Race Relations in the
Northern United States
During the 1930's and 40's and afterwards
Any black person in South Bend old enough to remember the world before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will tell you that the humiliating treatment given to Jimmy and Bill at first was simply typical of the period, and that such treatment was a daily part of every black person’s life. Many white people in the United States to this day believe that racial discrimination against black people only happens in the southern states, but every black person I have ever talked to who has lived in both parts of the country, has told me that racial discrimination is equally bad in both north and south. All of my own observation of life in the north (Chicago, the upper Midwest, Massachusetts, New York City, and so on) shows that they are totally correct. Black people who began leaving the south to live in northern cities around the mid twentieth century moved because that is where the jobs were, in the factories and foundries, not because there was less prejudice there, or any less likelihood of being beaten or killed by white people.
King's Problems in ChicagoDr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not begin his work until several years after the first black men and women came into A.A. in Chicago and South Bend (which was between 1945 and 1948). Dr. King's first major protest was the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. This took place in the south, in Alabama, as did the major integration campaign he carried out later on in Birmingham, in 1963. It was only after this that Dr. King went north to work in Chicago, where his marchers were met by white mobs led by uniformed Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, in an even more violent and vicious opposition than he had encountered in the south. When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, it could be argued that Chicago still stood as a partial failure for him: that city had proven to be far more resistant than the cities of the American south to truly basic change in racial attitudes at the public and political level.
A.A. in Chicago and South BendSo the world inside A.A. circles in Chicago and South Bend was in fact twenty years ahead of the world outside of them on racial issues: getting black people into some of the closed meetings (on any terms) was a miracle for the 1940's, and getting them into the open meetings was a further miracle, and putting an end to at least some of the discriminatory treatment was yet another miracle. Young people today often do not realize (until they look back at how bad things were in the 1930's and early 40's) how much was actually accomplished in eliminating the worst kinds of racism in A.A. in the years which followed, and how difficult it was to bring this about. It was done by attacking the issues at the fundamental spiritual level, and by insisting that the spiritual principles of the program had to take precedence over personalities, and personal likes and dislikes, and politics, and blind cultural taboos. It also took a handful of people, both black and white, who had an astonishing courage, and a willingness to speak lovingly, but boldly and honestly, when basic spiritual principles were at stake.
|EDITOR: But to return to Jimmy's story. At one point, Raymond asked her what she remembered of some of the details of that open meeting where Earl Redmond, the first black speaker the South Bend A.A. group had ever had, came over from Chicago.|
RAYMOND: Well 'd Ken Merrill play the piano or something -- didn't he play the piano for you all?
JIMMY MILLER: Yeah.
RAYMOND: And ... I mean when Earl Redmond and them came in?
JIMMY MILLER: Yes. But Ken ....
RAYMOND: And I think Earl Redmond made a statement like Bill [Hoover] used to tell me, said when Earl came down he made such a powerful talk. He said the same whiskey that'll make a white man drunk, will make a black man drunk.
JIMMY MILLER: That's right, he explained all of that. It was a talk you just -- it kept everybody spellbound. And it opened the doors for us.
Ken Merrill Plays the Piano
Celebrating a victory over racism
Ken Merrill (the founder of A.A. in South Bend) opened the meeting in a way that had never been done before, by sitting down and playing the piano for all the people who were assembled. This was one of Ken's more unexpected talents: he had been a professional church organist for part of his life, and (on a piano) could play everything from the latest jazz to truly difficult classical pieces, almost totally by ear. Raymond commented later on in this recording that this symbolic gesture was a way for some of the white people in South Bend A.A. to begin making amends for the wrong they had done to the black members, and to extend the olive branch of peace by turning this first visit by a black speaker into a day of jubilee, if you wish. It was something special offered by the white people who were leading that meeting, to show that they too now realized that this was a very special welcoming, where they wanted to pull out all the stops and do something far beyond the ordinary for this meeting.
Earl Redmond did his job too. Soon everyone in the room found themselves swept into the power and sincerity of his lead. And the white people discovered that, once you stopped making external comparisons and started listening to the message of the heart, black alcoholics suffered and felt exactly the same things as white alcoholics, but could also use the twelve steps to live in and through God's power to arrive at the same sobriety and serenity that some of the white people were beginning to achieve.
When Bill Williams subsequently came over from Chicago to give his lead at the South Bend open meeting, the effect (as Jimmy Miller remembered it) was even more powerful. So being able to actually listen to Bill himself talking about his memories of his part in those same events is a special treat, because (although he was now 96 years old) he still remembered clearly his trips to South Bend some fifty years earlier.
Bill Williams' Story
Coming from Chicago to speak to
the white A.A.'s in South Bend
|EDITOR'S NOTE: Glenn C. read aloud from the preceding transcript of Jimmy Miller’s story, and then asked Evans Avenue Bill W. (Bill Williams) if he could tell all of us some of his own memories of those events.|
GLENN: Now Bill, that's where your name came into this thing. Do you remember anything about that at all?
