Dovie Thurman, A Conversation with Studs Terkel

Dovie Thurman, community organizer & the "heart" of Uptown speaks with Studs Terkel about her work as a civil rights and welfare rights activist in a North Side Chicago neighborhood. Produced just one month before Thurman died of heart failure on April 7, 1997, Thurman retells her struggle against racist and classist powers, her meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how she found redemption as a Christian preacher.

00:00Copy video clip URL Opening credit. Studs Terkel introduces his friend of 31 years, Dovie Thurman, whom he met at a tenant’s rights demonstration uniting Chicago’s poor whites and minorities. “How have we been going since then?” he asks. “Things look a whole lot worse now because the things we fought for so hard and got established in place were totally erased later on. We made band-aids which were good, but we didn’t quite get to the root of the cause,” Thurman says.

01:28Copy video clip URL Thurman describes her youth, raised by her biracial grandmother in the troubled Pruitt-Igoe housing project of St. Louis. She explains “what lit the flame” of activism after her move to Chicago. “I had never seen poor white people,” she says of her first impression of the Uptown neighborhood in 1966, home to a large group of Appalachian Southerners who headed north after the closure of many coal mines.

07:06Copy video clip URL She describes a life-changing welfare rights meeting, the first she had ever attended. “Next thing I know, I jumped up and had something to say. I had never had anything to say before that, and when I got through talking they were all giving me a hand. … [I] scared myself. I didn’t know I had it in me,” Thurman says. “We were tired of being mistreated and treated like we weren’t human beings.”

09:44Copy video clip URL Thurman explains how uprooted poor Southerners, white and black, bucked the “myths to keep us separated” and forged a bond in Chicago. “We found out we had more in common than we ever thought. It’s because we began to communicate. … We could talk about grits, we could talk about chitlins and greens. They knew how to cook like I did,” she says.

12:03Copy video clip URL Propelled by a hunger to see the “bigger picture” of politics, Thurman took classes on community organizing from Saul Alinsky. “Thank God that with the knowledge he was teaching me, I had some ideas of my own,” she remembers. “It’s like when you shake a little of your own seasoning in it. You follow the recipe but you want to make it a little better.”

16:23Copy video clip URL Terkel comments that the “have-nots” fought each other along racial lines, instead of aiming a common enemy. She agrees, saying “The have-its are the one who’ve got it. … They just kept the have-nots fighting each other so we wouldn’t get it.” Once the poor united despite racial division, she says they began to grab attention from the “have-its.” “They don’t care about you yelling and screaming. They don’t care about you marching and demonstrating. What they care about is when you start getting to the truth and start exposing, ‘I know it’s you.’ “

19:25Copy video clip URL Thurman talks about her activist work with Martin Luther King, Jr., who was “always a little bit too nonviolent for me.” “The more I found out, the more angry I got. Plus, I hadn’t really settled in my own heart who I am,” said Thurman. Until meeting King, Thurman says she didn’t realize racism was a city-wide problem. She goes on to describe her leadership in welfare rights groups.

26:08Copy video clip URL Thrown into anguish by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Thurman says, “I got mad. I got instant angry. I probably turned purple. That’s when my black really showed.” She explains how she “ran the wrong way,” misdirecting her anger at all whites, even her close white friends and fellow activists. For a while she even contemplated violence or membership in the Black Panther Party before again coming to the difficult realization that “it’s not about color.”

33:34Copy video clip URL Redeemed by religion, Thurman explains her turn to God. “I got converted because I found out after all that running, the demonstrating, the yelling and the screaming, it boils down to either you’re evil or you’re good. … The thing is, you got to draw out the good.” Now a nondenominational evangelist, she proudly declares that “I preach the buck naked truth.”

36:38Copy video clip URL Thurman talks about the “power game” she learned as a community organizer, and how it shaped other areas of her life. “So you’re an organizer and a preacher?” Terkel asks. “Well, Jesus was. He just told the buck naked truth and people followed him,” she responds.

42:53Copy video clip URL Terkel asks her about the welfare rights movement’s gains and losses, which she explains. They also discuss the lack of jobs and rise of a “black middle class.” In Thurman’s opinion, “There’s still that one big demon up there who doesn’t want a certain people to go too far, because you lose control.”

46:02Copy video clip URL Thurman expresses her hope that young generations can grow up with the same activist spirit instilled in her. “They don’t have a feel for the struggles to how they are where they are right now. Because somebody had to give, somebody had to sacrifice,” she says. “To me, the peoples’ hearts are waxing cold. … Somebody’s laying in the gutter and it don’t mean nothing. And I remember the time it did.”

48:24Copy video clip URL They discuss Thurman’s next “battle”—open heart surgery. “My bible tells me, ‘The race is not given to the strong.’ But it’s given to the one who endures to the end, and it’s not the end yet,” she says. The old friends close the interview with tears of joy as a montage of her photos fills the screen.



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