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The Night Chicago Burned

The city endured two riots in 1968--the one that everyone's been talking about, and the one that everyone seems to have forgotten. Here's a belated look back at the latter, the April uprising that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King.

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Friday, April 5, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, and thousands of young protesters stalked the streets of Chicago, exhibiting a harsh, unbridled rage the likes of which the city had never seen. Those living amid the rioting could do little more than pray that some mob wouldn't converge on their building. Those living far away were gnawed by terror nonetheless, their fears fueled by the fires that illuminated the western sky.

The first day was the worst; by Saturday, things had cooled considerably. But Mayor Daley, viewing the rioting as a personal affront--how could they do this to me? he asked--was taking no chances. Twelve thousand Army troopers and 6,000 National Guardsmen descended on Chicago. Half the city's police were placed on riot alert. For several nights the National Guard walked the streets two abreast with fixed bayonets. Jeeps mounted with 50-caliber machine guns crept along the main thoroughfares. A 10 PM curfew was strictly enforced.

One would be hard put to name a time more traumatic in the life of Chicago, or to cite many local events that had a greater long-term impact on the city. Yet the 20th anniversary of these bloody, fiery riots has come and gone with barely a mention, confirming the suspicions of a great many Chicagoans about the mainstream white media's lack of interest in the west side and in the black population in general.

In conspicuous contrast stands the flurry of coverage provoked by the 20th anniversary of the riots attending the Democratic National Convention of 1968. The anniversary of the convention is upon us just this weekend, and already the media's offering of retrospectives has achieved the level of overkill. This is not surprising: "The Riots 20 Years Later" is just the sort of venerable, off-the-rack concept that both editors and reporters relish--editors for the ready-made news story it offers, and reporters for the latitude they get when they're assigned to reflect on What It All Means Today.

What is surprising, or at least dismaying, is that no major media outlet in Chicago saw fit to pull the evocative clips from the April riots; no one evinced any interest in trying to piece together their significance 20 years later. Not one television station aired a retrospective on those riots. Nor did the dailies (or any alternative weeklies, for that matter) run feature stories to commemorate the occasion. When I asked local reporters and editors about the disparity in coverage, many doubted the significance of the King riots: what did it all mean but a lot of senseless damage to property? In fact it meant quite a lot. When the have-nots of a society lash out aimlessly and violently against the desperate conditions of their life, it undoubtedly is a momentous event in the history of any city. And a good case can be made that these particular riots affected this city in ways the convention riots did not even approach.

I say to the power structure in Chicago that the same problems that existed and still exist in Watts, exist in Chicago today, and if something isn't done in a hurry, we can see a darkened night of social disruption. --Martin Luther King Jr., 1966

The first fire alarm sounded at 3:49 on the afternoon after King was murdered. The second rang within the minute. The time between alarms only shortened as evening turned into night. Logging each new alarm became an impossible chore for the city's Fire Department, and also an unnecessary one, "They're walking west and burning as they go," one fire official offered wearily. Nearly 600 alarms were tripped in 24 hours.

A collective anguish burdened the people of the west side. In a sense King had been one of them. In '66, when he brought his campaign for open housing to Chicago, he had lived among them for a time; rather than take advantage of his privilege, he had chosen to rent an apartment on the west side, in a run-down Lawndale building typical of the prevailing squalor. King was one person who had proved that he cared about them, and now he was dead, killed by a white man. The white world would deny them even Dr. Martin Luther King. The young people, high school students, reacted first, leaving school at mid-morning. By afternoon there were mobs on 63rd Street on the South side and Madison on the west, smashing windows with anything handy. By evening chaos ruled the streets.

Swarms of looters cleaned out entire stores. They were followed by arsonists. The mobs pretty much stayed to the main drags: along Division, along Madison, along Roosevelt, along Cermak. There were disturbances on the south side and around Cabrini-Green, but most of the damage was done on the west side. The burning may have been directed primarily at white symbols, but black-owned businesses and apartments were also torched. Hundreds of the arsonists' neighbors were rendered homeless by the fires.

All told, 500 people were injured and 9, all black, were killed.

Twenty years later, the effects of the riots are still being felt in Chicago, in at least four different ways. First and most obvious (at least to those who live on the west side or visit occasionally) is the sheer physical destruction. Much of what was burned down on the night of April 5 was never built back up. Entire blocks completely destroyed by fire today stand as extended empty lots along the main drags of the west side. Strips of stores and restaurants that did not suffer the arsonists' wrath, only the interest of the vandals and looters, were boarded up shortly thereafter, and that's how a number of them have stood since.

