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Julius Hobson Sr., Activist, Dies at Age 54
Rocked District for 25 Years

By Cynthia Gorney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 1977 7:56 PM

Julius Hobson Sr. died yesterday at age 54 of the cancer that would not let him fight any more.

When he died he was a city councilman - the at-large representative of the party seeking statehood for the District of Columbia. He worked almost full-time until the day before his death, when he attended a big last City Council meeting.

Behind him stretched on extraordinary record of achievement in local civil rights and educational reform: the lawsuit that ended tracking in Washington schools, the picket lines that opened downtown hiring to blacks, the demonstrations and speeches and pointed theatrics that unsettled Washington for 25 years.

"I sleep mad," Hobson used to say.

A Marxist who never learned the fine political art of moral compromise - and never wanted to - he spent his adult life waging an unorthodox and often lonely war on the racism that had shaped his childhood. His weapons were publicity, statistics, the American legal system, and an implacable refusal to let things be.

His death, shortly after noon yesterday at George Washington University Hospital, came six years after Hobson learned he was sick - first with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the spine, and then with acute leutremia, which sapped his resistance to infection and allowed internal complications to finally kill him. It was an illness he loathed, not because he knew it would kill him, but rather because it ate away at the enormous and angry energy that was the essence of Julius Hobson.

Exhorting and prodding, manipulating the press and ignoring the hesitant, Hobson infuriated as many as he inspired. He was told that he wanted too much, that he pushed too hard, that he didn't understand people. He was called a maverick, an egomaniac, a gadfly, a hero. Hobson knew all that.

"When you take the negative position and you're always screaming," he reflected a few months before his death, "people are going to brand you as they see fit."

There are no real victories, Hobson would tell people, no comfortable resting places. He believed there is no God to make things better in the end. There is only the here and now, and the small successes that propel you to the next fight.

For 20 years his presence rocked Washington: Hobson climbing into a hospital bed in a white ward and refusing to leave. Hobson stepping onto a wooden crate in Lincoln Park and demanding that people listen. Hobson driving toward Georgetown with a cage full of rats on the roof of his car, suggesting the rich share a problem they said was unsolvable, and then stealing away from the television cameras to drown the rats in the Potomac Rover. Hobson under picket signs, behind microphones, in police vans - always with his hat and his pipe (or cigar) and his rich, strident Alabama voice.

And there was the private Julius Hobson, who seemed to draw sustenance from conflict and the certainty that he could not be pushed. The husband who emerged from furious protests so invigorated he would do all the grocery shopping and lunge into the preparation of dinner. The solider who memorized poetry while flying World War II artillery spotters and continued to recite the words of this private music 20 years later. The Alabama kid who, way back around 1930, sat by the window on rainy days with Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," reading the scene where a mad queen mocks justice by crying, "Sentence first! Verdict afterward!"

"I understood it even then," he later recalled.

Hobson was born in 1922 in Birmingham, Ala., where there were streets where blacks could not walk. The church of Hobson's christening, the church still attended by his mother Irma Reynolds, shocked much of white America into an awareness of the civil rights movements in 1963 when it was shattered by a bomb that killed four children.

Hobson's father, a Pullman porter, had died when Julius was very young.

The young Hobson's stepfather ran a dry-cleaning plant and drugstore and his mother was a schoolteacher and principal. His background has been called middle class, a term Hobson found irritating.

"I don't see how you can grow up middle class and be black," he said not long before he died. "A man who can't go into public parks, can't go into a store and try on a suit, can't drink from a public fountain, can't ride in front of a public vehicle like a streetcar - how are you going to call him middle class?"

It was a home, Hobson said, where education mattered deeply, where the dinner table talk was of learning and schools. He worked in the public library as a boy, where he could sweep the floors but could not check out books, according to library rules.

So he stole one. The book was the "Home Book of Verse of the English Speaking World," a 3,900-page anthology of the poems he learned by heart and recited quietly to himself for the rest of his life. Forty years later, wearing a bathrobe and the neck brace that eased the pain of spinal cancer, Hobson could gaze out the window of his Southwest Washington apartment and remember "The Prisoner of Chillon," the Lord Byron poem he loved:

"There are seven pillars of Gothic mold/in Chillon's dungeons deep and old . . ."

In Birmingham Hobson attended what was them called Industrial High School, the only black high school in the city's segregated school system.

At his graduation, as he told the story later, the school superintendent stopped by and listened to the class sing spirituals.

"When we got through singing, this white superintendent was mopping tears from his eyes," Hobson recalled. "He said, 'I'm sure God's got a place set aside in heaven for you people.' That did it. I never sang another spiritual."

Hobson went to Tuskegee Institute after graduation, but was called away to World War II. As an Army pilot he flew 35 missions in Europe, according to the 1944 Army Times, and was awarded three bronze stars and a number of other medals.

