George Wiley, the founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization and its guiding electrical force, died 10 years ago. The organization he started no longer exists. But those who commemorated him last night chose not to come dragging the ghosts of movements past.
"NWRO is not really dead," said Johnnie Tillmon-Blackston, a California welfare mother who came up through the organization and succeeded Wiley when he stepped down as executive director in 1972 to start a broader-based group called the Movement for Economic Justice. "We had to close the national office. The movement was not in the office . . . People are still fighting the battle. We still have to go to welfare rights offices. We still have some crazy social workers in those offices."
Wiley, who died at 42 in a boating accident on the Chesapeake Bay, organized 100,000 welfare recipients and, among other things, pressed welfare offices across the country to hand out welfare payments that recipients had been entitled to but never given.
About 200 people--most were once involved with NWRO--came and stayed through the stifling heat in the Lansburgh's building downtown last night, many telling anecdotes about Wiley. Nick Kotz, who wrote a book about Wiley with his wife Mary Lynn called "A Passion for Equality," said of him, "We learned not only about George, we learned a lot about rights, about a passion for rights, and I think that's what his life was all about."
The reception was a benefit for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a national offshoot of NWRO.
"They got me to agree to allow the schools to distribute literature," said Mayor Marion Barry last night, referring to the time in 1972 when 20,000 people marched by the White House to protest Nixon's welfare policies. Barry was school board president at the time. "Audrey Rowe Wiley's special assistant said, 'We just want to distribute a few leaflets.' It was thousands. But it was a good move." Rowe, now the mayor's commissioner for social services, chuckled.
Others among Wiley's former staffers included Jackie Pope, a Brooklyn welfare mother who became involved in the movement. She left in 1970, went to college and is now writing her doctoral thesis in urban planning at Columbia University on the Brooklyn Welfare Action Council.
Wiley's 20-year-old son, Dan, who is in art school in New York, collected names in his search for more first-hand information about his father. "I remember going to a convention when I was very young and an old black woman in a wheelchair said to me, 'Are you going to help others like your father when you're working?' I was sitting on my father's shoulders. I just said, 'Yes.' "
Bert DeLeeuw, one of Wiley's lieutenants who became director of the Movement for Economic Justice after Wiley's death, is now a carpenter with his own business here. "I needed a little break," he said smiling. "I'm sure I'll go back to that kind of work. It's in my blood."