The Civil Rights-Era Activist Who Cleaned Up Indianapolis

Mattie Coney understood the Declaration of Independence promised the pursuit of happiness, but insisted, “You got to work for it.” Known for her big hats and blunt ideas, Coney promoted good citizenship and civic responsibility in the Black community. After 30 years teaching for Indianapolis Public Schools, she founded the Citizens Forum with her husband, Elmo, in 1964. According to Olivia Hagedorn, a history doctorate candidate at the University of Illinois who has studied Coney, she worried the Civil Rights Act and a citywide Open Housing Ordinance would trigger resistance to integration. “She especially feared that whites would use poor neighborhood conditions in Black communities as a wedge,” Hagedorn says.

So Coney set about cleaning up the streets. She organized thousands of Block Clubs to clean up trash and plant flowers. Her no-nonsense, can-do attitude garnered national attention and awards for her organization, which was modeled across the nation in cities including Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.

“She was a favorite of the newspapers. I was not,” remembers local attorney and activist Fay Williams, who worked with Coney at the time. Williams says she and Coney always communicated well, despite drastically different approaches—herself as a community organizer and active protestor, and Coney as a conservative with self-improvement methods and the approval of city leaders. “When you do a cleanup, you need to have a way to get rid of the trash,” Williams says. “She had access to the people who could help with that.” 

Coney’s legacy is remarkable, but her racial uplift ideology and assertion that “bad neighborhoods develop because individuals fail” proved problematic. According to Hagedorn, Citizens Forum valued respectability, individual responsibility, and morality, often at the expense of reinforcing negative racial stereotypes. It disbanded in 1984, but the trail it blazed didn’t disappear. Mayor Hudnut’s Clean City Committee inherited many of its efforts, then evolved into Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, which runs an environmentally minded Adopt-A-Block program. Gerardo Ruiz Tovar, who manages the program today, says KIB operates with equity in mind, but it now engages the whole city. “More than the trash,” he says, “this is a community-building exercise, and anyone is welcome to
be a part of the program.”