BILL WILLIAMS: Uh huh. I remember it all. Most of that. Not all of it, but most of that. See, that was the problem, that's the reason I came over here, at the time. See, happened my wife was related to Bill [Hoover]'s, some of Bill's family, and they had told her about it, told them about it. So I came over here. I came over here, I brought four other members from my group, over here from Chicago. Myself -- see, this all happened before some of that, what you was reading, was happening. See, at the time, Bill couldn't go to the meetings. He could go to some of the meetings, but especially he couldn't go to the open meetings. And I came.
So fortunately, my wife was a distant relative to him, and so that's the way I met Bill. I didn't know him before. So with about five of the members of my group, we came over here one Sunday, and talked at Bill [Hoover]’s house [at 1242 Howard St. in South Bend].
And after we met, that's [when] they told him it's all right, but you can't go to the big meeting, on a Sunday. So then I asked why. Then they begin telling, "Well you see, our wives wouldn't like that."
And I listened to them talking. When they got through, I says, "Listen," I said, "if I had to go to Chicago from here in the morning -- I lived here, I got to go to Chicago. Wasn't but one train go, one bus go to Chicago, and I had to be there. And if I was on the train, and you got on ... because I was on there, and I was black, you wouldn't get off! Because you had to go to Chicago too." I said, "By the same token, if I go to the meeting, your wife cares less than a damn about me. She's there interested in you. So she's not gone go leave the meeting because I come. Because I'm going there for a purpose, and she's there to help you."
So one of the fellows said it, he laughed, he said, "Well that's true."
I said .... "By the same token, if I go to this meeting, your wife isn't going to leave -- it's an open meeting -- because she cares less than a darn about me. She's there for interested in you. And she's not gone leave because I get here. So if Bill [Hoover] goes to that meeting, it's not gonna affect your meeting at all. Cause all of you are going there -- all the alcoholics -- are going there for one particular purpose, and the non-alcoholic -- her husband, his wife -- is going there on account of you ...."
"My wife would be the same thing about you. She wouldn't care anything about [you]. She would only be there because she's interested in me, and she want to find out what makes me tick.
So when I got through -- see, before -- before that, they didn't want Bill [Hoover] to come to the open meeting. Well, I knew the reason. I'm from Texas, and I know the reason.
GLENN: O.K., so am I, yeah, so am I.
BILL WILLIAMS: I know the reason that they didn't want Bill [Hoover] to come to the meeting. Say, all right, say right now [pointing to the only empty chair in Frank's lakeside room]: it's only one chair sit here now. If I'm sitting right there, and this man is sitting here -- black -- your wife come in, that's the only seat. She's gone sit down there. She ain't gone leave because she just got her one seat, cause she's interested in you. She cares less than a doggoned about me. It was only him."
I said, “Now it’s only you guys that don't [want] your wife to sit in a chair close to me .... I can understand that. I know that .... But that isn’t the point .... The point is that we’re all here for one particular purpose. The alcoholics are here to mend their alcoholism. Your wife is here to learn what makes me tick."
"See, the non-alcoholic -- the husband or wife -- don't know why we drank. They don't know that alcohol makes us THIRSTY. [Laughter] Now this tea -- see, this tea -- it quenches my thirst. See, I drank this, and this'll be about all I want. I might would like another cup an hour or so from now .... but you see, it quenches my thirst. But if this was alcohol -- and I am an alcoholic -- it makes me thirsty.
GLENN: For more.
BILL WILLIAMS: .... See, when Hoover came in, the fellows would go over to his house and talk, but they didn't want him, or none of us, to come to the open meeting .... They said, "We'll come to your house to the meeting, but you can't come to .... they was meeting in the church. Raymond, are they still meeting in that church? And anyways, they were meeting in the church -- that was an open meeting, where the husbands and wives were there. They didn't want them to come there, and they come and talking about, "Well, you see our wives gone to complain." I listened, to a while, until they begin to do things to me inside. I said,"Listen, let me tell you something, you further something ....”
South Bend A.A. in the
1940's and the open meeting
at St. James Cathedral
EDITOR'S NOTE: Let us interrupt Bill Williams at this point to talk about South Bend A.A. (which was started on February 22, 1943) and the big weekly open meeting they were holding in St. James Cathedral by 1948. It will also be wise, for the sake of younger people, to describe some of the primitive racial taboos in the United States in the 1940's.
An article in the South Bend Tribune in 1964 (marking the twenty-first anniversary of the A.A. movement in that city) explains how the site of the big weekly open meeting was moved around during that twenty-one years. Beginning in October 1943, they held them for a while as occasional breakfast sessions at the LaSalle Hotel, which was at that point one of the city's two major hotels, located on Michigan Street in downtown South Bend. Late in 1944 however, they turned it into a regular Sunday afternoon meeting held at the former South Bend Civic Planning Association building on East Madison Street. Late in 1945, they set up the first Alano Club in the basement of that building. People were already coming from all over the surrounding areas of northern Indiana and southern Michigan -- places like Mishawaka, Elkhart, Goshen, Plymouth, LaPorte, Niles, Dowagiac, Benton Harbor, and St. Joseph -- learning how to set up an A.A. program from the people in South Bend, and then going back and setting up similar groups in their own home towns. So South Bend's example in dealing with problems like this one had an impact that extended far beyond its own city limits, up and down the St. Joseph river valley and around the southeastern coast of Lake Michigan (one of the five Great Lakes which divide the United States from Canada).
