W.L. Lillard Means Business | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

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W.L. Lillard Means Business

For the Channel 25 producer, there are those who create work and those who have work created for them. And creating jobs for Africn-Americans is the highest call of all.



By Adam Langer

During the Democratic National Convention Ted Koppel and Nightline tried to appear cutting edge by employing Medium Cool director Haskell Wexler to find the remnants of 1968 in Chicago, and they wound up with a surprisingly tame broadcast that did little more than assign equal blame to police and protesters. But W.L. Lillard, producer and host of Channel 25's low-budget W.L. Lillard's Straight Talk, found two black policemen who were candid about what they'd seen as officers on the street that year.

Howard Saffold, now president of Positive Anti-Crime Thrust, said that the DNC police riots were illuminating only to the white community. Before 1968, he said, it was "difficult to convince white Americans about how brutal police can be. Black Americans had been talking about it from day one but couldn't get anyone to care about it, because [whites] weren't concerned about who the victims were. The Democratic convention was a clear demonstration of what happens when the military does battle with the citizenry."

"Clear to who?" Lillard asked.

"When you think about what the issue was and why it needed to be confronted head-on," said Saffold, "it was an opportunity for some people who would generally be fragmented to see how the police could turn from being a public protector to being a brutal individual."

"This wasn't made clear to African-Americans, because we knew it all along," said Lillard.

"White people had experienced the police protecting them from the 'criminal element,'" said Saffold. "If that meant blacks moving across some boundary lines for racial divisions, they agreed with the police for being brutal."

Later on the program Ronald Hart, who's now retired, said, "A lot of things that were happening to policemen they didn't show on the news. I saw a lot of policemen down, hit in the head with bricks, bleeding. Two, three, four demonstrators kicking them. They never showed this on the news. [The protesters] had rubber balls with nails sticking out of them and threw them at the police. They had bags of human waste. They had long two-by-fours with nails hammered into them. Whites had never seen this kind of reaction from the police, but they had never gone this far to agitate the police."

It was classic Straight Talk, putting a spin on an issue of local and national concern that you wouldn't normally hear anywhere else. And it was classic Lillard--informed, controversial, opinionated. "To be a talk-show host, you have to be opinionated," he says. "I don't like to read books my guests write. When you come on Straight Talk you don't come for me to ask you questions that can be answered by reading your book. No, we're going to have a provocative discussion. You're going to tell me your ideas--and I'm going to tell you where you went wrong.'"

Lillard says he knew he had what it took to be an entrepreneur from the time he finished kindergarten. The world is divided between those who create work and those who have work created for them, he says, and as a boy of six growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he knew which he was going to be.

"I remember my grandmother created a job for herself, like many other blacks did at the time," Lillard says. "She would go downtown in Memphis and get on a bus or a truck headed for Arkansas or Mississippi and work the fields. She was a day laborer. I went along with her, and I saw a void. I said, 'Look at these people working. Here's a guy working for a dollar picking cotton, and he has to put his bag down and walk for a block to get water.' So I asked permission to bring my wagon and two buckets of water, and I pulled it down through the fields. I sold water for whatever they would give me--a nickel or a dime. And at the end of the workday I would have nine to ten dollars, and the fastest cotton picker would only have made about three dollars. All the workers would look at me and laugh.

"I said to myself, 'Wait, these people have responsibilities. They have families to support. And they find it funny that this little kid made more than them. They've got the wrong attitude about life. They gotta have someone to look out for them and protect them.' So I started hiring other, larger kids to help me pull the water. I paid them more than they could make picking cotton, and what mystified me is they did not figure out that they could have brought their own wagons and sold the water themselves. Every day they'd come dutifully and work for me.

"Later I had an uncle make a vegetable wagon for me, and I would sell vegetables in the community. I would have two guys to pull the wagon for me, and I would pay them. And that's how I became an entrepreneur. What I see is that God created some people to look out for others. And I see the businessman being in that vein. The businessman must create jobs for those who aspire to be workers, and if we do not do that we are not following nature."

In 1947, when Lillard was 11, he and his family moved to Chicago's west side. By the time he was 20 he'd decided he wanted to run his own detective agency. At that time most detective work went to white-owned companies such as the legendary Pinkerton's. About the only jobs along those lines that blacks could get were as bouncers in bars or bounty hunters, but in 1956 Lillard got himself hired by the north-side Barrett Detective Agency.

A year later he tried to start his own agency but was ignored. He says he was laughed out of an A & P when he proposed a security plan. "They called the other people out to look at this brazen little black kid coming in with the nerve to try and take away business from Pinkerton's. I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere. I had to be somebody."

So in 1958 Lillard started working as a detective for police departments in the south suburbs and quickly made his way up to the rank of captain. One of the only black policemen working the area, he filled a void, infiltrating gambling rings in the black community and tracking down blacks who'd jumped bail, people whites could never hope to find.

