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A Call to Serve
In the summer of 1964, Rochester, New York, was still a gleaming destination of the Great Migration. Eastman Kodak was there, and by the middle of the decade, Kodak had been joined by big companies such as Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. It was the kind of city that epitomized the hope of the Great Migration: where any hardworking black person who aspired to could get a good job. Yolanda Caraway was a long-legged, beautiful teenager with hair that swung like a Supreme’s and a brain that held facts and figures like a human computer. Hers was a community of have-somes, and her ambitions matched the achievements of the men and women around her. She was inspired by the Freedom Riders and remembers that by the time she attended high school, she had only one ambition: to help people. She toyed with the idea of being a social worker, but medicine called her, too. Her best friend’s aunt was a doctor. That same friend, Anne Micheaux, had a grandfather who was a doctor, too, “the black doctor” in their town.
The year she turned fourteen, Yolanda got a summer job as a candy striper at St. Mary’s Hospital, the very same hospital where she had drawn her first breath. Years later, she would admit, “I think I was really attracted to the cute little candy-striped dresses. The boys seemed to really like them—and I liked that.” But things did not work out the way she planned. She flunked algebra and needed to retake the course to get a passing grade. Yolanda went to summer school in the morning. Then, at noon, she went to St. Mary’s with her girlfriend Delores Leach—who did become a nurse. Life in the hospital was not as glamorous as Yolanda had imagined. She spent her afternoons emptying bedpans, running errands for doctors, checking people into the emergency room, and cleaning up all manner of vomit and excrement. “It took me about two weeks to realize that I was definitely not cut out for that,” she says. “The first time some very bloody person was wheeled in—I was out. Never could take the sight of blood, even on myself.” There was more blood than usual in Rochester that summer. A case of police brutality had ignited the city’s first race riots, and angry protestors had taken to the streets. Yolanda didn’t know it at the time, but the influence of that event—so close to home, and prompting feelings of injustice and frustration—would tilt her attention toward politics.
* * *
It was Freedom Summer, 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson had become president after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The hope and potential of the modern civil rights movement hung in the balance. In June 1964, a coalition of four branches of the movement gathered with the united purpose of registering as many African American voters as humanly possible. They were SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the young people’s wing of the movement; CORE, Congress of Racial Equality; SCLC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the more than fifty-year-old organization started by W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, and Moorfield Storey.
Over the course of the ten-week nonviolent initiative, the Ku Klux Klan and organizations such as the white supremacist Citizens’ Council brought down a reign of terror on the volunteers. They used every tool at their disposal as members of the white Southern elite: volunteers were beaten and murdered; evicted from their homes and fired from their jobs; intimidated, arrested, and harassed. Dozens of black churches and homes were bombed and burned. Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper, was so powerful in her testimony before the credentials committee of the DNC that summer that President Johnson called a press conference to divert the television cameras from her story. She wanted the right to vote, she told the committee members. Voting was what stood between her current status and the right to become a first-class citizen. With all the death and destruction being rained down upon nonviolent volunteers who were simply trying to get people to the ballots, Hamer let the country know, “I question America.”
* * *
That fall, when Yolanda started the ninth grade, a friend asked if she wanted to volunteer to work on Bobby Kennedy’s Senate campaign. President Kennedy had been assassinated just the year before, and his younger brother Robert had left the administration and moved to New York to be able to run for Senate. Yolanda can still remember her excitement at the invitation: “Well, all black people loved JFK and were devastated by his murder; so of course we loved his brother Bobby. I was always looking for something to do after school so I didn’t have to go home; I was happy to have somewhere to go.”
Yolanda was the youngest and only child of her mother’s second marriage. As the only kid at home, she remembers bearing the brunt of her mother’s unhappiness, “which made me a very confused and unhappy kid.” But her father balanced the scales: “I simply adored my father, who was just the opposite. He was loving and affectionate, kind and funny, and very handsome.” Each parent had other daughters from a previous marriage.
Every day after school, she’d take the bus from East High School all the way to the west side of town to volunteer on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign. It was the first time she had ever done anything like that. She’d type letters, make calls, answer phones, stuff envelopes. The work was just as lowly as being a candy striper, but it had a far different effect on Yolanda. She remembers feeling as if she had “come alive.” In the campaign offices, she had an up-close and daily history lesson about the slain president’s brother and his family. When campaign staffers discussed Bobby’s platform, Yolanda understood that they were trying to communicate the goals and governing style that would guide the candidate’s tenure should he be elected. “For the first time in my very young life, I really began to understand how important those people were who were leaders. I began to see this was another important way to help people.
