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No. 2, June 23 - July 6, 1967
Brian Keating: Jim Crow Meets The MAWs
p 6, 11, 13

Brian Keating

oon after arriving last fall in this town, I had a conversation with a rather ludicrously bigoted Bostonian who, upon learning that I was from New York, began questioning me closely about the racial situation in that city. As it happened, I was in a somewhat frivolous mood at the time, which was fortunate, for there is no other way of coping with such inanity.

"Just how many are there in New York?" he asked me. Since I was aware that we were about to play a game, I knew I had to seize control immediately. "How many what? " I asked. "People?"

"No, you know..." He hesitated in a search for the right word. "You know — jigs. Jigaboos."

"Jigaboos? Never heard of them. What are they? Something like the bogeyman?" "No, you know — the black ones, Negroes."

That at least was something I had got out of him. "Oh, I don't know. Twenty or thirty million, I guess, not counting the ones in Staten Island."

He digested this information. "Don't all those black faces bother you? Would bother me."

"Not if I wear sunglasses," I said.

That passed over his head.

"There must be a lot of bad ones," he said. "You know, dope addicts and all that."

"Well, actually there were a couple, " I conceded, "But we hanged them last week."

That didn't quite clear his hairline, but he let it pass after a moment of reflection. Then he leaned toward me and said in a confidential tone, "We haven't had any trouble with our people here, you know."

"Is that so," I said in wonder.

"That's right."

"That's remarkable," I said.

"Well," he replied with a touch of civic pride, "We don't have too many, only about ten per cent of the population. Not like New York with them on every corner."

I was silent. This guy's armor was impenetrable. I really had not expected him to maintain his cool so easily. But, tenacious me, I decided to continue and go directly for the jugular.

"You're putting me on," I said.

"What's that?" he said in surprise.

"You're trying to find out if I'm a bigot, aren't you? You know, full of misconceptions about Negroes and such crap."

He appeared amazed.

"I know all about you Bostonians." I was gathering steam. "You think you're clever, don't you? Trying to trap me like that."

His mouth opened a bit.

"Oh no, you're not fooling me. I've been told about what you do. Every stranger gets it." I began waving my arms. "And if you find out that he has any prejudices at all — zap — he's tarred and feathered and run out of town in one shake of the jake."

He backed off a step.

"But not me. I'm like you, brother. I too love the Negroes. Why, this very night I plan to go out and bring the cute little pickaninnies some candy. Why, I've got some right here." I produced a box of Welch's peppermints. "Here, have some."

He backed off another step, then another, and then another.

"No, have some. Don't worry, I've got closets full of them at home."

He was in full retreat, but at a distance of about twenty yards he stopped for a final say. "Crazy commie!" he shouted.

"What's that?" I shouted back.

"Crazy commie bastard!"

"Louder!"

"Crazy cruddy commie bastard!"

"Again!"

"Crazy cruddy commie nigger-lover bastard!" He then turned and began to walk away, gesticulating as he went. But I wasn't going to allow him to escape. I drew in my breath and, with a mighty blast, screamed out, simply and purely: "George Wallace masturbates!" That disemboweled him. He staggered. He began to shrivel up. He vaporized. Amazing what vitriol can do.

Actually, the conversation was not quite that spirited. I admit to having spruced it up a wee bit. Not that it is completely fiction. Only a few minor details were changed. You must understand that the truth is more important than the mere facts. Besides, I am trying to entertain, whether successful or not, as well as inform. As you can see, I am a considerate man.

Interestingly enough, about nine months have passed since that exchange and now, as everyone in Boston knows, the other side of the tracks has erupted (the Huntington Avenue trolley line does fairly neatly separate Roxbury from Back Bay and Brookline). Of course, the situation has been gestating for far longer, but whatever the length of time, on the 2nd of June all hell broke loose at the Grove Park Welfare Office and then spread throughout Roxbury for nearly a week of fun-filled rioting.

In order to demonstrate that I do have some reverence for the facts, about which you may be doubtful, I will quote the statement of the Mothers for Adequate Welfare (MAW) on what really happened at Grove Hall. To my knowledge, it has not been printed in total in any of the Boston dailies, which are at times themselves cavalier about the facts. I assume the source is reliable: it was, after all, the MAWs upon whom the police drummed their tattoos.

"On June the second, the MAWs were having a peaceful sit-in demonstration at the 515 Blue Hill Ave. Welfare Office, waiting on Welfare Director Daniel Cronin to come and discuss their demands. When we contacted him, he said he would be there at five o'clock. At this time we informed him that we would be there until he came and answered our demands. Then the firemen came and policemen started coming in from all directions. We started taking badge numbers and names of the policemen, but everything went along fine until Deputy Commissioner Joseph Saia came. Then he had the policemen remove their badges and put on helmets. Then he raised his hands in the air and gave the order to the policemen: 'Now, now beat them, let them have it,' and the policemen took their billy clubs and started beating women and children with them, and also breaking the glass door. Someone yelled 'The police are beating and killing the women and children in the welfare office' and everything went haywire."

