Friday, January 11, 2019

Doug Holder Interviews Poet Steven Ostrowski Co-Author of Penultimate H...

Somerville's John Babin: From a numbers runner to a Civil Rights Activist

Somerville's John Babin: From a numbers runner to a Civil Rights Activist

By Doug Holder

John Babin—a thoughtful looking man in his 70s met me at my usual perch at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Somerville. I have seen him around town for many years, walking around with this broad-rimmed hat and a couple of newspapers under his arms. I had never spoken with him but after our meeting I was glad that I did. Babin, a Somerville native son, started his working career as a kid running numbers—for “gang” operations in Cambridge and the North End of Boston. Babin told me Mafia types were in involved in these operations—folks liked the notorious J. R. Russo, and Jerry Angiulo loomed in the background.  Babin made a fair amount of change during these working years, and he used the money to help finance his education at Brandeis University.

Recently Babin found out that he was included in a book concerning the Civil Rights Movement of the 6os, titled " Hope's Kids: A Voting Rights Summer" by Alan Venable.

Babin told me that in 1965—when he was an undergraduate at Brandeis studying a buffet of liberal arts courses-- subjects like philosophy, economics, etc..,  is when he joined a student organization SCOPE. This was a group that worked under the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, to help register black voters in the south.

Babin, and other students went down to South Carolina to work with disenfranchised black people. It was in the town of St. Matthews in Calhoun County where he was based. Babin told me the black population was basically illiterate and living in shacks. Running water was a luxury. In those day Babin explained, "Everyone talked like they had roles in "Gone With the Wind.'"

Babin said that he and his cohorts went door to door going over voter registration forms with black voters, and often steered them to literacy programs. And even though they were privileged white college students they were heartily welcomed by these people in need.

As you might expect this band of holy fools was not well-received by segments of the white community. Babin told me," On the first day there we received death threats. The sheriff claimed that the vehicles we brought down were stolen...they were not, of course. I mean-- the chief of police of the town was in the KKK.---and he deputized half the town.   Also--a man who was deemed as the 'most dangerous man in town', put a gun right in my face.. I remember being thrown in jail--I saw a pool of blood beside me when I woke up--I realized it was from the kid next to me."

Babin said the harassment grew. Someone sympathetic to this group of college students got the South Carolina State (a black college) football team to crash a KKK meeting. The Klan meeting was in full bloom in a parking-lot at a local Winn-Dixie supermarket. They were burning the requisite crosses--decked out in their nefarious white outfits. There were, according to Babin, a thousand of them. Basically the team members confronted the KKK and said if the students were harmed or killed they would be going after them. Babin smiled, "Let's just say the harassment went down significantly.."

After this Babin had a successful career as a union organizer and social worker. He told me at times he was very reluctant to talk about this time in his life because it would affect his relationship with some of the rough trade types he used to work with. But now--well, it just seemed the season.

So now when I walk down Somerville Ave., in the early morn, Babin won't be another face in the breaking dawn, but a man with a rich and rewarding history--right here --in the Paris of New England.