If you're a civil-rights buff and have a couple of hours off today, you might want to stop by Roosevelt University.
Erik Gellman, a history professor at Roosevelt who helped me with yesterday's Blackstone article, mentioned a panel that commemorates the 40th anniversary of the struggle to integrate Chicago's building trades.
He explained that, although a lot of people tie the city's civil-rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts in the city, many of the really interesting things in the struggle happened in the few years later, when the debate moved from housing to the workplace.
"What was going on in 1968, 1969, 1970 is much more the peak of the Chicago movement," Gellman told me. "It was more about jobs. It was about the economic movement. I think that resonated a lot more with African Americans in Chicago than whether or not they could live in a white neighborhood."
The building trades were a big part of that economic movement, Gellman said. Thanks to their alliance with Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine, they received nice payday commitments for city projects, many of them federally funded.
The projects kept thousands of white men without a college education in high-paying jobs, Gellman said. But black men, barred from the trade unions, gained little access to the benefits.
"They couldn't even join the union as a separate branch. They often were harassed by police," he said. "It was completely monopolized by whites."
By 1969, black activists had had enough, so they came together to protest their lack of access.
"They didn't just march around City Hall," Gellman says.
Brawny teenagers would walk into construction sites, dozens at a time, and force federally funded contractors to shut down.
"They did it through coercion and intimidation," Gellman said. "When 50 black guys show up wearing berets from the Blackstone Rangers, you're probably going to want to get off your crane."
Yet Gellman said they ultimately did it without much violence. The tactics led to hearings on the building trades at the Department of Labor, and Mayor Daley ended up brokering an agreement that led to requirements for minority contractors in any federally funded projects.
Paul King led one of about a dozen original organizations that formed the Coalition United for Community Action, which he says eventually shut down more than $60 million in construction work around the city in 1969.
He says a cornerstone of the effort was the use of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Executive Order No. 11246, which states:
"The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."
King says activists used that phrase, "affirmative action," to convince politicians and trade unions that federally funded projects need to have an integrated workforce.
"Different people have twisted affirmative action as being a naughty thing," he says. "We used it successfully to create jobs not just for blacks, but also for white women. Every woman you see on that construction line is there because of what we did in that time."
Today's panel starts at 11 a.m. on the seventh floor of Roosevelt's Ganz Hall, 430 S. Michigan Ave. It is expected to last about two hours.