I wonder what my bigoted acquaintance — let's be original and call him Jim Crow for convenience — would have done if he had been present on that day. Perhaps he too would have clubbed a few heads, the children's, for he is that small; but it is more likely, if he did anything, he would have enthusiastically formed a cheering section ("Let's have a locomotive for Commissioner Saia."). What's even more likely is that he would have fled like the proverbial bat out of hell at the first sign of violence, leaving the dirty work to his proxies, the automatons in blue. For that is precisely what the police are, proxies for Jim Crow, nothing more and nothing less. Obvious as this is, apologists for the white community too often tend to blame the cops almost exclusively for the terror; an error which is at best simplistic, and at worst, naive. Does anyone really think the cops are pleased as punch over the riots? Man, they're way outnumbered and they're not Israelis.

While I may be flirting with a truism in this observation, it remains that too many people attempt to reduce this and similar situations to police brutality. Sure they're brutal, brutal in a way that few of those who stay out of their clutches can imagine; yet, as Hannah Arendt said of Eichmann, they're also banal. There is no archfiend among them, no Satan brooding upon the abyss of Roxbury. Fu Manchu is not a cop. To ascribe such epically malignant proportions to the cops is madness. There's just not enough to them. They only act with their instincts, instincts ultimately programmed by the mood of society. Throw them into a tense situation and whammo — click, whir, bang — off they go like so many beasts swarming over an intruder.

(A friend has told me of a study by psychologists of the personalities of both policemen and criminals. The study revealed remarkable similarities.)

The question of what Jim Crow would have done himself in Grove Park is really meaningless. He wouldn't have been there in any event, because the nice people of Boston, among whom Mr. Crow would certainly number himself, rarely if ever cross the tracks, except for possibly an evening's ride in search of a dark piece. But I do wish the nice people would go to Roxbury and see what it is like now. I'm not talking about the broken glass and the boarded windows; that's trivial and may represent nothing more than just retribution upon the feather merchants for years of extortion by over-pricing their shoddy goods. Also, where is there any real physical difference in Roxbury? What essentially is the difference between burning a building down and letting it fall down? No. I'm not talking about the damage done by the rioters, their impassioned albeit haphazard surgery upon the cancerous slum, their urban renewal; I'm talking about the Negroes themselves.

Their faces. I wish Jim Crow would go and see their faces. The trouble is of course that he wouldn't see them save for their color; his psychological sunglasses have formidable powers. But possibly, just possibly, he'd notice one thing which he hadn't expected. Those faces aren't accosting the bare whiteface with hostile stares. They don't even bother glancing at Whitey. Even the kids, the same ones who a few nights before were gleefully bombarding the cops with bricks and bottles, are unusually relaxed. If there is any tension in the ghetto, it is not apparent among the inhabitants. Yet the tension is there, although it takes a subtle form in the manner of the police and the white merchants who appear to be striving to be as diffident as possible. They act as though absolutely nothing had happened. Naturally, it's only a pose created by fear. One incautious move could start the whole brouhaha all over again. On the other hand, having made their point, that they are not without power, that they too can use terror, the Negroes can afford to relax. For the moment, the spades hold all the cards.

Jim Crow will not go to Roxbury, either in body or mind. To do so would imperil the myth by which he lives, a myth so grossly absurd as to be transparent to any man of goodwill. By goodwill I mean simply the desire to know what is right, what is wrong, and the willingness to probe beneath appearances to discover which is which. There are unfortunately few men of goodwill; Jim Crow is clearly not one of them. Nor is it easy to conceive of the day when he will put aside his mind-binding manacles and realize that the black man is nothing but a man. In the meantime, when he sees, say, the studs lounging on the corners, never will he question why they are there. He could, if he chose, with little effort contemplate the possibility that what may be at least partially responsible is a monstrous welfare policy which forbids, under penalty of discontinuance of assistance, the presence of a man in the home. Under the Aid to Dependent Children program, the presence of a father means the presence of a bread-whiner, even though there may be no bread to win. Thus, the father takes the sometimes easiest, but most often only way out; he leaves the home, thereby making his family eligible for public assistance.

Or, investigating further, Jim Crow might consider the effect of the vestiges of the southern slave system which, by casting the slave owner in a paternalistic role, made the Negro male only nominally a father and a stud in fact. Or, by the opposite route of inquiry, a minimal concern with linguistics might lead him to the overwhelming question: Where the hell did the word "stud" come from?

