John R. “Jack” Porter, Jr., 2016 History Makers Honoree
Born June 4, 1936 in Chicago, Illinois
Jack Porter’s passion for social justice has defined his life and career over five decades. Inspired by his Christian faith and his experiences while studying in India, Jack has long immersed himself in local struggles to end unfair housing practices, to fight racism, to give legal representation to the poor, and to stop predatory actions that threaten people, neighborhoods, and the environment.
He first arrived in 1963 as a Presbyterian minister at the now closed Western Avenue Community Church. During his 5 ½ years with the church, he became deeply involved in local efforts to protest injustice and organize efforts to effect change. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing when he was called upon by the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council and travel to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to demonstrate in favor of voting rights for blacks.
“I was there for one week, back in time to tell the congregation what I had been doing and seeing. I also gave an interview to The Pantagraph, and later, to the FBI about my observations,” Jack says.
Jack was invited to join the then Human Relations Council (an independent citizens’ group and predecessor to the municipal Human Relations Commissions) and that’s where he met Ralph and Ellen Smith. Ralph recruited him after Jack wrote a furious letter to the editor of The Pantagraph that criticized an editorial that suggested a white Twin Cities neighborhood should participate in a social experiment by inviting a black family to move in and see what happens.
“I thought that was incredibly patronizing and condescending,” Jack says. “In those days the housing market in Bloomington-Normal was quite segregated.”
Several members of the council also formed what they called the “US Group” that used confrontational tactics to protest discriminatory practices across the community. Jack says the group was successful in attracting public attention to important stories of discrimination and racism, but members were still frustrated and wanted more accountability from community leaders. So they formed a new group called Community for Social Action, and after Jack’s church closed in early 1969 due to a lack of growth he was named the full-time CSA director.
The history of today’s Mid-Central Community Action is entwined with both the US Group and the CSA. As President Lyndon Johnson began his War on Poverty, local leaders set up the McLean County Economic Opportunity Corporation (MCEOC) in an effort to direct federal dollars to local programs. The US Group got involved in the bylaws committee and shaped the way the MCEOC would operate.
“Some of the establishment leaders in Bloomington-Normal were absolutely horrified … and did not want to participate or have the government have anything to do with this renegade organization. The only one of that group that hung in there was Harriett Rust,” Jack says.
“For her to not be fazed or freaked out, I was terribly impressed with her,” he adds.
In 1975, 15 years after he moved to Bloomington, Jack began to change career paths in response to a challenge from his peer George Warren.
“He asked me, ‘When are you going to get serious with your life and go to law school?’” Jack remembers. “I thought that was crazy. I was a single parent with two little kids and no money. So, I negotiated with God that I’d start down this path and whenever God saw fit to block it, that was fine because I just knew it wasn’t going to work out. But of course it did.”
He received a scholarship from the University of Illinois and the CSA decided to keep paying his salary in hopes that Jack would stay in the Twin Cities and the community would benefit from his new skills.
He graduated in 1978 and was immediately hired as staff attorney for Prairie State Legal Services to provide advocacy, legal representation, and counseling for low-income people in civil cases. Cases often revolved around landlords who wanted to evict a tenant, as well as victims of domestic violence who had few resources to escape their abusers.
Jack says he made it difficult or impossible for landlords and the Bloomington Housing Authority to evict tenants. A staff member once told him about a local official who warned an angry landlord that Jack “ate landlords for lunch.”
“It sounded sort of disgusting, but I appreciated the basic sentiment,” Jack laughs.
Most of his clients were victims of domestic violence, but Prairie State had a hard time convincing the local United Way that it should help fund their program. Jack heavily advocated for his clients and other agencies that helped victims, but it wasn’t until women became leaders in United Way that the funds were directed to legal aid.
“That was a big change within that agency and it led to me working a lot with the Mid-Central Community Action and Neville House [domestic violence shelter],” he says.
Jack retired in 1998 and the move allowed him more time for community organizing. He became a leader with the Central Illinois Organizing Project, now Illinois People’s Action. Jack enjoyed a return to grassroots activism, fighting unscrupulous lending practices, advocating for the working poor, and taking on environmental threats associated with fracking.
One public fight in 2006 united the CIOP with the Western Avenue Community Center as the two groups helped immigrant workers who weren’t being paid by contractors who serviced local hotels. A heated meeting of 150 protestors, local media, and the wronged workers eventually convinced the hotel owner to pay the missing wages even though he had paid the contractor.
“After the news conference announcing the resolution, we got a call from a prominent hotel in Bloomington that used the same contractor. They said they didn’t want 150 people in their lobby and they paid the workers without a fight,” Jack says. “Organizing works and doing things collectively can accomplish things when one person feels powerless.”
Jack has served on the steering committee of the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters’ Alternatives to Jail Committee. He has also been active with the Vladimir and Canterbury Sister Cities organization. The McLean County Bar Association honored Jack in 2014 with the Lincoln Award of Excellence for his service and dedicated efforts to improve the quality of life in our community.
“In so many ways, my years of living in this community have been a great blessing for me,” Jack says.
Jack has two children, Robert Porter and Sharon Porter, and two grandchildren, Clara and Adrian McAllister.