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A Decisive Decade

An Insider's View of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s

Robert B. McKersie, Foreword by James R. Ralph Jr.

Publication Year: 2013

The deeply personal story of a historic time in Chicago, Robert B. McKersie’s A Decisive Decade follows the unfolding action of the Civil Rights Movement as it played out in the Windy City. McKersie’s participation as a white activist for black rights offers a unique, firsthand viewpoint on the debates, boycotts, marches, and negotiations that would forever change the face of race relations in Chicago and the United States at large.

Described within are McKersie’s intimate observations on events as they developed during his participation in such historic occasions as the impassioned marches for open housing in Chicago; the campaign to end school segregation under Chicago Schools Superintendent Benjamin Willis; Operation Breadbasket’s push to develop economic opportunities for black citizens; and dialogs with corporations to provide more jobs for blacks in Chicago. In addition, McKersie provides up close and personal descriptions of the iconic Civil Rights leaders who spearheaded some of the most formative battles of Chicago’s Civil Rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Jesse Jackson, Timuel Black Jr. and W. Alvin Pitcher. The author illumines the tensions experienced by two major institutions in responding to the demands of the civil rights movement: the university and the church. Packed with historical detail and personal anecdotes of these history-making years, A Decisive Decade offers a never-before-seen perspective on one of our nation’s most tumultuous eras. 

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4


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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xviii

It is important for three principal reasons. First, it makes a significant contribution to the burgeoning literature on the black freedom struggle in the North, especially in Chicago, arguably the most important site in that sprawling battleground. ...

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pp. xix-xxiv

At the outset, I would like to offer a few words of explanation for this fusion of a participant’s journal and an academic’s analysis of the civil rights movement as it unfolded during the 1960s in Chicago. ...

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pp. xxv-xxvi

The events portrayed in this book occurred almost half a century ago. Given the fact that this chronicle attempts to present an eyewitness account of the civil rights movement in Chicago during the 1960s, the question could be asked: what took you so long to get this story into print? ...

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Prologue: Starting an Academic Career

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pp. 1-6

When I finished my graduate studies at Harvard Business School in the spring of 1959, our parents hoped that Nancy and I would locate somewhere on the East Coast. My parents lived in New Jersey, as had their parents; Nancy’s parents and ancestors had always lived in New England, primarily in western Massachusetts. ...

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1. The First Unitarian Church of Chicago: My Gateway to the Civil Rights Movement and to Alex Poinsett

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pp. 7-15

While an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, I had been active in the university’s Christian Association and came to know Bob and Wanda VanGoor. Bob and I had served as counselors at University Camp (more about this experience later), and I kept in close touch with the VanGoors while I was in the navy ...

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2. Campaigns on the Employment Front

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pp. 16-26

Throughout my career, the employment relationship between labor and management has been the central focus for research, teaching, and practice. Initially, my exposure to race relations in employment was very much academic. ...

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3. Tim Black and the Motorola Campaign

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pp. 27-46

During the spring of 1963, Tim Black spoke with the leadership of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) about the possibility of targeting Motorola’s employment policies. In making his proposal for a direct-action program, he was supported by the co-conveners, Rev. Arthur Brazier and Al Raby. ...

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4. Campaigns on the Education Front

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pp. 47-65

While the Motorola campaign was taking place during the spring and summer of 1963, another saga was unfolding. The Chicago civil rights movement, writ large, selected for its first campaign the removal of Superintendent of Education Benjamin Willis. ...

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5. The Movement Marks Time while the University Plays Catch-Up

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pp. 66-80

After the second school boycott in February 1964, the civil rights scene in Chicago quieted down again. Meetings of the CCCO were held infrequently. The first leader of the CCCO, Arthur Brazier, stepped aside and the second line assumed charge. Al Raby moved into the convener’s role. ..

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6. Spring and Summer 1965: Marches, More Marches, and Al Pitcher

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pp. 81-107

Two dates serve as markers for the spring of 1965: March 21, when my wife, Nancy, marched in Selma, and April 19, when the CCCO mounted the Good Friday demonstration in Chicago. ...

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7. A Peaceful March in Kenwood and a Not-So-Peaceful March Led by Dick Gregory

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pp. 108-132

While the marches from Grant Park to City Center continued on a daily basis, other marches took place, in some cases outside of the Loop. It is instructive to describe two examples of what could be termed more bottomup, instigated marches: an evening march in Kenwood, a community just to the north of Hyde Park ...

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8. Looking Back on the Tumultuous Events of 1965

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pp. 133-141

In September 1965, as Nancy and I prepared to leave with our three small children to spend a sabbatical year at the London School of Economics, we looked back with a feeling of “Wow! What an amazing year!” It was indeed a watershed year. What started rather calmly with the Good Friday march had escalated into a program of nightly marches to City Hall ...

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9. The Campaign for Open Housing, Summer 1966

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pp. 142-152

When Nancy and I returned to Chicago in June 1966, Martin Luther King and his team were very much on the scene. King had taken up residence in an apartment on the West Side, and plans were well underway for the open housing campaign that was soon to regalvanize Chicago’s civil rights movement ...

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10. Jesse Jackson, Operation Breadbasket, and Minority Enterprise

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pp. 153-173

After returning from England, I called Al Pitcher to get his update on what had transpired during the preceding academic year. With great enthusiasm, Al described a new effort of the civil rights movement in Chicago called “Operation Breadbasket.” ...

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11. The Movement and the Decade Wind Down

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pp. 174-184

With Martin Luther King moving on to projects outside Chicago and the demise of the CCCO in 1966, the civil rights movement in Chicago effectively passed from the scene, at least the direct-action phase of the “revolution” that was seeking significant change in the lives of African Americans. ...

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12. Initiatives Continue within the University and the Unitarian Church

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pp. 185-199

After key leaders of the civil rights movement left the Chicago scene in 1966–67, taking with them their programs of direct action, the initiative shifted to other institutions, especially two organizations that anchored my life, the Unitarian Church and the university. ...

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13. Race Relations and the Personal Equation

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pp. 200-220

Although the historical assessments of gains for African Americans emanating from the civil rights struggles of the 1960s are inconclusive, I would count my involvement in the civil rights movement as the most important chapter in my several careers as an academic, a practitioner, and a cheerleader for social change. ...

Appendix A: Acronyms

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pp. 221-222

Appendix B: Chicago Geography (including maps locating major events)

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pp. 223-227

Appendix C: Civil Rights Timeline—Major Events for Chicago and the Nation

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pp. 228-232


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pp. 233-242


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pp. 243-246


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pp. 247-255

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Author Biography

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p. 285-285

Robert B. McKersie is a professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Previously he served as dean of the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University and, prior to that, during the 1960s, was a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Business of the University of Chicago. ...

Back Cover

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p. 286-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780809332458
E-ISBN-10: 0809332450
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809332441
Print-ISBN-10: 0809332442

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 34
Publication Year: 2013

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Subject Headings

  • McKersie, Robert B.
  • African American civil rights workers -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Biography.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights workers -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Biography.
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Race relations.
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