Although Jim Crow is staying home these days, his extensions, the news media, have been out in force. At the press conference held by MAW, there was a whole gaggle of reporters and cameramen, probably as many as had gathered in one place in Roxbury during that week. Out on the streets there was no safety in numbers; the group just made a larger and more visible target. But inside the Blue Hill Christian Center the journalists could again exercise their right of assembly while they awaited the arrival of the MAWs, The MAWs being the ladies, they observed tradition and kept the gentlemen of the press waiting for almost an hour. Since the routing of the press is much like that of the army with its alternating periods of waiting and rushing, no one seemed particularly exercised by the enforced idleness; reporters just stood around looking like reporters are supposed to look in their mackintoshes and extraordinarily casual poses. One would occasionally detach himself from the group and slouch over to a child to play ho-ho, little girl, for a while. In contrast, the camera crews were bustling about constantly, testing and re-testing their assortment of paraphernalia which, because of its immensity and complexity, seemed to me almost as though it were so much weaponry designed to exterminate the MAWs rather than photograph them. As for myself, I collected the press releases and sidled over to a window with what seemed to me to be at least a semi-professional scowl. At one point someone asked me if I was from the Traveller, to which I replied in the negative with a blank look which was intended to silently ask if I looked as though I was from a bush town rag. Then I told the questioner that I was from the Village Voice. Later I told somebody else that my paper was the Patchogue Squawk. Those reporters weren't going to get a goddamned thing out of me.

I report all this in some detail both because I feel like it and because I was struck by the massive and elaborate coverage of the scene. At first, I thought it was a case of journalistic over-kill; the press wasn't just covering the news, it was smothering it. I continued to think that until after the MAWs and cohorts entered the room. Finally, after a few head counts, revelation occurred. it wasn't the excess of newsmen that was remarkable, it was the absence of those whom I would expect to be forming a crush to get in. Here were the MAWs, to some degree the efficient cause of the rioting, and scarcely anyone from the community was there to see and support the leaders. Of even more interest is that no Negro males were present, other than three who were from outside the community. That set me a-ruminating.

I should not have been surprised. The pattern is slow to change. While the men fight in the streets, the women remain at home. But when the real infighting comes, the men remain on the streets and the women go forth to battle. Although I am not suggesting that the men consciously abdicate to the women in moments of genuine crisis, I do believe that the observation made above about the emasculation of the men as fathers holds for the situation in Roxbury (as it does in every Negro ghetto). Notice the name of the leadership: the MAWs — the mothers — the matriarchs. With very few exceptions, the Negro society is a matriarchy. Any fool can see that this is less than desirable; consider the psychological implications alone. Nonetheless, this is the way it is and this is the way the welfare system strives to maintain it.

Thus, after the ladies had greeted the press, I realized how appropriate the name was. Only a thick knot in my neurological system must have prevented me from previously making the connection. You see, I once worked briefly for the New York City Department of Welfare and therefore knew full well the organization of the ghetto. Although I was perhaps one of the worst caseworkers in history (I freely gave money away; I didn't care about men in the homes; I didn't report people who worked on the sly — all cardinal sins for the bureaucracy), I did gather some otherwise guarded information about the world of welfare.

There is one prime difference in this case, though. Unlike other ghettos which have rioted, Roxbury does have leadership. Not leadership from without, but from within. Consider how futile the efforts of the various formal Negro organizations have been. To the same degree that they are arbitrary, the MAWs are intrinsic to the community.

The women whom the press interviewed were not the new leaders; they've been the leaders for over a hundred years. They showed it. All four were incredibly cool under the sudden scrutiny of the public eye. One in particular, Doris Landrum, was just beautiful as she parried the reporter's questions. Aware that almost nothing she said or did not say would in any way affect Jim Crow, she merely condescended to put up with the nonsense of going through the motions. She was right, for rarely did any question have anything to do with the crux of the matter. The press seemed oblivious to the fact that the MAWs immediate complaint was the punitive attitude of the Welfare Department. The press wanted to know about the violence. When the questioning did turn infrequently to the matter there seemed to be the consistent implication that, well, we'll listen to your version for what it's worth. Didn't bother the MAWs. They can always send the troops out again.

When the order comes, the troops will gladly sally forth. And there are a lot of troops on those street corners with nothing to do but await the order. Not that the MAWs are about to issue any direct orders. But should the fuzz try anything when they're staging a demonstration, watch out!

Believe me, my prediction is not affected by any love of violence. On the contrary, I am committed to non-violence when possible. Yet I cannot agree with those who preach absolute non-violence. To that, I say horse manure. When the clubs are going rub-a-tub-tub on your skull, will you not fight back? What's more, not all of Jim Crow's weapons are physical. Substantial, yes, but not always tangible. Question: Are you certain that no one's getting your mind?

On Sunday, June 11, the MAWs burned Jim Crow in effigy. May his spirit soon expire.


Mel Lyman