Worrill, Conrad 1941—
Conrad Worrill 1941—
Author, educator, activist
Dr. Conrad Worrill has established himself as a preeminent figure in Black activism through his work as an educator, newspaper columnist, community organizer, and radio talkshow host. From his beginnings in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s through his mobilizing role in the Million Man March, he has consistently probed issues of power in African American life and emphasized the need for greater independence. “The pressure is on for black people in this country to do more for themselves,” he told the Hyde Park Citizen, and his leadership in organizations like the National Black United Front, the Task Force for Black Empowerment, and the National Board of Education for People of African Ancestry has provided a powerful example. Though Worrill’s militancy has provoked the ire of conservatives, he has been a tireless critic of racism and exponent of economic and political enfranchisement for Black people.
He was born in Pasadena, California. His father was active in both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and provided an early example for Conrad to follow. “He was one of the leaders of the NAACP in Pasadena that desegregated Brookside Park, which was next to the Rose Bowl [stadium],” he told CBB. “They wouldn’t let black people swim, except when they drained the water. So my father led a movement for the desegregation of Brookside Park and was also a leader in getting the first blacks hired in the postal service and the police department in Pasadena.” Worrill recalled the “organizing meetings, which were held in our home,” and noted that his father’s influence on his own lifetime activism didn’t become clear until many years later “but it was there all the time.” Conrad recollected that YMCA events also played a large part in his growing up. His heroes were black sports trailblazers like Jackie Robinson-the first African American to play major league baseball-and boxer Joe Louis. Robinson’s older brother, in fact, was a friend of the Worrill family.
The elder Worrill’s next post for the YMCA led him to move the family to Chicago when Conrad was nine years old. YMCA events framed his adolescence, and in high
At a Glance…
Born August 15, 1941, Pasadena, CA. Son of Walter Worrill, activist and YMCA leader. Married Cynthia Armster (divorced); married Talibah (a clothing designer) c. 1993. Children: Michelle, Femi, Sobenna. Education: Attended Pasadena City College, George Williams College (BS, 1968), University of Chicago (MA, 1971), and University of Wisconsin (Ph.D., 1973). Military service: Specialist 4th Class, U.S. Army, 1962-64.
Educator, activist, and writer, c. 1970s-. Instructor at George Williams College, 1973-75; Northeastern University Center for Inner City Studies, 1975-; author of “Worrill’s World” column for Chicago Defender newspaper (later syndicated), 1983-; chairman of National Black United Front (NBUF), Chicago chapter, 1985; host of “On Target” call-in program for radio station WVON, Chicago, 1988-; chairman of the board of African Educators, National Board of Education for People of African Ancestry; co-founder of Task Force for Black Political Empowerment and many other organizations; Special Consultant of Field Operations for Million Man March/Day of Absence march and rally, Washington, DC, 1995.
Addresses: Home —Chicago, IL. Center for Inner City Studies—700 East George H. Clements Blvd., Chicago, IL 60653.
school he enthusiastically pursued football, basketball, and track. In 1962 he was drafted into the U.S. military and stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa; there he witnessed a large-scale buildup of personnel that he subsequently recognized as preparation for the impending war in Vietnam. “I was wondering why so many black people were showing up on the island,” he told CBB. “I began to run into young men from Chicago that I had known back home. “After leaving the military, he noted, “I became active in a lot of movements,” some of which organized to end America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Among these was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the pioneering civil rights group, which was one of the first African American organizations against the war. Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, opposed the war and other U.S. military adventures.
Though he eventually earned a doctorate, Worrill’s first forays into higher education were less than enthralling. “I wasn’t a very successful college student,” he admitted. “In fact, it was predicted that I’d be one of those kids who zipped through school and came out and got a job and became a professional, following in my father’s footsteps. Well, it didn’t quite pan out like that.” He first entered Pasadena City College, as his father had, but he was expelled due to his poor attendance record. His brief experiences with junior colleges in the Chicago area were interrupted—perhaps mercifully—by his tenure in the military. “After I came out I went to Central YMCA College for a brief time, got my grades up, and transferred to George Williams College” in Chicago, which was named after the YMCA’s founder. He majored there in Applied Behavioral Sciences, then received a master’s degree at the University of Chicago.