At some point -- it is difficult to reconstruct the exact date, but probably sometime between 1946 and 1948 -- they moved the big weekly open meetings from the Madison Street building to St. James Episcopal Cathedral on Main Street in downtown South Bend, where they used the meeting room in the church basement for their weekly get together. Ken Merrill, the factory owner who was the founder of A.A. in South Bend, was a member of that church, and presumably used his influence to help secure this site.
Although Ken Merrill, when he was a teenager, had been kicked out of high school in Chicago for fighting, he educated himself past that point, and not only rose to become the president and co-owner of a very successful factory operation in South Bend, but also was a highly talented musician, and wrote short stories which appeared in the major national magazines of the period. His factory produced industrial pipe fittings which were sold all over the world, including the British Isles and France. He was a church goer, but he was typical of that branch of early A.A. which emphasized the psychological aspects of the program. For more about his life and his interpretation of the program -- people came from cities and towns many miles away to hear his beginners lessons on the steps -- see The Factory Owner & the Convict.
The dispute over whether black members would be allowed to attend the open meeting dates from this point when it started being held in the basement of St. James Cathedral. This is where the Anglican (Episcopalian) bishop for that part of Indiana presides. It is a small but quite beautiful Gothic style church where you can easily imagine you are back in a rather high church setting in old England: in the main sanctuary, which has a quiet, medieval Catholic feeling, the bishop dons his miter and ceremonial robes to preside over mass, while the choir chants the ritual and clouds of incense billows from burning censers. They have the Stations of the Cross on the walls, and people cross themselves with holy water on entering the sanctuary and genuflect before taking their seat in one of the pews.
The meeting room in the church basement is underneath the sanctuary: although the ceiling is fairly low, the room is quite large and can hold a large number of people on folding chairs, arranged around long tables or however one wishes. This basement room was the site of the weekly open meeting which was now the point of controversy: some of the white A.A.'s did not want Bill Hoover, Jimmy M., or any other black people coming to that gathering.
Now Bill Williams was aware that the real issues here were arising from a set of strange taboos that still dominated racial relations in the United States back in the 1940's, a set of deeply felt but primitive and irrational superstitions which operated somewhat like the rules of the caste system in ancient India. In the north, it was not formalized in the way of the American south, with signs posted indicating separate drinking fountains for black and white people, separate waiting rooms in train and bus stations, and so on, but many white people still felt this to a degree down at a visceral level. This taboo applied both to eating and drinking from the same cups and plates and glasses, and sitting in chairs right next to one another. Bill was also aware of the bizarre myth, believed by many whites in both north and south, that all black men continually lust in their hearts after white women. This sexual myth was embarrassing to talk about openly, but it was not only nonsense, it was dangerous nonsense -- the fuel that had fed more than one anti-black lynch mob.
Evans Avenue Bill had decided that spiritual principles required that the black and white A.A.'s gathered in Bill Hoover’s house bring these taboos and myths out into the open, and discuss them in the light of the spirit, and in terms of the basic principles of the program. They could not "talk around" the real issues forever, and ever hope to heal any of the wrongs that were being done.
BILL WILLIAMS: I said, “The thing of it is, and I know -- I ain't dumb, I ain't stupid -- I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid. The point is, if there's only one seat here -- that's just this one seat that's open -- your wife come to this meeting, you don't want her sitting there close to me." I said, "That's it." The guy looked at me! And .... I said, “She’s not thinking about me, and I’m not thinking about her. I got my wife at home. I’m not thinking about [your wife].”
So further come to further. Look at me, and they smile. They say, "Yeah," said, "that's it, Bill."
I said, "I know it is ...."
JIMMY H.: And that made it better there in South Bend when you guys got together.
GLENN: Do you remember? -- does anybody know? -- were they having the open meetings at St. James church at that point, or was it at the Hotel LaSalle?
RAYMOND: Bill [Hoover] said it was at St. James Cathedral.
JIMMY H.: Yeah, I think he told me that -- that was later on. When did he die? Bill, Bill -- cause I met Bill Hoover.
RAYMOND: He just die about ’85, ’86.
JIMMY H.: Yeah, cause I was up there before he died. And he came to that meeting -- that was Brownie -- but didn't they have a meeting named after him there, didn't they have a . . . ?
BILL WILLIAMS: Bill Hoover?
JIMMY H.: Bill Hoover.
BILL WILLIAMS: Yes, there’s a group named after Bill Hoover.
RAYMOND: "Interracial Group."