Decades before anyone put the letters SNCC, or SCLC together to describe civil rights organizations, Balm L. Leavell, Jr. and Joseph H. Jefferson were telling Chicago and much of the world about injustices African Americans and other every day people were enduring. The men were tireless advocates for better job opportunities for African Americans throughout the nation, but especially Chicago.
Historians of African-American culture and life will note that the many “don’t buy” campaigns have their roots in actions organized by Leavell and Jefferson. In the 1930s he and other prominent Black Chicagoans challenged the Woolworth dime stores to employ more African Americans. When the chain resisted, they launched a “don’t spend your money where you can’t work” drive. Black people were urged to forego shopping at the popular Woolworth’s until the owners acquiesced and agreed to increase their employment rolls with African-American workers at all levels.
To augment their crusades for more jobs, increased opportunities and absolutely no discrimination; the men launched the Negro Labor Relations League (NLRL). Other activists including Rev. Earle Sardon, William L. Dawson and many more were an integral part of the organization. The organization’s persistence, unwavering commitment to better lives for Black people helped Leavell and Jefferson to successfully advocate and obtain more jobs for African Americans in the trucking industry, including on beer trucks, bread trucks and buses. Their work was chronicled in a one-page newsletter, which ultimately grew into the New Crusader newspaper in 1940. Its staunch position on improving Black lives through employment drew a loyal and burgeoning readership. Its editorial policy was fearless and took on issues more established Black newspapers shied away from.
Leavell and Jefferson soon realized they had a winning formula and expanded the New Crusader from an apartment in Ida B. Wells Homes to a store front on South Parkway to a third floor office on Indiana Avenue, then a storefront on King Drive, and began publishing weekly. The New Crusader’s role in the African-American community became more vital with the onset of the then-nascent Civil Rights Movement. At its peak, the New Crusader boasted a subscriber base of more than 35,000 people across the nation. Carrying the column of Elijah Muhammad, “Muhammad Speaks” and shipping the newspaper to the many Mosques across the country, increased the circulation.
Whether they were backers of Malcolm X, or supporters of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Black people embraced the New Crusader on the day’s issues. The paper incorporated strong civil rights positions without ever straying from its stance on labor and better employment opportunities for African-American men and women. Leavell also gained a strong following as he led countless crusades against unfair labor practices and laws. A number of those demonstrations and protests led to employers altering their hiring practices and bringing in more Black workers. Leavell’s unwavering positions paved the path for him to advise a Teamsters Local in Chicago.
Both Leavell and Jefferson faced several threats for their adamant stances, but the men were undaunted. Some would attest then that the threats fostered even more determination, as they relentlessly pursued more job opportunities in local theatres, meat packing companies, dairies throughout the city, as well as Illinois Bell and several daily newspapers.
One of their most celebrated victories was registered against the Pawnbrokers Association. Until Leavell and Jefferson took them on, it was an open secret the people in that industry fostered unscrupulous business practices, especially against the poor and barely literate. Intense negotiations with the association saw Leavell and Jefferson walk away with an agreement that changed the way pawnbrokers did business with Black people. The pair’s business backgrounds gave them a strong sense of when to protest and when to negotiate.
Jefferson, often found himself jailed for the passion of the protests he led; however, he remained steadfast and unwavering in his positions about Blacks and jobs. Even though he was an entrepreneur who owned a successful wrecking company, Jefferson also was widely known in political circles, although he never ran for office. He was a confidant of then Congressman William L. Dawson, the second African-American U.S. Representative in the nation. He also counted Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. among his friends and supporters.
The South Side Chicago native never failed to give back to the community as his extensive resume reveals Jefferson helped organize the Douglass Development Association, Oakwood Boulevard Improvement, and the 11th District Educational Council. He also served as a board member of the YMCA, and was on the steering committee of the 21st District of the Chicago Police Department. Additionally, Jefferson was the coordinator for the Summer Garden Program for the DHR Self-Help Program.
Leavell was a member of the boards of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, Amalgamated Publishers, Inc. and the Washington Park YMCA of Chicago, among others.
Because the city of Gary, Indiana had a Black population that was experiencing several labor, housing and employment problems similar to those Black people in Chicago were facing, Leavell opened a Crusader newspaper in that city. The publication identified the city of its location and the Crusader in Chicago identified with that city as well. Gary recently observed its 55th anniversary. In 2015 the Chicago Crusader celebrated 75 years. Leavell’s widow, Dorothy R., has been at the helm as publisher of both papers since his death, at the age of 58 in 1968. Jefferson was 76 years old when he died in 1984.