Appeared in the Fall 2009 Gazette
_Former long-time Winnetka resident David James shared a place of honor with his fellow surviving Tuskegee Airmen at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January. This article, a continuation of one that appeared in the Spring 2009 Gazette, offers more glimpses of his fascinating life drawn from a transcript of an interview conducted a year ago by New Trier student Brit Schneiders and a filmed interview by her older sister Meg._
James recalls that the first time he saw Dr. Martin Luther King was when King spoke to a crowd of over 100,000 at Soldier Field. James went with a college friend who had become a doctor, and they both felt quite knowledgeable about civil rights issues in a northern urban setting like Chicago. They were skeptical that a southern Baptist preacher like Dr. King, steeped in the problems of the largely rural south, would have anything of value to say to them. Nevertheless, they waited though a long series of speeches before hearing King address the huge crowd, and were both surprised to find themselves moved to tears by his words. James had heard that King would be going to a church basement to speak with a small group of local civil rights leaders that James knew. He decided to attend that meeting to see if there really was something compelling about Dr. King and his message.
When he arrived, David James found four young protégés of Dr. King, including Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, at the podium leading a spirited dialogue, while Dr. King was stretched out on a bench in the back of the room. James was struck by Dr. King’s apparent willingness to let others take the spotlight. He introduced himself to Dr. King and they started a conversation that went on into the night. James recalled that as they discussed their views on what was needed to bring about real change, Dr. King kept returning to the question of how to deal with violence. He emphasized that there was a need to recognize the feelings of anger, frustration, and hostility among African-Americans and to defuse those feelings, because in Dr. King’s view they formed a barrier to accomplishing needed changes in society. His message of non-violence was very strong. One of Dr. King’s comments that evening in particular stayed with James; they were discussing aspects of violence, including the notion of imposing your will on someone else, and Dr. King said: “I have no need to dominate anybody, but I won’t allow anyone to dominate me.”
By 1964, David James became involved, initially as a representative of Friendship House, in groups that were forming on the North Shore to promote better race relations and open housing. These groups, especially the Winnetka Human Relations Commission and the North Shore Summer Project, helped to bring Dr. Martin Luther King to speak on the Winnetka Village Green in June of 1965. Mr. James was there and recalled that the audience of almost 10,000 people was very receptive to Dr. King’s speech. He said that Dr. King was surprised to find in the virtually all-white North Shore a friendly audience that was eager to hear what he had to say. After that experience, Mr. James continued to work with a group coordinating all of the human relations councils on the North Shore. The group was interested in the possibility of an African-American family moving to Winnetka. One evening, when he arrived at a meeting late, all heads turned in his direction. Finally, someone said, “If you really believe in what we are doing, you might consider moving up here.” Mr. James was hesitant because he would have to leave the comfort of being a “big fish in a small pond,” well known and respected in his Hyde Park community, to move his family into what might be a challenging situation. When he discussed the idea with his wife, Mr. James recalled, she said, “Someone’s got to do it. Why not us?”
Mr. James and his wife bought a house on Spruce Street and moved in, with their six children, on the first day of school in September, 1967. Mr. James recalled that on that first day, a neighbor, Onnie Darrow, loaded the five school-age children into her station wagon and introduced them at their schools as a way of demonstrating her support for the family. Although the neighbors on one side were upset and moved within a year, they were replaced by wonderful new neighbors, and the community as a whole was very welcoming. Mr. James continued to live in Winnetka for 40 years, until after his wife’s death. Many of his children’s best friends today are friends they made living in Winnetka.
Among Mr. and Mrs. James’s many contributions to the Winnetka community was the founding of the TWIG (“Together We Influence Growth”) day camp. During the James family’s first summers in Winnetka, children from their old Hyde Park neighborhood came to play with children from Winnetka in the family’s back yard. This interaction evolved into TWIG, which, over forty years later, continues to bring together children from the same South Side neighborhoods and children from the North Shore for a summer of fun activities at Greeley School. Mr. James noted that it became apparent to him and his wife from the response they received in Winnetka that there was a great deal of interest here in building bridges between people, and that much conflict arises from misconceptions and suspicions among people who simply have not had an opportunity to get to know each other. TWIG was designed to give children the opportunity build those bridges.