Bishop Arthur M. Brazier – The Activist

October 24, 2013
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Bishop Arthur M. Brazier was committed to his call as a minister and a pastor; however, he recognized early in his life a need for being actively involved in the civic life of Chicago, and particularly in the community in which his church resided, Woodlawn. He began his community work with the Industrial Areas Foundation under the tutelage of Saul Alinksy, who is considered to be the founder of modern community organizing, and author & journalist Nicholas Von Hoffman. In 1961, while working with Saul Alinksy, he founded The Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O.), one of the most successful community organizations in the country. He served as T.W.O.’s president for nine years.

Bishop Brazier was instrumental in the forward movement of school desegregation in the 1960s, during a time when growing black communities were forced into ever more crowded and dilapidated schools. Benjamin Willis, the Superintendent at that time, refused to transfer black students to nearby white schools with empty classrooms and modern facilities. Instead, he shortened the school day for black students, instituted double shifts and installed temporary classroom trailers that fast became known as “Willis Wagons.” Brazier and members of T.W.O. began to organize marches and protests pressuring Willis to change his segregationist policies. Armed with carefully researched reports written by local intellectuals, the protesters exposed the vast inequities of the public school system.

In 1964, when it was considered a controversial move, he brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Chicago, and together they protested against segregation in housing and education.

Bishop Brazier, along with T.W.O. members, rallied against slum landlords who where responsible for a sharp upturn in illegal housing conversions, which included turning six unit buildings into twelve – coupled with steep rents despite – deteriorating conditions. This would serve as the beginning of his fair housing activism. He would later go on to serve on the board of the Public Building Commission, as well as the Advisory Board for the Chicago Housing Authority, where he was an advocate for residents, ensuring unit upgrades and improved security were a priority.

In 1963, community members in Woodlawn faced a threat from the expansion plans of the University of Chicago – a threat that would have displaced low-income residents. T.W.O. landed a seat on the City Planning Board and galvanized to stop the advancement of expansion, creating what was referred to as the 61st Street Wall. Bishop Brazier presented and followed through on plans to use vacant land to develop affordable housing. Over the years, what began as a contentious relationship with the university, developed into one based on respect for the community and its residents.

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