“By the end of the campaign, I was knocking on doors after school, explaining to people why they should vote for Bobby Kennedy. To my own teenage surprise, I sounded like I knew what the hell I was talking about.” Bobby won that election, and Yolanda was confident she felt every bit as triumphant as he did. For her service, she received a thank-you letter signed by Senator Kennedy. Knowing, even decades later, that the letter might well have been signed by a secretary using a signature stamp didn’t diminish the impact of the gift. The letter hangs on her office wall to this day.
Yolanda had been bitten by a bug she wasn’t aware existed and didn’t yet fully understand, but politics would come to be a part of her, what she would describe as “one of the great passions of her life.” As she grew older and gained more experience, she discovered that it was a mutual love affair: she had a gift for management, for parsing complex political issues and communicating their importance to voters. She had great political instincts. Bobby Kennedy was the first inspiring candidate she backed, but he was far from her last.
“That August, during that candy striper summer and right before my fifteenth birthday, I went to Baltimore to visit with my sister Dorothy and my brother-in-law, a minister named Wendell Phillips, and their one-year-old son, Wendell, aka Poo. I was what was then called a ‘change of life baby.’ There was a sixteen-year difference between Dorothy and me. When Dorothy got married, I was only ten years old.” While Yolanda was often estranged from her mother, she was inextricably close to her big sister. Wendell, in turn, became the big brother she’d always longed for but had never had.
The visit to Baltimore made it one of the best summers ever. Yolanda remembers, “Wendell had a very active youth fellowship at his church, Heritage United Church of Christ, and I made so many new friends. I absolutely loved Baltimore. Well, I probably would have loved anyplace other than Rochester, but I remember telling my parents, ‘I’ve never seen so many colored people in my life.’ I didn’t want to go home. So, I stayed.”
Politics became a natural, intrinsic part of Yolanda’s life in Baltimore, too. Wendell was a well-known activist in the city, and a key player in every election. Yolanda, now in her early twenties, volunteered for every candidate Wendell backed. In the late seventies, Wendell ran for state delegate and won. Still in her twenties, Yolanda ran his Annapolis office. The visibility of that position led to her supporting and campaigning for Ted Kennedy in the Democratic primary against the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. As part of the senator’s on-the-ground Baltimore team, Yolanda organized a church event for Kennedy. And it was in that church basement where she first met Ron Brown, one of Senator Kennedy’s deputies. Brown would later become the first African American chairman of the Democratic National Committee and U.S. secretary of commerce. But more than that, he became Yolanda’s good friend and other “big brother.”
That church basement event proved to be the site of many firsts for Yolanda. Maria Shriver attended the event with her “Uncle Teddy.” One of Maria’s close friends, a local TV journalist named Oprah Winfrey, came by to see her—Yolanda remembers the two women “screaming and hugging like two teenagers; you could see how close they were.” Once Yolanda got her own place in Baltimore, she began to throw parties at her apartment. Winfrey, the new anchor at WBAL, came to one of them with Sue Simmons, also a news anchor. Yolanda remembers Winfrey as a little shy, “but it was right after she’d moved to town, and she probably didn’t know many people.”
Everyone used to throw house parties in the seventies. Literally every weekend, someone was having a party. These were parties where, Yolanda says, “anyone and everyone showed up. You could put out the word on Friday and have a full house on Saturday.” For her parties, Yolanda would make a big pot or two of chili, some of her special brownies—and that was it. “It was such a different time. We never worried about anyone showing up with a gun and going postal,” she says. “People got together, had some drinks, danced, and had a good time. It was as simple as that.”
Despite the magic of the Kennedy name, or maybe because of it, that campaign ended in a bitterly fought primary and President Carter’s being re-nominated. Still, it was Yolanda’s first time attending the Democratic National Convention, an opportunity that allowed her to make a connection that would change her life’s path. She was getting off the elevator in the Kennedy headquarters hotel when she ran into Terry Taylor, her brother-in-law Wendell Phillips’s former campaign manager in Baltimore. (Yolanda’s connection to Taylor went back even further: they had attended the same high school in Rochester, and even went to the junior prom together as friends; they had always been very close.) Taylor introduced her to Ann Lewis, who was administrative assistant to then-Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland. Lewis was also the sister of Congressman Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Lewis mentioned that Mikulski’s team was looking for a legislative correspondent, and Taylor helped Yolanda set up an interview for the following week.
