The Civil Rights-Period Activist Who Cleaned Up Indianapolis – Indianapolis Month-to-month

Mattie Coney understood the declaration of independence promised the pursuit of happiness, but insisted, “You have to work for it.” Known for her big hats and blunt ideas, Coney promoted good citizenship and civic responsibility in the black community. After teaching in Indianapolis public schools for 30 years, she founded the Citizens Forum with her husband Elmo in 1964. According to Olivia Hagedorn, a graduate student in history at the University of Illinois who studied at Coney, she was concerned about the Civil Rights Act and a citywide open housing ordinance would create opposition to integration. “She was particularly concerned that whites would use poor neighborhood conditions in black communities as a wedge,” says Hagedorn.

So Coney set out to clean up the streets. She organized thousands of block clubs to clean up trash and plant flowers. Her no-nonsense attitude gained national attention and awards for her organization, which was modeled statewide in cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC

“She was a favorite of the newspapers. I wasn’t, ”recalls Fay Williams, a local lawyer and activist who was working with Coney at the time. Williams says she and Coney always communicated well despite drastically different approaches – she herself as a community organizer and active protesters, and Coney as a conservative with self-improvement methods and the approval of city guides. “When you’re doing a cleanup, you have to find a way to get rid of the junk,” says Williams. “She had access to the people who could help.”

Coney’s legacy is remarkable, but her racist ideology and claim that “bad neighborhoods develop because individuals fail” proved problematic. According to Hagedorn, the Citizens’ Forum valued respectability, personal responsibility and morality, often at the expense of reinforcing negative racist stereotypes. It disbanded in 1984, but the trail that paved the way has not disappeared. Mayor Hudnut’s Clean City Committee inherited much of his efforts and then evolved into Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, which runs an environmentally conscious Adopt-A-Block program. Gerardo Ruiz Tovar, who administers the program today, says KIB works with justice in mind but now involves the whole city. “More than the garbage,” he says, “this is a community-building exercise that everyone is invited to.”
be part of the program. ”

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