Soon we knocked on doors, talked around kitchen tables, hung out on stoops, and went to picnics in the park. We were identifiable outsiders, living here by choice. As we went door-to-door we tried to engage people in conversations that might reveal the obstacles they faced in their lives; in naming those barriers, that act itself might enable them to come together with others to struggle, to repair, to overcome. Or so we hoped.
When Alex first knocked on Dorothea Hill's door, she opened it with a big welcoming smile. Oh, you're the civil rights kids from down the block, she said. I've been waiting for you, come on in. They talked into the night about children, welfare, schools, crime, rent, gangs, the problems and the life of the neighborhood—it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Later when I asked Mrs. Hill why she told Alex she'd been waiting for us, she laughed and said, "I saw the movement on television for years fighting for justice; as poor as I am, I figured after a while it would have to reach my door."
Dorothea Hill was a natural leader. Perceptive, articulate, respected, she had grown up on the block and was now raising her own children there. Active in her church and PTA, she was a person others looked to for guidance and help. When a child was hit by a car on Lakeview Avenue, it was Mrs. Hill who called a meeting in her living room to press the city to install a stoplight; when a back-to-school welfare allowance was cut, Mrs. Hill organized the protest; when a rat bit a youngster while she slept in her apartment, Dorothea Hill thought up the dramatic tactic of taking dead rats with us downtown to the demonstration and piling them on the front steps of the government offices. Get the rats out of Lakeview and City Hall, Dorothea Hill shouted into a bullhorn, leading the chants.
Mrs. Hill opened meetings with devotions, part prayer, part politics: Thank you Lord for Your many blessings, for Your mercy, and please, Lord, help us out on this demonstration next week. Then we sang several songs—"May the Circle Be Unbroken," "This Little Light of Mine," "Oh, Freedom"—to bring us together as a group, reminding us of our common purpose and making us all feel a little stronger. When she began to set the agenda, Mrs. Hill would always interject her own words of wisdom as introduction: Tonight we'll be talking about welfare rights and the Welfare Workbook we'll be publishing soon. Now remember, just because you're poor and on welfare doesn't mean you're not a citizen, and citizens have rights. Or: Now we'll move on to figuring out about starting that Children's Community school. Our children are poor, true, but that doesn't mean they don't have fine minds, right Bill? We have to think about how to stimulate those fine minds.
The first of the month was a celebratory time on our block, everybody with a little money jangling in their pockets. The Community Union began to host First of the Month potlucks. Mrs. Hill would often provide the mustard greens and chitlins. Don't eat just anybody's chitlins, Bill, she would warn me with a sly smile. Now, my chitlins are a rare delicacy, she said, but you never know what you might be eating next door.