Yolanda still remembers how exciting it was to drive from Baltimore to DC on that late-summer day. She parked her car on the Senate side of the Capitol and had to walk many blocks to get to the Cannon House office building. She’d dressed for the interview in an outfit worthy of Vogue: a stylish skirt suit and three-and-a-half-inch-high heels, which made her look even more like a slim Amazon than she did in bare feet. She loved fashion, and even though she had already turned thirty, people still stopped her on the street and asked if she was a model. On that walk, she had time to think about her life and what she’d made of it so far. She was divorced, with a ten-year-old son, and was living with her boyfriend of several years. A job in Washington sounded glamorous and intriguing, but she worried about child care and the commute. Her boyfriend was encouraging and supportive, though. “Go and get that job,” he’d told her. “We’ll make it work.”
When she arrived inside the building, she approached the “Members Only” elevator, not fully understanding what the sign meant. She knew a couple of the black members of Congress already, but she knew nothing about congressional protocol, and as she was going to see a member of Congress, she figured it would be okay. When the door opened, a group of men and only one woman got off. One of the men was Congressman Ron Dellums, who represented Northern California. For someone as enamored of politics as Yolanda was, it was like running into one of the Beatles. She remembered that her mouth literally dropped open. “This was my Hollywood,” she would later explain. “One of my greatest desires in life was to attend a Congressional Black Caucus dinner. I was more starstruck by this small group of dedicated black people to our cause than I was to any movie star. This was my Oscars, and I knew that my moment to work side by side with them would come.”
Dellums asked where she was going and then very kindly explained the elevator system. By the time he pointed her in the right direction, she had totally lost whatever cool she had assembled before the interview. She can still remember “shaking and feeling faint” while riding the correct elevator up to the third floor, where she was to meet with Ann Lewis in Congresswoman Mikulski’s office.
* * *
She aced the meeting with Lewis and was asked to stay and meet with Mikulski. Yolanda was breathless. The only congressperson she knew personally was Parren Mitchell. The term goon squad has a slightly menacing definition in mainstream society, but in Baltimore, Parren Mitchell’s Goon Squad—they took the name from a Baltimore Sun reporter who often referred to them as such—was something altogether different: a group of highly educated, Christian men who helped Mitchell navigate the political waters so that he could ensure that black citizens enjoyed the rights promised to them in the Constitution. The group consisted of Wendell Phillips and Parren Mitchell; Gus Adair, head of the political science department at Morgan State College (as it was before its university accreditation); Pat Scott, who ran the art department at Morgan and was (and still is) a gifted artist; the Dobson brothers, Vernon and Harold, both ministers; Maryland Supreme Court judge Joe Howard; the Rev. Marion Bascom; the Rev. Frank Williams; and Lalit Gadhia, a civil rights attorney.
There was just one woman in the Squad: Madeline Wheeler Murphy. Her husband, William Murphy Sr., was a judge, and the Murphy family owned the Afro-American newspapers in Baltimore and Washington. Madeline’s daughter Laura Murphy remembers those men and their egos being no match for her ladylike, picture-perfect, poised mother. As Laura said, “No, honey. She said she went to those meetings. She said she cussed them out. She’d march with them, she’d do whatever she had to do to move the mission of civil rights forward.”
At the time, there were four black women in Congress: Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in the 1972 Democratic primary; Cardiss Collins, who was elected to fill her husband’s seat (George Collins in 1973); Yvonne Braithwaite Burke; and Barbara Jordan. These were the women Yolanda idolized. She would end up meeting them all, but first she had to win over Mikulski.
She had to wait for the congresswoman to come back from voting. Lewis indicated a spot on the couch, and Yolanda sat—and immediately felt out of sorts, like Alice in Wonderland: as if her knees were touching her chin and the furniture around her was becoming smaller. She wondered if her nerves were getting to her. This was before the age of social media or even Google, so she didn’t know anything about Mikulski that she hadn’t read in the paper or seen on TV. Then Mikulski walked in, and Yolanda understood: the congresswoman was both larger than life and just under five feet tall. Yolanda remembered being impressed by Mikulski’s booming voice and commanding presence.
The interview lasted all of five minutes, and then Mikulski welcomed her to the team. Yolanda had the job.
“I was going to my Hollywood on the Potomac!