A second effect was demographic: the riots helped to change the racial balance of the city. Though the trouble only barely spilled over into white neighborhoods, many whites were seriously frightened. You could see the fires from the Gold Coast; it seemed that half the city was in flames, and it didn't take long for word to spread that the city's blacks were on a rampage. City switchboards were jammed with calls from the frantic. Employers sent workers home early. Downtown seemed deserted by five o'clock. A Stop 'n Shop on East Chestnut told the Daily News it was doing four times its regular business; people stockpiling for the impending doom had bought the store out of such perishables as milk and butter. At 7:30, police advised bar and restaurant owners in Old Town to close their doors for the night. In the days following, the newspapers ran boxes urging nervous Chicagoans to check out rumors on a special "Rumor Central" phone line set up by the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.

Whites had begun fleeing to the suburbs long before 1968, but never at the pace exhibited for the next several years. Marie Bousfield has worked for Chicago's Planning Department, plotting and charting change in the city's population, for 15 years. "It's my view that the riots were the cause of what you call 'white flight,'" Bousfield told me recently, though she was quick to add that that's only her personal feeling. Numbers are the lifeblood of her work, and she knows of no conclusive data to back up her instinct, but she is certainly not alone in believing that the riots were at least partly responsible. There's no doubt that there was a dramatic increase in white flight--"out-migration," in Bousfield's argot--during the early 70s; nearly half a million people left the city between 1970 and 1975. (Bousfield has no hard data on the year 1969.) And there can be no doubt that some people saw the west-side riots as some sort of early warning of things to come, and acted upon those fears.

Businesses also left in droves. The commercial life of the west side was literally gutted; to this day, residents complain that it is impossible for them to shop in their own neighborhoods. And factories left, taking their valuable jobs to the suburbs. At the time of the riots, for instance, there was a thriving machine-tool industry centered along Lake Street, west of the Loop. Many of the firms there closed their doors and fled to places like Elk Grove Village, where an opportunistic developer established a new machine-tool center in the safety of the suburbs.

A third effect of the riots, perhaps the most significant in historical terms, was political. The riots--and especially the intransigence exhibited in their wake by Mayor Daley, who ordered police to "shoot to kill" arsonists and "shoot to maim" looters--bolstered and crystallized the west side's fledgling anti-Machine political movement, a necessary ingredient in the historic citywide movement that eventually elected Harold Washington mayor of Chicago. Black independents were already scoring electoral victories on the south side, but at the time of the riots, the wards of the west side, though they were virtually all black, served as fiefdoms for white Machine bosses who lived along the lake or in far-off suburbs. In 1963, a south-side black named Charles Chew was elected alderman without the Machine's backing, becoming the first black independent to serve in the City Council. On the west side, by contrast, a black woman named Brenetta Howell ran for Congress in 1964. The district had a black majority, and Howell's opponent, a white Machine loyalist, died a week before the election. Still, Howell lost the election by a ten-to-one margin.

"We were separated then, most of us," says Richard Barnett, who managed Howell's congressional campaign back in 1964. "We didn't start coming together really until after Dr. King. The riots--that's when all of us, the black independents on the west side, really started coming together. So when Brenetta ran again for Congress after the riots, the Machine still defeated us, but not by nearly that sort of margin. They didn't defeat a ragtag group, we were organized and getting stronger. And I think the riots were the catalyst."

Perhaps Barnett overstates his case. At least two of his west-side cohorts interviewed for this article believe so, pointing to the defeat in 1972 of Cook County state's attorney Ed Hanrahan, among those responsible for the shooting deaths of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, as the watershed event in the west side's movement toward political independence. But Barnett's colleagues do not dispute his essential point, that the riots were critical to their eventual success. One of the striking things about the interviews that appear elsewhere in this issue is the number of people who consider the riots the beginning of political change on the west side; in a manner of speaking, the disturbances served as the community's declaration of political independence.

Besides, there are those who believe that if Barnett says the riots were the catalyst, then it must be so. Barnett has been unflagging in his commitment to the west side independent movement; his involvement dates back as far as the 50s. He has served as the behind-the-scenes manager for virtually every successful challenge to the Machine's rule over the west side, including Danny Davis's first aldermanic run, when Davis became the first anti-Machine alderman to represent the west side in the City Council. Barnett's credentials as the west side's leading political historian are incontrovertible.