Still hoping to open his own agency, he made connections with the Chicago political establishment, doing precinct work with the intention of finding potential clients and ingratiating himself with 24th Ward alderman George Collins in hopes that the alderman would grease his way to the front of the line for a detective-agency license. Collins got Lillard his first Chicago job, a patronage gig driving a garbage truck for the city. "The main objective was never the job itself, but where it could lead me," Lillard says. "I didn't care about driving a garbage truck. I wanted to become a precinct captain and meet all the big shots in politics and business and talk to the business guys who owned supermarkets and needed security. I thought that the best way to meet these people and get them to talk to me was as a politician."

After he'd met enough people who told him they'd give him business if he ever opened his own agency, Lillard approached Alderman Collins, who told him he'd help him out if Lillard waited his turn. Lillard waited about three weeks and approached Collins again, who told him that he'd have to wait a lot longer, maybe years.

Lillard quit his garbage-truck job, got a detective's license on his own, and rented a storefront across the street from the alderman's office. W.L. Lillard Bureau of Investigations opened its doors in 1967 and quickly began to amass business in the community.

Lillard went back to A & P with a security plan for all of its stores, and this time he wasn't laughed at. But the managers offered him only the opportunity to take over security for the stores that were being handled by the community's one other black detective agency. He wouldn't take it. "I said, 'Wait a minute. A & P has 55 stores in the community that have security guards. You have five detective agencies working with you to cover those stores. Why would you offer me the ten stores of this old black guy who's an old retired police commander and doesn't have anything else going for him? Why would you want to take away his stores and not the other guys'?' They said, 'Well, he's our minority.' I said, 'He's there to appease the black community. I'm here to solve a security problem. I'm not here to appease the black community. I have a detective agency to do security. And that's what I'm here to do.'

"They said, 'Well, now you're really asking us to get rid of people who've been working with us for 10, 15 years.' I said, 'I'm asking you to solve your security problems. You're not satisfied with any of these five detective agencies, otherwise you wouldn't need five to do the job. You'd only need one. If I was stupid enough to go into this old guy's stores and implement my plan, you'd take it from me and give it to one of the white agencies--and they'd do it in the other 45 stores.' They said, 'Oh no, we wouldn't do that.' I said, 'Well, I wouldn't give you the opportunity.'

"They said, 'OK, we'll give you two of everybody's stores and give you 90 days--not one day beyond the 90 days. And if you do a good job we'll give you all of them. If not, no love lost.'

"About a month and a half into the contract they called me and said they'd cancel the other stores' contracts. Ultimately we had all 55 stores. And our business just mushroomed, because we developed a formula for supermarket security."

His formula was nothing miraculous, but it reflected the philosophy that has guided his life: it's better to try to solve problems before they happen than to sit back and wait for trouble. "The plan was to do a proactive job of security. Other people will do the same as the police; they will go into a store and sit in front and wait for someone to call and tell them that there's a problem. Our security guards walked around the store and looked for things that were out of place. They looked for problems, and they looked for shoplifters."

Lillard says that at its peak, in the 70s, his agency was a multimillion-dollar corporation with 750 employees and contracts with chains such as Zayre, Walgreens, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. But then businesses started leaving the city's black neighborhoods, and Lillard began looking for other sources of income, though he kept the agency, now known as International Detectives and Investigators. He produced and hosted a TV variety show on Channel 26 called Stars of Tomorrow, which introduced young entertainers like Natalie Cole and Deniece Williams to the city. He invested in a construction company. He ran a couple of movie theaters that showed second-run films. Eventually he started writing a column for the Nation of Islam's newspaper, the Final Call.

In 1990 Lillard started Star Planet Enterprises, one of the few black-owned-and-operated TV production companies in the city. He wanted to produce a battery of shows for Channel 25, the first of which was to be a sitcom about a millionaire, a role Lillard was to have played himself. But soon he realized that it was easier and cheaper to produce talk shows, and besides he thought the talk-show format would be a good place to deal with issues that weren't being addressed by more mainstream media outlets. "There's not enough programming out there that's educational or that's geared specifically to African-American people. I was told up front that if I changed the format of my shows to a more Montel-ish approach I could get a syndication deal right away. But I don't believe in talking down to people in that manner. Those shows are entertaining, but that's all they are. You might think that a person talking about sex in any form might be educational to somebody, but if you can find education in those sorts of shows I would congratulate you."

The offices of Star Planet Enterprises are at 1140 W. 103rd St., an unassuming low brick building with dirty windows, cheap venetian blinds, and ripped carpets held together by duct tape. Here Lillard produces several shows that are aired on Channel 25, among them a light issues-oriented show called News Talk, Pervis Spann and Carl T. Wright's Blues and More, a consumer-affairs show called Ask the Advocate that features dry discussions of topics like the burgeoning telecommunications industry and utility costs for small businesses, and Straight Talk. These programs are just a few of those offered by Channel 25, which has a barter arrangement with local producers, exchanging airtime for a percentage of the money generated by advertising on their programs.

