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Crucibles of Black Empowerment

Chicago’s Neighborhood Politics from the New Deal to Harold Washington

The term “community organizer” was deployed repeatedly against Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign as a way to paint him as an inexperienced politician unfit for the presidency. The implication was that the job of a community organizer wasn’t a serious one, and that it certainly wasn’t on the list of credentials needed for a presidential résumé. In reality, community organizers have played key roles in the political lives of American cities for decades, perhaps never more so than during the 1970s in Chicago, where African Americans laid the groundwork for further empowerment as they organized against segregation, discrimination, and lack of equal access to schools, housing, and jobs.

In Crucibles of Black Empowerment, Jeffrey Helgeson recounts the rise of African American political power and activism from the 1930s onward, revealing how it was achieved through community building. His book tells stories of the housewives who organized their neighbors, building tradesmen who used connections with federal officials to create opportunities in a deeply discriminatory employment sector, and the social workers, personnel managers, and journalists who carved out positions in the white-collar workforce.  Looking closely at black liberal politics at the neighborhood level in Chicago, Helgeson explains how black Chicagoans built the networks that eventually would overthrow the city’s seemingly invincible political machine.

368 pages | 16 halftones, 4 line drawings, 8 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Historical Studies of Urban America

Black Studies

Chicago and Illinois

History: American History, Urban History

Sociology: Social History


Crucibles of Black Empowerment successfully explores the motivations and sources of how community-based protest politics counterbalanced the apathy and connivance of establishment politics and politicians over one half-century in efforts aimed at improving black life in Chicago. The activists who made this reality are both known and unknown, and include Rev. Addie Wyatt, Ida B. Wells, and Lovelyn Evans in labor, social service, and employment, along with Tim Black, Sidney Williams, Ed ‘the Iron Master’ Wright, and Ed Doty in civil rights, politics, and labor.”

Christopher Robert Reed | Roosevelt University

“Spanning five decades of history, Crucibles of Black Empowerment chronicles the community-based struggles waged by black Chicagoans against an unholy trinity of racial, class, and gender inequalities. Using identities forged by work, family, and community, they pursued individual opportunity and collective welfare through economic initiative, political mobilization, unionization, protest, and patient institution building. More than anything else, Jeffrey Helgeson champions the durability of black Chicago’s pragmatic liberal tradition.”

Clarence Lang | author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75

“Jeffrey Helgeson’s Crucibles of Black Empowerment is a sweeping, compelling, and original contribution to Chicago’s rich African American history that addresses a wide range of subjects: individual and collective aspirations, the Second Great Migration, neighborhood activism, employment and housing discrimination, and political mobilizations in the mid-20th century, among other things.  Grounded in exhaustive research, Helgeson’s study meticulously reconstructs the contours of a liberal political culture in black Chicago that highlighted individual opportunity, pursued interracial coalitions, and advocated for governmental action to produce social change.  On many levels this is a model study of black community politics and protest that should be required reading for anyone interested in Chicago’s—and the country’s—troubled racial past.”

Eric Arnesen | George Washington University

"Highly recommended."


“Helgeson’s analysis is informative and well-written, chronicling an important period in 20th century African American history. Helgeson expands on earlier studies of black Chicago utilizing sources that are original and enlightening. His examination of the influence of the NOI newspaper Muhammad Speaks shows how critical this publication was in developing a number of community-based programs and in leading the charge for the election of black candidates who would be independent of the Daley machines. Based on the skillful use of primary sources from a wide variety of archival collections, Crucibles of Black Empowerment is an insightful work that should be useful to researchers and students interested in understanding how Civil Rights, Black Power, and other national movements played out at the local level.”

Journal of African American History

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Maps


1. The Politics of Home in Hard Times

2. Community Development in an Age of Protest, 1935–40

3. “Will ‘Our People’ Be Any Better Off after This War?”

4. A Decent Place to Live: The Postwar Housing Shortage

5. Capitalism without Capital: Postwar Employment Activism

6. Sources of Black Nationalism from the 1950s to the 1970s

7. Harold Washington: Black Power and the Resilience of Liberalism

Postscript: The Obamas and Black Chicago’s Long Liberal Tradition





Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change: Benjamin L. Hooks Outstanding Book Award

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