There had been a national gathering of community organizers in Ann Arbor the previous winter, and I'd met folks from Newark and Paterson, Chicago and L. A., but the Cleveland group was special to me. For one thing, Paul Potter, the president of SDS and someone I revered, had moved to Cleveland with other movement veterans, including SNCC activists. Also, the Cleveland representatives at the conference were mostly grassroots community folks and not organizers. I was impressed with each of them—welfare mothers, day laborers, cooks and maids and janitors—with their earnestness and determination and clarity, and I supposed that each was more honest, more decent—indeed, like the Vietnamese, more human—than other people I knew. And finally, I fell in love with one of the delegates at once.
One night I met with five of them, two from the West Side Community Union centered in the largely Appalachian hillbilly section on the near west side, and three from the East Side community Union, organizing in the Black neighborhoods on the far east side. Three of the five were welfare mothers with young children at home—Lillian Craig, who was destined to become a national leader as a militant antipoverty warrior and welfare rights activist; Carol King, the president of the East Side Community Union; and Dorothea Hill, who once smitten with the notion of a school like the Children's Community for her own kids became radiant with the dream and began to work me with all she had—and she had a lot. She was easy to love; they all were. But Jackie Morrison, a Black eighteen-year-old and already a movement veteran, was the one who captured my heart that year.
Jackie had grown up on the east side in a beautiful apartment overlooking a park. Her father was a doctor, her mother a teacher, and she and her younger brother were infused with soaring expectations. You're wonderful, you're beautiful, you're extraordinary, their parents had informed them in every way and with every breath, and anyone who thinks less is ignorant or bigoted or wrong. In high school she had played every sport, joined every club, maintained an A average—she was raised for the Ivy League. But at eighteen and not yet out of the house, she'd also organized a high school civil rights club, and now she had a different idea—she would carve herself into a freedom fighter with her own capable hands.
Jackie walked with perfect posture, something beyond what could be taught or learned, and she came into a room the way a flyweight boxer might enter the ring, a tough little guy expecting victory. She wore blue jeans or denim overalls and a crisp pressed white T-shirt every day, her small face framed by big horn-rimmed glasses and a full Afro. Her hair was a political statement, of course, lost on no one. My dad says I look "country," she told me as I walked her home late one hot night. And my girlfriend from high school says I look "ragged." But, hell, this is the natural me. Screw the world. I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, I said.
You're the first boy to call me a woman, she said. But clearly, I thought, many had called her beautiful. She took my hand and she felt warm and moist, our hands fitting together perfectly. We stopped talking then, and she kissed me on the mouth. When I touched her face I began to tremble. I was wonder-struck. She whispered something, but I don't know what.