A Journey into Civil Rights and Politics
- By the White Guy from the Suburbs that Helped Elect the First Black Big-City Mayor

A MEMOIR by B. Kenneth McGee
A lifetime spent addicted to booze, fast horses and long-shot politicians.

Excerpt from   Eyes Shut Tight


The 1965 mayoral campaign was one hell of a learning experience. It was more than just the excitement of the burgeoning civil rights movement and politics. I also learned I would never know exactly what it was like to be black.

I did come closer to the knowledge, if not the feeling, than most white folks. I got to know real black people, not just those who took part in the Interracial Sundays that were beginning in those days. Those were the Sundays when white folks visited black folks in their homes, and black folks visited white folks in their homes. Coffee and cookies would be served, people would shift nervously in their chairs (and neighbors shifted nervously behind partly opened Venetian blinds) and children politely showed each other their toys. Then there were the black doctors, lawyers, and architects who were on everybody's cocktail party list -- at least one to a party if you were liberal and hip -- where a few watermelon jokes (the most avant-garde) would break the ice (supposedly) and everyone would revel in the joys of integration. Whites learned to never mention gin, to make sure there was plenty of Cutty Sark on hand and to assure the bartender wasn't black. Black fathers learned to call their boys "son" and black wives learned to sit and stare into space. Such was the dawning of a new era of brotherly love and cocktail parties more boring and stilted than ever. That is not to say that these initial experiments were not of worth.

I had made business calls on an architectural firm in Cleveland owned by Robert and Julian Madison, who were black. Robert and I were business friends and exchanged family visits and had children of the same age. One day at their house and as our children were playing we were discussing civil rights and integration. I said to Bob, "Gee Robert, things have been moving pretty fast these last few years. What else do you want?" He turned, looked me directly in the eye with a set look, and said, "Ken, see our children playing over there? Would it be fast enough for you?" I heard what he was saying, knew what he meant, and realized I hadn't gotten the picture yet. I was taken aback and thought for a moment. "No, Bob," and I paused, "it would not be fast enough," and my life and my views shifted a little bit on their axis. The remark helped to change the course of my life. If I could speak to Bob today, I'd say, "It's still not fast enough."

What I saw that early fall was an entire community, from small Baptist churches where weekday maids were Sunday deaconesses and garage attendants were choir masters. There were little children scrubbed, dressed and looking as much like angels as the blond, blue-eyed Germanic types that graced the insides of prayer books. There were street clubs, community organizations, bridge clubs, bowling leagues, and fraternal organizations. And there were numbers runners, pool hall hustlers, working stiffs, and Saturday night dudes. Almost without exception and throughout the entire spectrum, there was a sense of humor and sensitivity to the frailty of man that I thought I recognized as touching a different dimension than I had experienced before. I liked it, and whether or not I was truly at home, I felt at home.

I made one friendship that fall that I always have cherished. It had an inauspicious beginning. The day after the FOP meeting, I arrived at campaign headquarters about noon to meet the candidate and go over the day's activities. The small, crowded office was a flurry of activities with typewriters, both electric and standard, going at a nonstop pace. Clusters of volunteers were licking, sticking, stamping, and stuffing hundreds of envelopes; phones were ringing, and the mimeograph was awhirl. Whispered conversations, hurried consultations, and the discussion of campaign strategy filled the air. I was to find out in each of the hundred campaigns that followed, everyone is an expert and each person is the most important ingredient in this, the most important campaign in history. But today was, for me, the first time.

I introduced myself to the receptionist, an attractive black girl named Penny. Several of the people glanced up and there were exchanges of conversation that I felt pertained to me. Penny told me to go on back to the office, Carl expected me. I felt a surge of self-importance as I walked past the toilers in the vineyard and on to the inner sanctum. Several people glanced up and smiled. A young man in the corner trying to operate the mimeograph muttered, "Big shot." I found out later that he had driven Stokes on occasion and had given himself the title of "advance man." He had just been superseded, so I didn't blame him for being pissed. In the back office Stokes sat behind an old rented desk in his shirtsleeves, smoking a cigar and reading a press release. Without looking up or greeting me, he said, "Ken, meet Herman Weinstein and Geraldine Williams." Weinstein had a mouthful of McDonalds hamburger and, as he chewed, said, "Glad to have you on board, McGee. We'll beat those WASP bastards, huh?" Geraldine Williams glanced up from a set of precinct statistics, said, "Hi, McGee," and went on working.

