Power to his people

The demonstration was small at first. It was a brisk morning, unseasonably cool for early May in Chicago, and by 8:30 about two dozen people, all of them black, had gathered in Federal Plaza to hear speeches calling for slavery reparations.

Conrad Worrill, the leader, seemed unconcerned by the attendance. Over six feet tall and gangly, Worrill was, as always, slightly bent forward, still full of the poise and energy he once used to star on the basketball court, still seemingly ready to cut toward a hoop or get back on defense. His beard was wooly and gray, and his dreadlocks spilled out from under his knit skull cap and fell to the middle of his back. At first glance, his face appeared locked into complete seriousness, focused and unyielding, his eyes scanning the plaza, noting every person who’d joined him this morning and everyone who should have been there but wasn’t. It was a look of such intensity that strangers could easily mistake it for raw anger or intimidation–yet Worrill still broke into the sly half-grin of a high school smart-ass as he cracked jokes, or smiled widely as he hugged another longtime friend who was just arriving.

And, as usual, Worrill was ready to take a call from a friend, a reporter or someone wanting his help, insight or opinion: Even as he spoke to the group through a portable PA system, wires connected to his cell phone dangled from his earpiece and a small microphone clipped to his African dashiki. He gets a lot of calls.

Over the last 35 years, Worrill, 62, had organized dozens of rallies like this one. Some had involved tens of thousands, but many others had only drawn a handful. As a grassroots organizer, he obviously wanted to gather big crowds–but those who came had to believe in their cause, regardless of their immediate prospects; they had to be able to see that, as “Africans in America,” they would create their own strength simply by getting together, and they didn’t need anyone else’s approval. Besides, the majority society would never give them proper credit. That’s how it went at the Million Man March in 1995, when Worrill and other organizers were certain that between 1 million and 2 million people had jammed onto the National Mall Grounds in Washington, D.C., but federal parks officials put the number at about 400,000. Worrill had shrugged it off: “You know white folks can’t count.”

“Black Power!” Worrill called into the microphone this morning, sounding emphatic and assured without losing his typical just-hanging-out tone. “Black Power!” the group shouted back.

After a brief pause, he explained how that slogan was first used by civil rights activists in the Deep South in 1966. The others listened carefully. This was hardly a digression; as Worrill sees it, every moment that black people are together offers them an opportunity to declare their power–to declare that they matter–and, just as important, to remember their story: the great minds, the artists who influenced cultures around the world, and the regular, everyday men and women who triumphed over racism. Black people needed to be reminded of their importance, and Worrill was going to tell them if no one else would.

“They were trying to break the cycle of fear for our people to vote,” Worrill said. “That’s right!” some people called out; others applauded or nodded; a few lifted their fists.

Over the next few minutes, Worrill invited a range of others to speak, including a leader of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense and a member of Trinity United Church of Christ. Afterward, Worrill reminded the group that they would soon march across the street to “pack the court” for that day’s hearing in a class-action lawsuit against several Fortune 500 corporations accused of profiting from slavery. The crowd grew to 30, then 35. “Our people had been beaten, killed, died from slavery–over 200 years of slavery blood. Reparations!” read one woman’s sign. Fliers were handed to African Americans passing by on their way to work. White people looked down and hurried past.

Led by the Trinity member, the demonstrators, now numbering about 50, began to sing: Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. Off to the side, Worrill listened, but didn’t join in; though he was raised a Methodist and now meditates on African spiritual writings every morning, he gave up on formal religious displays and affiliations a long time ago.

Once the song ended, he addressed the group again. “A lot of people say, ‘This happened 200-some years ago. Why, Conrad, are you still talking about it?’ Because the infrastructure of the Western Hemisphere was built on the backs of slaves. We were introduced to the Western Hemisphere as property. What young brothers are doing today in our communities, drug dealing and gangbanging–this is a remnant. The Jewish people remind you on a daily basis not to forget. Why should we forget?”

People shouted that they wouldn’t. Still urgent and forceful, but never losing control, never losing his focus or his casual closeness with the rest of the group, he continued. “There was once a debate about whether we were ‘Negro’ or ‘colored.’ Then it was whether we were ‘black.’ Well, we knew all along that we weren’t ‘Negro’ or any of that. We were doing African things all along. It showed in the colors that we wore.”

“That’s right!” people shouted.

“The songs we sang.”

