Hobson, Julius W(ilson) 1919–1977
Hobson, Julius W(ilson) 1919–1977
Julius W(ilson) Hobson 1919–1977
Julius W. Hobson was a fiery, outspoken civil rights activist in Washington, D.C., for some two decades before his death in 1977. Hobson battled the District of Columbia establishment with weapons that ranged from clever media stunts to well-documented legal challenges in order to reform education, housing, and employment for the city’s African-American population. Though he grew progressively more radical during the 1960s, Hobson became part of that establishment himself when he was elected to the D.C. city council in 1974. According to Cynthia Gorney’s Washington Post obituary, Hobson claimed that he had “made a career of impatience, of speaking out when other men held back.” Added Gorney: “He was outrageous, inflammatory, melodramatic, insulting. A lot of the time, he also was right.”
Though some sources document the year of Hobson’s birth as 1922, official records indicate he was born on May 29, 1919, in Birmingham, Alabama. He was christened at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that in 1963 became the site of a notorious Ku Klux Klan firebombing that killed four young Birmingham girls. Little is known about his father, save that he worked as a Pullman porter and died when Hobson was still very young. Hobson’s mother, a teacher and later school principal, remarried a local business owner, Theopolis Reynolds, who owned a drycleaning plant and a drugstore. Birmingham was a deeply segregated city when Hobson was growing up, and though later profiles of him indicate that he came from a middle-class background, he dismissed such terms. “I don’t see how you can grow up middle class and be black,” Gorney quoted him as saying years later. “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?”
Not surprisingly, the son of a teacher grew up in a household that stressed education and learning. As a youth Hobson worked at the public library, where he swept floors but was not allowed to check out books. He attended Industrial High School, later known as Parker High, which was the sole high school in the city
At a Glance…
Born on May 29, 1919, in Birmingham, AL; died on March 23, 1977, in Washington, DC; son of Julius and Irma (an educator; maiden name, Gordon) Hobson; married Carol Smith, 1947 (divorced, 1968); married Justine (Tina) Lower Clapp, December 1969; children: (first marriage) one son, one daughter; (second marriage) two stepsons. Education: Tuskegee Institute, BS, 1946; attended Columbia University, 1946; Howard University, MA in economics, late 1940s. Politics: Marxist, Military Service: Staff sergeant and pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, World War II.
Career: U.S. Library of Congress, Washington, DC, desk attendant, after 1948; Social Security Administration, economist and statistician, c. 1950-70; elected to Washington, DC, school board, 1968; writer, 1969-71; Washington Institute for Quality Education, head, until 1971; District of Columbia city council member, 1974-77; taught courses at American University, Trinity College, and Antioch School of Law, 1970s.
Memberships: Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), chair of District of Columbia chapter, 1960-63; District of Columbia Association Community Teams (ACT), founder, 1963-77.
Awards: Three bronze stars for wartime military service.
for black students. From 1937 to 1940 he studied at Alabama’s famed Tuskegee Institute, and he worked for a paper company before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942 at the height of World War II. He was posted to the Ninety-Second Division in Europe, and flew 35 missions as an artillery-spotter pilot. Discharged with the rank of staff sergeant in 1945, he earned three bronze stars for service as well as several other commendations.
While overseas, Hobson was able to spend three months studying at the University of Florence, Italy, and when he returned to civilian life he went back to Tuskegee and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. That same year, he moved to New York City and settled in Harlem, but was disappointed by the so-called “black mecca,” and moved to Washington, D.C., instead. Enrolling at Howard University there, he finished a graduate degree in economics, and applied for and won a job with the federal civil service. Hobson would spend the remainder of his life in a variety of analyst and statistician jobs for the U.S. government, including the Social Security Administration.
Hobson married a fellow Howard student in 1947 and soon became a father. His political career began on a daily walk with his young son to the blacks-only elementary school. Schools in the nation’s capital were still racially segregated, and Slowe Elementary was overcrowded and some distance from the Hobson home. On the way, Hobson and his son walked past an all-white elementary every day. Hobson became active in Slowe’s Parent-Teacher Association and was elected its president. He gathered other parents and argued before school-district authorities that, because Slowe was overcrowded, its students should be allowed to enroll in the white school. School desegregation was outlawed not long afterward by the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and Hobson became a parent activist at the newly desegregated Woodbridge Elementary as well. He was elected president of the Woodbridge Civic Association, and after 1955 served as vice-president of the Federation of Civic Associations. From there he went on to a post with the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Hobson’s first major target with the NAACP was the District of Columbia police force, and he led a successful employment-discrimination lawsuit against its hiring and promotion practices that were biased against minorities. During this time, however, he suffered a heart attack at a relatively early age. Chastened, he wrote to his mother from his hospital bed that he was not ready to go just yet. “I feel as though the world will have been no better off by my having been here,” he wrote, according to his Washington Post obituary. “I feel ashamed when other men have sacrificed, gone to jail, or even been executed for mankind…. I just hope this heart will last long enough for me to strike one blow at all the things around me which I detest.”
