Interview with Jesse White: A Martin Luther King Disciple

Interview with Jesse White: A Martin Luther King Disciple

Jesse White has been the Illinois Secretary of State since 1998, when he won the office by a landslide. He grew up in Illinois and graduated from Waller High School (now Lincoln Park HS) and won a scholarship to Alabama State, where he played baseball and basketball, while also coaching gymnastics and studying to be a teacher.

White was an early follower of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., having attended King's church in south Montgomery, Alabama during the desegregation of public buses and the catalyst years of the Civil Rights Movement.

I spoke to him Friday about his time in public service, his work with young people and his love of baseball.

AF: As a young man you knew Martin Luther King, Jr.   What was it like to hear him speak regularly and what effect did he have on you personally?

JW: Well I was an all-city basketball and baseball player at Waller High School, which was the most cosmopolitan high school in the City of Chicago, and then I won a scholarship to Alabama State. And I left the integrated North to attend college in the segregated South. Everything was segregated… different wash rooms, different drinking fountains, etc.

So when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, she was arrested and then the African-American community decided that they were going to bring about the desegregation of the public transit system.

And, so, before this all took place they decided that they needed someone to lead, someone to take the charge. So it was decided that they would seek leadership from a black minister, the young Dr. Martin Luther King. He indicated that he would work toward this end but they had to be under non-violent means. He was a follower of Gandhi and he refused to use violence. So he said in one meeting that if someone slapped you, you should turn the other cheek. And some thought that “if you turn the one cheek then they’ll slap you in the other one.”

And so afterward I reminded Dr. King that I was from Chicago and we didn’t operate like that. And he laughed, and said, “Well, Jesse we’ll just hope that you will follow the script.” So, then we went forward with the desegregation via the bus boycott.

My first experience, though, was through my membership in the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. All twelve of us pledges were required to attend church every Sunday. So we attended this church in the southern part of Montgomery religiously, so to speak.

We were so inspired by his spoken words that we went back to campus and told everyone about this wonderful man. And so the next week we brought another twelve people and more and more came. Then every week the numbers on Sunday started to increase, and finally there were lots of people on the outside of the church trying to get in.

Also, Dr. King knew I was from a poor household, and when I played basketball he use to give me encouragement after I had a good game and sometimes “help me out” a little.. on occasion giving me (and other students who were players) a twenty dollar bill here and there.

But I was most inspired by his important work and his message that we could achieve great things through unity and peace.

AF: What is it about baseball that you find so meaningful?

JW: Well, I got out of college and signed a contract to play baseball with the Chicago Cubs. And four days before going to spring training I was drafted and instead of going to spring training I went to basic training at Ft Leonard Wood in Missouri. When I was there I decided I wanted to jump out of airplanes and then was transferred to Ft Campbell, Kentucky, went to jump school, and became a paratrooper.

And after serving two years, I came home to Chicago, put my uniform in the closet, got my ball, bat and glove and went off to play baseball with the Chicago Cubs. I played with them eight years, primarily Triple-A in different places. A year in Tacoma, a year in Dallas, a year in San Antonio, and after eight years thought that I had played enough.

I really enjoy baseball because I love the crowd, love the game. I stole a lot of bases, and I felt people in the audience always liked to see someone anticipate and try to steal a base. So I had a wonderful relationship with the fans and all of the teams and parks I played for in professional baseball.

AF: So it’s more about the relationship than about scoring and home runs, etc?

JW: Boy, I love playing the game. In training I got to play alongside Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins and got to know them, compete against them and feel the game with some of the best in the league at that time.

I enjoyed being in the outdoors and playing in the various towns throughout the league. There was San Diego, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Tacoma, Oahu, Hawaii all in the Pacific Coast League. And some of those teams later became part of major league franchises. So, yes, I enjoyed seeing and playing in the various parts of this wonderful, wonderful country of ours.

