By Chinta Strausberg
Come July, Don Harris, will mark 48 years as an unpaid volunteer at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters. He’s the driving force behind an ongoing effort to refurbish the iconic building that has been the site of numerous press conferences over the years. The building has also been the target of hate crimes by whites seeking to drive Blacks out of the neighborhood.
A year ago, doctors gave Harris a virtual death sentence—nine months to live. Still, Harris continues his mission.
He was born on the South Side of Chicago in CHA’s LeClaire Courts Homes, 44th and Cicero. Even as a teen, Harris was a hard worker. Back then, being Black and proud angered whites in Cicero.
Harris and his friends were often chased, taunted and beaten by white mobs. The “N” word was as common as a smile or friendly greeting.
In 1966, at the tender age of 15, Harris saw a friend bludgeoned to death by whites in Cicero. “We had to get out of Cicero before it would get dark. Back then, Cicero was all white and it was a very racist town; however, if we wanted to work as teenagers, it was one of the few places that we could go and get a job.”
Harris said Blacks in Cicero every day faced danger on their way to work.
“Getting to work and past the racists was one thing, but because some of the buses refuse to give us a ride, we had to walk from 22nd and Cicero to 4908 W. 44th St. just off Cicero,” Harris recalled.
Tired of being attacked, Harris and his friends went to Operation Breadbasket for help. At that time, the Cobras and the Vice Lords were the two main gangs in Chicago, and they were coming out to where we lived in an effort to help us fight for justice,” Harris recounted.
“We found out a new person was in town, Jesse Jackson. He was in charge of Operation Breadbasket. We asked him for help. It seems like just the thought of Breadbasket or a civil rights organization coming over there to do different things was enough to calm them down and made the police do what they were supposed to do. It worked,” Harris said.
“Mainly, these attacks occurred during summer school when only a few Blacks were in attendance, Harris said. “We started to walk together in groups. Operation Breadbasket warn-ed us never to go anywhere alone and to stay in groups. They never attacked us when we were in groups,” he recalled.
Harris said the racial attacks made Blacks join civil rights organizations because “that was where your protection was. We looked up expecting to see the police outside when we got out of high school but a lot of times the police were not there. All you had out there were angry white mobs that were trying to stop us from going to school.
“We would be looking out the window at 2:45 p.m. and all you could see were white people with baseball bats, with sticks and other things in their hands waiting for us to come out; no police,” Harris said.
Harris’ mother was on welfare but she was working as a certified nursing assistant. Harris said a handful of Black women would try to get their kids home safely from school. At that time, there were not a lot of Black men in the LeClaire Courts.
For decades, Harris has been a faithful, unpaid volunteer at Rainbow PUSH. A grateful servant, Harris is proud to be a PUSH member now.
A year ago, Harris found out he had bile duct cancer. Out of three physicians, two told him he had nine-months to live. A third said surgery is not even an option.
Harris went to Dr. Rosemary Carroll. She began aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments on Harris.
Harris said despite his condition, he kept volunteering at Rainbow PUSH. Every day, Harris can be seen spending hours rehabbing old offices. He built a bannister for the stage. Harris also supervised the restoration of the headquarters’ front doors. For the media, Harris built television platforms in the auditorium. Harris said he is too busy to be worried about dying.
Last year, Harris was literally speechless when Jackson awarded him with the International of the Year Award for lifetime achievement during the Legacy Award ceremony held at PUSH convention.
Harris said he was stunned by the news.
“I was posting men on the doors making sure that everything was secured and safe and Rev. Jackson was on stage with trade unionists and Rep. Maxine Waters and others when he called my name for the award. I looked around to see if there was another Don Harris. I was speechless; so Rev. Jackson just gave me my award and told me to get off the stage,” he said laughing. “I still don’t know why I got an award because I was just doing my job,” Harris said.
In addition to his duties, Harris takes pride in the staff of “Black Men Pushing (BMP), the security team at Rainbow PUSH. During this interview, he proudly showed the reporter workers who were sanding the front doors of the historic building that was once a Jewish synagogue. Harris is meticulous about his rehab work because the restoration must return the building back to its original splendor.
Harris said the second part of the PUSH building was built in 1940. The newest addition is Rev. Jackson’s office building. Harris said that was built six to ten-years ago.
There are burn stains on the front door of the Rainbow PUSH building. Harris said the handsome neoclassical building was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail. Harris said the fire from the explosion could not penetrate the doors on the Drexel side of the building.
“We decided to keep parts of the burn stains on the doors as a reminder of that hateful act,” said Harris. “They threw the Molotov cocktail at the building. We never found out who did it and no one took credit for it. That happened on the first day we moved into the PUSH headquarters.”
Harris said when he received news of the bombing, they were at Shiloh Baptist Church on Dorchester. Harris said he and an army of men “marched” to PUSH upon receiving the news.
Harris said when Jackson first came to the 50th and Drexel site, PUSH also owned the building across the street from the civil rights organization. With the help of the late Lucille Loman, Jackson bought the building for $1 from the iconic gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. She reportedly wanted to be an evangelist.
“Many civil rights leaders stayed there in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It had to be restored with a lot of ornate decorations. There were wooden floors, but PUSH could not afford to keep both buildings,” Harris explained. “We sold the apartment building to help fund the massive renovation and repair work at the headquarters building which had been vacant for more than 20 years.”
“I am proud to be a member of PUSH, proud of my contributions, and I am looking forward to the PUSH convention from June 25-June 29th at the Hyatt McCormick Hotel. I’ll be there making sure everything is secure for Rev. Jackson,” he said walking back to the unfinished offices awaiting his rehab gifts.