September 9, 2001
Jim Drake, 63, an Organizer of Workers and a 60's Boycott, Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN (NYT)
Jim Drake, who helped conceive the grape boycott of the 1960's and went on
to organize workers and citizens in Mississippi, South Texas, the Bronx and
Boston, died on Monday at a hospital in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 63 and
lived in Manhattan and Spencertown, N.Y.
The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Miriam Rabban.
Mr. Drake, an ordained United Church of Christ minister who never held his
own pulpit, was often seen as a traveling troublemaker by many of the
people he visited. "You're a tacit insult," said Edward T. Chambers,
executive director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which trains and
dispatches people like Mr. Drake to fight local power structures.
Mr. Chambers, who hired Mr. Drake in 1983, said the arrival of one of his
organizers is to ask the question: "Why are things here so bad?"
It was a difficult role Mr. Drake played on many stages, from staring down
the shotguns of California growers to putting out the chairs at community
meetings in the Bronx.
The Rev. John Grange, pastor of St. Jerome Church in the Bronx's Mott Haven
section, said that in addition to leading the fight for 800 new housing
units and a new high school, Mr. Drake hounded the transit agency to put
new lights in a subway station.
"He came to pull us together so we could do well together," Father Grange
said. "He made us into better people than we are."
He did it largely in the background. Many liken Mr. Drake to Fred Ross, a
colleague of Saul Alinsky, the famous organizer. Mr. Alinsky dispatched Mr.
Ross to teach Cesar Chavez the basics of organizing a labor unit. Mr. Drake
was soon one of Mr. Chavez's principal aides.
"Jim was one of those important invisible people," said John Moyer, a
retired United Church of Christ minister who persuaded his church to
finance much of Mr. Drake's early work. "They get a lot of things done by
letting other people get the credit for it."
James Lynn Drake was born in Jefferson, Ohio, in 1937. He spent most of his
first 10 years in Oklahoma and then moved to California, where his father
taught school and his mother managed the school cafeteria. He graduated
from Occidental College, where he majored in philosophy, and Union
Just as he was about to accept a position as a pastor for the National Park
Service, he was offered a job by Wayne Hartmire, a minister who was
director of the California Migrant Ministry. The ministry had decided to
join Mr. Chavez's new effort to organize agricultural workers. Mr. Hartmire
noted that Mr. Drake had little interest in such quotidian clerical chores
"Jim was not a big talker," he said. "He was believing and doing. He had
this certainty about the rightness of the cause."
This was clear when he dressed down some ministers for what he regarded as
timidity toward the growers. "All we're talking about is that some of you
guys are going to lose your jobs," he said. "Two thousand farm workers have
already lost theirs."
For his first three months, Mr. Drake was assigned to follow Mr. Chavez
around to learn about organizing. He stayed for 16 years, working in high
positions for the United Farm Workers in California, Texas and Arizona,
even as he remained on the ministry's payroll.
In 1965, as grape pickers in Delano, Calif., struck a vineyard owned by
Schenley Distillers, Mr. Drake helped the United Farm Workers organize a
national boycott of the company's liquor. The company settled in March 1966.
Mr. Drake went on to be the union's lead organizer, and coordinated the
national boycott of table grapes that resulted in union contracts for the
industry in July 1970. He came to New York to oversee the boycott in 1969
In 1978, he left the farm worker ministry and union to organize woodcutters
in Mississippi. He united these independent contractors, who owned their
own trucks and saws, into the Mississippi Pulpwood Cutters Association. He
helped them create a cooperative enabling them to buy saws at far less than
the 200 percent markup at stores, and form a credit union, giving them
access to credit for the first time.
The association also won uniform state standards in measuring lumber,
ending widespread cheating, said Perry Perkins, who worked with Mr. Drake
in Mississippi and is now an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation.
Mr. Chambers, who is Mr. Alinsky's successor, said he heard about Mr.
Drake's success and flew to Mississippi to meet him in 1981. He recognized
the qualities of a successful organizer: intelligence, anger and imagination.
Mr. Chambers pointed out that Mr. Drake could do better than the $52 a
month he was paying himself ^ $2 more than he paid others in the
organization. The result was that Mr. Drake found himself in South Texas,
where he formed the Valley Interfaith Organization, which persuaded the
state to provide water and plumbing in the shantytowns known as "colonias."
In 1987, Mr. Drake was assigned to the South Bronx, where he organized
South Bronx Churches, a coalition of more than 40 churches that joined
forces to build 800 housing units and persuade the city to build a new high
school, the Bronx Leadership Academy.
He then moved on to Boston, while staying active in New York. In Boston, he
helped form a regional coalition of 100 religious and community
organizations. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization has raised $5
million in private money to build housing similar to that in the Bronx, and
it is now lobbying local and state governments to match that amount.
His ambition in Boston was to give people a way, as well as a reason, to
become involved in their city's civic life. "We are trying to interest the
thousands and thousands of people who have dropped out and are no longer
engaged in that quadrennial event that is not even politics any longer, but
where the person with the most money wins," he said in an interview with
The Boston Globe.
"We are trying to get back to a more human element in politics," he said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Drake is survived by his sons Tom, of Moscow,
Idaho; Matt, of Chatham, N.Y.; and Christopher, of New Brunswick, N.J.; a
daughter, Amalia, of Baltimore; a brother, Dale, of Evansville, Ind.; a
sister, Ramona Kramer of Placerville, Calif., and two grandchildren.
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