News: Building on McCrackin's Legacy

Celebration is also a call to action

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Seven years after his death, the Rev. Maurice McCrackin's passion and dedication for social justice continues to influence activists. But the leadership void he left has yet to be filled.

Community organizer and former Cincinnati City Council candidate Brian Garry hopes to begin working to fill the void Saturday during the sixth annual Rev. McCrackin Unity Day at St. Joseph Catholic Church in the West End.

As in previous years the event will include a march, this time with the theme, "No to war in Iraq — No to the war on the poor in Cincinnati," and a festival. But McCrackin Day will also feature three meetings designed to allow activists from different groups to unify behind a common theme.

In the end, all social activists are fighting a common enemy — greed and concentrated wealth — according to Garry. The ultimate goal, he says, is to develop a plan for Cincinnati that supports rather than harms the poor, during an activist conference next fall or winter. The June 12 meeting is just the beginning.

"We need to join the white and black activist communities and present a comprehensive vision of Cincinnati that is not just a response to city council," he says. "We need to take the lead."

Collaboration among various groups is important, according to Vera Zlatkin, a McCrackin Day organizer.

"There is a lot of groups out there who are trying to do something but they don't have the power because they're so small," she says. "And if we can bring them together, we will have a louder voice."

The Rev. Damon Lynch III's City of Hope, the League of Pissed Off Voters and the Over-the-Rhine Anti-Displacement Project will hold meetings at 1 p.m. Saturday. Groups ranging from the Hamilton County Democratic Party to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee to the anti-authoritarian group Books for Prisoners will distribute literature at the event.

Musicians and poets will perform and the environmental group Earth Save will provide a free lunch. Children from the Peaslee Community Center in Over-the-Rhine will put on an art show.

The festive atmosphere will be a fitting remembrance for a man who became the "conscience of the city," Garry says.

In 1979 McCrackin was jailed 111 days for refusing to testify against two escaped convicts who had kidnapped him. He was arrested countless times for protests against war, poverty and racism. In 1990, at the age of 85, he scaled the White House fence to protest the first U.S. war against Iraq war.

Every time the police came for McCrackin, he went limp. An ardent pacifist, he refused to work within the system.

A few years after the White House protest, McCrackin threatened to starve to death if the city tore down the Milner Hotel downtown. Garry says city officials went to McCrackin's bedside and promised to find homes for the homeless and mentally ill displaced by the demolition. McCrackin started eating again, but the city reneged on its promise, Garry says.

McCrackin was more than a feisty old guy who frequently got arrested protesting injustice. He founded Camp Joy, a camp for poor inner city youth, and helped desegregate Coney Island.

"He followed his convictions, sometimes at a great cost to himself," says Sister Helen Cullen, a McCrackin Day organizer. "Hopefully he can be a inspiration for activist today to be willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe in."

Organizers say that the march that will kick off McCrackin Day at 11 a.m. will protest proposed changes to Over-the-Rhine and Washington Park.

The gentrification of the neighborhood is driving out the homeless and poor, Zlatkin says. She points to the closing of several housing projects and the proposed closure of the Drop-Inn Center as proof the city is waging a war against the poor.

Despite facing organizational and institutional hurdles, Zlatkin says she remains optimistic about preserving Washington Park, but admits activists might be fighting a losing battle against gentrification

"We have to be able to reverse it," she says. "Sometimes I feel like all these little groups are standing there with hammers and a chisels hammering away against a huge wall. And there are bulldozers coming at us. We are trying to fight a battle with hammers and chisels and they are coming after us with bulldozers." ©

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