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Addams's FBI file

Bill Ayers on why Jane Addams was so “dangerous”

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The hard-bitten, streetwise novelist, Nelson Algren, mentioned Jane Addams in his epic love poem to Chicago, City on the Make . “Not that there's been any lack of honest men and women sweating out Jane Addams' hopes here,” he wrote, “But they get only two outs to the inning, while the hustlers are taking four.” When Mayor Big Bill Thompson put in the fix for Al Capone, he tied the town to the rackets for keeps. “Yet,” Algren went on, “The do-gooders go doggedly forward, making the hustlers struggle week in and week out, year after year. And since it's the 9th inning down, the ball game never being over ‘til the last man is out, it remains Jane Addams' town, as well as Big Bill's. The ball game isn't over yet.” Jane Addams' town.

I love the sound of it.

Addams was, of course, one of Chicago 's and America 's greatest dissenters. A socialist, a pacifist, a feminist and an activist. Fighter for fairness and for simple justice. She and her dauntless colleagues in the Settlement House Movement, said that Hull-House must be grounded in the philosophy whose foundation is the solidarity of the human race. A philosophy that would not waiver, they argued, when the race happens to be represented by a drunken woman or a wayward boy. Solidarity, the unity of humanity. These principles came to life at the heart of all their activities, of each program, and every campaign.

When J. Edgar Hoover, the Founding Director of the FBI, labeled Addams “The Most Dangerous Woman in America ,” he had a point. After all, she'd thrown in her lot with workers, immigrants, women, and African Americans. With all the oppressed and exploited and marginalized people, with children. And more than that, she made the connection between dilapidated housing, crummy schools, segregated facilities and meager wages, for example, with a larger system of exploitation, and a fatally flawed democracy.

Of course, Addams has been sanitized and defanged with the rosy glow of history. But in her own time and place, she was a fighter and a builder, forging her own unique path as she created communities of care and compassion. She demanded much more of participants and of herself than doing good or giving help or providing services. Who decides, after all, what help is needed or desired? When does help become unhelpful, or even disabling and entangling? Jane Addams rejected the controlling stance of the benefactor. She stood for solidarity, not service. She found a way to work with and not for people. To learn from, not about, their lives. To move horizontally and not vertically, as she built the movement.

Ella Baker, one of the leading mothers of the modern Civil Rights Movement, connected in the same way when she promoted the idea of student volunteers working on voter registration in rural Mississippi in Georgia and Alabama in the early 1960s. The work needed doing and the volunteers were willing. But Baker was deeply skeptical about the help these students could actually bring to the sharecroppers and peasants of the south. She pointed out, in a radical reversal, worthy of Jane Addams, that the students from colleges and universities had everything to learn from the oppressed people themselves, and that the volunteers, with all their formal book learning and their degrees, and their professional futures, were in deepest need of help and of education. So she urged them on, not in the posture of do-gooders, but as seekers and learners.

The stance of solidarity asks us to recognize that the people with the problems will also be the people with the solutions. That there is no outside expert who knows it all, no Lady Bountiful waiting in the wings who can provide the answers. No foundation or government grant that can replace the wisdom on the ground. There are perhaps lessons here for us today, lessons about raising our voices in indignation and protest in response to injustice, and human suffering. Lessons about acting to create a more peaceful, more balanced and just social order. If we choose to stir ourselves, to act against the hard edges of injustice, we might, each and every one of us, become the men and women sweating out Jane Addams' hopes here and now.