“That’s right!”

“The things we wrote.”

“That’s right!”

“Wherever there are African people in the world, we are their representatives,” he told the gathering. “Today we stand proud to be black people, to be Africans. And every day in our community we try to get people to wake up and stand up.” Looking out at the others, he lifted his fist. “Reparations now! They owe us!” Everyone shouted it back and cheered. “Now,” he instructed, “let’s file across the street.”

Watched by several police officers nearby, Worrill marched to the main entrance of the Dirksen Federal Building, followed by the crowd. He stood outside, reminding them to get their IDs ready for the security guards, still handing out fliers.

Within a few minutes, the group had taken all the seats in the courtroom and spilled into the hallway outside, numbering at least 150 altogether, buzzing with excitement. A cross-section of the African American community, they ranged from children to college students to senior citizens, some in shirts and ties, others in traditional African clothing, others in T-shirts. And the energy level surged around 9:30, when U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Norgle Sr. stepped to the bench and announced that he was moving the hearing to a larger courtroom.

Worrill caught one of the first elevators upstairs. As the others arrived, he stood just outside the doorway to the new room and waved people in like a third-base coach. The seats filled quickly; Worrill found a spot in the front row, behind the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ table. But he couldn’t sit still. Jumping up, he circulated through the crowd, calling out greetings, shaking hands and laughing with people before returning to his seat to take notes on the legal proceedings.

The status hearing itself was mostly routine, with the two legal teams wrangling over the schedule for submitting the next round of arguments. As soon as it was over, Worrill was in a hurry again; he was in charge of the press conference. In the lobby downstairs, he was a force of efficiency, quickly gathering the plaintiffs, their attorneys and supporters out of a thicket of milling people. He had them form a semi-circle around a microphone stand, inviting reporters to face them. While a supporter handed out informational folders, he made introductions and noted the turnout.

“Whatever happens in the courts, we will outlast the courts,” he promised.

* * *

For the last few years, as the national debate over reparations has escalated, Worrill has emerged as an international leader in the movement pushing for them. In 1997, he presented the United Nations with a petition accusing the United States government of genocide and asking for reparations. Two years ago, he was part of a group that successfully lobbied delegates at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, to declare that slavery was “a crime against humanity.” And he created the “community component” of the national lawsuit for reparations, mobilizing African Americans to fill local courtrooms during hearings in the case.

The issue has almost become Worrill’s entire focus–if not his outright obsession. “Reparations now! They owe us!” he declares at every opportunity. Worrill deeply believes that reparations, and the debate about them, will force the nation to lay bare its history of racism, including the “unjust enrichment” of white people.

Worrill says African Americans have learned about the power of reparations from the successful campaigns of Native American tribes, Holocaust survivors and Japanese American internment camp prisoners, who have received financial restitution and, more significantly, international recognition of the crimes committed against them. “It just seemed like that would be applicable many times-fold for African people,” he said.

And, in this case, the debate will also help black Americans confront internal problems. As he puts it, “we’ve got to repair ourselves, but we don’t let the people off the hook who put us into this position.”

As much as what Worrill says, it’s the way he says it–as if drawing battle lines, pitting “us” against “them”–that alienates some and outrages many others. Most critics accuse him of inflaming racial tensions and seeking vengeance against whites. Last year, on the eve of a reparations rally Worrill organized in Washington, D.C., syndicated columnist Linda Chavez wrote that it symbolized “the moral bankruptcy that has infected much of the civil rights movement” and accused Worrill of playing a “blame game” that would only further divide the country. Others make a more penetrating charge: His language is so polarizing, they say, it hurts both the cause and the people he’s fighting for. Otis Cunningham, a Chicago health care worker and a member of the Black Radical Congress, a national political group, credits Worrill for pushing reparations since long before the idea was popular. But he also thinks Worrill makes his case in an “antagonistic” way that can descend into arguments “about who’s suffered the most. You narrow your potential base of support that way,” he said.

Worrill has grown used to these criticisms, and he has his responses ready. He is not out to punish or compete with anyone, only to seek justice. And, in the end, he really doesn’t care whether he makes people squirm. “I mean, nobody was comfortable when they captured us and introduced us over here,” he said. “Why is it important for anybody to get redemption for atrocities committed against them? Our case is a worst-case scenario of this in world history. The problem is that, unfortunately, people always try to dilute what has happened to us, because it makes white people, and even some black people, uncomfortable.”

