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Honoring Civil Rights Veterans

By P. Sterling Stuckey

Yvonne and Wilheminia

    Though Yvonne and Wilhemenia worked eight hours a day, Emergency Relief Committee meetings were held in their apartments on week nights, sometimes late into the night, and on weekends in the early evening. For many months the sisters, on Saturdays, joined the small band of ERC activists in soliciting food in front of supermarkets for Tennessee blacks who lost their jobs and were subjected to threats and sometimes violence as a result of attempting to register to vote.

    It was at the sisters’ suggestion that black churches were urged to aid ERC efforts.

    Churches on the South Side of Chicago, where the ERC was headquartered, consisted overwhelmingly of southern blacks who knew the pain of racial insult in the South and could readily identify with and were likely to come to the aid of their southern brothers and sisters. The ERC project offered a nearly ideal means by which blacks in the North might personally, and in large numbers, become directly involved in the southern movement, which raised their consciousness with respect to their plight in the North.

    Roughly seventy churches answered the ERC call to donate non-perishable food items and clothing to the cause.

    Over a period of eight months, massive amounts of such items were transported by van lines to Tennessee. The churches also contributed substantially to cost of shipments South being covered by the Emergency Relief Committee. The strategy of enlisting the support of the churches was the key to the success of the ERC in support of voter registration. Later that strategy worked on behalf of the Freedom Rider movement. The churches were also asked by the ERC to support Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Yvonne and Wilhemenia helped spearhead the three projects. The Chicago Defender, the principal black newspaper, unfailingly carried news of ERC activity into the homes of blacks on a weekly basis.

    The June 6th, 1961 issue of the Defender carries a photo of Yvonne with newly arrived Freedom Riders in Chicago. Moreover, all major Chicago newspapers–the Tribune, The Sun-Times, and the Daily News covered ERC projects, as did Chicago Television stations. Both voter-registration efforts of the ERC in 1960 and its support of the Freedom Rides in 1961 received national television coverage, over the Huntley-Brinkley evening news. Thus millions of Americans viewed ERC efforts.

    In the opening years of the Sixties, from 1960 to 1961, the ERC, as no other Chicago organization, helped focus the spotlight of publicity on the struggles of southern blacks.

    Chicagoans by the hundreds of thousands knew that a Chicago organization, with the support of churches, and with support from people irrespective of race and class orientation in and around Chicago, was deeply involved in coming to the assistance of southern blacks.

    Such assistance in time was not considered rare at all. But not once, in all the time spent with the sisters, was their talk from them about their contributions to the movement. Yet no one was more responsible for the Sixties movement in Chicago than they.

The Birth of the Emergency Relief Committee

    Sisters Yvonne Stephens and Wilhemenia Evans were, in the spring of 1960, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), at which time they walked picket lines in support of the student sit-in movement in the South. The sisters recruited Sterling Stuckey to join in their effort and encouraged him and James Wagner, who became members of CORE, to attend the national CORE convention in the summer of 1960 where Earl Walter of Los Angeles CORE spoke movingly about reprisals against blacks in Fayette and Haywood counties Tennessee for attempting to secure their voting rights. Upon returning to Chicago, Stuckey and the sisters in July founded The Emergency Relief Committee for Fayette and Haywood Counties, Tennessee– the ERC– as a subcommittee of CORE. In order to send large supplies of food and clothing South, the sisters suggested that the ERC should try and win the support black churches in Chicago, reasoning that most church memberships consisted of blacks who had fled the South in search of a better life.

    The pain felt by southern blacks, Yvonne and Wilhemenia emphasized, was especially felt by those in the North who were apt, the sisters argued, to want to help those left behind. While the great bulk of the support did indeed come from black churches with lower income members contributing heavily to the cause, ERC activity, which made the pages of every Chicago newspaper and was aired over television locally and nationally, attracted a great deal of attention across racial, class, and religious lines. Support also came from individuals near Chicago and from as far away as Washington, D. C. World-class scientist Percy Julian, who lived in nearby Oak Park, Illinois, was among the financial contributors to the cause, as was Ethel Payne, the journalist who lived in Washington, D.C.

    While the response to the ERC cut across class and race lines, the community of ex-southern blacks in Chicago churches drove the relief effort, as the sisters thought would be the case. Writes Michael Gomez, chair of History at NYU: “The work of the ERC was in fact the model later adopted by civil rights organizations in Chicago in relation to the southern rights struggle…” Further, Gomez writes that historian August Meier and sociologist Elliott Rudwick argue that the ERC was “the most active” CORE chapter at the time, sending “about sixty tons of food and clothing,” over five months, to Fayette and Haywood counties.

    Yvonne and Wilhemenia not only helped conceive the ERC but went on, after the ERC had sent roughly eighty tons of food and clothing to blacks attempting to win their voting rights, to support the Freedom Rides. The ERC, in fact, was the first civil rights organization in the country to bring a large number of Freedom Riders North, after their release from jail, to raise money so that CORE might continue its part in the Freedom Rides. Among the Freedom Riders brought to Chicago by the ERC in June of 1961, were Rudy Lombard, Doris Castle, Jerome Smith, Bill Larkin, Julia Aaron, Dave Dennis, and Dr. Walter Bergman. The planning meeting for this effort, as did most ERC meetings, took place in Yvonne’s apartment in Hyde Park. The sisters also helped raise money for Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.

    While helping the drive for voter rights in Tennessee was the signal achievement of the ERC, members of the organization, inspired by the example of Yvonne and Wilhemenia, went on to play a role in the founding of the Amistad Society, which helped prepare the ground for movement for Black Studies and other intellectual movements of the Sixties in Chicago and the nation. Tragically, the sisters, who were completely dedicated to helping others, died of brain anueisms while still in their thirties. But no one in Chicago was more responsible for breathing life into the Chicago movement of the Sixties, which largely sprang into being as a result of their work.

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