I was quick, probably too quick, to categorize people. I had no trouble with Herman, but Geraldine Williams was another case.

I didn't know if it was Miss Williams or Mrs. Williams, but I knew one thing, she was not to be called Gerry, not now. This lady, old enough to be my mother, was formidable. Tall, thin, and light in complexion, she looked like I thought the Queen of the Nile would in modern dress. Her clothes and jewelry this day and every day thereafter were worth a small fortune, and I thought, real class. She looked like she had just stepped out of Neiman Marcus or Saks. Her demeanor was business-like, if not aloof. Everyone, particularly the white women volunteers, were scared to death of her. She kept it that way. In her quick glance at me, she probably made her own appraisal. Looks like what the candidate ordered, she could have thought, meaning white, presentable, intelligent looking, and unlikely to horn in on the spotlight.

The relationship between Geraldine and me warmed during the campaign but it was more mutual respect than friendship. I realized quickly that Gerry knew what the hell she was doing and cared a great deal about the candidate and his candidacy but not in the starry-eyed way that most volunteers exhibited. She was above the petty back-stabbing that goes on in all campaigns. She was for real. If I was the conscience of the campaign, Geraldine Williams was the backbone.

Gerry, who was not quick to make friends, began to realize that I was good for the candidate and an asset to the campaign. I made the candidate laugh and, as I proved a few times, I had guts. I was one of the few who would disagree with him. She, no doubt, had heard of my past drinking escapades but it was common knowledge that I was currently on the wagon. By no means could I have known that Gerry Williams would become one of the closest and dearest friends that I would have in a lifetime and that I would grow to love her.

It was a crisp fall evening as the candidate and I left the clean broad lawns of the suburbs and headed toward the inner city and then on to the "enemy" territory of Cleveland's white West Side. For most suburban residents traveling from one side of town to another, the drive would take them down main thoroughfares and pass through the ghetto into downtown and on out main arteries to their destination. Passing through the black areas and close to the heavily white Irish and East European areas - what Clevelanders always have called "ethnic" sections -- on the West Side, few people ever deviated a block or two off main streets to see the neighborhoods of the city. Part of my education in this campaign was to see and get to know this diverse and polarized city. A block or two off main streets like Carnegie Avenue or Chester Avenue were streets like Hough, Central, Quincy, and Woodland Avenues. Cool, crisp autumn evenings or pleasant, warm summer nights could not hide the filth and litter in the ghetto. On the other hand, while the whites would call all of the East Side a ghetto.

Technically speaking it was an apt description because of the limits of access and egress for its inhabitants, the whites would think it all looked like the quick glances that they got of these dilapidated side streets. Not so. Although there were few newly constructed ranch or Cape Cod homes in the inner city, there were streets and streets of newly painted homes, well kept lawns, and streets that were uncluttered no thanks to city street crews but to diligent members of street clubs. The interiors of the homes would be so clean as to be sterile, the furnishings more likely to be new from the high-end Halle Brothers Department Store than old from Bonhards Antique Studio. One thing was becoming a problem, however, even in the so-called good neighborhoods. Traveling and particularly walking the streets at night was not something to be undertaken taken lightly.

The first stop of the evening was to be a Baptist church on the East Side. I didn't know from the name or the location on the day's itinerary, if the meeting was big or small. One night there might be 2,000 at a gospel sing, another night there might be 30 at a club meeting, but this night there were about thirty-five and I was disappointed in the size of the crowd. Stokes would speak, there would be a few Amens and Yes, brothers, and we could get on to the more exciting meeting across town. As the business part of the meeting droned on and Stokes waited to speak, I dwelled for a moment on the self-satisfaction I felt at where I was and what I was doing. It had only been a short time ago that it had been different.


Fast Horses Expensive Booze Longshot Politicians In the South

Eyes Shut Tight © by Ken Mcgee



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