The 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington has brought renewed attention to the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, including newly published accounts from its participants. Robert McKersie, a professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has just written his own memoir about the movement in Chicago. The book, “A Decisive Decade: An Insider’s View of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s,” published this month by Southern Illinois University Press, brings to light many of the crucial events and people of the period, especially “unsung heroes” such as the educators and activists Timuel Black and W. Alvin Pitcher. McKersie spoke to MIT News about his new book.
Q. How did you become involved in the civil rights movement, and why did you decide to write a book about your experiences?
A. I was at the University of Chicago as a junior faculty member in the 1960s, and got pulled in through some African-American leaders I came to know. My gateway was the Unitarian Church right there in Hyde Park, the community I lived in. I led a discussion group [at the church] and some of the African-American leaders were in the group.
I followed a whole series of different initiatives. Some were on employment. The main one was on education, trying to open up schools for African-American kids. And I spent quite a bit of time working with Jesse Jackson and Operation Breadbasket, opening up retail stores for small black suppliers.
I had all of my original notes and over time I decided, “Maybe there’s a story here about some leaders, some individuals, that needs to be told.” One of them has received a lot of national attention, and that’s Jesse Jackson. But the others really hadn’t. So that was my motivation, to tell the story about some unsung heroes from the civil rights movement from Chicago in the 1960s, the people who were doing this out of conviction and [knew] that we needed change.
Q. Thinking back on the civil rights movement, what do we overlook about it today?
A. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington today, many people remember it as a glorious event, but they don’t remember that there was a lot of controversy at the time about whether it would turn violent, that President Kennedy was trying to stop it. Some people had a sense that there were a lot of things happening that were maybe over the top. I spend a lot of time [in the book] talking about a march [comedian and activist] Dick Gregory led to [Chicago] Mayor Daley’s home, which many people thought was not proper.
And then there were a lot of people complaining about the two school boycotts, taking kids out of school for two days. People said, “Hey, that’s not right, we’re trying to get kids into school.” So it’s important to recognize the complexity of the civil rights movement. That there were a lot of people who were cautious at the time and didn’t want to participate in marches; they thought that was too confrontational. A goal [of the book] is to take us into that territory, which has a lot of nuance to it.
Q. Given that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling on the Voting Rights Act this year that generated considerable criticism from defenders of civil rights, what is your assessment of the impact of the movement and the state of integration today?
A. People involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s should feel good about the legislation that was passed then: We had the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that dealt with employment; and then the Voting Rights Act, which as you note is being somewhat modified, came in 1965; and there was the Fair Housing Act in 1968. … The civil rights movement helped get legislation that would in a sense prevent discrimination, and change behavior. But I think today, for instance with the Trayvon Martin [case ], we are in a period where laws alone can’t change people’s attitudes. There are big racial issues, but they’re much harder to get at. Hopefully the anniversary [of the March on Washington] will give people a platform to say more about what happened then, and about the situation we’re in today.