Marilyn Katz's picture
Marilyn Katz

Commentary: Leon Finney’s legacy of community organizing, promoting Black ownership carries on

“Racial and social unrest is not a ‘summer’ problem nor is it one-dimensional. ... It requires solutions that are ongoing and multifaceted.”

The Rev. Leon Finney Jr., who died Sept. 4 at 82, could have written those words a few weeks ago, reflecting on a summer of truly unprecedented violence and anger. But he wrote them nearly 50 years ago, for a speech called “A Plan for the Survival of Chicago,” which was excerpted in the Chicago Tribune on July 25, 1976.

I have heard Finney called many things: an arrogant man unwilling to help the newest generation of developers who wish to develop their own; an unethical scoundrel who played free and loose with accounts; a landlord uncaring about his tenants; and a political opportunist willing to work with anyone. I knew Finney to have only one mission — the realization of the prescription he voiced in 1976. Throughout his life he pursued the creation of Black-led and Black-owned communities that, by offering the best and affordable housing, access to good jobs, quality education, real opportunity and safety, would be communities of choice for Blacks and whites alike.

For those involved in real estate today, it might be difficult to imagine that Finney came up at a time when there were no real estate investment trusts, no low-income housing tax credits to attract private capital to Black communities. Quite the opposite.

I met Finney in 1965 when we both were organizing people around issues of housing, lack of employment, poverty and gentrification. He worked in Woodlawn under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky, and I was an organizer in Uptown. The Woodlawn Organization, known as TWO, had grown organically as a vehicle for resistance to the specter of a takeover of the community by the University of Chicago. The fear was not unwarranted as the urban renewal of Hyde Park involved the demolition of 20% of the buildings and the relocation of 20,000 people. But like a few other fledgling groups, TWO also was focused on trying to hold those with power in their communities accountable for fixing housing, improving schools, hiring more local people and lending to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

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