Bobby Cheeks slid his big frame, clad in washable khakis and a wrinkled shirt, out of his nondescript station wagon, crossed a residential street busy as a highway and settled into a booth at Sampson's Restaurant for some stewed chicken and rice. Once he was a pro-football player and management consultant, but now he is a sixties-style organizer of the poorest of the poor -- those on welfare.
"You all right?" says Mrs. Sampson.
"Sure I am," he says in easygoing style.
The white-clad woman of middle age, placing home-baked rolls and butter before him, says to a visitor: "I'm just afraid . . . afraid something is going to happen to him."
That near-mystic feeling blacks have about the early deaths of their own who put themselves on the line for them is a measure of the regard some people in this harbor city have for Cheeks, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization.
"The only hope we have in the whole state is Bob," one NWRO worker said on a recent tour of the organization's offices.
Cheeks' militant sixties-style tactics are unique in an era when most welfare rights organizations are engaged in one-on-one services; his personal lifestyle is an anomaly in an era when most blacks of his age and background are opting for status and security in the system. He has rejected the $40,000-plus salary he can command and gets by on $145 a week. "I found there were things I needed more than money," he says.
Cheeks lives in a $300-a-month high-rise apartment. It takes most of his salary to pay his rent. It's furnished with a cheap plaid bargain-basement couch, a desk and a paper-laden table. Divorced and the father of two teen-agers, he set up trust funds for them when he played pro football with the New York Giants.
An Army veteran, his community experience includes youth gang organizing in Connecticut, and consumer advocacy, while his establishment experience includes working as a correctional officer in Jessup and for the Job Corps in California.
Today, Cheeks' cause -- welfare -- is about as popular as composng love songs to the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Cheeks knows it. Even some blacks privately bemoan the effect of the welfare state. that the poor people are confined to the small end of the budget while corporations (Chrysler, Penn Central) are on the big end. "The people on welfare get a pittance, enough to keep them pacified, passive and ashamed of themselves," one middle-class black man told me.
Meanwhile, the cost of living has risen nearly five times more than the money welfare recipients get to provide food and shelter. And still, there's been no national voice of outrage.
"I see it as a conscious withdrawal of the poor," says Cheeks. "People know they're getting screwed on an individual level, but there's an energy drain . . . it's like a depression. In order to organize we find ourselves reacting to crises. . . ."
Cheeks' group can still muster the support of a couple of thousand demonstrators on the street. But sixties-style confrontation is not his only weapon. Time has given the welfare rights movement additional tools to make it more effective than its predecessor of more than a decade ago.
"We find protest effective, but also, we're better negotiators. Our analysis is better," Cheeks said. "We don't support a person just because he is black, but we look at his record. We are now sophisticated enough to use the political process. We just elected two black judges."
Cheeks, who speaks in a smoke-scarred baritone does not see himself as a welfare organizer the rest of his life. He wants eventually to turn over the reins of the struggle to some of the women whose human rights he sees as its central focus.
So, he's groomed some impassioned spokeswomen from the ranks of welfare clients, among them Annie Rogers, a recently divorced, 38-year-old mother of 19, who voluntarily testifies about her personal transformation under Cheeks.
"I had only went to the sixth grade, he made me go back to school," she said. "So far I have gone through ninth grade and I hope to get a high school diploma.
"He made me believe I could be chairperson of the NWRO Board and he helped me run that board that included teachers and lawyers. I'm more able to express myself now. You're made to feel like dirt because you're on welfare. People feel beaten down. Bobby Cheeks is the only one who thought of taking us to the governor and letting us talk, and it takes a whole lot to get a welfare mother out on that stage."
For Annie Rogers and women like her, the past few years have been brightened by the moral fury of this man Cheeks. As most blacks of talent slipped into the system, too frightened of losing their positions and comfort to shake the boat, he's cast his lot with the poorest of the poor.