The fourth effect of the King riots came at the end of August '68; in a way, they helped to cause the chaos that is being commemorated in Chicago this week, the brutal police treatment of demonstrators who gathered here for the Democratic National Convention. Shaken and embarrassed by the April uprising, Mayor Daley wanted to make sure there would be no encore come summer. He had persuaded the party's leaders to bring the convention to Chicago to celebrate his status as a presidential kingmaker and to show off the city he had built--the highways, the skyscrapers, the airport, the parks. He was not about to let black ingrates or long-haired peaceniks rain on his parade.

In his book Boss, Mike Royko reports that Daley was not too worried about what the demonstrators would do; his real fear, Royko says, was of another black outburst. Daley responded to this fear with both a carrot and a stick. The carrot was a short-lived change in City Hall's treatment of blacks. The Daley Machine became almost respectful of the black community at times. Shortly before the Democrats arrived in town, the City Council named a street after King. Royko writes, "In Daley's zeal to keep the blacks quiet, even the name of the despised Dr. King was used for public relations benefits. . . . They had chosen South Park Boulevard, which is almost entirely in the South Side black belt. Daley rejected suggestions that a city-length street be chosen, a street that would span both white and black neighborhoods." In the City Council's chambers, alderman after alderman rose to praise King, a man they had dismissed as a no-good troublemaker just a year earlier. Daley was the worst offender: he spoke of his great friendship with King and claimed, Royko writes, that King had told him what a fine job he was doing for the city's blacks.

The stick came in the form of armed guards and a deliberate policy of toughness. Daley placed the city's 12,000 cops on 12-hour shifts; recruited 5,000 National Guardsmen to the city; and flew in 6,000 combat-ready Army troops. Including the private security guards hired to work inside the convention center, this defense force of 25,000, as Royko put it, gave Daley "an army that was bigger than that commanded by George Washington." And this army had its orders: the city refused to grant the demonstrators permission to sleep in Lincoln Park; the park was to be cleared each night at the 11 PM curfew. The stage was set for disaster, and the disaster came.

In July of this year, Channel Two aired an hour-long documentary on the Democratic Convention riots. It was a fine piece of work, and a departure from WBBM's usual practice: it is rare indeed for a local television station to air a locally produced documentary, especially in prime time. But, as a spokeswoman for Channel Two acknowledged, the station made no such departure for the King riots, and it aired no so much as a five-minute spot on the regular evening news. Channels Five and Seven produced special news features on the convention riots, yet neither offered as much as a tip of the hat to the 20-year anniversary of the King riots.

There's no denying that the '68 convention merits a barrage of special television programming and newspaper feature pieces that run way past standard length. The riots had a weighty impact on Chicago, beyond establishing in the national consciousness the image of our very own mayor as a tyrant. Police brutality became a citywide issue, rather than one isolated in the black community, as cops bloodied reporters, innocent passersby, and protesters with the same impunity that they had been known to exhibit at times in the ghettos. The '68 convention certainly served as a catalyst for anti-Machine activity in the liberal lakefront wards. And of course it was part of a red-letter year in world history--the turbulence of U.S. politics was echoed in countries around the globe, with an exhilarating similarity; in the final days of August, there was no place to be but Chicago. So the question isn't why so much attention is being paid to the convention riots, but why the disparity? How and why have the media forgotten the events of April?

Reporters, editors, and PR pros at various local television stations dismissed the question. There is no story we should do, they said. It's a cheap shot to scan the horizon for missed stories and criticize for what was not covered: there is an infinite number of stories that deserve attention, and it's impossible to adequately cover them all. One spokeswoman pointed out that her station did not do a 20-year perspective on Chicago in the aftermath of Robert Kennedy's murder--why not criticize us for that? she asked. A television producer I spoke with anticipated the implication of race before I mentioned it: this isn't a matter of race, he said; the convention incident was not a "white riot" but one that had an impact on the entire city.

While journalists scoff and shudder at the suggestion, what can explain the disparity in coverage if not a sort of racial tunnel vision? Though whites actually constitute a minority in Chicago, around 90 percent of the reporters, producers, and editors who shape our news are white. Many of them came of age during the 60s; many were forming their political views at the time of the Democratic Convention, and a few probably went into journalism as a direct result of the events that surrounded it. It would be unfair to fault these journalists for looking back at such a pivotal event in their lives, but one can't help believing that if there were more blacks in positions of power in the media, some editor would have penciled in his calendar a reminder to commemorate the King riots in this their 20th anniversary year.

"It's a racial myopia," says Nate Clay, news editor of the Chicago Metro News, a paper that proclaims itself the "largest BLACK oriented weekly" in Chicago. "It's that simple. If you don't have people inside the editorial-board rooms who understood and felt the significance of these riots, you won't see any mention of the riots. It probably never crossed their mind."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chicago Sun-Times.

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