“A few months later, I was sitting at my desk when an assistant came in and asked if I would meet with an unexpected visitor. She explained that the young lady didn’t have an appointment, but she thought I might want to take the meeting anyway. I looked at the stack of paperwork on my desk and wondered why anyone would ask me to meet with an unscheduled visitor. Then, when the young woman walked in, I got it: we were both black.”
Because Yolanda’s office was so tiny—more a nook than a proper office—the two women met in the hallway. The woman’s name was Donna Brazile, and she was lobbying congressional offices to get support for the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.
“The more Donna talked,” Yolanda says, “the more excited I became, because I was doing what I had always wanted to do. I was representing the congresswoman about an issue that might actually get traction.”
Later that week, Yolanda tried to channel Mikulski’s voice and presence when she reported on the important meeting she’d had with an emissary from civil rights heroine Coretta Scott King. “I didn’t know yet that meeting Donna was the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in my life.”
* * *
Minyon Moore was a girl from the South Side of Chicago. In the 1960s, when it seemed that the world was in turmoil, her home and her church (Third Baptist) were her safe havens. She knew her parents to be “hard workers and great providers.” Her stepfather worked for the postal service; her mother worked for GTE, the General Telephone and Electronics Corporation. As with Yolanda Caraway, Minyon’s was a community of “have-somes,” but also families who were barely making it and living paycheck to paycheck. With so much hope and hopelessness in close proximity, Minyon’s mother was known to be the strictest mom on the block. Minyon and her siblings were called “the streetlight kids,” meaning that when the streetlights came on, they had better be back in the house. The punishment for letting the streetlight catch you out and about was clear and severe: “either your Saturday skating privileges would be revoked or, worse, you wouldn’t be allowed to sing in the Sunday choir.”
The winter Minyon turned nine, Chicago was hit with the worst snowstorm in the city’s history. It was January 23, 1967, and the city was pummeled with twenty-three inches of snow. Winds whipped through the streets at an astonishing fifty miles per hour, and some of the snowdrifts were more than fifteen feet tall. Minyon’s mother, like so many of the city’s residents, was stranded in her office building overnight. The city streets and highways were littered with more than a thousand abandoned buses and, by some counts, fifty thousand abandoned cars. It was the most catastrophic natural event to hit the city since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The next morning, Minyon waited by the window for her mother to come home. Sandra Marie Moore was a petite woman, just five foot two. “After hours of waiting, I saw my mother’s slight figure, making her way down the street. She was holding two white bags. She had managed not only to make it through the storm, but also to bring home our favorite takeout from White Castle, one of the few restaurants in the city that remained open for business. As I was growing up, I wanted to be like my mother and have her mix of stamina and selflessness.”
Minyon’s uncle Dennis was the great storyteller of the family. She says, “He seems to have archived our family tree in his brain. He is known for making the stories come alive with facts and flourishes. He continues to connect so many of the dots of our family tree. He is a strong example of a man who cares for family. The sort of man that made Chicago seem less like a cold big city and more like an outpost of the South.”
Minyon (whom everyone called “Minnie” back then) was a born defender. In elementary school, when a teacher kept picking on a fellow classmate for no apparent reason, Minyon jumped to the girl’s defense. Then, one afternoon, the teacher came up to Minyon and slapped her hand with a ruler. “You’re not the savior of the world,” she told Minyon, “and I don’t know why you think you can save her every time she gets in trouble.” Minyon shakes her head at the memory of it. The sting of the ruler is still vivid all these years later—as was her response: “It didn’t stop me,” Minyon remembers. “It hurt, but it did not stop me.”
Minyon’s mother would save up all year, and each summer, her grandmother, whom she called Momma, would take her and her siblings to the family home in Terry, Mississippi. Every summer until she was sixteen, she spent her school vacation on the farm with her great-grandparents Papa Bud and Momma Lovie. Those trips down South shaped her vision of what her adult life would be like, because, as she said, “They were always people that I saw helping, and I was trying to figure out how I could do the same. How could I help people? How could I do things to help change people’s lives?”
