Q&A With Pastor Martin Deppe

Martin Deppe has authored an untold story of the Civil Rights Movement as it happened in Chicago from 1966 to 1971. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assigned Rev. Jesse Jackson, while still a student at Chicago Theological Seminary the project of Operation Breadbasket. It is a project that became Jackson’s life work and changed the political course of the city and the nation. Breadbasket was founded by pastors and to insure Black consumers, businesses received their fair share. Boycotts were put in place against major companies that had major business in the Black community. In a six year peiod the economic gains to Chicago’s South Side amounted to $57.5 million annually. Deppe’s book provides an insider’s account of a history that has been somewhat overlooked. We chatted with Pastor Deppe to talk about his new book: Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago. He will be at Rainbow Push in a book signing Saturday, March 25.

You were one of the founding members of Operation Breadbasket. Why was this book important for you to write? Why do you think this story has not been told until now?

A necessary task in retirement is sorting through old stuff, you know. And I’ve been retired 17 years. Along about year 7, the fall of 2006, I came across a box of files entitled Operation Breadbasket. I leafed through them. Later I checked at nearly Sulzer Library and discovered the Breadbasket story almost entirely missing from the civil rights literature. A few references here and there. I was mortified at this gap in the record. After checking with and receiving strong encouragement from my old colleagues, Revs. Clay Evans, Calvin Morris, John Kwame Porter, Gerald Forshey, Willie Barrow and others, realizing I had a good set of files, buttressed by loans of others dusty files, and feeling God’s call, I set about writing the narrative.

My sense of the neglect over Breadbasket is that it was an outlier, a justice effort that did not fit neatly into the historical/chronological movement for civil and voting rights followed by the black power days. Breadbasket crossed borders in adapting civil rights methods to economic empowerment and thus was doing “black power” without calling it that! The historians simply missed the boat and did not see either the uniqueness or recognize the success of the Breadbasket enterprise. Unfortunately, this extends to school textbooks and classrooms.

During the turbulent times in the 60’s you were a White minister in a Black church. What was that experience like?

Pastor Martin Deppe, Jennie Cottrell and Mrs. Margaret Conttrell at New Gresham United Methodist Church.

It was a totally eye-opening, enriching, moving experience. Having been a history major I was stunned by the realization that my studies omitted a significant element of American history. The people of my Gresham parish at 87th and Emerald opened my eyes and won my heart. The MYF, a youth group of some 30 high schoolers, became the favorite of all my MYFs, and I am looking forward to a 50th year reunion with several of them in April at a book presentation back at our old church. The only time I was uncertain about my role was after Dr. King was assassinated; I wore a clerical in the neighborhood for some days, but I never felt animosity, only respect. One day, our young son Andrew came home from Clissold Elementary School, and asked his pregnant mother, “Mommie, will the baby be black?” Out of the mouths of babes.

LaShaun Jackson, Leon Rogers, Matt Forte, Cobe Williams and Omar Moore at Back to School Book bag give away.
You have seen the Reverend Jesse Jackson grow from a student to an international icon. How has he changed throughout the years?

Reverend Jackson has so much about him that has not changed! Let me begin there. He has an insatiable passion for justice that has never wavered from his college days at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. There he participated in sit-ins at the local Woolworth lunch counter and led demonstrations at segregated theaters and restaurants, becoming a campus hero. In the Breadbasket years, 1966-1971, I observed that passion as well as high intellect and leadership in our negotiating sessions with many of Chicago’s leading CEOs. That same passion guided him throughout the Operation PUSH years and into the current Rainbow PUSH Coalition justice efforts. Rev. Jackson remains indefatigable in seeking to bend the arc of history toward justice.

Over these many decades Rev. Jackson has embodied the movement toward justice as much as anyone. He stands with Nelson Mandela as a towering figure of human dignity and decency. And I think he has come to understand his signature role as a bridge figure in the movement from Kunta Kinte in Roots to the presidency of Barack Obama. I believe that Rev. Jackson has matured from his charismatic beginnings to a seasoned and chastened leader of the relentless movement toward the ‘beloved community.’

Dr. King was the originator of the Breadbasket concept. How did it work?

Rev. Leon Sullivan began the original concept in Philadelphia and Dr. King was so impressed that he invited Sullivan to Atlanta to share it with the SCLC Board. It was in Atlanta that King and his staff developed the five step praxis which he brought to Chicago in January 1966. As our Breadbasket Steering Committee of pastors began to implement the program, we soon added a 6th step.