Each Straight Talk broadcast begins with the same cheesy jingle: "Straight Talk! Where the issues are talked about! With W.L. you will see, it's time for Un-i-tee!" On camera Lillard often seems uncomfortable and from time to time even stumbles. When he does live on-the-street interviews pedestrians sometimes walk in front of the camera, and he usually has to put a hand on the shoulder of his camera-shy guests and direct them to speak into the lens. His guests can be rather dry, and the unedited discussions are occasionally stultifying.

Lillard has interviewed everyone from Jesse Jackson to Al Sharpton, yet the show is usually most interesting when Lillard speaks his own mind. For a broadcast in August he invited several local business leaders to discuss the disappearance of jobs from the African-American community. Some of his guests spoke against the systematic destruction of educational, welfare, and affirmative-action programs, and when the discussion turned to minority businesses that were shut out of the Democratic National Convention, Lillard, in a monologue that bordered on a rant, said, "Thirty years ago we were talking about affirmative action and 'getting in on the act.' Same thing this year. We're still talking about the same things. We see people who registered themselves as minority contractors with the convention, while us legitimate minority businesses are left out of the fold because some fat cat is able to buy a brother, set him up with a dummy company, set him up with all the trappings....They do the same things with the Hispanics. We always have the Judases who fall right into the trap."

Later Ron Murray, president of Murray Enterprises, an advertising firm, said, "Over at Olive-Harvey [College] they took away the entrepreneur-development program."

"Let them have it," Lillard snapped. "If they take away all these trappings of programs then we will stop turning on each other thinking 'Big White Father is gonna give me something. He's giving me programs. He's giving me welfare.'"

Lillard says economics in the African-American community is his favorite issue. "I keep trying to remind our community that our only salvation is to shop in our own community. We spend our money so frivolously in other communities. The black supermarkets, for example, are not supported by the community, and so underemployment is rampant here. We can't get ahead by looking outside of our community. We have to start thinking about turning our attentions inward to supporting our own businesses right here."

Every Thursday Lillard chairs a meeting of the Straight Talk Economic Roundtable, a consortium of 146 African-American business leaders that grew out of the television show. Before being accepted as a member, each business must pledge to shop at the businesses of others in the consortium and bring receipts every week as proof. At the meetings the members network, listen to speakers, and plug their products, many of which are advertised on Straight Talk.

Toward the end of a September meeting several area pastors who are attending speak about the need to create a neighborhood job bank to employ people in the community and their plan to hold a "poor people's march" in downtown Chicago on the day before the November election.

Lillard winds up by saying that businesspeople need to get to the point where they can stop working for themselves and start employing people to do their jobs.

As people start leaving the meeting a woman approaches Lillard and says, "Why do you always have to give that speech? It makes me feel so bad."

"Which speech?" Lillard says, smiling.

"You know, when you tell us we're not businesspeople if we're working, that if we're working on the job we're not doing God's work. I'm not at that point yet where I can walk away."

"Yeah," Lillard says, "but you've got to be working hard to get to that point."

"Sure," she says, sighing. "I do have two people working now, but I still have to work myself."

"Well, look at how far you've gone."

"Yeah, but I can't walk away yet."

"That's true," Lillard says, raising an index finger. "But eventually you'll be able to walk away and give someone that job you're doing now. That's God's work--to create jobs for others, not for yourself."

Within a year Lillard hopes to create a lot of new jobs himself through what he envisions as a sort of black-oriented CNN--based in Chicago, with correspondents in Africa, England, and anywhere else that has a significant population of people of African descent. "It'll be worldwide based," he says, "because we'll be talking not just about our community here on the south side of Chicago, but about the communities of the world. Communities of the world all have the same problems. When I talk about the problems or the high points on the south side of Chicago I'm also talking about the problems or the high points of the 'south side' of Detroit, New York, Cleveland--all around. It'll be no big thing to go global."

But Lillard's dream, a media nerve center in the middle of a revitalized African-American neighborhood where business stays within the community, seems a long way off. The shabby office of Star Planet, which Lillard plans to tear down and replace, is in a high-crime territory, where businesses still shut down more often than they open. Fast-food restaurants are boarded up. For Rent signs hang behind window grates. "There is an atmosphere of crime," he admits. "The challenge is to reduce the atmosphere for crime. We have to create something to replace it. For instance, if we want to talk about robberies, about burglaries, about other forms of property crime--if a person had a job or even the remote possibility of getting a job he would be out looking for a job rather than robbing a bank or a person. If a person had a job he would not need to sell narcotics.

"We were taught by this society to survive by any means necessary, and that's what we do. And we all must understand that. But we are to blame when it comes to unemploying our people. Unemployment is a disease created by us in our community. If we don't support business in our community we will not have jobs in our community. If we do not have jobs in our community we will have danger in our community. If people do not create jobs within our community they will never live in peace.

"So how do we start building the jobs in our community? It has to start somewhere. Might as well be here."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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