Here is the text of my presentation at the ASALH Conference in October 2018 in Indianapolis:
“Pride has not taken the dude off the street but has brought the street with him. Imaginative use of the equation of an economic development thrust hooked to a manpower base, provides financial independence and social dignity in addition to black ownership.
“We are doing it while others think and talk, while Blue Ribbon Commissions, “Ghetto” Specialists, and Urbanologists wearily theorize and grope in frustration. We innovate as we tread upon ground not trod upon before.
“Yes, PRIDE IS DOING IT!”
That’s a quote from a 1969 issue of Dig Your BLACK Self, one of the publications of a youth employment program in Washington, D.C. called Pride, Inc. “Dude” was the affectionate and respectful name they used for the type of young man that Pride was designed to help. Dudes lived in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, often had criminal records and were many times functionally illiterate, the ones considered “hard-core unemployed.” The guys none of the other War on Poverty programs could reach.
Despite the rhetoric, the Pride program was not as revolutionary as it may have seemed at first glance. The program was innovative in that it involved recognizing the dudes as change agents with the presumption that the dudes could be converted into successful black capitalists by teaching them skills and addressing the inferiority complex they had inherited from a racist, oppressive society. Pride did not seek to overturn the world of white bureaucracy, capitalism, and justice; its leaders believed that they could operate within these systems without succumbing their structural oppression. They rejected assumptions of black inferiority and criminality rampant in the analysis of experts but accepted the idea that structural inequality could be overcome through personal effort. The Pride programs attempted to marry the self-determination ideology of capitalism with the Black Power emphasis on connection to community, encouraging the dudes to use what they learned to improve the inner-city rather than escape it. What started as a month-long cleanup program meant to cool rising tensions in the summer of 1967 expanded to include an array of business ventures.
My research is the first attempt to place Pride within its appropriate historical context. Previously when Pride has been included in scholarship, it is presented within the context of the political career of one of its founders, Marion Barry. In these narratives, Pride is merely the vehicle through which Barry gains political power in D.C. The program’s development is interpreted through the lens of his later career and scandals. I argue that a better way to interpret Pride is not by what happened later but by what came before. Long before he was the “Mayor for Life,” Barry was a Civil Rights activists and the first chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. When he came to lead the Washington field office of SNCC in 1965, he was soon drawn into the local issues of District residents. As Anne Valk has argued, Barry’s activism in Washington—which included a bus boycott, the “Free DC” campaign for home rule, and Pride—was an important component of SNCC’s emerging strategy “to articulate economic concerns as part of its racial liberation agenda, recognizing that racism and economic inequalities could not be separated in Washington, where pronounced disparities in poverty separated black and white residents.” Barry found that when he tried to get poor Washingtonians fired up about structural injustice, residents wanted his help with more immediate problems like housing and jobs, and his SNCC office didn’t have a program available to address those issues.
One of the big problems that black Washingtonians endured was police brutality, something Barry himself had experienced after a violent arrest for jaywalking. On May 1, 1967, Clarence Brooker died after he was shot in the back over a bag of cookies. The resulting public outrage was exactly what local and federal officials did not want heading into summer—a catalytic event that could inflame tensions and lead to an uprising in the nation’s capital. One of Brooker’s friends Rufus Mayfield, nicknamed “Catfish” began leading protests and speaking out about Brooker’s murder. Marion Barry, who had recently left SNCC and had been trying to develop a program that would address the kinds of problems that black Washingtonians were facing, was impressed by Catfish’s charisma and natural leadership skills. The two teamed up: Barry taught Mayfield about organizing direct action campaigns and Mayfield introduced Barry to the inner-city youth and the community of the streets. Catfish taught Marion how to be a dude.
Usually the origin story of Pride has included some version of an impromptu public showdown between Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz and Marion Barry with Barry inventing Pride on the fly when Wirtz challenges him to come up with a solution to youth unemployment. My research found evidence that in fact, Barry and Mayfield had been working for months to develop the program that became Pride, partnering with an official in the D.C. Office of Community Renewal, Carrol Harvey, who was a former dude himself. They had been trying to get funding for their idea through the existing anti-poverty agency in the city but its leaders were reluctant to sign on to the program’s signature feature: that it would be organized and led by the dudes. Wirtz, though, was a true believer in the idea of “maximum feasible participation” that was, at least on paper, a guiding principal of the War on Poverty programs. Wirtz was facing the last month of the hot summer of 1967 with no plan for how to keep simmering tensions cool as the existing summer jobs programs ran out, so he took a chance on Barry and Mayfield’s idea and provided funding for a 4-week trial run.
