke ranks with other civil rights activists to rip the toothless open-housing agreement that had just been forged between his erstwhile ally, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mayor Richard J. Daley. “Nothing but another promise on a piece of paper,” Lucas said.
Lucas didn’t just gripe about the agreement (which proved to be about as effective as he predicted). He took to the streets of Cicero.
At the time Cicero was an all-white working-class suburb that had earned a reputation for attacks on African-Americans who dared to be seen in town. In 1951 thousands of residents had rioted around an apartment building after a black family moved in. Under pressure from Daley, Governor Otto Kerner, and other power brokers, King agreed to drop plans for the Cicero march.
Lucas revived them—even though King begged him not to, according to James Ralph in his book Northern Protest, a history of King’s campaign in Chicago. “Convinced that the movement had Daley and his cohorts on the run, [Lucas] was dumbfounded by the original suspension of the Cicero march. He believed that civil rights forces had inexplicably fumbled on the goal line; now someone had to lead blacks into Cicero, if only to prove that they were not afraid.”
And so he led 200 people on a two-and-a-half-hour march down streets lined with hostile whites, police, and National Guard troops. The marchers, “unlike other contingents of demonstrators earlier in the summer, did not remain stoic,” Ralph writes. “Instead, they swapped insults with white hecklers and even fired back debris tossed at them.”
The demonstration ended in a 15-minute melee broken up by police and guardsmen.
Lucas’s bare-fists form of civil rights activism lasted well beyond the 60s. He went on to lead one of the city’s strongest and most enduring neighborhood advocacy groups, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, for more than three decades.
“I came to work at KOCO when the organization was led by Robert Lucas,” recalled Jay Travis, one of his proteges and successors at KOCO, in a recent interview. “It was a time when there was a much larger number of low-income and working folks but people were beginning to get a sense that this area was going to receive a great deal of development. Actually, a lot of the interest in Kenwood and Oakland was generated by those families working with folks like Mr. Lucas to say that this area deserved investment.”
Lucas was adamant that the area remain affordable for low-income families even as it developed, but not everyone shared his vision or agreed with his style. He battled with neighborhood residents, city officials, real estate interests, and other activists and organizers. He declared his support for Tim Evans in the divisive 1989 race for mayor, and two years later ran against him for Fourth Ward alderman.
When asked about the plan, Preckwinkle said, "That's like asking me what I'd do if Martians were to land."
Lucas was undaunted. “I really believe in ten years you will see a much different community out here,” he maintained in 1988. While his timing may have been a bit off, he was ultimately right—though now the North Kenwood and Oakland neighborhoods are struggling with the effects of gentrification even as they still work to overcome decades of disinvestment.
It’s encouraging to find people out there who won't be pacified with the latest set of promises.