Michael Romain

On March 10, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives passed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that will put $1,400 in the pockets of many Americans and provide billions of dollars in relief to state and local governments, hospitals, schools, colleges and other entities. 

The same day, Wednesday Journal reported that Sherlynn Reid, the local pioneer who helped integrate Oak Park, died. Reid’s death symbolizes the passing of an era, to the detriment of we who yet live, and to future generations. The only hope I have for human life on this planet is encoded in the story of Sherlynn Reid and women like her.

Last week, the Washington Post called this year’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan “one of the largest economic rescue packages in history.” The measure comes a year after former president Donald Trump signed the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which the New York Times called “unparalleled in its scope and size.” Federal lawmakers passed yet another $900 billion stimulus package in December. 

Each of those rescue packages were more than former President Barack Obama’s “historic” $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was passed and signed less than a year after former president George W. Bush signed the “historic” $700 billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (better known as the financial bailout).

In less than two decades, this country has been through two depressions, which have resulted in more than $5 trillion in federal stimulus. Obama’s Recovery Act alone was at least 50 percent larger in constant dollars than FDR’s New Deal, according to journalist Michael Grunwald. 

Grunwald, who wrote a comprehensive 2012 book on the Obama recovery, called The New New Deal, praises the act to high heaven for its massiveness in dollars and cents. But even he had to concede that, in the American imagination, the New Deal (which was a series of legislative initiatives passed over several years) is “a journey, an era, an aura,” while the Recovery Act “was just a bill on Capitol Hill.” 

Grunwald’s observation tells us a lot about our own era. The main problem with the Obama stimulus and every “historic” stimulus package that has followed in its wake is that they have been projects not in nation-building, but in managing national decline. 

Rather than reflecting individual and collective political agency, particularly agency played out at the community level; the New Deal’s successors reflect the relative absence of people power from our local and national politics. 

Born in 1935, Sherlynn Reid came of age before “the nation disaggregated into a constellation of private acts,” as Princeton historian Daniel T. Rogers puts it in his 2011 book, Age of Fracture

Last week, I quoted the sociologist Richard Sennett while discussing the specter of uselessness that haunts the lives of everyone who joined the workforce after around 1990, this fear that our social selves can become disjointed, disposed, disaggregated the instant the market no longer finds use for us. 

Despite rising unemployment and underemployment and burdensome, unjust debt and criminal income inequality, “People are sort of passively suffering,” Sennett observed in 2014. 

The challenge is “to rouse them to think that the answer to being a disposable person is, in the first place, thinking in the plural, thinking collectively. And through unions, other civil society institutions, churches, community organizations. But that’s the first step that people need to take. That the answer to disposability is not autonomy, it’s something social and collective.” 

When Sherilynn Reid and her husband, Henry, moved to Oak Park in 1968, they were the first Black couple to “buy a home from a realtor using a conventional loan,” my colleague Ken Trainor said in 2019 [See Ken Trainor’s column, p. 72]. 

“The first thing Sherlynn did when they moved into that big house on Ridgeland Avenue was call Police Chief Fremont Nester and tell him he could remove the squad car from in front of her home, which was assigned as protection against, well, people with anger issues and poor impulse control,” Trainor recalled. 

“The next thing [Reid] did was get involved, quickly weaving herself into the community fabric,” he added. 

Reid joined the Beye PTA board and the Christian Education board at First Congregational (now First United) Church. She was active in the Girl Scouts and the 19th Century Club and CAST at Julian. She retired as head of Oak Park’s Community Relations Department in 1999, Trainor said. And that’s just a sampling of her local activity. 

Reid practiced what the Black labor leader Addie Wyatt called the “holistic gospel.” That gospel, writes historian Jeffrey Helgeson, was “a faith based in a concern for individual, family, and community welfare, and which required involvement ‘in those institutions’ — churches, PTOs, labor unions, Leagues of Women Voters, etc. — ‘that can make this a reality.’” 

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Helgeson adds that Wyatt fought for opportunity and power in what the historian Earl Lewis calls “the home sphere,” which included her community, her neighborhood, her household, her workplace — all of these were realms of the possible, all of them settings that constituted her base of political struggle. 

“The question is not whether community- or workplace-based organizing was ‘more important,’ but how concerns for the quality of life in one’s community shaped one’s engagement with the broader political battles over race, class, gender, and economic opportunity,” Helgeson explains. 

There was a time when this local civic energy routinely percolated up to the federal level, translating into policies like the New Deal, the Wagner Act (which guaranteed workers’ rights to organize), Social Security, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act and regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

And when those laws were passed, people like Sherlynn and Addie made sure that they were enforced in the home sphere, closing the loop of political agency. These Black women did not consider themselves alien to government or its passive subjects; rather, they worked to improve it, to make it work on their behalf. 

The aura of the New Deal-era (for all of its obvious flaws, racist and sexist restrictions among them) is in public artwork and shared physical and civic infrastructure, a sense of togetherness and solidarity, a sense that the nation was at least grappling with self-invention. The Bush and Obama and Trump and Biden stimulus packages, on the other hand, “are just bills” sloppily legislated in a nation seized by self-delusion. 

Now, with the home sphere in tatters, we consider it an accomplishment when one-half of our two-party system can barely pass a one-time $1,400 cash payment that has the support of three-quarters of the country. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted. Social Security is ever-poised for privatization. The planet is burning from too much carbon dioxide and the U.S. government is TikTokking a bonfire. I could go on …

The “real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling. […] The great obstacle may be not greed but the modern hankering after glamour. A lot of our smartest, most concerned people want to come up with a big solution to a big problem. I don’t think that planet-saving, if we take it seriously, can furnish employment to many such people,” writes the poet and farmer Wendell Berry. 

The job of planet-saving requires “a person willing to go down and down into the daunting, humbling, almost hopeless local presence of the problem — to face the great problem one small life at a time.” 

Sherlynn Reid’s greatness was in her depth, in her commitment to this relatively small patch of Earth that is Oak Park. There are so many women like her — Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Pauli Murray, Dorothy Day, Addie Wyatt, Jane Addams — who fought in their home spheres and, by doing so, improved the country and the world. 

We will either follow their lead and try, collectively, one-by-one, to humble ourselves and rebuild our own home spheres, or perish glamorously.

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