Some 50 years ago I volunteered at the Better Boys Foundation (BBF). It was, and continues to be, an organization helping troubled African-American teens in Chicago’s Lawndale community. Initially, it was housed in an old warehouse building. Upon entering, all were greeted by a huge wooden box containing some guns and knives. A large chalkboard above it read, “Leave all guns and knives here.” Installed on the premises was an official-sized boxing ring, donated by middleweight boxing champion Archie Moore. This exciting gift was so thrilling for the BBF boys that they were willing to give up their prized weapons in order to get into the ring.
Archie Moore’s gift was his way of encouraging fisticuffs for settling disagreements between these restless, angry teens. Their lives were full of tension, hopelessness, and violence. Walter Peyton, the Chicago Bears’ football star at that time, added to Moore’s gift by purchasing 100 pairs of undershorts for these teens who rarely had any underclothing. He also donated several pairs of brightly colored boxing trunks for the kids’ use at BBF.
It was always exciting when celebrity visitors from the world of sports, entertainment, and politics came to BBF. From time to time even some young interns from Cook County Hospital would come to talk about the value of education and urge these kids to graduate. More than half of the teens had been jailed at one time or another in their young lives, and schooling was unimportant to them.
Most of the BBF kids saw others as the enemy except for members of their own gang. I asked one of the teens at Christmas what he most wanted. His answer was, “a good gun.” I asked if he realized that the only use for a gun is to kill. He answered me with the words, “So what?!” The fact is these underfed, under-clothed, and under-loved kids did not recognize that we are all human beings. They saw uniforms; they saw uncaring teachers; and domineering, degrading white folks. They saw that many whites were racist against them, and in return, many became racist against whites. They were not discerning as to whom they could trust. They were most attracted to people with a wad of money and/or a fancy car.
It is now 2021, many years since I left BBF, and guns are even more of a problem today than they were. Probably the best years between then and the present day were the Obama years. Many barriers for Black and Brown folks eased and opportunities opened. There were positive changes and finally a sense of a future for them. Sadly, whatever gains were made, they were reversed under the Trump administration.
The average Black teen may have a better, more hopeful life today, but hate and racism continue to pervade and cause more division between communities. Guns are deadlier than ever and have become more prevalent. Mass killings are more frequent occurrences, and gun regulation is more difficult than ever for our legislators to pass. Rampages have occurred in schools, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, churches, Black meeting halls, gay bars and at peaceful protest marches. All have been hate targets.
The only way I see some of the violence stopped is if weapon manufacturers cut back on their gun and ammunition inventories. Yet I know that there is too much money at stake for this to happen. Then there’s the NRA. It opposes restrictions on military-style weapons sold to individuals. They also oppose background checks of prospective gun buyers, the elimination of crossing state lines to buy a gun, and mail order purchases. These minimal safeguards for gun licensing do not interfere with hunters or gun collectors, but the NRA continues to oppose these safety controls. To ensure their influence, the NRA has been one of the highest financial contributors to Republican candidates in recent elections.
Movements like Black Lives Matter and the Rainbow Coalition, however helpful in making strides in equality, have in response engendered more fear and hate among white supremacists. I am usually optimistic about changes for the better, but I have no solutions to quell racism, hate, or the proliferation of guns. Would that we could set up a national box and place a sign above it, asking people to leave their guns and ammunition there, as BBF did, but that isn’t possible.
I put my faith in like-minded citizens advocating for change. Additionally, I hope some of our elected officials will be brave enough to oppose the NRA and fight for legislation that more effectively regulates guns in our society.
To keep our nation strong, we need our diverse races, creeds, and religions to support each other. That is the strength of a democracy.
Guns, hate, and violence can only destroy our country.
Harriet Hausman is a longtime resident of River Forest and a longtime member of the ACLU.