The First Bud Billiken: The Forgotten Story of a Chicago Writer with a Militant Commitment to the Fight for Civil Rights.
by Joe Allen
BORN IN 1909 and raised in Englewood on the South Side of Chicago, Motley aspired from a young age to be a writer. As a teen, he wrote a children's column, using the pseudonym "Bud Billiken," in the Chicago Defender for a little over a year between December 1922 and January 1924.
Motley had an adventurous spirit, and soon after he graduated in 1929, he began a series of cross-country trips that netted him a small income as a travel writer. Many of the people he met on his travels provided raw material for his later novels. It's also important to recognize that Motley, according to friends and supporters, was gay--though not openly so, since this was a time when being Black and gay could have lethal consequences.
By the late 1930s, Motley was back in Chicago and lived in the Maxwell Street neighborhood around 14th and Union Streets, one the few multi-ethnic and multiracial neighborhoods in the city at the time. He helped launch Hull House Magazine in 1939, and the next year, he started working for the Federal Writers Project of the Works Project Administration, the New Deal era program that supported writers during the Great Depression.
With the approach of the Second World War, Motley began to take militant positions on political issues that would be characteristic for the rest of his life. "When the Selective Training and Service Act was passed in 1940, Motley declared that he would not serve in the segregated military," according to Wald. He filed for and received a conscientious objector status from the U.S. military.
While working as a lab technician, Motley spent the war years researching and writing what became his best-known novel Knock on Any Door. It quickly became a bestseller in 1947, selling over 47,000 copies in its first three weeks on the market and 350,000 over the next two years, and it was made into a popular 1949 film starring Humphrey Bogart.
The novel tells the story of Nick Romano, a street tough who kills a cop and is sentenced to death. Motley sees that Romano's tragic life is shaped by the poverty, bigotry and despair of his upbringing. He portrays Romano as a sympathetic character, and Motley's opposition to the death penalty is clear and eloquent at the climax of the story.
Motley, like the much better known Chicagoan Richard Wright, used his success to support causes for social justice. Soon after Knock on Any Door became a bestseller, he became an active member of the campaign to save James Hickman from the electric chair.
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