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.
  • University of Chicago Press; April 2014
  • ISBN 9780226130729
  • Read online, or download in secure PDF format
  • Title: Crucibles of Black Empowerment
  • Author: Jeffrey Helgeson
  • Imprint: University of Chicago Press

In The Press

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."
— Choice

“Helgeson focuses not on the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League but on lesser-known local individuals and networks that tried to improve African Americans’ lives . . . This thoroughly researched, well-written volume marries the specific to the theoretical.”
— Journal of American History

About The Author

Jeffrey Helgeson is assistant professor at Texas State University. He is also a director at Labor Trail, a collaborative project of the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies.