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One Man's Struggle To Save A Generation

Marshall, J. Jr. & Wheeler, L. (1996). Street soldier: One man’s struggle to save a generation—one life at a time. New York: Delacorte Press.


Joe Marshall is well known through national television documentaries, speaking, consulting, and his own radio talk show. Born in St. Louis, Joe grew up in South Central L.A. In Los Angeles, he attended Catholic Loyola High School, where he first experienced serious racism personally. Something in his strong home and his nature drove him to stand against violence, even when drawn into fights he could not avoid. His choice of college was based on figuring that there would be many blacks at the University of San Francisco, because its basketball team was all black. Realizing his mistake, he joined a black Omega Psi Phi fraternity at San Jose State University some fifty miles away. Back at USF he organized the first Black Students’ Union, despite resistance from the administration. That responsibility created his strong sense of African American identity and pride.

After college, Joe Marshall began teaching at San Francisco’s Woodrow Wilson High School:

When my daksiki and I showed up at Woodrow Wilson in the fall of 1969, my mission—my purpose in life at that moment—was to impart the knowledge I had gained to the high school seniors of my civics, U.S. history, and black history classes, many of whom looked older than their skinny hustling teacher.

I not only looked young and was young (twenty-two): I taught young. In civics, for instance, the assigned topic was communism, but I disregarded that and focused on issues that I thought imminent high school graduates needed to be informed about—marriage, raising a family, employment, current events, and the like. At night I opened a book on the Watts riot and read aloud into a tape recorder, which I played in class the next day as I made my rounds of the room. I also spent a good portion of my negligible paycheck to buy books that I thought the kids ought to know about, such as Before the Mayflower and Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness.

I practically lived at that school, devoting most of my extra-curricular time to the BSU. We had fundraisers, dances, barbecues, plays, and assorted ‘days of consciousness,’ such as one dedicated to all the black girls at Woodrow Wilson (we game each of them a black balloon filled with helium; I can still picture the black could we created that afternoon when the girls released their balloons at three o’clock) and an African festival, for which the students built tribal huts in the schoolyard. (pp. 33-34)

Black pride was raised through instruction and experiences such as peaceful protests—and whites learned important lessons as well. Gradually, however, Marshall watched more and more promising students falling to gangs, drugs, and crime.

One of the finest boys I taught had trouble staying awake during class becausse he didn’t have a home. He held a job in order to feed himself, and the only place he could sleep at night, when he got off work, was his aunt’s basement. Years later, I ran into him during a visit to the San Bruno Jail, where he was doing time for selling drugs.

I can’t count the times I’ve been fooled by kids whom I presumed to be free from the snares of street life. One of my favorite students at Apos was a quiet, sweet twelve-year-old girl names Shirley Brown, who had an equally cute and well-mannered older sister, Vanessa, who was fourteen. At lunchtime one day, I was talking to another teacher about the Brown girls and happened to mention how nice they both were. He looked at me curiously for a moment and said, ‘You know they’re prostitutes, don’t you?’ I didn’t believe it until he offered to take me to MacArthur Avenue in Oakland., where they worked. I declined the invitation. When later I started asking around about the girls, fishing for information on how I might get them off the streets, I was advised that if I interfered, I would have to content with their pimp. Afterward, when I looked at Shirley or Vanessa sitting so attentively in my math classes, I often wondered if they knew what I knew. I could only assume that they did. (p. 37)

As I grimly watched the kids of San Francisco slipping away one by one, it was furthermore obvious that the situation was not restricted to my city and school district. The same things were happening at an even more alarming pace back in South Central… (p. 38)

Neither the justice nor educational system seemed willing to confront the challenge of these students who were falling by the way. By the 1980s, he felt compelled to jump over these ineffective systems and co-found the Omega Boys Club, based on the belief that inner-city young people want something more than the streets but don’t know the way out. From a small basement community center, some 600 kids have moved out of gang-banging and drug dealing. Some have joined his small but strong army of street soldiers (street workers), and more than 140 young people have gone on to colleges around the country.

Listening to the stories of homies espcially after the escalation of violence that took place after the release of the movie, "Colors," is chilling. These are heart-wrenching personal stories, and they involve bitter disappointments for the street soldiers trying to reclaim lives and turn them in a positive direction. Joe Marshall is a man of courage, and there are challenging confrontations between him and his homies here.

Joe Marshall is host of a gutsy radio talk show, "Street Soldiers," that challenges gangs and street life with prospects of a life that is not dead end. This book includes letters from listeners touched by the radio show.

Marshall’s program highlights "three crucial steps to freedom" (from the destructive ways of the streets):

  • Acknowledging the problem, which is a matter of identifying the behavior that has placed them at risk.
  • Coming to grips with the anger, fear, and pain that’s behind their behavior.
  • Adopting a new way of doing things; that is, new rules for living.

Marian Wright Edelman, President of The Children’s Defense Fund, describes this book, "The stories here will wrench your soul and Joe Marshall’s life will warm your heart. You’ll cry from the pain, and the promise, in this book." Denzel Washington’s comment is simply: "Joe Marshall’s Street Soldier is a revelation!" Spike Lee says, "As much as the Million Man March was an impressive vision of the power of many, Joe Marshall serves as an inspiring reminder of the power of one. Every black man in America should read this book, and then do something." This book is a challenge to every one of us to contribute something toward shaping the future of a generation at risk.


  1. What most impressed you in reading this article? Do you plan to read this book?
  2. Is it possible for an individual, a program, a church to take back the streets? If not, why not? If so, how so?
  3. Could you use the three crucial steps to freedom in your relationships and counseling of young people? What, if anything, would you add?
  4. How could you use this book in your work, teaching, or training?


  1. "Of the black men between ages twenty-five and thirty-four who have dropped out of high school, 75% are in prison or on parole or probation." This fact alone should be enough to let us know that all of us as a society must act effectively.
  2. We must study books and programs with measurable success in this area.
  3. To Joe Marshall’s strong programs and fine book should be added other available resources needed by urban programs and workers. The Youthworkers’ Encyclopedia is a rich and growing resource for such work and study.
Dean Borgman cCYS