Eleanor Josaitis — Hands Across the Racial Divide

As a symbol, it is exquisite in its simplicity. Two hands inside a circle, one black and one white, almost but never quite touching across the racial divide. This has been the logo of Focus: HOPE, an organization fighting for basic human rights in Detroit and Southeast Michigan for over forty years. And until her death last week, one of the leaders of the fight was Eleanor Josaitis.

Like all great and compelling stories, Josaitis’s has been told and retold countless times. She was the suburban housewife who teamed with a charismatic, young Catholic priest named William Cunningham to help heal the horrific racial wounds Detroit suffered during and after the riot of 1967. Their first project was Focus: Summer Hope, a festival in downtown Detroit in the summer of 1968 designed to bring white and black together on common ground. Next, wanting to combat racial inequality in many parts of society, Cunningham, Josaitis and a host of volunteers conducted a survey of consumer goods pricing in Detroit and surrounding suburbs in 1968. The results were shocking: people in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Detroit paid 20% more for food and prescription drugs than their counterparts in the suburbs. Focus: HOPE (by now “summer” had been dropped from the name) successfully lobbied to become the host agency for the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program in Detroit and Wayne County, a mission that continues to this day. In these early victories the logo was always there to guide: the hands almost but not quite touching across the racial divide.

Successes were hard won by Josaitis and Cunningham. There was the landmark 1972 discrimination lawsuit against AAA Insurance, ultimately settled in 1982. Josaitis weathered hate mail by the sack and a firebombing of Focus: HOPE headquarters during this turbulent time period. Yet she and Cunningham continued working to provide basic civil rights for the citizens of Detroit. Seeing a need for training and employment in the inner city, Josaitis and Cunningham founded the Machinist’s Training Institute, the Center for Advanced Technologies and the Information Technologies Center. These Focus: HOPE programs have produced thousands of graduates over the years. Again the logo was always there to guide: the hands almost but not quite touching across the racial divide.

In 1997 Josaitis and Focus: HOPE lost co-founder William Cunningham to cancer. That summer a tornado devastated the Focus: HOPE campus, causing 18 million dollars in damage. A large Defense Department contract came to a close, forcing Focus: HOPE to drastically downsize. Josaitis herself faced cancer. The Detroit region sometimes felt even more racially divided than ever before. Yet through the bleak times, this fighter for civil rights never waivered in her commitment to her fellow citizens. Josaitis was always at the head of the annual Focus: HOPE Walk for Justice and always at the forefront of fundraising efforts for the organization. As always the logo was there to guide: the hands almost but not quite touching across the racial divide.

In recent years Focus: HOPE stabilized and matured as a civil rights organization. A new crop of leaders stepped up to run the organization, to run the City of Detroit and to run our nation. Eleanor Josaitis became an elder statesperson of Focus: HOPE, her energies directed towards talking to groups about the mission of the organization and welcoming in each new class of colleagues. In the fall of last year she was again diagnosed with cancer, and she lost that fight this summer. Although Eleanor Josaitis is no longer with us, the logo is still here to guide: the hands almost but not quite touching across the racial divide.

William LeFevre, CA, CRM, is the Reference Archivist for the Walter P. Reuther Library.