Remembering Rev. James 'Shackdaddy' Orange

That's James Orange on the right, talking with a marshal during a march for poultry workers in Laurel, Mississippi. (Southern Exposure photo by Pat Bryant.)

Hundreds of people gathered at Morehouse College's King Chapel for a homegoing ceremony honoring the Rev. James Orange. The noted civil rights leader and native Alabamian died in Atlanta on Feb. 16, 2008 following gall bladder surgery. He was 65.

Orange started out in the movement as a field organizer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and his jailing in Alabama in 1965 sparked a deadly protest that led to the famous march from Selma to Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act. A close associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Orange was standing at the bottom of the stairs at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He later went on to work for the AFL-CIO, helping with some 300 union organizing campaigns.

In 1981, Southern Exposure magazine published an interview with Orange by Institute for Southern Studies founder Bob Hall titled "With the People." During a wide-ranging discussion of his life and work, Orange talked about being dispatched to Chicago in the mid-1960s to continue the organizing work he had been doing in Alabama:

Then they wanted somebody to go to Chicago, and [SCLC's Director of Direct Action and Nonviolent Education Rev. James] Bevel called me and asked me would I come up to Chicago, and the people in Marion, [Ala.] didn't want me to leave. That's when Dr. King started calling me Shackdaddy. He made a speech, saying that we were shacking with the community, we wasn't there to live, we weren't gonna marry the community. Our job was to get stuff started and then move on and get stuff started in other areas. I guess more people know me, man, as Shackdaddy than they do as James Orange.

So I left and went to Chicago in the fall of '65. We had never seen those type of conditions, and the first tenant council was organized by us in '65. We had a rent strike and told people don't pay no more rent to the landlord, pay rent to yourself. We got 10 to 12 thousand dollars taken up in rent. We just took that money, went out and bought some building materials, and put it in each person's apartment and told them to fix their apartment. And the landlord of that building saw the difference in the attitude of the people who lived there because they was interested in helping their own selves. He gave us that building, gave that building to Dr. King and SCLC.

We went from that part in Chicago to saying, "Okay, we don't have a right to live in a certain place," and that's what brought the marches on open housing.

They said they needed someone to organize the gangs and I went out and started talking with some of the kids and went to the South Side. A couple of kids were fighting and I didn't know it was a gang fight. I went over there, say, "Hey man, brothers ain't got no business fighting. Y'all oughta be trying to fight the system and here y'all fighting each other." And both of 'em turned on me and I guess what surprised them was I didn't fight back.

I went to the doctor and just had a busted nose, busted lip. The next morning I went back to the area with Jimmy Collier, who was a guitar player, and a white fellow named Eric Kimburg who was on staff. When I got out of the car, about 25 guys started walking towards Eric. I said, "Hey, hold it, man, now wait a minute. I done took that last whipping y'all gave me last night, but we're not gonna keep taking whippings. If y'all want to talk about how do you get out of the slum," I said, "that's what we here for." And Jimmy Collier took out his guitar and started singing. The song he sung was "The Ghetto" -- we have that on our record, "Jimmy Collier and Friends," that came out of Chicago.

During the whole Movement, see like, whenever we wanted to get control of people, we started singing freedom songs, that was the best way to get attention and get control. Because whoever was leading that freedom song, at the end of that freedom song, he had everybody's attention, and that was the way we kept control of people, even on marches. Like if we saw the police coming, the first song we'd strike out with, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around" -- ain't gonna let no police officer turn us around, ain't gonna let no dogs -- and that song would go on even if people was being whupped.

So this was the Blackstone Rangers. Then we went over to the Vice Lords, the Roman Saints, the Cobras, and there was a white gang up in Uptown Chicago that Rennie Davis was working with and we got to them, and to the Puerto Rican gangs. We got them together at a gang convention, and Dr. King came to the hotel where we had it. Those guys just sat down and started talking about working together. From that period on, we worked with these guys. We was talking about marching in Gage Park, and I said the best thing to do is get them guys to be marshals. Nobody could see them being nonviolent, but we started having workshops, freedom songs, and taught them the songs that we did in Birmingham. They started out bad, in so many words, but ended up good. And they said, "Okay, we'll be your marshals."

The first day we went out there, they had shotguns and everything. So we said, "All right, anybody that's too afraid to go with no weapons, we don't want you to go because we don't want no scared people with us." That irritated everybody, because we was telling them that they was chicken. We collected their weapons, weapons we didn't even know they had, four or five boxes full. So all of the Rangers said, "Okay, we're gonna take care of this side."

So I said, "The worst thing that can happen is to let the gang kids get together. Why don't we separate them, put a Ranger, Vice Lord, Roman Saint, Cobra -- you know, we just pair them off." That's what we did, and they got to know each other. After the first two or three marches, after they saw who the enemy was, we didn't hear no more on radio or TV about violence with the gangs versus gangs. They tell me that they are just starting back to using that type of violence. Like Chicago was quiet from about '65 maybe up until about '73 or '74, before gangs just really got reorganized, and that was Chicago.