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The Spirit of Grandpa Joe

By Carolyn Mehta

In this new C.O.R.P. series, PMS members describe what motivates them to take the #PMSPledge

In this year of perpetual crisis, many of us are desperately searching for hope and inspiration. From COVID-19’s catastrophic impact on communities that were suffering long before this pandemic arrived, to Black people (still) being senselessly murdered by the police in broad daylight, it feels like the apocalypse is nigh. Due to the ceaseless barrage of headlines designed to elicit a painful emotional response, I have been on a strict “media diet” for the past few months. I’m ashamed that the wealthiest nation on earth has consistently failed to afford basic human rights to a large segment of our society. Our democracy is in peril and the American Dream is a fantasy for the majority of working class people in this country. Greed. Racism. Militarism. These seeds were planted long ago and the fruit they bear is rotten.

Lately, I have been thinking about the people I admire most and how they found a way to summon immense courage in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. The true patriots are not the ones clinging desperately to the status quo. The true patriots are fighting to dismantle the status quo and to build something better in its place. I feel honored to draw inspiration from members of my own family, who took risks in the name of social progress at a time when it was much more difficult to do so.

I recently unearthed a news article from the Chicago Tribune about my Grandpa Joe Allgaier. In February of 1953, he received an award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for “building brotherhood” in his community. In honoring Grandpa Joe, the committee said “He has made it possible for minority group workers to receive promotion and recognition at his place of employment…He is a leader concerned with the improvement of intergroup relations in both civic and religious life.” A few years before Grandpa Joe passed away, my Mom videotaped my sister and I interviewing him about his life. I revisited that interview recently and was reminded that his activism was far more consequential than it appears in print.

Grandpa Joe studied engineering at the University of Illinois and became an engineer at the Continental Can Company in Chicago. My Mom grew up at 81st and Western at a time when Black families were flocking to Chicago to escape Jim Crow. The pernicious practice of redlining was still the norm and their Southwest Side community was desperate to maintain the status quo. Grandpa Joe was a devout Catholic who believed that Christianity and racism, quite simply, were incompatible belief systems. He actually preferred his new neighbors over some of the boisterous young men in their predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood who felt entitled to behave as they pleased because their parents were members of local law enforcement.

In the early 1950’s, Grandpa Joe was a talented manager who had the audacity to promote the most qualified candidate, a Black man, into a role that was reserved for whites only. At that time, Black workers were relegated to the lowest paying jobs with the fewest benefits and worker protections. The man my Grandpa Joe promoted was the first Black employee to join the well-paying Pressmen’s Union. Prohibiting the promotion of Black workers into the Pressmen’s Union was an unspoken policy. The union signed off on the promotion before realizing who had just been promoted. The union leadership flew in from Washington, D.C. to “rectify” the situation, but it was too late. Legally, there was nothing they could do. My Grandfather continued to promote the most qualified candidates, regardless of race, into roles that had previously been reserved for whites only. Eventually, the Pressmen’s Union “came for his job” as they promised they would and he was demoted. Thanks to Grandpa Joe’s activism, the ball was already rolling in the direction of progress and there was nothing they could do to reverse what he had set in motion. The entire union was integrated within a few years.

More than a decade after he first got involved in the civil rights movement, Grandpa Joe met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was on a flight home to Chicago and heard a familiar voice as he was getting off the plane. He had been seated at the front of the plane and Dr. King had been seated in the back. Grandpa Joe waited on the tarmac and took the opportunity to introduce himself. He walked Dr. King to the terminal and they spoke about the state of the civil rights movement for a few precious minutes before Dr. King was greeted by hundreds of adoring Chicagoans.

In August of 1966, the Allgaier family marched with Dr. King in Marquette Park when my Mom was just nine years old. She remembers the smell of Oreo cookies from a nearby Nabisco factory. The counter-protesters outnumbered the people who marched peacefully with Dr. King that day. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like as a child to watch the counter-protesters hurling slurs, bottles, rocks and bricks at Dr. King. Grandpa Joe was furious, though not surprised, to see Dr. King brought to his knees by the white violence of those same boisterous young men he couldn’t stand.

If the Allgaier family was willing to stand firmly on the right side of history knowing they would face retribution, I owe it to today’s victims of racial injustice to carry on their legacy as an advocate for racial justice. They were judged and punished for going against the grain and I could not be more proud to be one of their descendants.

Dr. King on the South Side of Chicago, 1966

Grandpa Joe proactively fought against racism knowing that it would cost him, and now we must proactively fight against racism knowing that it may cost us. Most white people avoid difficult conversations about race at the precise moment when those conversations would be most impactful. You might be preaching to the choir on your Twitter feed, but are you having the uncomfortable conversations that will actually change hearts and minds? Are you taking risks that may not pay off in the short-term, but will ensure that marginalized people who have been senselessly murdered by the police did not die in vain? For every #BlackLivesMatter post we like or share, we should challenge ourselves to match that sentiment with our actions in the real world. An activist must have the courage to do the right thing when it’s difficult and nobody is watching.

There is a distinct difference between genuine activism and the performative slacktivism that is so common today. The ultimate goal of slacktivism is self-promotion rather than meaningful social change. You won’t find Grandpa Joe’s name in the history books because recognition was not his objective. He saw himself as God’s humble servant and felt that it was his moral obligation to create the kind of productive friction that results in real social change. He chose to leverage his privilege as a white person in order to spare Black activists the sole responsibility of repairing broken systems they did not create.

I recognize that putting the white patriarch of my family on a moral pedestal does little to acknowledge the much greater sacrifices that have been made by Black activists for centuries. Grandpa Joe was lucky that he was only demoted rather than fired; the Allgaier house got egged but they were never bombed. Their whiteness afforded them a sense of basic security that America has never afforded to people of color. We owe a much greater tribute to the Black activists who continue, as they always have, to propel our society forward. Our role as allies has evolved beyond simply offering a hand up and the leaders of this movement should be empowered to define what a constructive partnership looks like in 2020.

Sometimes, when I reflect on how little progress we have made, I want to bury my head in the sand. I am multiracial but I identify (and am perceived) as white. It would be so easy to retreat into my privilege bubble. I have to remind myself that remaining neutral is a vote in favor of an unjust status quo. This is messy work, and the fact that we won’t always get it right is not an excuse to disengage. Some of us seem more concerned about “doing it wrong” than we are about doing it at all. We must suspend our egos, accept constructive feedback, and believe in our collective power to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Will I find the courage to risk failure or embarrassment in order to build something better, or will I give my tacit endorsement to an unacceptable status quo? These are the decisions that define our character and, as Grandpa Joe would advise, this is the true meaning of work.

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