Jim Drake, 63, an Organizer of Workers and
a 60's Boycott, Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
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
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 Theological Seminary.
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 as preaching.
"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 and 1970.
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.