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Message from the Grassroots

by Published on
Photo courtesy Alan Pogue
Velma Roberts, 1969.

As a young woman, Dorothy Turner rode the bus from East Austin to West Austin to clean white women’s homes. Her political education was on the back of the bus talking to other maids. But unlike the maids in the film The Help, Dorothy didn’t need an idealistic young white woman to tell her story. She told it herself.

Years later, she created Grassroots Struggle, a newspaper that told the story of the help— the politically marginalized. This blog takes its name from that community newspaper. The mission of Grassroots Struggle was similar to that of the Observer: to boldly tell stories that weren’t being reported. Throughout the ‘80s, Grassroots Struggle printed stories about black people and East Austin—then predominantly black and brown—from the perspective of those who knew what it was like to scrub the toilet in somebody else’s home.

I was part of the newspaper’s small clandestine staff, which met monthly at an old shotgun house on East 14th Street. For inspiration, we listened to Fela Kuti and Gil Scott- Heron as we laid out the newspaper on a rickety drafting table. In those days, we used press-on letters. With steady hands, we lined up each letter to create headlines. We cut out typewritten stories and carefully glued them to the layout paper. Sometimes the headlines were crooked, but what mattered was the message.

After staying up all night courtesy of coffee thick as tar, we’d shake off the fatigue and drive to Smithville, where old hippies sympathetic to our cause cranked out a few thousand copies. Our distribution plan was as simple and direct as the newspaper’s production: hit the barbershops, clubs and rib and chicken joints on East 11th and 12th streets. We dropped off a few copies at libraries, mailed some to subscribers and donors and saved the rest for meetings and events.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Dorothy was one half of the leadership team of the Black Citizens Task Force (BCTF), which published Grassroots Struggle. Her partner in activism was Velma Roberts. Velma, a former welfare recipient, was a member of the board of the National Welfare Rights Organization, a direct-action group chaired by George Wiley and part of the poor people’s movement in the ’60s. As vice president of the BCTF, she ran a section of the organization’s monthly meeting called the People’s Employment Council, where janitors, clerks and cooks got help in dealing with cruel bosses, unfair workplaces and just plain ol’ discrimination. Velma, who had worked at a legal aid organization, doled out advice with the authority of a wartime general.

Grassroots Struggle often got its best stories from those meetings where everyday people gathered. If newspapers are the first draft of history, I’m proud to say we gave the people’s version of events. History is filled with the accounts of the powerful and the privileged, but it’s still made by the help—from the maids to the teachers. In Texas politics, their voices need to be heard. Like the original Grassroots Struggle, this blog tells their stories.