He never returned to live in Alabama. For a while he lived in Harlem, looking for "the promised land of New York and how everybody was getting rich and so forth," as he said in a 1972 series of Washington Post in interviews. But, after a disappointing few months at Columbia University, he gave up, took the train to Washington, and registered at Howard University.

Hobson arrived, churning with political debate in the pre-McCarthy years. As he recalled it, many of the professors who most excited him during his graduate study of economics were subsequently fired for their leftist politics. Hobson found a job in economics when he left Howard as a researcher for the Library of Congress, and he said later that during those years of preparing papers he developed many of the painstaking research techniques that became part of his political arsenal.

In 1947, he married Carol Smith, whom he had met at Howard, and by the time he left his Library of Congress job to go to work at the Social Security Administration, the couple had their first child, Julius Hobson, Jr. The son's schooling began in 1950, four years before the Supreme Court's nationwide school desegregation order, and as Hobson walked his son past the all-white neighborhood school to Slowe Elementary in Northeast every morning, the anger inside him began to distill.

"That was just about the first fight I got involved in," Hobson said.

He became president of the school PTA, arguing that white schools should be used for students at overcrowded black schools. He joined the local civic association - later becoming Vice President of the Federation of Civic Associations - and then became a member of the Executive Committee of the NAACP, "each organization theoretically becoming more radical as I went along," he later said.

His style was sharpening. In 1954, he spoke to the first meeting of the newly desegregated Woodridge Elementary School PTA: "My boy washed with the same Ivory soap your kids use," Hobson said. "His color won't rub off, and he's coming here for the same reason your kids do - to get an education."

In 1957, when a Hobson-initiated NAACP suit against the Metropolitan Police Department documented racism in the promotion of officers to sergeant, Washington began to taste the blend of research and confrontation that became Hobson's trademark.

In the midst of these first years of activism Hobson suffered a heart attack. He was hospitalized briefly in January, 1555, and from the unfamiliar quiet of his hospital bed he wrote to his mother in Birmingham, "They say that between the ages of 35 and 50 a man begins to examine himself. I guess I have started a little early."

He told his mother his heart was all right, but his spirit was troubled.

"I feel as though the world will have been no better off by my having been here," he wrote. "I feel ashamed when other men have sacrificed, gone to jail, or even been executed for mankind . . . it's just that the injustice, suffering and cheating and all of man's inhumanity to man seems to be my personal problem. I cannot divorce myself from it. I will be ever unhappy if I cannot do something about it. I just hope this heart will last long enough for me to strike one blow at all the things around me which I detest."

In 1961, having watched him grow increasingly active in local desegregation battles, the Washington chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality asked Hobson to become President of the organization.

"From then on," Hobson recalled, "I was locked into the whole business of protest."

For three years Hobson led CORE members, both black and white, on an unprecedented series of demonstrations and marches here.

They walked the streets of downtown Washington with picket signs, asking shoppers to boycott merchants who employed only whites. By the time they let up, about 120 retail stores had hired blacks. They threatened a boycott of the bus company for employment discrimination, and the company hired 44 black drivers and clerks. They staged "live-ins" at privately owned buildings that rented only to whites, and then organized a march of about 4,500 persons to the District Building to demand a fair housing law.

They got it: shortly after the march, the D.C. Commissioners enacted the housing ordinance desegregating D.C. rentals.

CORE picketed automobile dealer ships that sold to black customers but would not hire black clerks. It conducted a sit-in at the Washington Hospital Center, during which Hobson walked upstairs to an all-white ward, climbed into bed, and announced that they would have to arrest him to make him leave. The hospital obliged, the newspapers wrote it up, and not long afterward Washington Hospital Center desegregated its wards.

It was a tumultuous period for both CORE and the city, and the restless, pipe-smoking man from Alabama dominated the drama. Some civil rights leaders both inside and outside CORE called Hobson a crazy man, an egotistical tyrant who would do things only his own way and could not abide dissent.

When the hospital center was desegregated, as one of the demonstrators recalls, it was said they could have achieved the same results through quieter meetings with officials. When the pickets marched downtown, another former CORE member said, some people objected that a few targets of the boycott were businessmen who had been generally cooperative toward the black community.

But Hobson was not a patient man. What he wanted was visibility and results, and he had little use for those who thought he was going about it in the wrong way. Hobson would argue his tactics up to a point, associates remember, and then he pulled rank.

"All in favor of this proposal say 'Aye,'" he would announce, good-naturedly. "The rest get the hell out of here."

He used both the law and the press to his advantage, saying arrests drew attention and attention brought change. Sometimes they would call the police before a demonstration, remembered former CORE member Charles Casell recently, and warn them that really serious militants were coming, that Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X might show up and set off a bomb.

