Merlene Davis: Jack Burch is retiring from Community Action, but not from advocating for the poor

Jack Burch, who retired last year as executive director of the Community Action Council after 34 years, died Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at age 68 of lung cancer. In this picture taken last year, Burch stood next to a hand-carved door that was a gift when he left Mali, where he had served as the director for the Peace Corps.
Jack Burch, who retired last year as executive director of the Community Action Council after 34 years, died Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at age 68 of lung cancer. In this picture taken last year, Burch stood next to a hand-carved door that was a gift when he left Mali, where he had served as the director for the Peace Corps. Herald-Leader

A week from today, Jack Burch will be out of a job.

For 34 years, he has led the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas counties, often meeting with the haves in order to help the have-nots who are his passion.

But just because he is retiring doesn't mean Burch will stop advocating for the poor.

"I want to get into a role of visibility on social justice issues," he said. "I do think I have some important things to say."

Those words spring from a man with an interesting history that began in Memphis 67 years ago.

Born into privilege, Burch grew up on a farm where his playmate was the son of the black couple who worked for his family. Despite the times, it was not unusual for both families to eat together at the dinner table.

That table is also where Burch met Martin Luther King Jr.

His mother, who was of French descent, never saw the point of Jim Crow segregation. His father, a businessman, wanted better race relationships to improve the community as a whole. And his uncle, renowned civil rights attorney Lucius Burch, fought pro bono for King's right to march for striking sanitation workers.

When he was given a car at16, Burch became a courier for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivering sealed envelopes throughout the Delta to civil rights leaders, including Jesse Jackson.

"I would be shown a picture," Burch said. "They said don't give this envelope to anyone but him."

By the time he enrolled at Rhodes College in Memphis, a community action agency was being formed there. Students could get extra credit if they worked at the agency as community organizers.

The college had recently integrated, enrolling two black male students who lived in Burch's six-person suite at the dorm.

One day they all headed to a familiar barbecue restaurant. When they got to the door, the owner said the three white students could enter, but not the black ones. Angry, Burch organized a sit-in with other students and closed down the restaurant.

"I don't understand people who are afraid of difference," Burch said. "I am fascinated by the difference."

After college and studying in the West Indies, he volunteered with the Peace Corps, serving in Africa for eight years. In Mali, where he was the first country director, he was given a heavy hand-carved wooden door that he proudly displays in his home.

Before accepting the position of CAC executive director in 1979, Burch worked in Hazard for four years as the president of Appalachian Leadership and Community Outreach, a consortium of small colleges in Eastern Kentucky that sent students into mountain communities to staff a variety of outreach programs, including health and nutrition education, reading education and community development.

Then he got a call asking him to apply for the Community Action job.

The agency was fraught with administrative and financial problems and had been suspended from operating much-needed programs.

Cara Richards, chairman of the board during the hiring process, said some board members were set on hiring a black executive director to avoid having both a white chairman and a white director.

Two strong candidates emerged, one being Burch, who is white, and the other was black. The board had agreed the successful candidate had to garner two-thirds of the votes. Black board member Pauline Gould Gay changed her vote and Burch was selected.

But he wasn't out of the woods just yet.

At a community meeting, some black people didn't hold back their anger with his selection.

"That was a tough meeting," Burch said. "The people were telling me to resign and leave. But two people stood up in my defense. One was Pauline, who said, "He was not my candidate, but he is our executive director.'

"The other was P.G. Peeples," Burch said. "That bought me some time."

Burch took CAC from an agency viewed with suspicion to one that pushes not only for the basic needs of families such as food, housing and warmth, but also for the equal education of children so the cycle of poverty can be broken.

"In the kind of work we do, there are coalitions formed that cross racial lines," Peeples said. "We always knew we could depend on Jack to stand up and talk to his white counterparts."

Peeples said Burch never tried to tell those he served with or for what to do or how to do it. And when others tried, Burch would "put them in their place," he said. "I never saw him waiver from that. I'm not sure everyone appreciated that, but I appreciated it."

Despite the successes he's had with securing funds to build state-of-the-art Head Start programs, and in bringing utility companies onboard to help families struggling to heat their homes, Burch has one regret.

"I naively thought if you told the truth, people would listen and we could make a difference," he said. "I think we have made a difference in the lives of individual families, but I don't think we have made much progress in trying to change the social and economic structure that creates poverty in the first place. I keep saying to myself, 'is there something I could have done differently?"

For the new executive director, who hasn't yet been named, Burch offers this advice: "The biggest challenge to my job, and I hope the new person understands it, is that it is not truly community action unless it is an advocate for the poor.

"Anyone can run programs," he said. "Anybody can pay utility bills. Anybody can operate Head Start centers. But if you are not willing to speak to the community about the needs of the least advantaged people, you are not a community action program and you are not an executive director of one."

Peeples believes the new leader will need super-human powers.

"That is a large operation and they need really good management skills," he said. "They'd better be media savvy and very politically astute. And they need to know how to walk on eggshells. You can't be the face of an organization, pushing for change, until you do something that people will respect you for and then listen to you.

"Jack is the whole package," he said. "We had a true coalition. I will miss that. I will certainly miss that."

For now, though, Burch is looking forward to traveling to places he's read about, to gardening, and to perfecting his glass-blowing technique.

Plus, his son, Jeb Burch, is the men's soccer coach at Centre College and he will now be able to attend those games.

I don't think for one moment retirement will dampen his passion to advocate for the less fortunate. It is in his blood.