Recently we have witnessed the unfortunate sequence of legitimate and responsible protest actions being hijacked by those who use the crowd effect of many marchers as a cover for their criminal activities of looting and burning. This same juxtaposition occurred 50 years ago this summer in Chicago and there are some lessons to be learned — so history does not need to repeat itself.
It was clear that Chicago was in for a long hot summer when on May 22, 1965 the board of education reappointed superintendent of schools, Benjamin Willis — and in so doing, violated assurances that leaders of the civil rights movement had received that Willis would retire. Nightly marches from Buckingham fountain to city hall and the board of education soon followed — in some cases marchers were arrested for blocking traffic. During the third weekend in July, Martin Luther King arrived in Chicago and led a march of more than one thousand participants.
By far the most noteworthy marches were those led each evening by the comedian, Dick Gregory. On August 1 and 2 his group decided to march to the home neighborhood of Mayor Daley. A crowd of over one thousand neighbors gathered and the police, in order to avoid a major confrontation, ordered the 50 marchers to leave or be arrested. Gregory and most of his followers were arrested.
Soon thereafter on August 12 riots broke out on the west side when an undermanned fire truck killed a black women. At the height of the riot a police car was sent to the headquarters of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations to bring the convener and civil rights activist, Al Raby to the troubled streets.
While any riot is lamentable, by comparison to the turmoil that occurred in the Watts section of Los Angles at the same time, matters in Chicago were quickly brought under control, largely due to the actions of the police and the leaders of the civil rights movement.
The nation has marked its I Have a Dream moment of history, but now the civil rights anniversary spotlight shines on Chicago, which saw one the largest civil rights demonstrations in its history exactly 50 years ago this week when a one-day boycott kept more than 200,000 students home from school. It was about something called Willis Wagons.
Schools in neighborhoods populated primarily by white students had generally better financing. They also had empty seats that students from poorer schools were anxious to fill. But under the neighborhood school policy of Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis, students could not transfer to these better-performing schools. To keep African-American kids in their local schools, Willis instead installed trailers (called Willis Wagons) to create more seats. As a result, students of different races were kept separate. And their educational opportunities remained far from equal.
President Obama’s deeply personal thoughts have filled the air and blogosphere with renewed calls for that serious conversation about race we keep meaning to have in this country. But for any such conversation to occur, let alone succeed, the president noted, white Americans must recognize that African-Americans look at race relations “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
As a white liberal who has just published a book about my own experiences with Chicago’s civil rights movement in the 1960s, I too have been struck by how personal experience influences not just my view of specific incidents, but by how the baseline of how we discuss race has shifted. Just over my own life span, I have seen that as a nation, we have been able to move the race conversation forward — even if we don’t always recognize at the time that we are doing so. Read More »