"That meant we didn't have to engage in too much PR ourselves," Cassell said.

And when CORE picketed Royal Motors on Georgia Avenue for hiring only white salesmen, Cassell recalled, he and Hobson spent a while researching city ordinances to figure out how best to break the law.

"We found out that a picket was legal, but that if you sang or talked, that was disturbing the peace," Cassell said.

So the demonstrators sang, loudly and cheerfully, belting out "We Shall Overcome" and a little jingle they had made up about the racist auto-dealer. They were arrested. Royal Motors hired a black salesman.

"Hobson would never countenance any challenge or opposition," Cassell said. "Hobson was an Alabama boy. He'd had to put up with compromise for so long, his attitude did turn people off from time to time."

The national CORE leadership was growing increasingly irritated with

Hobson, both as a tactician and as a CORE leader. In 1964, after he called the Washington chapter a "dictatorship," CORE expelled him from the organization.

When Hobson left CORE, he took his closest associates with him, and together they formed a new organization called Associated Community Teams (ACT). The activism was as flamboyant as ever, although sometimes ACT focused as much debate on Hobson as it did on the problem.

As a member of the Advisory Committee to the Chief of Police, Hobson built a long-range microphone and drove around after police officers, recording their abuse of civilians. Police and city officials protested, but the tapes proved his point.

When Hobson suggested in August, 1964, that Georgetown share the city's rat problem - and then drove through the city displaying a cage full of possum-sized rats, which he said would be released on Georgetown - the city expended far more energy trying to stop Hobson's forays than it did killing rats.

But people noticed. They watched the cages cruise by and knew the rats had come from the ghetto. Shaking up the complacent was much of what Julius Hobson had in mind.

Besides, there was a far more serious project under way. Armed with graphs and statistics compiled after months of research, Hobson was suing the Washington public schools. The suit, Hobson v. Hansen (then city school supt. Carl F. Hansen), argued that more than a decade after desegregation, the school system was discriminating against black students by channeling them into the lower rungs of rigid academic tracks that received inadequate resources and discouraged achievement.

On June 19, 1967, the federal court agreed. In a sweeping decision then labeled one of the most important school rulings since desegregation, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Skelly Wright abolished the track system and ordered substantial integration of school students and faculty, specifying that students from overcrowded black schools should be bused to the under-capacity white schools west of Rock Creek Park.

Hobsen, who had shifted his own 10-year-old daughter Jean from public to private school after she was assigned to the lowest track, was jubilant.

He ran for the school board a year later, in the first local elections held in Washington during this century, and received so many votes that he was the only candidate who did not have to enter a runoff. Hobson carried six of the city's eight wards, losing only on the predominantly white areas in Southwest and west of Rock Creek Park.

Hobson's private life had suffered as his public life grew. In 1966 his wife Carol filed for divorce. Hobson and his son later said the marriage had been troubled by religious differences and Hobson's commitment to activism at the occasional expense of his family.

Hobson lived alone for a while, and then three months after the 1967 Wright decision he invited Tina Lower, then a national Institute for Public Affairs employee with whom he had lunched once, to his apartment for dinner. He fixed her a steak with homemade barbecue sauce, drove her to her apartment in Georgetown, and asked her to marry him.

"I want you to know that my intentions in taking you out are perfectly proper," Tina Hobson remembered him saying. A divorcee with two sons, Tina Lower had grown up "middle class white," as Hobson used to say, in Southern California. They saw each other for two years, ignoring the comments of some local activists that Hobson "talked black but dated white." In 1969, they announced their engagement - on the night Hobson lost his bid for re-election to the school board.

"If there was anything he lost that he felt he should have won, it was that election," Mrs. Hobson said. "Otherwise, I don't think he ever felt anybody owed him anything."

Hobson had spent a stormy year on the school board, pushing the adoption of black studies and a students' due process procedure so controversial that at one point teachers walked out in protest, saying discipline had fallen apart.

But as in the past, much of his time was spent soberly collecting data for a legal attack on District schools. The school system, Hobson charged, was spending far more on some schools than on others.

Again, Judge Wright agreed. In September, 1970, Wright declared that the "richest and whitest area of the city is being substantially favored over poorer and blacker areas."

The judge answered Hobson's second complaint by ordering the city to equalize per-pupil spending for teachers' salaries at all elementary schools. The reshuffling that followed moved a number of teachers from mostly white schools west of Rock Creek Park to poorer schools in the rest of the city.

Hobson's public response to his school board election defeat was typically brusque: "I got sidetracked and thought I was part of the power structure. The rabbit's back in the briar patch."

For four years, while still working at the Social Security Administration, Hobson functioned as a kind of agitator-at-large. Already the coauthor of a black history book called "Black Pride," he prepared two guides to the use of statistical data as an activists' tool - "The Damned Children" and "The Damned Information." The books were published under the auspices of an organization Hobson called the Washington Institute for Quality Education.