The six step praxis/methodology begins after a committed group (in this case the pastors of African American churches in Chicago whom King brought together) have focused on an injustice (for us discrimination in employment) and have chosen a target.

  1. Careful investigation of issue (employment statistics from government forms, company data and insider discovery)
  2. Developing very specific demands based on fairness (28% black folk but only 5% of jobs and almost zero % at top levels)
  3. Negotiations over the written demands (almost a Sunday School class, helping the CEOs confront if not understand the extent of discrimination/racism, using Biblical and actual stories)
  4. Economic withdrawal: If negotiations break down it’s “To the Pulpits!” and announcing to our congregations to stop drinking Dean’s milk or Pepsi Cola until their CEOs return to the table. Then to the picket lines with signs and leaflets, challenging our parishioners and Breadbasket network on carrying their faith and stewardship ($$$) into non-violent direct action.
  5. Public signing of written covenant/agreement, with specific numbers of jobs in all categories, names and amounts of listed products, use of black services etc. with time-line.
  6. Monitoring the covenant with regular follow-up meetings and phone calls.

Briefly, what was the formula for the success of Breadbasket and its “Don’t Buy Campaigns?”

Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago, 1966–1971 by Martin Deppe

I believe it was our quick discovery of the power of the consumer dollar when used by parishioners as an act of faithful stewardship that opened up the gates to effecting social change. The word of our early successes helped galvanize and expand our base so any threat of a “don’t buy campaign” carried an increasingly powerful encouragement for the target companies to do the right thing. It was not moral suasion but the non-violent use of the parishioner/consumer’s pocket book that elicited restorative justice behavior.

In what amounts to a six year period Breadbasket efforts netted 4500 jobs and about $57.5 million annually? What were the hall marks of this achievement?

The evidence could be seen in growing numbers of African Americans at all levels of employment in covenanted companies, such as truck drivers delivering Coca-Cola, apprentices in the meat department of stores, Baldwin ice cream and Joe Louis milk on the shelves, black scavengers backing up to super markets and increasing use of black-owned banks by blacks. Seeing this change brought a sense of dignity, ‘I am somebody,’ and a renewed confidence in our ability to improve and empower our families, our local businesses and our total community.

Would the Breadbasket concept be effective today?

Remarkably, the methodology is still usable today, especially if you have a base of people who will commit collectively to follow the program with courage and discipline. All steps are important, but the target chosen may require considerable adaptation for current circumstances. Social media is a new player that must be factored in.

Breadbasket was about economic justice, define that for me.

On day three of the Watts riot in 1965, the crowd shouted at Dr. King: “All we want is jobs!” Breadbasket moved beyond equality in public accommodations and the right to vote; it took the movement into the home and heart of the people – offering jobs, financial security, stability and a community of evolving business ownership, growth and economic independence. Ending the indignities of the work place and of joblessness also brought confidence and motivation for education and advancement and dreams of a more abundant life.

What do you like most about Chicago?

It is my home. It is home to a great slice of humanity – friendly, fabulous people. It extends from the lakefront to the big shoulders of industry to my modest bungalow. Chicago offers opportunity for all, a rich mixture of people and culture; it has thrived on immigrants, including all my German forebears. We must remain vigilant to maintain and improve fairness in all areas of life, especially in public education. We must find a solution to gun violence. But as our first African American President declared, “Yes we can.” And we will. Chicago is home and will remain so.

Breadbasket changed the face of Chicago in more ways than one, how did Breadbasket change this city?

The key word is empowerment. Breadbasket empowered people in the pew to seek justice collectively through their modest consumer dollar. The empowerment broadened to include young business entrepreneurs, workers, students, pastors, teachers, activists of many stripes, as well as children and families. The entire face of black Chicago took on a smile, a hope, a somebodyness, a radiance that touched the whole city. Much of the gleam has worn off; much of this history has been forgotten; but SCLC Operation Breadbasket with youthful Rev. Jesse Jackson’s inspired, energizing and innovative leadership, played a role in making Chicago a better city with a thriving and strong South Side. We’ve a story to tell to the city that can enlighten and encourage new dreams and engender new adventures on behalf of justice and the ‘beloved community.’

Hermene Hartman
Hermene Hartman

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