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Mary Mitchell: Group fights for more construction jobs for blacks

Eddie Reed Ed Gardner Bishop Tavis Grant stconcrete form stop workers from pouring any more concrete init. leads protest over

Eddie Reed, Ed Gardner and Bishop Tavis Grant stand in a concrete form to stop the workers from pouring any more concrete into it. leads a protest over the lack of African American hiring at a construction site at 92nd & Western. Monday, September 24, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:39AM

There is a big difference between agitating for jobs and a shakedown.

What Ed Gardner, the founder of the iconic Soft Sheen hair products, did when he stood in the path of a concrete truck on the South Side and shut down a construction site at 92nd and Western last week, is agitation.

But the intimidating tactics by a group of men at a construction site on the West Side, which allegedly involved threatening the crew and demanding cash to go away, is a shakedown.

If reputable leaders in the African-American community don’t stand up and support Gardner in his effort to do things the right way, then nothing will change in the fight for more black construction jobs.

“Every time we have mobilized and brought attention to this issue over the last 40 years, somehow the powers that be are able to pick off some black people,” said Conrad Worrill, director of the Jacob Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University and an expert in black history.

‘We go back to sleep’

“A few contractors get some contracts and hire a few blacks and we go back to sleep.”

So when you are driving down the street and notice that the only people who seem to be working on construction sites are Latino and whites, don’t blame them.

You can trace this problem back to Fred D. Hubbard, a disgraced 2nd Ward alderman. In 1973, Hubbard pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $100,000 from a project sponsored by the Chicago Building Trades Council and backed by federal funds that was designed to get more blacks into the construction trade.

Despite the existence of organizations established to confront this problem, black people have still had to agitate for inclusion.

Between 1993 and 1996, members of the Chicago Black United Communities, (CBUC) and the African American Contractors Association, shut down more than 100 construction sites.

But those gains proved to be short-lived.

Last spring Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) threatened to stop Metra “in its tracks” because while the contract included a minority security contract worth about $110,000, none of the major bidders included African Americans.

“There is no way that Metra’s trains will run in the City of Chicago if this is the contract,” Rush said at the time.

“We are not going to sit back and allow this mega-million-dollar project to come into our neighborhood, where unemployment is sky high.”

In August, Rush partnered with Metra to host a two-day summit to prepare black entrepreneurs to successfully bid on public contracts.

“I fully support Mr. Gardner’s effort,” Rush told me Friday. “But I think it is shameful in this, 2012, that we have to call upon an 87-year-old man to lead protests.

Gardner is asking 10,000 people to show up at 95th and Western at 3 p.m. for the protest rally.

“I intend to be there on Sunday and I encourage everyone to be there on Sunday,” Rush said.

Worrill said Gardner’s activism should wake up black folks from a long sleep.

“The issue for black people in this moment in history is we have forgotten where we have come from,” he said. “We do not understand and have lost our vision around the question of being unified around critical issues that impact our community.

‘We’ve become so fractured’

“We’ve become so fractured, we can’t see the forest for the trees,” Worrill said.

The lack of black jobs in the construction industry is not only insulting, but it is adding to the high levels of violence because, unfortunately, the biggest employer in poor communities is often the drug dealer.

The African-American community cannot counter the forces that are destroying their families without having a way to make an honest living.

Indeed, this issue isn’t even about who is working in the black community. As of the 2010 Census, blacks made up 32 percent of the population in Chicago. Blacks should be a huge part of the construction crews working in every community.

So if it takes rallies and marches to get the attention of construction companies, then march and rally.

But don’t ignore the lessons from the past or allow the issue to be hijacked by the wrong people.

This crusade can’t end with a few people getting paid.

This has to be about group survival.

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