by Wade Rathke
New Orleans Celebrating a 50th anniversary feels strange on a Zoom call, but that doesn’t make it feel any less of an accomplishment. As the clock passed midnight in India, the farthest extent of ACORN’s membership, almost fifty staff and organizers gathered from Lima, Manchester, Toronto, Kampala, Prague, Bristol, Edinburgh, Vancouver, Ottawa, Little Rock, New Orleans and elsewhere to be the first to “toast” the initial minutes of the organization’s birthday. The more formal Zoom celebration in the USA and Canada will be later on the evening of the 18th and will include special guest remarks by two of the early presidents of ACORN, Larry Rodgers of Little Rock and Mildred Brown of Philadelphia, as well as ACORN’s current president, Marva Burnett of Toronto. Zoom drives me crazy, but I’m excited to be part of this great day in the life of the organization.
I can remember driving from New Orleans to Little Rock this day fifty years ago. Only days before I had made the trip from Boston to New Orleans to offload everything we owned crammed into and on top of a station wagon. Twenty-one years old, I had made one flight to Little Rock for a couple of days, and now I found myself moving there. Driving through the delta country of southern Arkansas, I had mixed feelings thinking I might have made too hasty a judgement. The view from the windows looked like the Mississippi delta around Sunflower County where we had visited my grandmother there regularly. Finally, getting past Pine Bluff, my anxiety eased as the scenery became trees and rolling hills until reaching Little Rock. That worry was replaced by a knot in my stomach that didn’t disappear until the first meetings and actions we organized took shape, and it appeared like we were actually going to get ACORN off the ground.
One of the wonderful experiences in organizing is the magic moment when you go from a clinching fear of failure in trying to build something from nothing to the point where you are walking the streets of a city and feel like you own every block. I’ve been lucky enough to feel that over and over as an organizer, just as I’ve been lucky to be able to work with ACORN and its family of organizations through the ups and downs, good times and bad, for fifty years. It’s an honor and a privilege to have served our membership in one way or another throughout this time.
Along the Arkansas River in Little Rock there is a gazebo of sorts in a riverfront park that celebrates organizations and businesses that began in the city and made it fifty years. Jogging along the river, long ago I remember finally admitting to myself that I wanted ACORN’s name on one of those plaques. When anyone would ask how long I would work for ACORN, often I would say, “I hope I make it at least fifty years.” I said it without thinking. It was a placeholder, more than a well-reasoned objective. It was another way of saying that I hoped to be part of an organization that built power for its membership, earned their support and loyalty, and could be sustained indefinitely. Who knows what the word “forever” means?
Now we find ourselves growing rapidly while working in fifteen countries around the world with 225,000 family members, scores of active local, national, and global campaigns, and a long list of victories, large and small. New leaders, new organizers, and new strategies all weld themselves to a long fifty-year tradition of organizing and commitment to building low-and-moderate income membership power in both new and old cities and countries. This is hard work, so being a part of the great community of the ACORN family of organizations, staff, members, and leaders is a gift. It’s hard for me not to continue to believe that the best is still to come, and that we haven’t seen anything yet! Yes, those are old, trite sayings, but when looking at the whole arc of ACORN’s history, it is impossible not to believe them.
On days like this it’s hard not to look for good omens. Reading the Wall Street Journal today, all of a sudden in an article about Roger Goodell of the NFL, I looked at the accompanying picture and there was George Wiley, the founder and director of the National Welfare Rights Organization, marching arm in arm with Senator Goodell, Coretta Scott King, Senator George McGovern, and others. The date on the picture was 1970, when George asked me to move south from Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization where I was head organizer to help build his “southern strategy.” I agreed to go to Arkansas and Little Rock, the district of Congressman Wilbur Mills, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee that controlled welfare benefits, on the condition that I could build ACORN. All of which put me in that station wagon driving to Little Rock fifty years ago.
As I said to ACORN’s members and leaders in 2008 at the Detroit Convention, for me, “it’s been life.” Listening to the toasts last night, it was clear that ACORN has been life not just to me but to so many. On ACORN’s birthday, we all join to wish for many more!
Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International
Editor’s sunshine disclosure: The Meteor Publisher and Managing Editor, Mac England was a fundraiser, organizer, and community media developer for ACORN during the 1980’s and 90’s. ACORN was the premier voter registration and housing rights organization from 1969 thru the early 2000s. England also worked on the SEIU/United Labor Unions Local 100 staff during the summer of 1984 in Shreveport, LA