Pride is born. The dudes gained national attention for their massive effort to clean the streets of their neighborhoods. Their accomplishments were impressive. Pride successfully organized around one thousand fourteen- to eighteen-year-old boys in the “hard and dirty work” of clearing lots and cleaning up the streets, mostly in their own neighborhoods. They collected so much trash that the city had trouble providing enough trucks to haul it away. Impatient with the slow response of the city’s sanitation department, Pride workers broke into the lab where the municipal supply of rat poison was stored and mixed their own. Rather than chastise the boys, officials praised their enthusiasm. Their accomplishment of killing thousands of rodents throughout the city inspired the department to hire more workers in pest control. Pride had to turn job-seekers away, proving that the dudes wanted to work. The Pride model seems to work, at least in the short-term. The neighborhoods were looking better, the residents were impressed by the effort of the young men, and money is flowing into the poor communities. Life and Ebony Magazine ran articles, and CBS Evening News declared that Catfish, who had become the example of the reformed Pride dude, had the answer to the problems of poverty in the inner city. “It may be that this young man knows the real secret, holds the real key to spiritual equality, and is far ahead of most of the national Negro leadership.” Concerned about increasingly confrontational rhetoric from black leaders like Stokely Carmichael and even Dr. King, the white establishment liked the Pride vision better. Poor black kids like Catfish can overcome the crushing problems of inadequate employment, housing, and education by cleaning up the slum. The problems of poverty and racism are solved!
Politicians loved this message, too, and Catfish found himself in great demand for photo ops, including with the Vice President. The Department of Labor extended the grant to keep Pride going for a year. $2 million, or about $14 million in today’s dollars.
Pride moved into a new headquarters at 16th and U Street and began to make long-term plans.
But running a multi-million-dollar anti-poverty program was a different situation that getting a bunch of kids to haul trash for a month. Changes were inevitable. Pride had enemies in Congress who were convinced that this program was accomplishing nothing but turning tax dollars over to criminals and were determined to shut it down. In this environment, Mayfield’s notoriety became a lightning rod for potential controversy. He was also a symbol of the signature feature of the program that the older leaders had decided was not workable—control and decision-making by the dudes. Within a few months, Catfish resigned, and Marion Barry became the public face of Pride. The new organizational structure became “Dudes and Brass,” with top down control by Barry, Carroll Harvey, and a third founder, Mary Treadwell.
Then in April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated and Washington, DC, like many other cities in the nation, erupts. Riots sweep through the neighborhoods where Pride operates for several days. Programs like Pride were funded to prevent just this kind of uprising. That could have been the end of the experiment. But the Pride leadership was already developing a new strategy and they were able to use the destruction as a catalyst for their expanding vision of black capitalism.
I chose these photos from the Evening Star collection because they include a Pride-owned gas station,
one of the for-profit businesses Pride developed to provide economic opportunity for the poor black community.
Using grant funding, and perhaps some creative bookkeeping, Pride bought a landscaping company, other service stations, and a number other commercial property. The plan was to use the non-profit Pride employment program to train young men in job skills, and then move them into for-profit businesses that would transform poor neighborhoods. They would create a network of black entrepreneurs. Through black leadership and black ownership, they hoped to overcome the crushing legacy of white supremacy and oppression. It was a concept that sounded particularly palatable to the new presidential administration as Nixon sought to dismantle Johnson’s War on Poverty programs. Pride continued to receive grants and to become a fixture in the Washington community through the 1970s.
But there were some inherent problems with the concept. As Washington Post columnist William Raspberry pointed out, depending on the poor black community for the workforce, the capital investment, and the customer base for these businesses was a laudable dream that was likely to fall short of its goal. The neighborhoods that Pride planned to serve were low-income and woefully short of the kind of capital necessary to provide adequate investment without government assistance. There was another problem with the numbers, Raspberry noted. “Barry sees a system in which the lowliest grease monkey can work [his] way up to better and better jobs. This is a beautiful concept, but it requires both an endless supply of grease monkeys to feed in at the bottom and an ever-expanding chain of Pride businesses to place the thoroughly trained employees as they are pushed out at the top. Otherwise, there must certainly come a day when there is a good man at every position and no room …to move up.” The logistics of the Pride feeder system could only work if the Pride business empire kept expanding and the poor communities in which it operated somehow became much more prosperous than they had been historically. And although they dismissed the so-called experts and professionals in their publications, the Pride leaders found themselves lacking in the expertise and experience needed to both navigate the federal bureaucracy and develop successful businesses.
In the end, Pride was never able to break free from federal support and create economically independent businesses.
The organization collapsed after an ill-fated attempt to run a large apartment complex, Clifton Terrace which resulted in several convictions for fraud.
But Marion Barry moved into politics as limited home rule came to Washington in the 1970s. The principles of Pride lived on after he was elected mayor in the D.C. Summer Youth Program as well as in city contracts awarded to black-owned businesses.
And although Pride was never able to achieve the dream of a remade economic landscape run by the dudes, there were success stories. Including Hon. Gerald Lee, one of those Pride kids who went on to an impressive career as a federal judge. One of his law clerks, Justin Fairfax, was recently elected Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.
In his 2009 survey of the existing Black Power scholarship, Peniel Joseph calls on historians to “take seriously unacknowledged and obscure strains of black activism,” particularly those stories that are difficult to pigeonhole into one specific area of study but instead reveal the connections between social, economic, and political movements. My research moves Pride out from under the shadow of Barry’s political career and places it within the context of the intersections of Great Society liberalism, Black Power self-determination, and black capitalism’s attempt to remake economic power dynamics. Re-situating the Pride effort to create employment opportunities for the most marginalized members of society, to remake the economy of the ghetto, within its proper historical context contributes to a fuller picture of the breadth of Black Power activism. Though it could not ultimately transform the structural inequality of the systems in which it operated, Pride made a difference in many young people’s lives and in the cultural life of Washington, accomplishments that should be recognized.