Minyon attended Chicago Vocational Career Academy (also known as CVS, Chicago Vocational School). The South Side high school had opened in 1941 and, because of the intense need for wartime labor, was put under the control of the U.S. Navy. Later, the school would be instrumental in helping returning GIs complete their education and set themselves up for the next phase of their career. In the early 1970s, when Minyon was there, the school saw a shift from a predominantly white student body to a predominantly African American one. The leaders of the school community took seriously the job of creating a generation of black professionals. The school principal, Reginald Brown, an impeccably dressed, no-nonsense leader, inspired respect and affection from both the students and the teaching staff. Under Brown, CVS boasted the best band and football team in the city. Also, Minyon was able to take black history classes at CVS, a new field back then, and one that wasn’t always taught in public high schools. The teacher of the course, Ms. Almeda McPherson, was young and hip, and related each lesson to the times the students were living in. While Reginald Brown modeled a strong, positive image of what a black man could be, McPherson and the assistant principal, Ms. Willie Mae Crittenden, were especially powerful role models for young women such as Minyon. “Just the way they carried themselves,” Minyon remembered, “made you want to carry yourself in a way that showed you respected yourself, your people, and the opportunities you’d been given.”
For a while, Minyon thought she might want to be a doctor, so she volunteered at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She thought she might want to be a Supreme Court justice, so she flew to Washington to visit her cousin, who was able to get her a ticket to sit in on an afternoon session of the Court. “See, there’s a pattern with me,” Minyon explains. “If I’m interested in something, I learn it first. I dig into it a little. I take myself to where it’s happening. That’s why I tell young people all the time, ‘Spend some time volunteering, spend some time just putting your foot in the water. You will eventually find your comfort zone.’” After high school, Minyon enrolled as a part-time student at the University of Illinois while she worked part-time at the post office to pay her way through college.
That post–civil rights era was full of icons who inspired not only Minyon’s career choices but also how she would move through the world. For example, Minyon grew up in a generation of women who dressed well for every situation. Barbara Jordan, the first African American congresswoman to come from the Deep South, was no exception to that rule. Minyon never forgot the speech Barbara Jordan delivered to the 1976 Democratic National Convention. “It was the most riveting speech I had ever watched on TV. The fact that she was the first African American woman to deliver a keynote address to a national convention wasn’t lost on me, even at eighteen years old. While I was barely aware of the political importance or influence this speech would have on the nation, what wasn’t lost on me was the fact that she looked familiar, she sounded familiar, and she spoke with that deep preacher-like voice that caused you to hang on to her every word. She was someone that you wanted to emulate. Her moral clarity raised our consciousness. To this day, her speech is considered, along with President Obama’s, one of the best speeches of any political party. And it rings true today. ‘We are a people in a quandary about the present,’” Minyon begins, quoting Jordan’s speech. “‘We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present, but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America.’”
No one was more central, at the time, to the conversation about the promise of America and its African American citizens than Jesse Jackson. Jackson had been a protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1966, King appointed him head of Operation Breadbasket, a job placement agency based in Chicago. As King explained in 1967, “The fundamental premise of Breadbasket is a simple one. Negroes need not patronize a business which denies them jobs, or advancement [or] plain courtesy. Many retail businesses and consumer-goods industries deplete the ghetto by selling to Negroes without returning to the community any of the profits through fair hiring practices.” Jackson was a theological student in Chicago when he took the helm of Operation Breadbasket’s Chicago branch. Under Jackson’s leadership, the Chicago Breadbasket targeted and boycotted the big dairy companies, the Pepsi-Cola Company, Coca-Cola, and supermarkets. In its first two years, Operation Breadbasket helped create more than two thousand jobs and bring an additional fifteen million dollars in income to the neighborhoods where those companies operated. King called the boycott “spectacularly successful.” Under Jackson’s leadership, Operation Breadbasket helped Chicago evolve into the financial powerhouse of black America. In Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson, author Marshall Frady cites Chicago as “the most sizable and powerful financial base of any [black community] in the United States—a complex that included six banks, three savings-and-loans, and two insurance companies. Of the nation’s one hundred black-owned enterprises with annual sales of over a million dollars, eighteen were in Chicago, a count second only to New York, and all eighteen had been demonstrable beneficiaries of Jackson’s efforts.”
In 1971, Jackson founded Operation PUSH (for “People United to Serve Humanity”). Increasingly, he had begun to broaden his scope from race-based operations to those that focused on economic and class issues. As he told the New York Times, “When we change the race problem into a class fight between the haves and the have-nots, then we are going to have a new ball game.”
Operation PUSH’s offices were in a stately stone building, complete with columns, in the Kenwood section of Chicago. Minyon was impressed before she even walked through the front door. “I was going and coming, back and forth to the PUSH offices. I got to know Reverend Jackson’s aide, Craig Kirby. My whole attitude was ‘I’m getting this interview.’ And we would show up at PUSH every week—either it was my cousin or it was me. I ended up meeting Rev. Willie Barrow.”
