A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
It was a volatile mix – black protesters, aggressive white crowds, helmeted police, looting, arson and soldiers in the streets.
And what made the sights and sounds most alarming was that I was in northern states, not “the Deep South.” At one point, while I was nearby, I heard Martin Luther King Jr. say, “I’ve never seen such hatred – not in Mississippi or in Alabama – as I’ve seen here.”
That was some six decades ago, when I was woefully uninformed about racism in my country. The experiences left enduring impressions, and memories come back occasionally.
Outskirts of Chicago – 1966
Cicero looked so harmless on the surface, with large street signs hailing it as “The Best Town in America.”
Seeing it for the first time, I was struck by the well-kept homes with manicured lawns and the many modest retail shops lining main streets of the community. With 70,000 residents, it was a solid suburb of Chicago, just seven miles away.
But, as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving.
I knew the place claiming to be the nation’s “best town” was full of racism. Almost everyone was white and wanted no black people to live there.
Cicero also was known for violence – racial and criminal. When a black couple rented an apartment in the 1950s, it triggered enough white outrage for a 3-day riot and the Illinois National Guard was called in to restore peace.
And in the 1920s, the notorious gangster Al “Scarface” Capone made Cicero the headquarters for his infamous crime syndicate.
In 1966, the gangsters were long gone, but racism wasn’t.
In May, some white teens wielding a baseball bat attacked a black college student at a bus stop. He died three days later.
So in early September, when I worked as a part-time reporter, I was sent to Cicero because racial violence seemed likely again.
About 250 civil rights activists, predominantly black followers of Martin Luther King, were about to march in Cicero to protest discrimination in housing sales and rentals there – a practice well known in real estate and political circles..
Waiting for them were about 1,000 hostile white residents.
Standing by were dozens of riot-trained police officers and about 2,000 Illinois National Guard troops with rifles. Hovering overhead were half-a-dozen helicopters.
A worried county sheriff had asked for a cancellation of the demonstration, but was rebuffed.
I stayed close to the marchers as they walked slowly on a two-mile route while hecklers on the other side of police lines shouted threats, taunts of “nigger” or other insults. But after two hours, there still was no violence, and I heard one cop tell another, “well, it hasn’t been that bad.”
Moments later, a bottle came flying and hit a marcher. Then there was a fusillade of more bottles, rocks and firecrackers.
Police officers waded into the crowd, swinging their nightsticks. Women ran screaming. Some men stood their ground, flinging whatever was left in their pockets. The conflict continued until the police fired a blast of gunshots into the air.
Like many other people, I wasn’t too surprised by the Cicero meltdown. Before that, I’d seen “open housing “ protests by King and his “Chicago Freedom Movement” in nearby towns such as Marquette Park, Belmont-Cragin and Chicago Lawn.
They all were similar in some respects. Most residents were Roman Catholic of European descent and many of the men were steel and iron workers or were employed at small businesses in the area.
When I questioned homeowners, they commonly told me they were afraid the value of their property would fall if black people moved into the neighborhood. One man, for instance, said bitterly that his family had had to “give away” another house “when all the Negroes moved in,” and “we're not running again.”
The confrontation in Marquette Park was particularly ugly. From the moment King stepped up to lead the procession, there was a toxic environment, fueled by residents like a white woman who told marchers to “sing your damned songs, pray your heads off. You niggers will never get in here.”
Some extremist white men, who appeared to be young toughs and day laborers, shouted insults often and loudly. “Kill the niggers, kill the black bastyards,” one yelled from the sidewalk.
Then, despite a police presence, hundreds of white men attacked the marchers with bricks, bottles, rocks and fireworks. Unable to protect themselves, the protesters had to run away.
There were about 30 people injured and 40 arrests.
King was one of the injured. A rock hit his head, bringing him to his knees. A white news photographer was beaten severely.
And as I was leaving the area, three white men approached me, evidently thinking I was a reporter or a protester. I paused. They kept coming. I ran, and they chased me for two blocks until I darted into a busy bar and hid in the back among customers.
The protest in Cicero was the last of the summer by King’s organization. I moved away soon after and never went back to any of those communities. But, out of curiosity, I checked recently to find out if things had changed much in Cicero after all this time.
Get this: After all that animosity, only 6 percent of the population was white, and blacks accounted for just 4 percent. All the rest were Hispanic.
