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5 minute read

In many ways Julius Hobson is an anomaly among civil rights activists. He did not come out of the church, the poverty program, labor or politics. He has a reputation for being abrasive, even to those who side with him. He is an avowed Marxist and atheist in Washington, D.C., which he describes as a “Baptist, Methodist town.” In the mid-’60s he was kicked out of the Congress of Racial Equality because he did not believe in its nonviolent strategy. He has frequently acted alone, and once admitted to friends that he could hold all of his meetings in a telephone booth.

For all his personal shortcomings, Hobson has for the past 20 years been a gadfly with a potent sting in the capital, a rasping voice for change in a seething black community that has erupted more than once in frustration and bitterness. Jabbing at various Administrations, sparring incessantly with local officials, Hobson has probably done more than any other man, black or white, to bring about positive change in Washington, particularly in public school integration and civilian hiring practices. Even his enemies—and they are legion—will admit that. But then, they will not have to endure his bumptious assaults much longer. Julius Hobson, 50, is dying of bone cancer.

Odorless. In tribute to Hobson and his ineradicable imprint on Washington, some 2,000 friends and foes gathered two weeks ago at the Sheraton-Park Hotel for a testimonial dinner. The affair was held on a day named in his honor by Mayor Walter Washington, whom Hobson once described as “tasteless, colorless and odorless.” Indeed, the mayor refused to buy a $5 ticket for the banquet. Typically, Hobson responded: “I’ve got to compliment him for his honesty. I wouldn’t go to his testimonial either.”

That sort of hide-flaying flippancy has often diverted attention from Hobson’s genuine accomplishments. In 1967 he was the plaintiff in one of the nation’s most publicized school desegregation suits. Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. district court ruled that the local school administrator was guilty of discriminating against blacks in the allocation of school funds and supplies as well as in the assignment of pupils and teachers. The following year Hobson was elected to Washington’s first popularly chosen school board, where he led the struggle to carry out Judge Wright’s decision.

Hobson, though, takes greater pride in his successful campaign to change downtown racial practices. “When I started out with picket lines in 1960,” he told TIME Correspondent Paul Hathaway, “a black clerk was as rare as a white crow. Now they are all over the place.” He pressured such giants as Safeway Stores and A&P into hiring blacks for the first time. When one leading auto dealer hired a black salesman, Hobson thanked the company by buying his first Ford there.

Rat Rally. To force the integration of local hospitals in the mid-’60s, Hobson one day walked into an all-white ward in the Washington Hospital Center and calmly climbed into an empty bed. That stunt won him a brief stint in jail—but also the eventual integration of the hospital. If his bluster was good, his bluff was even better. Perhaps Hobson’s most famous episode was the great rat scare. To dramatize the rodent problem in ghetto housing, he threatened almost daily to release hundreds of rats in fashionable Georgetown. He drove through Washington’s black ghetto with a cage of rats strapped to the top of his station wagon, claiming he was going to a rat rally. In truth he never had more than a dozen rats in the cage, all of which he drowned eventually, but jittery officials got the message. They launched a major rat extermination program.

Then there was his Route 40 project in the early ’60s, when blacks were being denied the right to eat in restaurants along the main highway leading in and out of Baltimore. Hobson vaguely proposed to close the busy route unless the restaurants were integrated. Maryland officials, already worried over racial tensions, pressured the diners into desegregating.

Hobson grew up in segregation’s heartland, Birmingham, the son of a shopkeeper and a schoolteacher. As a pilot in World War II, he flew 35 missions over Europe and won three Bronze Stars. After the war he earned an engineering degree at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and a master’s degree in economics at Howard University. He then spent 20 years as a Government employee, ending up as an economist with the Social Security Administration before turning his attention full time to the problems of Washington’s black community.

Hobson has shrunk five inches since doctors 18 months ago diagnosed his disease as multiple myeloma. Although hunched and incessantly hammered by pain, he is dictating a book on the black man’s problems in America to his secretary at his town house in Southwest Washington. His words may be strident, but his views are not hysterically militant. “I call racism a rationalization for economic exploitation,” he told Hathaway. “It’s now become a part of our nervous system, a part of our institutions. But I think it goes further than the fact that I’m a black man and he’s a white man. I think blacks need to go to school and study economics, political science, history, capitalism and socialism to see how this system aids and abets the kind of racism we have.”

Through it all he faces death unrepentant. “I don’t feel guilty for a goddam thing I’ve done on earth,” he says. “I believe it was Thoreau who said, ‘What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?’ And if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.” It seems a fitting epitaph for Washington’s last angry man.

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