Hobson joined antiwar demonstrators every time they marched on the Capitol. He denounced a statement by local blacks that the antiwar movement was racist. He was nominated by the People's Party to be Vice President of the United States, as a running mate to its presidential candidate Benjamin Spock.

He also found out he was dying.

The pain began in early 1971, one friend remembered, a backache that sometimes made Hobson stoop when he stood up. That autumn he went to the doctor, saying he needed a back brace. When his wife came home that night he said there was something wrong with the blood cells in his bone marrow.

"Don't worry," he told her. "It's not cancer."

But it was, Hobson had multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks the spine. Doctors said then, in 1971, that he could die in six months.

"I had my crying time, you know." Hobson told The Washington Post in 1972.

He struggled with the pain, with the morphine he took to ease it, with the unfamiliar dependence of illness. "I don't want to go on my knees," Hobson said. "I'd like to go standing up."

In November, 1972, 2,000 people crowded into a room of the Sheraton Park Hotel to honor the man who had spent 20 years stirring up Washington. In the audience were his family, his admirers, and many of the local Washington figures Hobson had fought for years. Hobson was so sick that he lay on a couch for most of the evening, but he still smoked a cigar.

"My first wake," Hobson would later call that testimonial, because for a long time afterward he beat back the disease. In 1974, after a campaign conducted mostly from his wheelchair, Hobson was elected as an at-large member of what he had often referred to as the "so-called City Council." He represented the Statehood Party, ridiculing what he said was the District's colonial status, promising that statehood would be his first goal.

In January, 1975, for the first time in his life, Hobson looked down at the City Council chambers from the official side of the desk. He had become a councilman. He had a special license plate and a separate entrance to the chambers. His politics were now supposed to be packaged as motions, or substitute motions, or amendments to substitute motions. The mayor was now his colleague.

It was a sudden respectability that made Hobson uneasy. He chafed under dictates of parliamentary procedure, sometimes interrupting other Council members in mid-motion when he thought they had strayed from the issue. He would leave Council meetings impatient and angry, muttering to his aides about the self-indulgent posturing that went on in the name of government.

But he always went back, and one by one the issues that mattered to

Hobson began to appear as bills and resolutions.

He sponsored in Initiative and Referendum Act, which would allow citizens to draft legislation and then place it on the ballot. His Non-Criminal Police Surveillance Act would curtail surveillance of D.C. individual and group political activity. An Educational Accountability Act would implement minimum standards of student competency for promotion and graduation.

Hobson didn't think much of the Council as an institution - "a small and exclusive club," he called it. And he hated being labeled a dying man.

"I don't have any enemies now," Hobson said not long ago, and there was wistfulness in his voice. "I can't find anybody that's willing to attack Julius Hobson. I'm not used to that. I'm used to being attacked all day, every day and defending. In fact, I used to thrive on it, but now in recent years, nobody's attacked Hobson."

Hobson had sat through Tuesday morning's Council meeting, alert and apparently in good spirits, and had chatted with his legislative aide, Sandy Brown, about the initiative and referendum bill as they visited the George Washington Hospital outpatient clinic for a routine checkup.

Tuesday evening in his apartment in Southwest, Hobson developed digestive problems. He spent the night at home. But by yesterday morning, he was so uncomfortable that Mrs. Hobson drove him back to the hospital.

He was admitted to the hospital at about 10:30 a.m. with infections and internal bleeding. Two hours later, at 12:25 p.m., Julius Hobson died. He had hoped his heart would last until he could begin to change his world, and it did.

Julius Hobson Sr. made a career of impatience, of speaking out when other men held back. He was outrageous, inflammatory, melodramatic, insulting. A lot of the time, he also was right. Here are a few of Hobson's observations over the years:

". . . I find there are a number of my fellow Council members who oppose legislation on the grounds that the time is not right and it's not feasible, politically feasible. Well, I never know when the time is right. As far as I'm concerned the time is always right. Now."

"It has a mellowing effect to be a politician. It kind of takes away some of your dignity and self-respect . . . If wasn't so sick I'd quit but I don't have that long to go, and I feel I might as well stay on . . . It's just that I abhor a vacuum, and to me a vacuum is living in a city without having any effect on the city."

On the District government four years before the charges of mismanagement resulted in Department of Human Resources Director Joseph Yeldell's suspension from office: "A process of honesty is a process of dealing with, facing up to an issue and admitting as a city official that, 'Yeah, there's something wrong in my department. There is waste in my department' . . . Have you ever been in Joe Yeldell's office? (Glancing around the office of the Executive Editor of The Washington Post) "It makes this place look like a dump, you see. I think that's something that should be dealt with."

Copyright 1977 The Washington Post

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