Newark, NJ – 1967
It was going to be my summer of fun in New York, splitting the rent with a friend for a seedy but “cool” apartment in Greenwich Village and using all my savings to buy an aging but still sexy sports car.
To get by, I took a temporary job as a reporter again across the Hudson River in Newark, the biggest city in New Jersey.
But my plans vanished in mid-July when widespread violence in Newark’s “Central Ward” – kind of a black ghetto – turned the city upside down, extending a string of similar urban outbreaks nationwide in what was known as “the long hot summer.”
Until then, I was unaware that Newark’s black majority population was so frustrated by years of living with a white power structure controlling the economy, politics, police and the courts. For instance, nine of every ten police officers were white.
And afterward, I wasn’t sure if I had witnessed reckless rioting, or a rebellion by oppressed people, or some of both in that city of about 400,000 where poverty, unemployment, and longstanding injustices shaped racial relationships.
Either way, I was stunned by what happened for five days, when arson, gunfire and countless confrontations left 27 people dead and more than 700 injured. By the end, arrests totaled almost 1,500 and estimates of property damage exceeded $15 million, which would be more than $125 million today.
All told, the grim statistics for death and destruction put Newark near the top of more than 150 riots that year.
The chaos started the evening of July 12, after a black taxi driver was arrested for a minor traffic violation and beaten at the scene. It was close to a public housing building. Residents saw white policemen do it before taking the driver to a local station. .
Soon afterward, there was a false rumor that the driver had died in custody. That led some area residents to throw bricks and firebombs – bottles full of inflammable liquid – at the police station while others began to loot storefronts.
From then on, the pace and scope of the lawlessness increased and continued unabated until nearly half of the city was occupied by combined forces of Newark police, New Jersey state troopers and New Jersey national guardsmen in tanks and other vehicles.
My job was to cover new violent incidents as fast as possible, partly by listening to police reports of new trouble spots.
Being white, it was often dangerous for me to be there and, at times, I was truly frightened, especially when I was alone on the street at night. I could hear gunshots and see flames engulfing buildings.
The worst experience was the night that a fireman was killed by a rooftop sniper. Police rushed in. There was an actual hail of bullets. It happened so fast. I didn’t realize how close it was to me until a couple of cops shouted to “get the hell out of here.” I ran to a nearby car and hid under it for cover.
In short, I saw the city become a war zone.
About 10 days after it was finally over, I wandered around in daylight to get a sense of the damage in the city and efforts to recover in densely populated tenement areas.
No matter where I went, there was broken glass, rubble, and the smell of decaying rubbish.
Many stores on Springfield Avenue, one of the two main streets, had large “SALE” signs posted in new front windows. I saw raw wooden panels shielding the vulnerable stores, new iron grating in place to guard fresh glass, and unstocked shelves inside.
But most merchants weren’t open. Some were waiting for approval of insurance claims, or had no insurance to cover losses.. Still more lacked merchandise because looters took it all.
Apart from devastation, the legacy of the rioting was fear.
Merchants worried about another flare-up. As one put it, “Who knows when? I can’t afford to take chances.”
Some owners feared they couldn’t make a living there any longer. “I guess we gotta get out,” said one after describing how looters made off with furniture worth thousands of dollars.
Local customers were afraid, too, and wondering if they could stay there. A woman told me it was “terrible” that many stores were closed. “I can’t even get food for my family.”
Another echoed that concern as she peered through a broken window at disjointed, white mannikins lying like crippled bodies. With big stores closed, she said, “little guys are robbing us” by charging what they want “and get away with it.“
I heard that lawbreakers were still active on a smaller scale, with little police deterrence. A man said he saw a woman being beaten and he called the police, but no one came for two hours. “They don’t give a damn what happens here,“ he said.
Looking ahead, some black residents predicted trouble soon unless more was done to help the poor and unemployed. As a woman put it, “sooner or later, they’ll just explode.“
Washington, DC – 1968
Four months after my Newark experiences, I moved to the nation’s capital for my first full-time job – hopeful that I had seen the last of big-city violence and racial turmoil, at least for a while.
But that was not to be, of course, because in April the assassination of Martin Luther King ignited new citizen-police clashes in dozens of cities and Washington was as bad as any. So yet another time, I was on the streets and fearful, watching police and National Guard troops try to stop widespread unrest.
Before the end of it, 13 people were killed, about 1,000 were hurt, and more than 6,100 were arrested.
But that’s another story, for another day…..
Richard Lerner, creator of this website, was a reporter and writer/editor Washington, DC and California.