Fellow activists say Obama’s memoir has too many I’s

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The drama began with a tiny ad in a local newspaper -- a notice that asbestos was about to be removed from the management office at Altgeld Gardens, the all-black public housing complex where young Barack Obama worked as a community organizer.

“You think it’s in our apartments?” a worried mother asked.

“I don’t know,” Obama replied. “But we can find out.”

What followed, Obama says in a memoir, was a life-altering experience, an early taste of his ability to motivate the powerless and work the levers of government. As the 24-year-old mentor to public housing residents, Obama says he initiated and led efforts that thrust Altgeld’s asbestos problem into the headlines, pushing city officials to call hearings and a reluctant housing authority to start a cleanup.

But others tell the story much differently.

They say Obama did not play the singular role in the asbestos episode that he portrays in the best-selling memoir “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.” Credit for pushing officials to deal with the cancer-causing substance, according to interviews and news accounts from that period, also goes to a well-known preexisting group at Altgeld Gardens and to a local newspaper called the Chicago Reporter. Obama does not mention either one in his book.

“Just because someone writes it doesn’t make it true,” said longtime Altgeld resident Hazel Johnson, who worked with Obama on the asbestos campaign and had been pushing for a variety of environmental cleanups years before he arrived.

U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) said it was Johnson’s work, as well as asbestos testing conducted by the Chicago Reporter, that sparked the interest of Chicago officials and prompted Rush, who at the time was a City Council member, to launch an inquiry. Though he has not read Obama’s memoir, Rush, who has been a political rival of Obama in recent years, said Johnson’s role was so prominent that he was “offended” by anyone telling the Altgeld story without including her.

“Was [Obama] involved in stuff? Absolutely,” said Robert Ginsburg, an activist who worked in Altgeld with Johnson and Obama. “But there was stuff happening before him, and after him.”

No one disputes that Obama was active in organizing Altgeld residents. Several who worked directly with him say he was the most effective organizer they had seen -- a surprise, given his youth. “He was our motivator,” said Callie Smith, now 50. “We did all the work, but he was our inspiration.”

The varying accounts of what occurred 20 years ago are noteworthy because Obama, now a freshman U.S. senator, has begun a campaign for the White House after three years on the national stage.

Beyond Illinois, where Obama was a state legislator, much of what the public knows about the Chicago Democrat comes from his two best-selling books. On the campaign trail, he has said that through the books he has revealed more of himself to the public than has any other candidate. They provide “insights into how I think and how I feel about the issues facing America,” he told reporters this month, according to an account in the Wall Street Journal. Many people at his rallies bring copies.

But “Dreams From My Father,” the first of Obama’s books, is not a historical account. In it, Obama uses literary techniques that are rarely found in political memoirs.

Dialogue in the memoir is an “approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me,” Obama wrote in its introduction. For the sake of compression, he wrote, some characters are “composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” Most names in the book were changed for the sake of privacy, he wrote.

And though most memoirs place their authors at the center of events, critics of “Dreams From My Father” say the book unfairly omits others responsible for the successes of the asbestos campaign, an event that Obama portrays as central to his maturation as a political leader. For example, Johnson is not mentioned, and no character in the book appears to resemble her, even though she was already a prominent Altgeld activist and her presence in the anti-asbestos effort is confirmed by interviews and news accounts at the time.

An Obama spokesman said the memoir was never intended to be a complete account of Altgeld nor to portray Obama as a hero, but merely was the recollections of one activist. Published in 1994 and re-released in 2004, the book primarily tracks Obama’s journey to racial identity as the child of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother.

“This is making a mountain out of flat land,” said Robert Gibbs, the Obama spokesman, referring to inquiries from The Times. “The book isn’t a history of social efforts to help the area. It was about what he was involved in.”

Built in the 1940s to house black industrial workers, Altgeld Gardens has long been called a “toxic doughnut.” The community is surrounded by a massive landfill, a paint factory, an odor-emitting sewage plant and the polluted Calumet River.

Obama arrived at Altgeld soon after graduating from Columbia University in 1983. He had taken a job with a small group called the Developing Communities Project, which aimed to help people who were struggling after plant closures and other economic troubles.

Obama and his group helped persuade the city to open a job center. Working with parents at a local school, he tried to improve basic services at the housing project: repairing the toilets, the windows, the heating system.