Ultimately, Worrill is talking about more than reparations: He is engaged in a crusade against “them”–the forces of white supremacy he sees in just about every aspect of American life and world politics–and he wants nothing more than to mobilize other black people for it. “You can never know exactly when a movement is going to break loose,” he said. “What you do know is that, if you have a just demand and you have studied that demand and you continue to educate people, the people themselves will begin to internalize the issue.”

It is hard to go far into Chicago’s black community without finding someone Worrill has recruited or battled–or both. For one, he has held several high-profile positions for decades: professor of education and history at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies and, since February, its interim director; weekly syndicated columnist, writing for up to 200 black newspapers nationwide; the head of the National Black United Front, a grassroots organization focused on reparations and other issues. Worrill also has a widely respected and reviled habit of making blunt, unedited remarks about race and racism, and of leading some of the most controversial campaigns in the city, from pickets outside grocery stores accused of selling bad meat in black neighborhoods to anti-apartheid demonstrations–and verbal attacks against other anti-apartheid activists he considered too closely associated with whites.

To anyone who asks, and to many who don’t, Worrill is straightforward, almost simplistic, about why he does all of this, saying he seeks “the total liberation of African people worldwide.”

On the other hand, he’s deeply complicated and thoughtful. In the same breath, allies describe him as unyielding and flexible, while opponents rip his narrowness and praise his integrity. Though seemingly consumed by fighting white racism, he emphasizes that he’s not anti-white; his concerns are simply with the lives of black people. In Chicago, he is the rare black leader who is neither a politician nor a minister, yet he often seems to think in almost exclusively political terms, and he sees his participation in “the movement” as “fulfilling a calling that’s unexplainable in any rational way.”

It is a fascinating and provocative mix. “There’s not too many serious thinkers who can pick up a megaphone or drive around in a van and talk with people who are uneducated and get them ready to want to learn about the political process,” said Donn Bailey, the director of the Center for Inner City Studies from 1974 to 1996. “One on one, in small crowds, and I’ve seen him work a theater of thousands of people, he’s a hell of a communicator.” But, said Bailey, who is African American, “I think Conrad scares a lot of Negroes … [though] he does not scare black folks–people comfortable being black and expressing their blackness.”

* * *

From early on, black community life was part of the Worrill home. Born in Pasadena, Calif., in 1941, he was the eldest of two brothers. His mother, Anna Bell, was the first African American to sing with the Pasadena Civic Orchestra. His father, Walter, was well known as a YMCA director, secretary of the local NAACP branch and one of the leaders of a multiracial group promoting integration. One of Walter’s high school classmates and best friends was Mack Robinson, brother of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947.

The family regularly hosted meetings on civil rights issues like police hiring. For a time, one of Pasadena’s public pools was open to African Americans just one day a week, then drained and re-filled before re-opening for whites; Walter Worrill helped lead the campaign to integrate it. On another occasion, he and a group of organizers successfully sued a local restaurant, forcing it to change its policy of not serving blacks.

In 1950, Walter Worrill accepted an offer to work with youth at the Wabash YMCA in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, an historic black district on the South Side. As they looked for a home in Chicago, the Worrills focused on areas with good neighborhood schools–which essentially meant all or mostly white ones. They found an apartment in Hyde Park, making Conrad eligible to attend highly touted William H. Ray Elementary School and, later, Hyde Park High School.

Not surprisingly, Conrad had a diverse group of classmates, and his closest friend was Jewish. “They grew up together,” Walter Worrill said. “They would spend the night at each other’s houses. [His friend’s] parents just loved Conrad.”

Walter eventually headed the Wabash Y, and his position placed Conrad squarely in the middle of the city’s black political and cultural life. Since the early part of the century, the Wabash Y had been one of the city’s most important African American social institutions, providing housing and services to recent Southern migrants. Walter also served as a trustee at St. Mark United Methodist Church, and Anna Bell was active in its music ministry. The Worrills were well known in middle-class black Chicago, and Conrad recalls a home full of discussions about politics, the early stages of the civil rights movement and other community issues.

