Friday, Jan. 16, 2009 | Eleven years ago, Richard Lawrence moved to San Diego to retire, to spend time with his grandkids. The ordained minister soon realized he couldn’t afford a house here and wondered how people with less than he had could survive in San Diego.

That wonder launched a decade of passionate fighting for the cause of affordable housing here, a battle waged during a historic housing boom with skyrocketing prices. In public meetings and task force gatherings, Lawrence has sought to compel elected officials and regular residents to preserve affordable housing so those who earn the least in this region can afford the things they need.

This is far from the first cause Lawrence has seen from the front lines. He’s been engaged in issues of economic justice, particularly as those issues relate to interracial relations, for his entire life. He sat down to tell us about his work in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, and an especially memorable demonstration where he stood shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday the nation celebrates each January.

Chicago, where Lawrence was assigned to a parish in the early 1960s, was extremely segregated. King was organizing a housing movement to combat segregation, and black families were beginning to purchase homes in what had recently been a white neighborhood on the city’s South Side.

The owners of a shopping center in the neighborhood wanted to assure their white patrons that they wouldn’t have to drive through a black neighborhood to shop there. So they decided to build a perimeter of parking lots around the center.

But to create this buffer zone they had to buy and raze homes that had been recently purchased by black homeowners. At that time black homebuyers couldn’t get regular mortgages; they had to purchase their homes on a “land contract,” where the buyers wouldn’t obtain the official title until they had paid 60 to 70 percent of the principal of the loan. So the center’s owners could go straight to the banks, the “owners” of hundreds of the black families’ recently purchased homes. The black homeowners could do nothing to save their homes.

That was difficult to explain in a protest slogan or a flier. A lawsuit made it to the Supreme Court but the court wouldn’t hear it. And that’s when Dr. King joined the effort.

Can you tell us more about that demonstration Dr. King joined you for?

We organized a demonstration as an ongoing part of our effort to get the ministers in town, in the community, to go en masse to Chicago City Bank and Trust and withdraw their accounts from Chicago City Bank and Trust.

We had no idea when this was organized that Dr. King was going to participate. It was just our local organization doing what our local organization was doing. The Englewood Action Committee, we were called. And the day of the demonstration, of the withdrawal, I heard from … one of Dr. King’s staff that Dr. King was going to join us for the demonstration.

So you heard Dr. King was coming.

Yes. And you know, that literally was greeted by the organizing committee like the greatest Christmas present we had ever received. … Dr. King lived on the West Side, and his housing efforts were focused on the West Side, which in general was a lower-income black community and housing was in much worse condition than on the South Side.

Which is hard to believe.

The conditions in which blacks in the community lived in those days were deplorable. …

So Dr. King’s presence meant to me that he was prepared, and he would just take over the demonstration. Here, take it, it’s all yours. We’ll follow you anywhere, Dr. King. Literally, we would.

But when he came, that was not his approach at all. He asked a lot of questions about what the issues were and what our plan for the day was, and who the leadership was and I was the spokesperson for the occasion. That did not change. I can remember still as we got ready for the demonstration him saying to me, “Well, is there anything else I need to know, Rev. Lawrence?” And I said, “I don’t think so, Dr. King.” He said, “Lead on, then.” (Laughs.)

We went out of the church and marched down to 63rd and Halsted Street. The ministers went in and withdrew their money. We did not at the time plan anything more than that. But coming out of the bank, one of his staff … said, “Where’s that bank book? We ought to just burn that bank book!” And as you can see, we did, and a reporter from — that’s the Chicago Daily Defender, the black newspaper in Chicago — captured it. I was so stupid as to not recognize that that was a historic event. And I did not ask for a copy of that picture until about 10 years ago.

And luckily the photographer who took it was still there at the Defender and he sent me the original. And obviously I treasure it now as one of the greatest gifts that I have ever been given, to have had the chance to stand, as the headline says, shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King, whose work is remarkable because he did inspire hundreds and thousands of folks like me to do things we never knew we could or thought we’d dare do.

We’re fully aware of Rosa Parks. Well, Rosa Parks is a great symbol of the civil rights movement because she does capture the spirit of folks like her, like me, who under (King’s) inspiration, just went to work to address the issue as best we could. It’s the phenomenal spark that just keeps a movement alive. And when you’ve lived through it, you don’t necessarily recognize how miraculous it really was.

