A dimly lit, narrow flight of stairs leads to the second-floor unit of a building on 5840 W. Chicago. The interior is mostly decorated with mementos from the civil rights era. A large, reprinted portrait of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. conspicuously hangs on the wall opposite the door, and a collage of photographs from the ’60s and ’70s of West Side activists can be found in the next room. It’s a much more inviting space than the dark, creaky stairwell. And, it’s home to an organization and leader who has worked for six decades to improve the community.

Rev. John Crawford, Jr. heads FAITH Inc. (For Action In Togetherness Holdfast), a nonprofit activist organization in Austin. Among the group’s work is helping ex-offenders re-acclimate themselves back into the community upon their release from prison. Crawford’s activism began in the early 1960s when he was among the first members of the West Side Organization (WSO).

The organization isn’t around anymore, but was an integral part of the civil rights movement on the West Side and in Austin.

Sitting behind his desk, the tall, burly man discussed his early involvement with WSO through his work today with FAITH Inc.

“We worked with men that was unemployed…and families that was on public assistance,” Crawford said, in reference to WSO’s early days.

Officially formed by community members in 1964, the organization targeted chronic unemployment and poor living conditions plaguing much of the West Side. The group’s co-founders, though, were working on those and other issues – including segregation in the Chicago Public Schools – as early as 1962.

Crawford, then known as “Big John,” joined the organization in 1964.

He recalled one instance where a single mother with several children was living in a dilapidated West Side shanty that had flooded several feet and had “dead rats floating in the water.” The woman was receiving welfare but was afraid to leave. Such was the case with many families, Crawford explained, because the Illinois Department of Public Aid at the time commonly rescinded financial assistance if a resident left an uninhabitable home without it being investigated by an inspector. In the single mom’s case, an investigation did not occur until days later, but the WSO intervened beforehand and relocated the woman and her children.

“They (Department of Public Aid) was like God at that time,” Crawford said. “They got involved whenever they wanted.”

Employment was another key focus of the organization. At the time, discrimination was rife in the workplace, and despite federal and state legislation that forbade discriminatory hiring practices, many blacks were out of work, and those that held jobs were reduced to lowly positions.

In 1964, the WSO picketed Centennial Laundry’s plant and retail store, then located on the 1400 block of Roosevelt Road. The company was targeted because it refused to hire black delivery drivers. African-Americans were employed, at the time, but restricted to “menial labor,” Crawford recalled.

“They didn’t want black drivers going into white neighborhoods; they said they were afraid blacks might see a white woman in a gown answering the door,” Crawford said.

Initially, Centennial sought, and the Cook County Circuit Court granted, an injunction to restrict the WSO’s picket. In a 1966 appellate hearing, the high court upheld its 1965 decision to overturn the legality of the injunction placed upon WSO by the circuit court.

“After that we had a real cordial relationship with Centennial. They hired about three or four black drivers,” Crawford said.

Dr. King and summer 1966

Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Chicago in the summer of 1966 to combat housing segregation and inequality in black and white neighborhoods. At the time, King moved his family into a rundown North Lawndale apartment to highlight the issue.

While King was in Chicago, the SCLC asked Crawford’s organization to participate in their effort, and Crawford volunteered as a bodyguard whenever King visited the West Side. He and other WSO members also walked in the Marquette Park open-housing march, when demonstrators, including Dr. King, were hit with rocks, bricks, and bottles.

King would later tell reporters about the Chicago march: “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

On July 12 of that summer, the WSO had to step in to quell an incident involving police and neighborhood youth over the turning off of a fire hydrant on Roosevelt and Throop, an incident that sparked two days of riots.

“It was a hot day and some teenagers were playing with the fire hydrant, and the police asked them to turn it off…because they claimed it was lowering the water pressure,” Crawford recalls. “However, down on Taylor Street they had their hydrant going and nobody did anything.”

That section of Taylor Street at the time was a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood. When an officer was splashed with water as he attempted to turn off the hydrant, his partner reportedly grabbed and shook one of the teens. The other youth allegedly retaliated by hurling objects at the police. The end result was a two-day riot with several people injured.

“WSO was the calming force in that – they calmed things down before it got too out of hand,” said James “Big Man” Cassell, a former volunteer with the organization who witnessed the riots, and has maintained a friendship with Crawford for more than 40 years.

“A group of them came to the scene and just talked to people and got them to come back to the WSO (at 1527 W. Roosevelt) for a meeting,” he said.

The following summer in ’67, The Chicago Daily Defender launched the “Keep a Cool Summer” campaign to avoid the previous year’s unrest.

In a 1967 article, the Defender commends WSO co-founder Chester Robinson for doing “a praiseworthy job in organizing Near West Side youths into productive activity.” Moreover, when parts of the West Side was set ablaze amid rioting following King’s assassination in 1968, the WSO kept much of the area near its Roosevelt headquarters relatively calm, according to former organizer Rev. Robert Strom of the United Church of Christ.

The WSO also formed a welfare union, an education union, a housing coalition, and a drug and rehabilitation clinic. The group even printed a weekly newspaper called West Side Torch.

The waning years

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the West Side Organization remained active in the community, but the deaths and departures of original members ushered in a new generation. Crawford maintains that this new group was ill-equipped to carry the torch and did not share the same commitment of their predecessors.

A former inmate himself, Crawford has remained committed to providing ex-offenders with resources to reintegrate into society.

“If a man has used his hands to cause destruction, to cause a mother to cry, to cause death to the community, those same hands can be constructive in the community,” Crawford insists.