Walter Worrill was also a former athlete and the organizer of youth sports leagues. Conrad wanted to be like him. Every day after school, he took a trolley to the YMCA and played whatever was in season, starring in basketball, football, track and swimming. And sports helped him develop his earliest sense of pride in being black. He still remembers the time the Dodgers came to town and Jackie Robinson gave his father a pair of tickets. The train up to Wrigley Field was full of eager African American fans. “It was a thrill,” Worrill said. “It was just inspiring to black people that somebody had broken a barrier.” He was also a big boxing fan. “If you can imagine sitting around a radio with the whole community listening to Joe Louis fight–you did not talk. You were pulling for your race, for your community, to have a victory.”

After graduation, Worrill had a basketball scholarship offer, but his poor grades forced him to enroll at Pasadena Junior College with plans to improve and transfer the next year. It didn’t work out that way. He lost focus, according to his father, and was kicked out after a semester. Not long after, he was drafted into the Army. Worrill spent 1963 and part of 1964 in Okinawa, and what he learned and saw disturbed him. The United States was building up its military presence in southeast Asia, clearly preparing for deeper involvement in Vietnam. And, in his eyes, the military already treated local people like personal servants. “To be asked to do guard duty over old men who didn’t have shoes who were unloading the ship, and be told by some sergeant, ‘Don’t let this chink steal anything,’ would piss me off,” he said.

At the same time, friends and family at home were sending him news clippings about Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights protests in the South. It all began to seem critically important.

“Something dawned on me,” he remembered. “When I got out of the Army, I was going to come out and get involved in this. And that’s what I did.”

Following an honorable discharge in 1964, Worrill pursued his education and community work with a sense of purpose that surprised and impressed people around him, including his father. He enrolled at George Williams College, a YMCA school in Hyde Park and west suburban Downers Grove that has since closed, and began attending civil rights and anti-war rallies. During his senior year, he landed an internship with a local branch of the NAACP’s Youth Council, under the guidance of its leader, Fred Hampton.

He found he was good at organizing. “He likes doing that–matching people with tasks, putting people into formation and leading them on,” said Robert T. Starks, a longtime friend and colleague at the Center for Inner City Studies.

Worrill put those skills to use after graduating in 1967. As a staff member at the West Side Sears, Roebuck YMCA, he worked with young street gang members on serious community issues.

Worrill describes his evolution to black nationalism as “gradual.” But friends and family say that, up until his work on the West Side, he seemed to be on a career path similar to his father’s. Several tumultuous events that year and the next changed him radically. When, in April 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, rioting broke out across Chicago’s West Side–including in the neighborhood around Worrill’s YMCA. He was profoundly affected by what he observed. “Coming out of it, he just had another view,” said Walter Worrill, who had expected his son to embrace a very different brand of politics: “All through life he was exposed to a mixed-race situation. The things he’s in now are completely different from what we taught him.”

Later that year, Hampton formed the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, launching initiatives against gang violence, and Worrill helped the party run a free breakfast program for children. But in 1969 Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were shot to death in a police raid ordered by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan. It was another of the events that “baptized” a generation and led them to embrace a “nationalistic perspective,” according to Starks.

Worrill says he responded by becoming a “card-carrying activist.” He went back to school, working on a master’s at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and a doctorate in education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, devoting his studies and free time to black history, black education, black liberation, studying Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Martin Delaney. In 1972 he joined a successful campaign to oust Hanrahan, and he closely followed anti-colonial revolutions in Africa.

Earl Durham, one of his professors at Chicago, described him as “a pain in the butt. … He was always raising questions about life itself.” But the two understood each other. Durham was a civil rights activist in his own right, a veteran of the King movement and school integration battles, and one of the only black faculty members in the program. Yet Worrill’s zeal was so intense and his opinions so strong that Durham jokingly denies he was ever one of Worrill’s mentors: “Nobody mentors Conrad.”

Worrill finished his doctorate in 1973, after just two years in Madison. But when he tried to find a job, his politics became an issue. The university circulated his portfolio, but no one even called him for an interview. Eventually, he was hired at George Williams College, his alma mater, where he taught for two years before a position opened at the Center for Inner City Studies. To Worrill, it seemed like an ideal fit: The center aimed to root its academic work in the community.

“We wanted people who were action-oriented,” said Donn Bailey, the director at the time. “You had to be relevant to the black cause.” Worrill got the job.