For his Ph.D., he entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, focusing on “Curriculum and Instruction in Secondary Social Studies,” writing his dissertation on teaching this subject to black teens and simultaneously teaching at a Madison school. His goal was to help students understand the relationship between institutions and power. When he started, they had “no recollection of these concepts and how they related to their daily lives.” A combination of academic work and trips to such local institutions as the university, state capital, and city hall ensured that by the end of the class “it was obvious that they had learned tremendously about these particular concepts and how they had affected their lives.” After receiving his degree from Madison, Worrill taught for two years at George Williams College; in 1975 he was hired by Northeastern Illinois University. He became a central figure at the Center for Inner City Studies, a department of the College of Education. “We seek to examine the political, economic, social, and cultural forces that impact on people who live inner cities-not only Chicago, but throughout the world,” he explained to CBB.
Worrill was also involved in the National Black United Front (NBUF), an organization that came together in 1980 after some years of organizational meetings, debates, and other preparatory work. “The leadership of the organization were all children of the 1960s,” he noted. “During the 1970s, much of our movement had been disrupted” by assassination and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s counterintelligence work, among other forces, “so many of us began to analyze what we could do to rebuild the movement.” The NBUF was started “as a grass-roots organization to address many of the political, economic, social, and cultural forces that impact on people of African ancestry in this country. It grew, and we developed a chapter in Chicago and about 22 other cities across the country.” While the leadership was diverse, he added, “most of the people came out of what we would call the Pan-Africanist, Nationalist, and progressive streams, with some progressive religious leadership involved.”
He explained to Billy Montgomery of Chicago Weekend that the group works “on a wide range of issues. Whether it’s police brutality, electoral politics, or fighting against injustices against Black people, we address solutions to our problems.” The organization has been especially active in pushing for a school curriculum that emphasizes the role of Africans and African Americans. Worrill’s political militancy, both in affiliation with NBUF and elsewhere, has drawn considerable criticism. He has drawn fire particularly for his work with Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam organization and highly visible figure in black politics. African American activists have often been urged to dissociate themselves from Farrakhan due to the minister’s negative remarks about Jews and frequent characterization of whites as malevolent. “We are not in the business of denouncing our leaders,” Worrill declared categorically to Montgomery. “We stand strong with Minister Louis Farrakhan and we will continue to urge national leaders that the most important thing that we can do is not respond to other people’s demands. We must come together and determine for ourselves how we respond collectively.”
Worrill ventured into joumalism-“by accident,” he insisted to CBB-in 1983. The United States had just invaded the tiny Caribbean republic of Grenada, and coverage of the event in the mainstream media tended to be scant and government-approved. “I was picking up information about the story,” Worrill recalled. “People were calling me because [the NBUF] had done work in Grenada and had a relationship with the government of [leader] Maurice Bishop. So I appealed to the Chicago Defender newspaper to chronicle it from an African American perspective, since Grenada was 98.9% black island of 100,000 people. And they indicated that they didn’t have anyone equipped to write about the region, and that if I wanted to get something in the paper I’d have to write it myself.” The challenge posed by the Defender’s editor moved Worrill to write not just a single editorial but a series of three installments about “the implications of the U.S. invasion. And I’ve been writing a weekly column ever since.”Far from restricting himself merely to foreign policy issues, Worrill has held forth in print on Chicago politics, African American heroes, and the subject closest to his heart, education. The column is syndicated by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents over 200 black periodicals around the country.
