There’s a saying: If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there.
But if you were there in 1968, you never forgot it. Smithsonian Magazine called it the “year that shattered America.”
That April, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Despair and rage flared into rioting in big cities across the nation. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy, the presidential hope of many black and white Democrats, was gunned down.
Tear gas and protests seemed to be everywhere, all the time: against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, equal housing and Mother Earth. The news was filled with the Black Panther Party, hippies, Yippies and student takeovers of college campuses. In Chicago, there were rumors LSD was going to be slipped into the water system, and 1968 Democratic National Convention protests disintegrated into violent clashes that later were labeled a “police riot.”
If people walked into the wrong tavern or club or crossed the streets that made up Chicago’s invisible racial barriers, it sometimes led to beatings or worse.
In July 1968, that’s what happened to Chicago Sun-Times photographer Mel Larson. He was a white man covering street disturbances near the Cabrini-Green housing project on the North Side. Larson left his car to walk to a looted grocery store that was a target of complaints about price-gouging and a failure to hire black workers. A crowd — as many as 50 African American youths — started pummeling him, according to news accounts. Seriously injured, Larson would spend weeks recovering.
Eugene Michael Crenshaw was a teenager living in Cabrini-Green and saw what happened. “A lot of young guys came out, and I guess they surrounded him. They blocked him,” he said afterward. “All of a sudden, one guy had a cast on his arm, and he hit him” with the cast. “Blood was streaming.”
That’s when Sidney Bennett, 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran, fifth-degree black belt and karate teacher who lived in Cabrini at 1119 N. Cleveland Ave., stepped in to help Larson.
“It was like a movie,” said Crenshaw, who studied karate with “Sensei” Bennett. “He just came out of nowhere, and he shoved the guys aside. He made sure he protected him till he got him to Division Street.”
“He was a hero that day,” said Secretary of State Jesse White, who grew up near Cabrini-Green. “The people in the neighborhood were singing his praises.”
Mr. Bennett, 86, of Plainfield, died of cancer in April, according to his wife Lolita.
In 1968, Mr. Bennett described the scene to the Sun-Times this way: “They had a fellow. It turned out to be Mel Larson. I heard one say: ‘Look what we got!’ And everybody started converging on this one white man. When I got to him, they had formed a regular gang circle about 12 deep. Whoever got in would punch or kick. Larson was yelling, ‘I am a reporter. I am a reporter.’ He didn’t have any camera. They apparently had taken it away.”
According to a Sun-Times account, “The rescuer described the one-block walk on Cleveland to Division with the photographer in his arms as ‘the longest block I ever walked.’ ”
“I dropped and straddled him, covered him with my body,” Mr. Bennett said then. “A police squad came and put Larson in the car without waiting for a wagon.”
He said he also helped a woman who’d been pulled off a passing CTA bus.
The Sun-Times reported that Bennett ”said he used karate chops only while taking a baseball bat away from a youth who was leading the mob and to prevent a man from kicking the woman pulled from the bus.”
“He just dragged me out of there,” Larson was quoted as saying.
Later, in a hospital emergency room, the photographer told Mr. Bennett: “I wouldn’t have made it without you. . . . God bless you.”
“He wasn’t afraid,” Mr. Bennett’s wife Lolita Bennett said. And “he didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body.”
In recognition of his selflessness and bravery, Mayor Richard J. Daley awarded Mr. Bennett $250, the city’s Medal of Merit and the ultimate Chicago prize: a job. The mayor asked him to teach karate at what was then the firefighters’ gym at Navy Pier.
And the Sun-Times’ parent company gave Mr. Bennett $1,000, plus another $1,000 for the kids he coached at Cabrini.
The World Karate Federation also honored Mr. Bennett, giving him an award for heroism. Black Belt Times magazine called him the “pride of Chicago.”
And Reader’s Digest magazine told his story in a 1970 article headlined “The Courage of Sid Bennett.”
“The son of an alcoholic father, Bennett had been a hard-drinking juvenile delinquent at the age of 15,” it reported. “Then he had sworn off in self-disgust, made his high-school football team, earned his karate Black Belt, served in the U.S. Air Force and got a job as a male nurse.”
Five months after Mr. Bennett helped Larson, Chicago newspapers reported he stopped someone from stealing his car by handing the would-be car thief his business card, which read: “Sid Bennett — holder of 5th degree black belt — karate lessons.”
The cowering criminal reportedly waited with Mr. Bennett for the police to arrive.
The karate expert’s son La Shon Bennett said his father later worked for the CTA as a truck driver.
“My dad taught all of us kids karate,” he said. “We’d complain to my mom, ‘He’s killing us!’ But we would always go to tournaments, and we would always win first place. He said, ‘If I’m light on you in class, they’re not gonna be light on you in the street.’ ”
La Shon Bennett, 65, remembers how big his father’s hands were and how he taught his kids responsibility and discipline.
“He won at everything that he did,” he said.
White remembers Mr. Bennett as being “like a father to a lot of us. He taught us martial arts.”
The secretary of state said he even used a few moves Mr. Bennett taught him when he encountered bigots who “didn’t like my paint job” when he was playing minor league baseball.
“I have the greatest respect for how he tried to help kids and do good at Cabrini,” White said. “No one thought of bothering him. You’d end up in last place.”
Two years after the rescue, Mr. Bennett’s son, also named Sidney, was among those charged in the sniper killings of two Chicago cops — Sgt. James Severin and Officer Anthony Rizzato — as they walked on a Cabrini-Green baseball field. Mr. Bennett said his son’s alibi was ironclad and that a statement from the teen was forced. The charges against his son were later dropped.
In 1981, Mr. Bennett himself was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a 17-year-old. According to court testimony, he was holding a handgun while arguing with some men, including one who hit his hand, causing the weapon to discharge and strike James Bobo. A judge sentenced him to probation and 30 days of work release and ordered him to spend 1,500 hours teaching martial arts to children.
Two of Mr. Bennett’s students, Peggy and Ozzie Mitchell, have taught karate for years in Joliet. Jan Dombrowski’s son Craig started taking karate lessons from the couple when he was 8. Now 36, he’s a sixth-degree black belt, she said.
Mr. Bennett, who rose to be a 10th-degree black belt, “was one of the most encouraging people he ever met trying to learn karate,” Jan Dombrowski said. “I remember him giving my son advice.”
Mr. Bennett is also survived by his children and grandchildren.
Peggy Mitchell said friends are planning a June 23 memorial at the Peter Claver Center in Joliet.
“He was a hero,” she said. “He was a great gentleman.”
Larson, who took acclaimed photos of Chicago’s deadly Our Lady of Angels fire in 1958, died in 1970.
“I didn’t have time to be afraid,” Mr. Bennett said after rescuing him. “Too many people are walking along and not taking a stand…. I’d have done it for anyone.”