Big George Spriggs, whom they call Lamb, was standing motionless on the corner, wind whipping the legs of his pea-green cotton pants. Now he is an unemployment statistic, but in the halycon antipoverty days of the late 1960s, he had been a youth worker.
Then the bureaucrats here spoke of such goals as "race pride" and sent men to help the jobless find work; and young men like him were sometimes paid $25 a day as consultants to tell the professionals how the schools were denying blacks "the right to learn about our heritage."
In the blur of assassinations, burnigs, marches and violence that wracked this society in the '60s, groups of Washington street dudes with names like "Rebels With a Cause" emerged, confident they knew how to deal with the too familiar poverty, cocky in their eloquent street raps.
Lamb had been a big man then, never one of the best and brightest of the Street dudes, but life held out a better promise for him. He was gentle and he was a model for younger kids.
Today, Lamb and others like him have joined the "underclass," but then they were simply "poor," and never before or since has the republic done as much to help them improve their life chances.
I had not seen much of Lamb since I had visited their programs in 1969 until the recent day when he stood on the corner in the Mount Pleasant section, nervous and high-strung behind the black of his shades. He lives in Maryland now, but souhgt the warmth and camraderie of this former neighborhood.
On that windy day, seeing Lamb brought home to me how the promise of the 1960s finally to help the young ghetto men, those who got only the society's knocks, had been so summarily smashed. Lamb and I did not talk then.
Still bothered by that street encounter, I asked a mutual acquaintance to get us together. It was a peculiar sensation seeing Lamb seated on the small couch, shades only half hiding a face puffed from booze, visibly ravaged by rejected.
I wanted to know what had happened to him, but Lamb preferred to talk about 10 years ago, when he was 25, and it had appeared that he might escape the grim legacy most feared by poor black young people - the dead-end jobs that had been their parents' lot.
"So many of the guys from then are dead - mostly drugs. I probably would be too if it hadn't been for the program," he said hoarsely. "Pharnell Longus [a settlement house worker] found me. I was living with my mother on Hobart Street. We had to move out of Foggy Bottom. I'd finished Western [High School] but I wasn't doing nothing much."
Longus and coworker Lacey Streeter had $75,000 from the Labor Department for pilot Community Action Training School (CATS) to raise the racial consciousness of youths who for years had felt inferior. They foresaw having the youths organize their communities to work together for change, before eventually going into entry-level jobs.
That period would be the only Camelot Lamb and his friends would ever know. They learned black history, but also how the Board of Trade affected the city. They took trips to Harlem to visit Adam Clayton Powell's church and to Cleveland to see the first black mayor of a big city - Carl Stokes. They visited writer Imamu Baraka but also the Newark water commissioner. They prodded Stokes about his political machine and campaign contributions, and the water commissioner about rates in poor neighborhoods.
"It was my first time out of Washington," says Lamb. "I felt good. I was meeting people I was reading about. I never thought that would happen." They would have 20 or 30 dudes in the park, telling them about things they'd seen, rapping about what they's read in the newspapers. "We read the papers end to end. We read black history. We tried to get the dudes off the corners; show them they could do something besides get high. It changed my life. I stopped getting high on the corner. I developed more finesse I drank inside. I noticed things I never noticed before."
CATS became the basis for a revived Neighborhood Development Youth Program. "We worked 12-hour days. They learned black history," recalled Lacey Streeter. "Some of them were so brilliant we would begin talking about a concept and they would just grasp it instantly." But some officials began to question their accomplishments. The program's leaders were forced to spend more time fighting for their program's existence than attaining its goals.
The poverty programs eventually died in a battle without honor - staff trimmings, picketing by the stunned poor, charges and counter-charges over the pittance of money. Drugs flooded the ghetto and subdued the angry young men.
The country turned its attention away from lifting the Lambs out of the ghetto, and toward Vietnam, Watergate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's and Richard M. Nixon's benign neglect of the poor. The untapped resources of poor, young black men was unwanted.
Lamb worked on and off, first for the D.C. Department of Recreation as an aide, and eventually he could find work only as a porter and custodian, jobs that mocked the youth program's promises. At first the program's mandates sustained him - he was somebody; he would not always hold such dead-end jobs.
Lamb did not recall exactly when he gave up. He is looking for a job even now, but he feels his search holds little promise. "We were trained in changing the system rather than continue on the old path. But I'm back in the same old rut I was in before."
Lamb typified for me how the apathetic and narcissistic 1970s had reneged on the 1960s' hope and promise for men like him. The women who had been Lamb's counterparts in the program more readily found a place - endlessly filing and typing in this paper city. But for the men, initial listlessness led to despair and now has turned to anger.
"You took me way back," Lamb says of our conversation. The air in the little room grows oppressive. His story makes me think of a noted economist's recent prediction that the American economy will be plagued by slow growth and high inflation through the mid-1980s, and the trend will still hit the poor especially hard. Blacks will continue to suffer a large deficit in jobs and they will bear a disproportionate share of the unemployment.
"One of the hardest things is seeing your friends suffer," Lamb says hoarsely. "Over 50 of my friends - dead, man, they all dead."
For George (Lamb) Spriggs, the '60s were a false high, an illusion of change. He and others like him went from darkness to light and back to darkness without any solution to their problems.
Youth program sponsors of the '60s were thwarted in helping men like Lamb by frightened officials. Lamb says even less is being done for his children.
"I thought I could do something. I didn't understand how deep the system was. . . . Now we got a black police chief, a black Board of Education, and nothing's changed. That's got to bother you. They don't mean nothing for my kids . . ."
I walk out of the apartment into a bright afternoon sun, and I cannot shake his parting question.
"Have 50 people you know died in the last 10 years? Things are going to explode . . . ." CAPTION: Picture, George (Lamb) Spriggs recalls the period when he had a future. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post