As she describes it, “I was an eighteen-year-old college student in Chicago, enrolled in a literature course. My study group decided to do our final paper on the topic ‘When Blacks Become Mainstream, Do They Lose Their Identity?’ We actually wanted to interview Reverend Jackson because the professor gave us the impression that if we got the interview with Reverend Jackson—who was, at the time, the most prominent leader in town—we would automatically get an A before we even wrote a word. So, because I was always determined and unafraid, I sought that interview! I ended up interviewing the legendary Rev. Willie Barrow, who was a key figure in the leadership of Operation PUSH and had fought to open doors in corporate America for young, educated blacks.”
Like Minyon’s mother, the Rev. Willie Barrow was a petite woman, standing just four foot eleven. In fact, she was known in the civil rights movement and throughout Chicago as the “Little Warrior.” Reverend Barrow had marched in Selma with Dr. King after having found her gift for community organizing at a young age. When she was just twelve years old, she led the charge to integrate her Texas school bus. For years, the black children walked miles to school while a half-empty bus of white children rumbled past them. One day, Barrow walked right up to the driver and said, “We all alike—we’ve all got butts, and all we got to do is just sit down on the seat. And you got plenty of room—so why you want me to get off just ’cause I’m black? Nooo, we got to change that.” And from that day forward, the black children were permitted to ride the bus.
When Minyon met Willie Barrow, it turned out to be an auspicious moment for both of them. Minyon had been well raised by her mother and grandmother. She had been groomed for leadership by the principal and teaching staff at Chicago Vocational School. She had landed a job as an advertising associate at Encyclopedia Britannica. Minyon was not only one of the few blacks there but also one of the youngest in the corporation. She showed up for work each day wearing a crisp silk blouse and a perfectly pressed suit. It’s a uniform she wears to this day. Even if she’s attending a march, Minyon Moore would be neatly dressed.
Then in her fifties, Reverend Barrow was ready to pass on what she had learned in the trenches of the civil rights movement. She had been close friends with Addie Wyatt, the first African American woman elected vice president of a major labor union (the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America). Along with hundreds of others, the two women showed up in Selma a week after its Bloody Sunday (when state troopers attacked those attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the beginning of the Selma-to-Montgomery March) to continue the work of forwarding the cause of civil rights. Their host family was a schoolteacher who, along with her children (with the exception of the four-year-old), had been beaten and jailed during the Selma march. The two young women volunteered for kitchen duty at a local black church, but even that seemingly harmless task required training on how to navigate the constant threat of violence and what to do in the event of an attack. Every night there were meetings at which freedom songs were sung and plans were hatched to move the cause along. Addie Wyatt would later write, “This is a tense battle of nerves, but the power of love and endurance is evident in their battle-scarred and worn faces.”
Those years, while terrifying and dangerous, had an energy and a momentum that gave leaders such as Willie Barrow a great deal of clarity. The enemy, so to speak, in the Jim Crow South was always in plain sight. The path to change was difficult but not mysterious. Reverend Barrow could see the arc of the 1980s on the horizon: things were changing and fast, for the better and for the worse at the same time. She believed that “if these youths don’t know whose shoulders they stand on, they’ll take us back to slavery.” Barrow had learned how to lead, she said, by opening her home to “Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Addie Wyatt. We have to teach this generation, train more Corettas, more Addies, more Dorothys.”
Enter Minyon Moore. When Reverend Barrow looked at Minyon, she saw in her a kindred spirit, a young woman who would give as much, if not more than, she would get. “By the end of our first meeting,” Minyon says, “I knew that I didn’t need an interview with Jesse Jackson to land an A on my paper. An afternoon with Reverend Barrow had made history come alive for me.”
Reverend Barrow was also a part of a generation of women leaders who would not take sides against themselves. Whereas previous generations of black women might have been content to let black men lead, Reverend Barrow and her peers decided simply and without much proclamation that they must fight on all the fronts that mattered to them. Indeed, Barrow was noted not only as a civil rights activist, but also as someone who stood on the front lines for women’s rights and the labor movement. When her only son came out in the early 1980s and later died of AIDS, in 1983, Reverend Barrow became a champion for gay rights and an early HIV/AIDS activist.
