restricted access 20. Brother Rat
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~ 20 ~ Brother Rat Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here. —captain john parker at the battle of lexington, april 19, 1775 T hroughout the spring of 1963, Peter Countryman and several leaders of the Northern Student Movement (NSM) worked to gain foundation grants to run summer tutorial projects in Boston , Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and New Haven. Their goal was to open a headquarters staffed by six to eight full-time students in a target low-income neighborhood in each city. The students and as many volunteers as they could round up would go into the low-income junior high and high schools and recruit students for free tutoring services. The tutoring projects were visualized as a practical, grassroots means of approaching the civil rights problem, of keeping young blacks in school, and of making them aware of ways they themselves could combat the problems they faced. Peter and the board of directors of NSM asked me to head their Washington , D.C., project. So, in late May, Maureen and I—armed with a fivethousand -dollar budget and a great deal of enthusiasm—packed a couple of bags and took the train to Washington. I had never been to Washington before and was struck by the sharp contrast between the inspired tranquility of the monuments, the Capitol, the Mall, and the blatant squalor of the teeming ghettos. On the one hand, there was a large black community struggling with crime, high school dropouts, low-level jobs, and seemingly inescapable poverty , and on the other, there was a cosmopolitan city filled with powerbrokers of many races and their families—a city of wealth, power, glamour, and constant change. A unique truce seemed to exist between the Washington powerbrokers and the city’s poor blacks: beauty and hope existed side by side with 180 the education of a black radical urban decay and hopelessness, and neither community, it seemed to me at the age of twenty-one, considered that it should be or could be any different. We rented a three-story house on Meridian Place Northwest, just off Sixteenth Street in the heart of the black ghetto. I interviewed and hired a summer staff of five workers: Joe Simpson, a black graduate student in chemistry at Cornell; Mary Smith, a student at Howard; Betsy Wright, a student at Bryn Mawr and the granddaughter of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright; Steve Block, a motorcycle-riding student from Rutgers and a fiery believer in civil rights; and Allison Turaj, a young white woman who was not a student, but had been organizing tenants in the projects in Harlem before coming down to Washington to join us. Initially, we lived and worked out of the Meridian Place house, quickly making contact with the teachers and principals at nearby Cordova Junior High School and Shaw Junior High School. Our program was well recommended and endorsed by key political leaders in New York and Washington—including Attorney General Robert Kennedy— so the educators welcomed us into their schools. By the time classes were out for the summer, we were set up with two hundred seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade kids who needed help in basic reading, spelling, and math. We called ourselves the District Action Project (DAP) and soon set up more traditional offices at 3418 Eleventh Street, a few blocks from Howard University in one direction and from a high-crime and prostitution area in the other direction. The need for tutoring services was so great that we began recruiting volunteers from among the college students in Washington. Soon we had 150 tutors holding day and night classes for junior high and high school kids. We held many classes at the Washington Presbyterian Church, which was just one street over from our house on Meridian Place. Reverend James Reeb and a second pastor who lived in the parsonage that backed up to our house believed in our efforts and offered the church for our use. Everything progressed quite smoothly. The seven of us on the central staff became closer and closer as we learned more about each other and the people we were trying to help. We lived the experience around the clock; there was no going home at the end of a day’s work and forgetting about it until tomorrow . If we weren’t actually tutoring kids, we were taking them on trips to the zoo or...


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