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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Conflict in Chicago

1981

"We were told by the legislators, 'Your people don't vote.' ...Which was the truth... And we took that as a lead to organize public aid recipients to vote."
—Nancy Jefferson, Chicago community activist

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After Ronald Reagan wins the presidency in 1980, federal policies take a conservative turn. President Reagan promises to reduce the size of the government and restore powers to the states. His cuts in programs for the poor alarm activists working on the front lines against poverty and lack of opportunity.

In Chicago, black voters, feeling underrepresented and dissatisfied, help elect Jane Byrne the city's first woman mayor. Yet Byrne herself becomes a source of disappointment. A notorious public housing high-rise complex, Cabrini Green, where 14,000 people live within six city blocks, is plagued by unemployment, crime, and gangs. The complex is managed by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), which provides few services and no forums for law-abiding residents to voice their concerns. As a gesture of support, Byrne moves in to Cabrini Green for three weeks, alienating residents who are seeking something more concrete: black representation at the CHA. When Byrne then appoints three white people to the CHA board, and state legislators show little concern for their issues, the black community is further angered. To gain better political representation, they initiate a voter registration drive which will lead to the election of Harold Washington as mayor.

Context

Other Events: 1981

President Ronald Reagan appoints Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, making her the first woman justice on the high court.

A mentally ill man, John Hinckley, Jr., shoots President Ronald Reagan. White House press secretary James Brady and two police officers are also wounded in the assassination attempt.

The Space Shuttle Columbia makes its maiden voyage.

Major League Baseball players strike for seven weeks in a successful gambit to establish free agency.

AIDS is first recognized and described in US government publications and by the World Health Organization.

In England, Diana Frances Spencer weds Charles, Prince of Wales.

Top videogames -- Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac Man, Asteroids and Defender -- draw teenagers to video arcades.

Members of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army are arrested following a Brink's truck robbery where three policemen are killed. The BLA is largely composed of former Black Panthers.

Press

The Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1980

Editorial: The Housing Stalemate Drags On

...The plain fact is that Chicago's housing patterns have been and remain more clearly segregated than those of any other comparable city. The resulting costs to the city have been beyond measure -- in crime, urban decay, and school segregation. The burden of blame has fallen on the police, welfare agencies, and school authorities even though they had nothing to do with the developing pattern of housing segregation. And the longer nothing is done, the harder it will be to solve the problems...

...The inner-city ghetto is a self-perpetuating malady, and a costly one, that will not be cured without decisive action by the Chicago Housing Authority. If it can't do better than it has done, it should be dissolved and its functions given to somebody else.

The Chicago Tribune, March 22, 1981

Guns, Gangs, and Terror... A Way of Life at Cabrini

..."I am very aware of the seriousness of the gang problem in Cabrini," said Elton L. Barrett, project housing manager. "But how do you solve it? I don't know. I can't control the gangs..."

...[Chicago Housing Authority security chief Winston] Moore said one factor in the recent resurgence of gang activity is the failure of the courts to "put gang leaders in jail and keep them there. The police are the only support agency out there doing their job. The courts are too easy on these men, If they are convicted, after a few years, the state Department of Corrections dumps them right back in our laps. We now have over 200 parolees and men on probation who have been released to live in Cabrini-Green..."

..."What we have to do to undermine their negative influence is to build trust between Cabrini residents and the police," said Cmdr. Michael O'Donnell of the East Chicago Avenue District. "Residents have to trust in the justice system. We have to prove that once we arrest these guys, the courts will put them away for a long time. So far that hasn't been the case..."

The Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1981

Letter to the Editor: Working to Provide One's Own Home

I am tired of hearing about the plight of Cabrini-Green residents.

I didn't have the benefit of attending college, but I have been able to work every day since graduating from high school in June, 1965. Why? Because I chose to be self-sufficient and realized that no one was going to give me something for nothing...

...My monthly mortgage and maintenance payments amount to over $400 a month. I'm living in a one-room apartment, and I have read that residents of Cabrini-Green are living in two- and three-bedroom apartments for $56 a month. I find it hard to garner sympathy for their plight...

Maureen Brice
Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1981

Letters to the Editor: Mayor Byrne's Move to Cabrini-Green

Chicagoans should be proud to have a mayor who has guts and so much concern for their welfare. To venture into a ghetto that is the scene of so much violence certainly takes courage. The area she is focusing all the attention on is one that really needs it. A pat on the back to Mayor Jane Byrne. She deserves it.

Harry J. Petroski
Chicago, Illinois

...I realize that the mayor is taking a tremendous burden upon herself and her husband to prove that things will change while she is the mayor. I also acknowledge the fact that Mayor Byrne is going to be sheltered to an extent from the evils of Cabrini-Green. How can she experience the terror, pain, and the depravity of these people when she is surrounded by her bodyguards and an impenetrable shroud of importance?

Kim Larks
Hinsdale, Illinois

Music

Come Alive October Five
Composer: Chuck Colbert
Listen to the Music

Win, Chicago Can Win
Composer: Chuck Colbert
Listen to the Music

In 1983, Harold Washington, then a U.S. Congressman representing Chicago's South Side, became Chicago's first Black mayor. He had resisted running for mayor, until he was promised a drive to register 50,000 new Black voters, and $250,000 in the bank. Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), many other African American activists and organizations -- and soon, a larger multi-racial coalition -- began a major voter registration campaign: "Come Alive October Five" (Oct. 5 1982 was the date registration closed before the Congressional elections that preceded the mayoral primary.) The newspaper and radio campaign included a lively, and danceable, commercial with the lyrics:

Come Alive October 5, Make a Plan to Make a Move,
Come Alive, Come Live, Come Alive;
Get with the voters registration booth;
Get with it, come on, Come Alive, Come Alive

Washington's election campaign song was "Win! Chicago Can Win!" which began with "Let's All Feel Good about Chicago Again with Washington for Mayor."

Video

Conflict in Chicago
Duration: 1:56 min
Watch the Video

The first clips are of dilapidated buildings and children playing in trash-strewn lots.

Clips then alternate showing police and arrested suspects, along with news articles about an anti-gang crackdown.

Then Mayor Daley is shown announcing the crackdown, followed by a sociologist describing conditions in housing projects and how they lead children to violence.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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