Talk radio allowed Worrill another platform, and he began hosting a call-in program, “On Target,” for the black-owned Chicago station WVON. He described his show to CBB as “a classroom on the air, because in many ways it’s a tool to teach and learn and engage people in discourse and debate.” He added that the program had “really been a tremendous outlet for us to have discussions about issues the mainstream media doesn’t discuss. The most memorable shows are when were able to ignite audience participation at the highest level, and the phones were so jammed that nobody could get in.” Though the debate at times could become rancorous, he noted, “you manage and learn how to facilitate debate without people taking advantage of the airwaves in a negative manner. And it took some time to learn that skill.” Often bringing in scholars and other specialists to enlighten his listeners about specific issues, Worrill has escaped the trap of sensationalism that has ensnared many talk-radio hosts.
Worrill’s activities have scarcely been restricted to writing and speaking. In addition to his energetic activism in local politics—particularly surrounding the mayoral aspirations of Harold Washington and those who sought to succeed him-he has ventured into difficult areas of Chicago life. In 1985, the deaths of several young black men at the hands of Arab American shopkeepers moved him to call for a “summit conference,” as the Chicago Tribune reported, between the aggrieved parties “to let Arab businessmen know they cannot declare open season on young black males.” Columnist Clarence Page expressed approval of Worrill’s understanding of economic reality. “It is refreshing to hear a self-professed black nationalist like Worrill put aside hostilities intellectuals often have toward the business community,” he wrote.
The 1990s have seen Worrill organizing on a number of fronts. The NBUF’s annual convention has been a constant in his work, and among its many goals has been the attempt to fill what the Hyde Park Citizen called black America’s “leadership gap.” Prior to the 16th annual gathering in 1995, Worrill remarked to the publication that the event “will inspire people to evaluate our situation, prepare to organize and mobilize against the forces of oppression not only here in Chicago but throughout the country, and I think this convention will give our communities that kind of inspiration.” The NBUF has also helped raise funds and collect donated materials to help victims of the mass slaughter in the African nation of Rwanda. Meanwhile, as chairman of the board of African Educators and member of the National Board of Education for People of African Ancestry, Worrill has been a tireless advocate for curriculum reform. The truth about the contributions of black people to world civilization, he told the Philadelphia Tribune, “have challenged the education establishment as African Americans are organizing throughout America to change the racist and white-supremacist-based curriculum within the public schools.”
Perhaps Worrill’s highest-profile endeavor has been his participation in the Million Man March/Day of Absence event organized at Farrakhan’s behest. As Special Coordinator of Field Operations for the Washington, DC event, he noted to CBB, “I was one of the main national organizers of the march, worked very closely with the Nation of Islam and National Million Man March organizing committee and on the executive committee, and helped field operations mobilizing the march across the country.” As might be imagined, this was a daunting set of tasks. “To call it complex logistically is an understatement,” he reflected, but added that the event “affirmed that if black people decide to do something and work together cooperatively and put our money where our mouth is, that there’s a lot we can do to solve a lot of the problems we face as a people.” Next to the fact that the march was achieved, commented Worrill, the next most memorable part of the experience was the sight of the crowd on his way to give his speech. “Just to see the sea of black male humanity was awesome.”
Worrill told CBB that he was collecting and expanding upon his newspaper columns for a book he hoped to publish in 1997. The working title, African-Centered Essays: Critiques and Commentary, suggests the breadth of his concerns. Apart from his family, which includes his second wife, four daughters and two grandsons, Worrill noted that he had little time for hobbies. Indeed, he listed his recreational activities as “reading, research, and study,” suggesting that the line between his professional and private lives is thin indeed.
Afrique, April 1996, pp. 4-6.
Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1985; December 18, 1994.
Chicago Weekend, February 6, 1994, p. 2.
Hyde Park Citizen, July 9, 1995, p. 4.
New Pittsburgh Courier, August 27, 1994, p. A-6.
Philadelphia Tribune, October 25, 1994, p. 1-A.
Additional information was provided by Conrad Worrill’s press biography and by an interview with Dr. Worrill, May 6, 1996.
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