On February 28, 1994, President Clinton visited Wilbur Wright College to deliver a speech touting an economic plan that he said “would begin to bring down the deficit, that would bring down interest rates, keep inflation down, and get investment and jobs and growth up.”
Clinton’s economic plan, however, also included spending cuts that would potentially hurt people like Anna Finkley, a 58-year-old asthmatic widow who lived on the West Side. In 1993, Clinton proposed that LIHEAP [short for low-income home energy assistance program] be cut by half. Finkley had depended on LIHEAP to cover one month’s gas bill a year for the last eight years.
“Like many other poor households, her payments are deferred when not paid in full,” noted an article in the Crisis that reported on Clinton’s 1994 visit. “Finkley’s cumulative bill has exceeded over $1,255, and her deferments have run out. Because she cannot pay the full amount her gas was scheduled to shut off.”
“LIHEAP has helped me a lot,” Finkley told Crisis reporter Thomas Krause. “Even $1 is a help. If they cut it out, I don’t know what I would do.”
Finkley’s predicament and the proposed LIHEAP cuts weren’t in the president’s speech. But they weren’t going to be wholly ignored, either. Lillian Drummond, who was 73 at the time, would make sure of it.
According to the Crisis article, Drummond “pushed her way to the front of a crowd” (presumably the ubiquitous hand-shake, picture and autograph jockeying that follows many modern presidential speeches) and “demanded that the president listen to her.”
“I am Lillian Drummond, the lady who keeps writing to you,” Drummond reportedly told the president, before sounding off on a series of points from her letters arguing for support of the program.
Clinton isn’t the only powerful politician whose attention Drummond has demanded. One member of the South Austin Neighborhood Association (SANA) recalled accompanying Drummond on a City Hall protest. They were demonstrating in order to pressure Mayor Richard J. Daley to establish a school in the old Brach’s factory on Cicero Ave.
Mayor Daley, surrounded by his body guards, tried to ignore Drummond’s presence, the SANA member, who goes by Ms. Moore, said. As with Clinton, Daley would experience what might be called the ‘Drummond treatment.’
“She said, ‘Boy come over here,'” Moore said, recalling how the venerable activist dressed down the powerful mayor. “Daley did not hesitate to heed to her command. He came over there and requested her forgiveness. I had never seen Mayor Daley so humble.”
Last Thursday, Drummond held court for another Chicago mayor — this time Rahm Emanuel — but she didn’t have to make any demands. The city’s top politician, along with a procession of other city and county elected officials, freely came to her for a ceremony during which Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and SANA presented the 94-year-old activist with a street named in her honor.
A portion of West Congress Pkwy., will now be called Honorary Lillian Drummond Pkwy. The honorary roadway spans the location of the Austin Satellite Senior Center, 5071 W. Congress Pkwy., where Drummond has staged her decades-long war of attrition against vital spending cuts and where she has helped a village of seniors and near-seniors like Finkley.
Drummond was a force behind the opening of the center, which is operated by the venerable West Side social services organization the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC).
Mary Etta Fox, one of the many senior citizens who have been helped by Drummond over the years, could hardly contain her admiration for the woman who stares down the powerful.
“I’ve been working with her for about seven years,” Fox said. “I’m always around doing fashion shows and whatever she tells me to do. I really admire her and I want to be just like her — if I can.”
At the ceremony, in a stroke of irony, Drummond, dressed in a regal rose red two-piece power suit, locked arms with Mayor Emanuel — who was a senior advisor in Clinton’s White House in 1994. As the two unveiled one of the honorary street signs, Drummond’s progeny craned their necks in pride.
“I have been on the picket lines with her. I’ve been to Washington, D.C., with her. I’ve been to Springfield. And I’ve gone into offices with her fighting,” said Drummond’s great-granddaughter, Tirzah Oliver.
Her granddaughter, Mia Mitchell, said she attributes her grandmother’s feistiness to the little warrior’s big heart and her powerful moral compass.
“She does what’s right and she wants you to do the same thing. She just has a great heart and she does what’s best for us,” Mitchell said.
When asked what motivates her to stand up to presidents and mayors, Drummond didn’t hesitate.
“The people who do wrong,” she said, before recounting what may have been a defining moment in her life of activism. In 1989, Peoples Gas tried overcharging her.
“They sent me a bill for $100 and I fought back. I went down and told them off. I said, ‘I know I didn’t use that much gas. I didn’t have a building. I had a little old house,” Drummond said.
It was a prelude to her big moment last Thursday, when the arc of her life fighting and protesting wrongs seemed to bend a bit toward justice. Drummond said she was in her office at the satellite center when she learned that she’d be so honored.
“I was very happy and thanking God,” she said. “I like that I got it while I’m alive and can smell the flowers and enjoy everything.”
But the honor was about more than her personal accomplishments or length of service. The honor was also a nod to Drummond’s guiding philosophy.
“Treat everybody right and learn to love everybody,” she said. “If we all stick together, God will love us and help us. We all got to live together.”