* * *

As a teacher, Worrill is simultaneously convinced that he can get through to everyone and impatient with those who don’t see that learning is the only way people can build a social movement and liberate themselves. He’s also adamant that it is going to be fun as hell. Last winter, he taught an undergraduate course called the History and Culture of Ethnic Groups in America. One of his students, freshman Tamara Manasseh, wasn’t fully prepared for his style in the classroom, even though she knew him from his reparations work. “Sometimes his methods are a little crude,” said Manasseh, who is African American. “On the first day he walks in with his hair swinging, and he stops class when his [cell] phone rings. And sometimes he says things that are a little too much to handle. A white boy was in the class–he was only there a couple days and he dropped. He just couldn’t handle it.” (Worrill said the student did not want to discuss the history and concept of race. “I don’t chase white people out of my classes,” he said.) Manasseh added that Worrill deals in facts, and she praised his honesty and passion. “He makes you believe that you need to learn this to be a better person. He’s inspired me to want to teach.”

One morning, at exactly the 10:30 start time, Worrill walked into the classroom carrying a cup of coffee, several beat-up paperbacks and a pile of lecture notes written on curling, tattered, yellow paper. He found only five students; all of them were black or Latino. Worrill set his things down and looked at the class. “Our colleagues are suffering from late-ism,” he said. The students were quiet. Worrill found this unacceptable, and worked to get them going. “So, did everyone work late last night, or what?” he said. A couple of people started chuckling.

Worrill launched into a discussion of John F. Kennedy’s “A Nation of Immigrants,” asking who the book’s intended audience was. Responses came slowly, and they weren’t the right ones.

He put the book down. “Now, who did he write about?” The answers came faster this time: the Irish, Germans, Chinese, Polish. “Very good. Very good. And who didn’t he–no, no,” Worrill said, trying hard not to grin. “I’m not going to give a freebie.” Standing up and moving in front of his desk, he pressed on, asking why the book had been written. Manasseh, a 25-year-old with a constant look of amusement, answered right away. “The Civil Rights Movement was going on?”

Worrill sat on his desk, feigning disgust. “The Civil Rights Movement.” He waited.

“The ’60s–I think–“

“It’s not what you think! What’s in the book?” Manasseh was smiling, but she didn’t say anything else, so Worrill plowed ahead. “What was going on? Yes, there was a civil rights movement–but why would he write about ethnic groups coming to America?” A woman wearing a bright orange bandana raised her hand. “Don’t–it’s a trap,” Manasseh told her. “You’ll walk right into it.” The woman gave it a try, anyway. “Because there was ethnic conflict?”

Worrill sounded like he was going to burst into pieces. “That was a terrible guess!” Everyone was cracking up; even Worrill was having a hard time trying to act upset. He went on: “The Korean War! A revolution in Cuba!” The students wrote frantically in their notebooks, trying to get it all down. “Who’s traveled outside the U.S.?” Worrill honed in on a woman near the front. “Miss Garcia, what do you need to travel?”

“I’ve never been out of the country,” she said.

Worrill stared at her. “Miss Garcia, the Mexican people have a big problem with this! You’re not up on what’s happening to your people! The immigration service! Kennedy was concerned with immigration policy! Did we all read the same book?”

Another woman’s cell phone rang, playing part of a song with a heavy beat. “Is that your hip hop tour calling?” Worrill said. Three other students arrived, and he was ready for them. “We ought to kick you out of school,” he said. A moment later, he added, “Good morning.”

Pacing the front of the room, Worrill lectured in a near shout on the Cuban migration to Florida and European ethnic conflicts during the world wars. When he finally slowed down, he said, “See how this little book got all this discussion started?” He picked up his coffee cup. “Now everybody knows the African people weren’t even in this game. Yes, in many cases, Europe was bad–but African people, our introduction to the Western Hemisphere was being captured, being property.”

He looked closely at each of the students. “We’re getting some epistemology,” he said. “We’re getting a little knowledge. Look, I know the white man’s vocabulary: Epistemology! Taxonomy! Cosmology!” The students shook their heads, laughing.

Worrill then turned serious. Moving to a window, he talked about one of his heroes, the African American scholar Carter G. Woodson. “I see him walking out there right now,” he said. “Because he walked down that street, to Drexel Boulevard, down to the University of Chicago, because he wanted to learn about black history. And the university told him that black people didn’t have history–they had folklore. But we’re going to continue what he started. Can’t you see him walking down the street?”