But one other thing. In my first year when I played for Carlsbad, New Mexico we played against three teams in the Double-A league. At first when the team went to play in places like Odessa, Texas I had to stay as a guest in private homes because we (African Americans) were not allowed to stay in hotels. We had no problems in New Mexico, but in Texas. That’s when we got a chance to revisit segregation again.

AF: Approximately what year was this?

JW: From 1959 onto 1966 was when I played. I remember going to El Paso, TX, during the day –because we used to play at night—I went during the day to this theatre, because I wanted to see this particular movie. And they would not let me in.

This was the beginning of the season. And then a couple of months later, they had brought desegregation of the school and public accommodations. As a result I went back to the same theatre and they welcomed me with open arms.


A Seymour Adelman glass mural of Dr. Martin Luther King at Navy Pier.

AF: Was your experience in sports –getting to know and reaching other people—involved with your idea to start the Jesse White Tumblers?

JW: Well, over the years I was a gymnast as a kid. I taught gymnastics in college. I was a physical education teacher and physical education major. I taught for 33 years in and also taught for the Park District my first year I played baseball and also for the YMCA.

I started the Jesse White Tumblers in 1959. We’re 52 years old as we speak. We have had over 13,000 young people come through the program and to our knowledge only 109 have had any trouble with the law. Currently we have 40 in college, others in medical school and law school.

We’ve traveled to Zagreb, Croatia, Tokyo, Beijing and also Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year, Canada, and the Cayman Islands; been in four movies and twenty-five commercials.

We teach people about life, and one of the first lessons we discuss is that you cannot dislike anyone because of race, creed or color. When you’ve had the experience I’ve had --segregation, discrimination—you know how bad that feels and how deeply it cuts. And you don’t ever want to do that to another human being.

Also we tell the Tumblers they have to be leafless, smokeless and pipe-less; and the only time they get to practice Pharmacy is after they’ve earned a white coat, so that means no drugs. And they cannot drop out of school and become part of SWU – that’s Sidewalk University, that’s where you drop out of school and get yourself in trouble with the law. Eighty percent of people in prisons did not finish high school. We think it’s important to give young people and experience to do positive things and interact with others in a positive way.

One thing that I learned from Dr. King and from another man, [federal judge] Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, was to do something good for someone every day.

AF: With that in mind, tell me a bit about your enthusiasm for the Illinois Organ Donor program.

JW: My experience with this started years ago, when my brother who was a pharmacist wasn’t feeling well. We later found out that he had an aneurysm and we had to rush him to the hospital. I was approached about –if he were to pass away—whether we would be willing to have his organs donated. At the time I said, “No thank you. Don’t bother me, don’t bother my family... we’re not interested”. We ended up burying my brother, but years later my sister had become very ill and needed a kidney transplant. As a result of someone else’s generosity she got a kidney and received a second chance at life.

So when I became Secretary of State the program fell into my lap and we decided, knowing how important it is, to promote and expand the program. Currently we have over 5,000,000 Illinoisans registered as donors.

Also, in the summer we had the Chicago White Sox come to the Thompson Center to promote awareness and encourage people to register as donors.

Ed Farmer, the play-by-play announcer for the Sox is a big advocate and the recipient of a live kidney transplant. He is always talking up the importance of becoming a donor and how ordinary people can save the lives of others.

AF: And what is your personal outlook for 2012 on the Cubs?

JW: I was just with them yesterday at the Pershing School. They had come to the school since the school kids had put together an essay as a part of the Cubs’ contest promoting the language arts and education. The kids also used sports things like batting averages to demonstrate their interest in math. Kids got to meet some players and take home some Cubs memorabilia.

I believe this may be a rebuilding year. I hope they hit the ground running, and scoring. And that victory will be on their side.

Andy Frye has written for, The Chicago Sun-Times and FiveonFive magazine. Follow on Twitter at @MySportsComplex.

You can register to be a potential organ donor by joining the Illinois Organ/Tissue Donor Registry by clicking here.


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  • Nice! How did you get this interview?

  • I just asked.

  • oh okay. It cant be that simple. ha ha

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