Hobson’s health improved, and in 1960 he was elected chair of the District of Columbia’s chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE was an influential civil rights group of both black and white Americans, and Hobson took up its banner eagerly. He organized picket demonstrations at downtown Washington stores that refused to hire African Americans, and the campaign against some 80 businesses eventually resulted in the hiring of some 5,000 black employees. In 1962, when he threatened a public transportation boycott, the local bus company quickly hired a number of black bus drivers. Some of the city hospitals still had segregated wards, and he once marched into a whites-only floor and demanded that the practice end. Refusing to leave only if arrested, he was taken into custody and garnered enough bad publicity for the hospital that it soon desegregated its wards.
A 1963 march Hobson led on the District of Columbia City Hall with 4,500 others resulted in the city’s enactment of a law prohibiting discriminatory practices in rental housing. Despite his record of successes, Hobson was deemed too militant by the national CORE board, who dismissed him from his post. In response, he founded ACT, or Association Community Teams, a civil rights group that rebuffed white participation and funds on the grounds that such aid bred a moderate, meeker stance in the fight against discrimination. ACT gave Hobson’s genius for public relations a less constricted platform. Years before dashboard-mounted video cameras became standard in most police cars to guard against misuse of authority, Hobson used sensitive long-range microphones to document cases in which white officers abused black suspects they had detained. In 1964, when city officials responded that nothing could be done to alleviate a troubling rodent problem in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, Hobson organized “rat rallies” and called in the media. He and others drove to some of the city’s posher neighborhoods with rats in cages atop their cars and threatened to let them loose there. Aghast, the city quickly capitulated and launched a pest-control program.
Hobson’s biggest fights, however, were still to come: irate after his ten-year-old daughter was tested and placed on a non-college preparatory course of classes, Hobson went to court and challenged the District of Columbia schools’ practices. He argued that such testing and shunting of students into certain classes violated the 1954 Supreme Court decision that prohibited discrimination in education based on race. With famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler as his counsel, Hobson filed suit against Carl Hansen, superintendent of schools, and a U.S. Court of Appeals judge ruled in his favor in June of 1967. The case was a watershed moment for the District of Columbia school system, which ended the tracking system that Hobson argued hampered achievement and academic excellence, and desegregated its faculty and some of the more overcrowded schools as well.
Hobson was a statistician by day, and for Hobson v. Hansen he marshaled reams of data to support his claims that black students were receiving inferior educational opportunities in public education. He won another significant legal victory in 1970, when the same U.S. District Court judge agreed that the district was allocating more funds to predominantly white schools than it was to black ones. Hobson even authored two how-to guides: The Damned Children: A Layman’s Guide to Forcing Change in Public Education, and The Damned Information: Acquiring and Using Public Information to Force Social Change, both published by his own group, the Washington Institute for Quality Education, in the early 1970s. He also co-authored a 1969 book for young adults, Black Pride: A People’s Struggle. In it, Hobson and Janet Harris delved into the history of African Americans’ struggle for equality, from the slavery era until Malcolm X and the Black Power movement.
Hobson was a well-known figure in his adopted city. “For 20 years his presence rocked Washington…. Hobson under picket signs, behind microphones, in police vans—always with his hat and his pipe (or cigar) and his rich, strident Alabama voice,” noted Gorney. He campaigned to change the school board itself even, challenging that it members should be elected by the public, not appointed by politicians, and in the first elections in 1968 he won a seat by a landslide. He lost his re-election bid the following year, however, not long after his second marriage to white peace activist Justine “Tina” Lower Clapp. Some in the civil rights community excoriated him for marrying outside his race, but Hobson was as characteristically defiant and unapologetic about his love for his wife as he was about political justice.
Hobson also initiated a legal battle that resulted in important changes in the employment and promotion practices in the federal civil service, changes which gave blacks, women, and Hispanic Americans better access to government jobs. Hobson’s life mission was slowed, however, by a diagnosis of cancer in 1971. He suffered from multiple myeloma, a pervasive cancer of the spine, and was given just six months to live. The city’s civil rights community turned out in tribute to him the next year, honoring him with a benefit dinner. Though he was forced to spend much of the evening on a sofa, he still smoked his trademark cigar throughout. Once again, he felt that there was still much more fight in him, and that his work was not yet done. “I don’t want to go on my knees,” the Washington Post quoted him as saying. “I’d like to go standing up.” Furthermore, the cancer had brought an unexpected change in his status in the city. “I don’t have any enemies now,” he claimed.
Not surprisingly, Hobson outlived his doctors’ prediction and even ran as the U.S. vice presidential candidate in 1972 on the People’s Party ticket with childcare expert Dr. Benjamin Spock. He became a founding member of the D.C. Statehood Party and ran on its ticket for the District of Columbia city council in 1974. Though forced to campaign from a wheelchair in what was the city’s first popularly elected city council ballot in the twentieth century, he won the seat and proved, once again, an indefatigable advocate for the city’s poor and minorities. He died on March 23, 1977, just a day after attending his last city council session.
(With Janet Harris) Black Pride: A People’s Struggle, McGraw, 1969.
The Damned Children: A Layman’s Guide to Forcing Change in Public Education, Washington Institute for Quality Education, 1970.
The Damned Information: Acquiring and Using Public Information to Force Social Change, Washington Institute for Quality Education, 1971.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 10: 1976-1980, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995.
Washington Post, March 24, 1977, p. A1.
“Julius W(ilson) Hobson,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 1, 2004).