* * *

The truth is that Worrill is always trying to teach somebody, to keep people–his people–informed. He doesn’t shift roles when he leaves his classroom to do organizing or political work; he just shifts venues.

White racism isn’t Worrill’s only target: He levels particularly pointed criticism at black leaders he deems to be betraying the community. In 1995, Worrill picketed outside a Loop restaurant where a group of African American businessmen was holding a fundraiser for Mayor Richard M. Daley. He was incensed they weren’t backing a black mayoral candidate, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Joseph Gardner.

“I had a breakfast with a person [Worrill] considered an enemy of the race,” said one of the sponsors, realtor and historian Dempsey J. Travis. “But I talk to everybody. I know where to get off the train.” Travis added that he respected Worrill and wasn’t upset about the protest. “I ain’t got time to be mad with nobody.”

Worrill is wary of leaders in general, particularly those who jump on an issue after they see it’s drawing attention. Yet he draws many followers of his own. “He has a way of talking to you that makes you feel like he’s known you forever,” said Manesseh. “He wants to know what high school you went to, did you play sports, what’s your mama’s name.” And he works hard to stay in touch with people. “His phone book must have 10,000 numbers,” said Ellen Gary, a former member of the Chicago chapter of the National Black United Front.

Like all good organizers and social activists, Worrill also has a gift for convincing people to make an almost spiritual investment in a cause–sometimes despite their initial reluctance, or his own. In 1977, when Harold Washington first ran for mayor, Worrill refused to join his campaign unless Washington promised to make ending South African apartheid the top plank in his platform. But six years later Worrill decided that, by working for Washington, he could promote black unity. He was one of the campaign’s most important organizers, leading a “Blitz Team” that led rallies and drummed up support in black Chicago. He also convinced African American leaders who had endorsed incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne to quietly gather votes for Washington, said the Rev. Walter “Slim” Coleman, another campaign organizer.

“Very few people can walk the spectrum of the black community,” said Coleman, who is white and now serves as pastor of Adalberto United Methodist Church in Humboldt Park. “I think white people may look at it and say, ‘Wow, Conrad is really arguing with that guy,’ and the next day he’s working with him.”

Worrill both relishes and downplays his central role in the reparations movement and other causes. He makes a deliberate effort to include other people–to push them forward during meetings and demonstrations, to hail their work. On the other hand, he can’t stand not being in the middle of the action.

“He’s not reluctant to take a microphone, he’s not reluctant to be on television, he’s not reluctant to be on radio, but that’s not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end,” said Bailey, his former Inner City Studies colleague. “It is a different quality than what you see in Jesse [Jackson] Sr. or Al Sharpton. I’m not saying he doesn’t have a big ego–he does. You have to [in order] to speak to thousands of people. But he’s not there to promote himself. I think he’s there to promote ideas, to do certain persuasive acts that will build a coalition, build a nation within a nation.”

One evening last winter, Worrill hosted what he called a “reparations community forum” in the basement lounge of the Inner City Studies building. Leaning against a podium at the front of the room, Worrill began the event by shouting “God bless you!” and “Hotep!”–a word for peace in ancient Egypt. Worrill soon moved on to the real business of the gathering: building interest in the reparations lawsuit. He introduced one of the plaintiffs, Hannah Jane Hurdle-Toomey. “She lives down in Belleville, [Ill.,] where all the crackers–well, we know,” he said. A few people laughed.

The group–about 50 people–listened intently to Hurdle-Toomey as she explained that her own father had been born a slave, and her grandmother had seen all of her children sold on the same day. When she was done, Worrill sprang up and led the rousing applause, beaming, ready to march downtown right then. “With plaintiffs like this, we’re going to have a ball in court,” he said. “We want people to hear the drums of Africa!”

Then he took a few steps down the aisle through the middle of the chairs. “You know, tonight we forgot to make sure everyone knows each other,” he said. Starting in front, he worked through the entire crowd, announcing everyone’s name and offering a few details about each of them, usually something funny and always in some way complimentary, drawing more laughs and applause and excitement: “He has been around 200 years”; “This young man is a soon-to-be-revolutionary”; “He’s a little off-balance, but he’s alright.” Only a few had to introduce themselves.

Over the next half hour, other plaintiffs and attorneys made short presentations. As the evening wrapped up, people stood and gathered their things, but Worrill started waving his hands. “Now wait, don’t leave–let’s make sure everyone gets a ride this evening,” he said. “Does anybody need a ride?” A senior woman raised her hand. “Mama Dee needs a ride. Who can give her a ride? Good. Thank you.”