“Reverend Barrow and I went on to become very close. She was a mentor, second mother, and friend,” Minyon says. “After graduation, I went and got a fancy job at Encyclopedia Britannica, and that’s when she said to me, ‘You need to come back to PUSH. You need to serve your community. You need to start volunteering. You need to be active in our efforts…’ So, I started volunteering every free moment I had. It was a moment when the civil rights leaders wanted black Americans to shift their focus from what Reverend Barrow called ‘paper money’ and dig deep into wealth building. ‘Buy your first home, but also own radio stations, own TV stations, make sure you own your black businesses.’ It was a very radical idea back then.”
PUSH believed that every committed person could use his or her station to uplift the race. Minyon never forgot the lessons she learned from Reverend Barrow and the PUSH leadership team. “When you’re in corporate America, what is your role in corporate America? They’re spending our dollars, so how do you make sure that they give back to the community? You’re in politics; how do you make sure that your elected officials are investing in your neighborhoods? Are our kids safe, and are they getting a quality education?” Indeed, as Minyon recounts, “it was Reverend Jackson who would visit high schools and speak truth to power to our young people. He talked about reducing teenage pregnancy and about black-on-black crime before they became hot-button issues.”
As for Reverend Barrow, Minyon says, “she taught me one of my earliest and biggest civic lessons: the difference between wealth and wealth. She explained to me that wealth was no more than a transfer of paper. I can still hear her voice now, so rich with wisdom, but so down-home at the same time: ‘Ain’t nobody got no money! This is all about paper wealth! Paper wealth! You’re just trying to get some paper wealth!’ I thought, ‘Well, that makes sense.’”
Minyon believed deeply that the “line for leadership is short.” The key, she learned early on with PUSH, was that no task was too big or too small to take on. The skills she learned in corporate America blended well with the life lessons she learned in the civil rights movement. Even as a young businesswoman, she continued to be active in PUSH, sharing what she learned in the corporate boardroom with the leaders there. It was, she believed, an even exchange. The lessons she learned in both worlds gave her a foundation grounded in values and principles that, she says, guide her to this day.
“My first exposure to high-level politics came in 1982,” Minyon says, when Rev. Willie Barrow took her to the first organizing meeting of Harold Washington for Mayor. In the corporate world, Minyon had earned a seat at the table; but at this particular meeting, she humbly took another place: in the corner, holding Reverend Barrow’s purse, while the key players sat around a polished mahogany board table. Even before the first person sat down, the massive size of the table conveyed to Minyon that this was a room of real power and real decision making. Every black leader in Chicago was there, trying to convince Washington to run for mayor. Harold Washington looked around the room and said, “Our patch isn’t big enough.” The leaders looked at one another, puzzled. Minyon was relieved that she wasn’t the only one who didn’t get Washington’s lingo. The reluctant candidate went on: “You will have to help me raise money. You have to help me register voters. And you have to help me broaden my coalition. Until you all tell me how we can accomplish all of these things, I am not ready to jump into this.”
The men and women at the table were stunned at how hard Washington was pushing back. “The leaders and the community wanted him to run for mayor more than he did—or so it seemed from my little corner,” says Minyon. So the group reconvened in a few weeks with a bona fide plan. That plan launched Washington’s candidacy.
Minyon’s first major political experience was as a youth organizer for the Harold Washington campaign. She remembers, “Nobody was reaching out to the young people, and so I gathered up some of my friends—Ken Bennett, Mark Allen—and we all went down to the campaign office and decided that we were going to organize the college students and young people. It was just that simple. It wasn’t like somebody told us to do it. We saw a need and we became the youth organizers for the campaign.
“Ken, Mark, and I were all Operation PUSH buddies, the young people who would hang around the office. We took it upon ourselves to start doing voter registration and outreach in the youth community. The slogan was ‘Come Alive October 5.’ It was the early days of hip-hop; the rhyming helped.
“Mark is one of the most skilled organizers I know. There was nothing he couldn’t organize. He went on to become a radio announcer, but he was just a really gifted organizer.
“Ken is the exact same as he was when he was growing up—just a good, decent, really thoughtful human being. Yeah. I mean as respectful as they come. Ken is the type of person every mother and father would want as their child. He was just that steady, and he went on to work for President Obama as his state director in his Senate office for Illinois, and then he went on to work in his White House.
“They’d give us our walk sheets and we’d go out walking. Walk sheets lay out the areas where you go and you knock on doors. You knock on doors and you pass out literature and say, ‘You come vote.’ We were primarily focused on making sure that students on college campuses were registered and they were voting.
