Berry's Growing Influence


Edwin Berry at the Podium During the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement Rally in Soldier Field.
- CUL Collection

Robert Jackson, “King’s On Top in Power Struggle: Berry Calls the Shots Behind the Scenes,” Chicago American, September 8, 1966.
- Research and Planning Box 39, News Clippings, Folder (1966) News Clippings – MLK.

Edwin C. Berry, “Statement on Civil Rights Legislation,” Congressional Record, September 3, 1963.
- CUL Collection, III, Box 211, Folder (1963-1966) Congressional Record

Berry's Influence

Berry perhaps best represented the many layers and ambiguities of the new direction of Chicago’s reform movements. He was a powerful public speaker, but most effectively worked behind the scenes to negotiate for change. He created national networks with southern civil rights leaders and federal officials, but worked most intensely on the local changes. He pushed Urban League community organizers and employment activists to connect better with “the people,” while at the same time he revolved in the same circles with the elite members of Chicago politics, media, and business. He developed the League’s programs to reenergize the organization’s longstanding focus on jobs for men as the key to improving African Americans’ place in the city, but he tried to adapt those programs to a new political era by building larger-scale jobs programs, increasingly with federal funds, and by seeking to serve workers at all skill levels. In addition, Berry’s turn to a more confrontational rhetorical style -- calling Chicago “the most segregated city in America,” and calling on the “Uncle Toms” of Chicago to stop bending to the will of the political machine -- illustrated how much things had changed since the late 1940s and early 1950s, when League leaders were pushed out of the organization for being too aggressive on “race issues.” Nonetheless, Berry and the Urban League continued to be targets of criticism from the left and the right. Berry revealed old ties between Chicago’s “race leaders” and the elite white business and political leaders continued to shape black opinion regarding the League. Even as the League grew and became more politically active, the organization became a representative of the limits of the city’s racial politics. For many white liberals and conservatives, the League came to represent the loss of “responsible” black leadership. And many for black militants, the League symbolized the city’s tradition of overly polite politics and negotiations with the people who created and deepened racial inequality.

Raising the League’s Stature

Whatever the controversies around Berry and the League’s new direction, Berry certainly raised the stature of the League both in the increasingly intense local civil rights movement and among the growing number of philanthropists, foundations, and government agencies seeking to fund anti-poverty programs. In the first case, Berry’s role as advisor to all sides of Chicago’s school desegregation movement, and then the Chicago Freedom Movement “to end slums,” placed him at the center of what became a national story about civil rights politics in the urban north.

Significantly, although supporters such as the Community Fund questioned the League’s status, the League’s budget increased dramatically after the 1956 reorganization. In 1955, the budget was well under $100,000; in 1963 it was over $300,000; in 1964 it jumped to over $450,000; over $550,000 in 1965; over $600,000 in 1966, and over $800,000 by 1967. In 1966, 35% of the income came from public contributions. The Community Fund increased its League contribution by over 500% between 1956 and 1966.

Click below to listen to a series of statments by Edwin Berry, whom Chicago Radio Host Bill Ingram introduced as: “One of the most effective communicators of our generation.”

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