Worrill has, quite deliberately, allowed his cause to consume his life. He “jumps out of bed” at 5:30 most mornings, according to his wife, Talibah, a seamstress and activist he met at a conference 10 years ago. Worrill leaves the house by 7 a.m., works on campus and meets with people until 9 or 10 p.m., and studies at home until after midnight. He doesn’t keep track of how many public appearances he makes every week, or how many weekends every month he is out of town for a conference. “It’s part of what I do,” he said. “It’s like evangelism.”

His home, work and cell phones ring at all hours, and Worrill tries to read as many as 100 e-mails every day, even if Talibah sends some of the replies. And somehow he makes time for his family. He remains close to his father, who, while disagreeing with many of Conrad’s views, praises his commitment. Conrad’s brother, Oscar, is a South Shore activist and two-time aldermanic candidate who considers his brother a mentor. There are also five daughters and five grandchildren to keep up with. Though following basketball is one potential diversion, Worrill tends to focus on the sport’s racial history more than the game itself. Reading black history is his main hobby.

While he attributes his energy to discipline he learned as a competitive swimmer, Worrill dropped his workouts during the Washington campaign and hasn’t found time for regular exercise since. Talibah said she would love a vacation, since they haven’t taken one in five years, but she knows he would be miserable if he slowed down. “He’s motivated–he knows he has something to do,” she said. “He believes in God, and that’s why he does it.”

Worrill doesn’t disagree, saying he is driven by “a purpose that’s bigger than a house or a car or any material possession. Now, often it’s been hard to stay involved–there have been disappointments, setbacks and tragedies. But there have also been inspirations, when you see people change around. –¦ It’s something I get great satisfaction out of. And I’m very humbled by what the creative force of the universe has given me to do this work.”

Reparations is just the latest round. And, even if it is a crucial one, Worrill has already warned allies and antagonists alike that the movement has peaks and valleys, but it’s not going to end–“the masses” won’t let it. In an interview in mid-July, he was asked what he really wanted to see out of the reparations movement–what if, after all of the rallies and columns and debates, no companies or government bodies ever agree to restitution for slavery?

He didn’t hesitate. “This movement is unfolding by leaps and bounds,” he said. “If it ends up nowhere materially, if we don’t get a dime, I’m hoping that a component of the repair that we don’t talk about is that many African people’s minds will be repaired, and our minds will be uplifted to address problems in our community.”

A few days later, supporters again filled the courtroom for another hearing. This time the proceedings included some dramatic developments. Plaintiffs’ attorney Lionel Jean-Baptiste announced that, several weeks earlier, a potential witness, an elderly Texas woman who had been enslaved in the 1930s, had died before Judge Norgle would allow attorneys to depose her. A few minutes later, Norgle noted that he had denied the plaintiffs’ request to order the corporations in the case not to destroy evidence, saying he had no reason to believe they would. And, a short time after that, he said he had also turned down the plaintiffs’ request for a mediator. All told, the hearing lasted less than 20 minutes, and in the hallways people uttered their suspicions out loud: They feared that the next hearing, on Jan. 26, could be the last, because they were certain Norgle couldn’t wait to dismiss the whole case, to pretend none of this happened.

Worrill again assembled a press conference in the lobby downstairs, forming a phalanx of plaintiffs, attorneys and supporters behind the microphone.

Speaking first, Jean-Baptiste didn’t attempt to hide his anger. “The justice system, we know the masters created, and they told us that, to engage them, we must go through this system,” he said. “But we will not give up.” Others also added a few things, mostly sounding upset or disappointed. Worrill couldn’t stand in the background any longer. He approached the mic. “It’s quite clear that this judge has aligned himself with the forces that have benefited from white supremacy,” he said. “But our ancestors will prevail. If the lawyers can’t get it done, we can.”

After a couple of others answered some questions from reporters, he closed the press conference by announcing the date for the next meeting of the Millions for Reparations Steering Committee. He would be there, of course–nothing could happen in a United States government courthouse to keep him from being there.

He raised his fist. “Can we say black power?”

The people behind him yelled out: “Black power!”

Denise Avant, Shawn Allee and Laura Tharsen helped research this article.

Comments are closed.