“This was an exciting time for us. It was the 1980s, and people in Chicago hadn’t lost faith in the promise of the 1960s. In fact, I think we were gaining faith, because to see this Congress member named Harold Washington come back home and become the first black mayor of Chicago, that was exciting for us. It was certainly an exciting time at Operation PUSH, because every Saturday our forum was about making sure you got registered to vote, making sure we built the right coalitions. To be exact, we weren’t just organizing African American students; we were organizing any student and any young person. We were introducing young people to the concept that they could make a difference, that if they voted, then this candidate could actually be a candidate that they could say they were partly responsible for putting in office. We were doing more by teaching them about the power of the vote as opposed to changing their minds.
“Harold Washington’s race was just a natural progression of progressive politics in the city of Chicago. One thing that people don’t understand about my hometown—it is a very activist city. I mean, people are active. They are active organizing, they are active building, but they are really great community organizers. It’s no doubt that President Obama said he was a community organizer because we are just noted for that whether we’re organizing around issues or campaigns. Chicago is always very active.”
Later, when Washington won his historic bid and became the first African American mayor of Chicago, Minyon worked her connections to get Washington to visit her church. She had organized her fellow churchgoers, worked tirelessly on outreach, and delivered the votes. Now that he was elected, all over town, people wanted to spend a moment with the man who had made history. Minyon says, “Once he was elected, I worried the crap out of his then scheduling director, Ed Hamb. Believe me when I tell you, I worried the stew out of him. I would not take no for an answer. I said, ‘Well, we worked for him, so he can come work for us in the community now, right?’
“The first couple of times, I would just go down to city hall and I’d ask to speak to Ed, but he was always busy. Of course, I didn’t know anything about making appointments. I made an appointment, and then he finally saw me and I told them what I wanted. A month or two later, he finally put it on the schedule. I think that surprised everybody at my church, too. They were walking around saying, ‘She really got the mayor to come to the church.’”
When Washington won, becoming the first African American mayor of Chicago, he paved the way for all the leaders who would follow him as mayors of major American cities: Harvey Gantt and Carrie Saxon Perry, David Dinkins and Willie Brown. Yolanda notes, “But after Washington was elected and after Jesse ran in ’84, for the next decade, we had black mayors in every major American city: New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, Birmingham, Baltimore, Berkeley, Charlotte, Cleveland, Columbus, Compton, Dayton, Denver, Durham, East Orange, East St. Louis, Flint, Hartford, Kansas City, Little Rock, Memphis, Minneapolis, New Haven, New Orleans, Newark, Oakland, Philadelphia, Raleigh, Richmond, Seattle, St. Louis, Trenton, Washington, DC. You could add Wellington Webb [Denver, 1991] as an example. Point being: black mayors ran pretty much every urban city in America.”
One day, Reverend Barrow looked over at Minyon and said, “You need to quit your good-paying job and come work for me.” “And I did,” Minyon remembers. “I was twenty-five years old and I gave up my benefits, quit my good-paying job, and went to work for my people. I simply decided that was a worthy journey. I started there as a personal aide: typing up speeches and accompanying Reverend Barrow to the many events she attended. Then I became her executive assistant, and it was through the family leadership retreats that Drs. Tom and Barbara [Williams-] Skinner organized that I got to know figures such as Dr. Betty Shabazz and Dr. Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and Dr. Dorothy Height. I became so close to Reverend Barrow that people started calling me ‘Little Willie.’”
Minyon came to feel, very quickly, that at PUSH, she had found her place. “I was inspired by the work they did on behalf of our community,” she says. “I was inspired by their grace and grit. Their tenacity to fight for the betterment of black people without recognition was always humbling; to always be willing to stand up and take on the tough issues. I was just inspired every time I sat in a PUSH forum and listened to the community leaders speak.”
Every generation has its calling. “I am so grateful to God that I was born when I was born,” Minyon says with pride. “That I was able to experience all that I have and continue to experience. I didn’t march with Martin Luther King, but I knew his wife and children. I didn’t know Malcolm X, but I knew his wife and children. That connected me to [those leaders] in a very special way. It also taught me how to be humble in the midst of greatness. It taught me to be selfless, probably too much so, but that’s okay. It also taught me that hard work pays off. Sometimes I think about the many nights I have stayed at one of these offices (from a field office to a corporate office to the White House, just trying to make a difference) and everybody else has gone home. That all started for me at PUSH headquarters, 930 East Fiftieth Street. That time, that place, that era taught me how to serve.”
Copyright © 2018 by Donna Brazile, Yolanda Caraway, Leah Daughtry, and Minyon Moore
Foreword copyright © 2019 by Stacey Abrams