Then, he writes, the asbestos threat appeared.

According to the memoir, Obama’s group was tipped off to the problem when a woman, “Sadie,” noticed a classified ad soliciting bids to remove asbestos from the Altgeld management office.

“I don’t know if it means anything,” says Sadie in the book, “but I wanted to see what you thought.”

Obama encourages the group to ask the on-site manager about the asbestos. But they are fearful of confronting authority, Obama writes, and unsure how to respond when their first inquiry produces no answers.

“What do we do now?” Obama quotes one parent as asking.

“We go downtown,” Obama answers. “If they won’t come to us, we’ll go to them.”

Obama then guides the group -- which he says one person dubbed Obama’s Army -- through two dramatic, confrontational meetings with housing officials in 1986. The meetings drew news coverage and produced results, his memoir says.

In the first meeting, at Chicago Housing Authority headquarters downtown, Obama’s group secured a promise of immediate asbestos testing at Altgeld and prompted aldermen to call hearings.

The second meeting was a chaotic event in which 500 Altgeld residents ran Chicago’s top housing official off the grounds. But it produced “a victory of sorts,” Obama writes, as workers in “moon-suits” soon appeared and started sealing asbestos.

In the book, Obama writes that his success in motivating the residents still inspires him. “I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way,” he writes of confronting the housing officials downtown.

“That bus ride kept me going, I think. Maybe it still does.”

Even as he campaigns for the White House, Obama speaks about his time in Altgeld. His first television interview after announcing his candidacy this month, on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” featured Obama leading a driving tour through the housing project.

But other forces -- unacknowledged in Obama’s book, but receiving public attention at the time -- were at work in the asbestos story.

At the same time Altgeld tenants were asking their questions, the respected Chicago Reporter published an expose of asbestos problems in a different housing project. It also asserted that heating pipes at other Chicago projects had similar asbestos insulation.

The Reporter’s investigation was cited repeatedly on television and in local newspapers, and the Chicago Sun-Times credited it with bringing the asbestos problem to light.

“That article stirred me, and it stirred many others,” said Rush, the former alderman, who said he initiated a City Council inquiry into asbestos because of the Chicago Reporter story. (Rush, a long-serving congressman, has endorsed Obama’s presidential campaign, though he faced a primary election challenge from Obama in 2000.)

Obama’s Altgeld Gardens account also omits the work of Johnson.

She was already widely known for her pioneering work in pushing officials to investigate environmental hazards at local industrial sites. Spurred by her husband’s premature death from lung cancer, Johnson had begun documenting the health complaints of Altgeld residents in the late 1970s. Johnson formed a group called People for Community Recovery and tried to cajole scientists to study possible links between the ailments that residents reported to her and the harmful substances around their community.

One of those scientists, Regnal Jones, visited Johnson in the early 1980s and recalls sitting in her kitchen as she laid out hundreds of index cards listing the illnesses throughout Altgeld. He said he was “blown away” by Johnson’s survey.

During that visit, Jones said, he inspected Johnson’s apartment and concluded that her heating pipes were insulated with asbestos.

From that point on, Johnson says, she included asbestos in her complaints to government officials.

As Obama became involved in the asbestos issue, Johnson was among those who worked with him.

In interviews, she said she helped plan the Altgeld tenants’ confrontational trip to the Chicago Housing Authority, meeting occasionally with Obama in her living room.

Press accounts show that she was part of the protest.

Today, Johnson is particularly disturbed that Obama’s memoir portrayed the tenants as meek and confused, highlighting one parent who was illiterate. Johnson had been quoted on many occasions in the press by the time she met Obama. She had persuaded city officials to request the tests that found hazardous materials in local drinking water.

“Why would he paint us as so pathetic?” asked Cheryl Johnson, Hazel’s daughter, who now runs the Altgeld group founded by her mother, who is 72. “Isn’t a memoir supposed to be accurate?”

Said Jones, who was working for the city’s health department at the time: “There’s no way that you could have done anything out there without knowing that this little old lady had been in Altgeld forever.”

Another Chicago community organizer said he had no quarrel with the license that Obama took in his memoir. “If you were writing your movie, I’m sure you’d be the star,” said Salim Al Nurridin.

“It’s his movie.”