That’s interesting because I think there are a lot of people who didn’t live through the time when he was alive, who think, “Well, if I would’ve been there, maybe I would understand that better.” But what you’re saying is that if you’ve lived through it you don’t even see exactly — I mean, it was just 10 years ago that you asked for a copy of this photo.

Yeah, and what that suggests to me is that we need to be a little more attentive. I mean, there are undoubtedly heroes and heroines of the stature of Dr. King around. Not in great number, but who we ought to be as diligent as possible about trying to identify and work with. You know, Dr. King isn’t the only person endowed with the gifts and the program that deserves our commitment. And I know dozens of folks who now look back and say, “Why, when I had the opportunity to contribute something to the civil rights movement, didn’t I do it?”

What about this Martin Luther King, Jr. day coming up on Monday — today (Jan. 15) is his birthday — what about this one in 2009 is important, different?

I’m not so sure that this one is any more important or special than any of the others. But what it is is an opportunity for us to be reminded of who Dr. King was, and what Dr. King believed. And folks need to remember that we may celebrate it as a holiday today, but it wasn’t a holiday while he was alive. It was the subject of controversy. Ministers criticized him. Elected officials criticized him. Everybody criticized him. And so when you decide to march shoulder to shoulder with somebody, you shouldn’t be altogether concerned about whether they are popular or whether they are not popular.

What you need to consider is what it is that’s important to you. What do you value? What do you believe in? What do you want the world to be? And what you can do to make those beliefs, those values, come true. And that’s the challenge — for me — that Dr. King’s birthday represents. We would like to put him on a pedestal and think he was an exception. Well, he was an exception, but he’s an exception that all of us can come closer to replicating than we really want to believe.

Where are the heroes and heroines that you’re talking about fighting and working in San Diego today?

I obviously believe that when it comes to economic justice, we’ve got to look at the fact that San Diego is a community in which [a large percentage] of the folks who work here earn less than needed to support their families. They’re working families, but they are not earning enough to support their families. …

And so organizations that are working on creating quality jobs, is where the action is in San Diego today. Nobody’s going to love you for taking on that battle. And all I need to do is refer to the controversy at the school board meeting Tuesday night. The unions were there saying, “If we’ve got $2.1 billion in public bond money, shouldn’t we be sure that this money is used in a way that does as much good for as many people as possible?” So that not just the contractor makes a killing on this deal, but that the workers who generate that profit also benefit. Now that comes down to some hard choices. …

Just look at the turnout at that meeting. Incredible number of folks on both sides of that issue. Very passionate. Now, that’s a great example of — are you going to get in it, or are you going to stand outside and say, “Well, if it’s controversial, I’m staying out of it.”

Well, I was in it because I know that we will only have a community of which we can be proud when everybody here earns enough to take care of the things they need. Not the things they want. The things they need. … We need to create a climate in San Diego where everybody earns what they need to survive, with dignity.

A main theme in your work has been economic justice tied to interracial relations. In San Diego, the minority of prominence is Latino. … And the San Diego race line is what, the border?

There’s the border. And we’ve taken advantage of that border economically. And so when folks want to get across that border desperately enough to crawl through tunnels. Good God Almighty! I couldn’t, I couldn’t — there’s no way I could conceivably get into a tunnel and crawl through to come to the United States, in hope that I was going to get a job. That I wouldn’t be caught and sent back.

What that tells me is that we’re never going to have a healthy community in San Diego until we face the fact that we have a responsibility to recognize the fact that we live on a border. We live on an international border! We have enormous opportunities to do something really special that other states can’t do. We haven’t begun to approach that.

You came to San Diego to retire, 11 years ago. Do you mind me asking how old you are?

I’m 72.

When will be retirement?

Never. As long I can breathe and walk and talk and move, I’m going to do the best I can to contribute to creating a community that resembles something close to what Dr. King described as the “beloved community.” And that community is a place, obviously, where folks’ work is respected, where they earn enough to live in dignity, where, irrespective of your color, you are respected, you are honored, you are encouraged. Where there’s real peace because there is justice. Economic and social justice.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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