It’s been a half-century since an unnatural disaster tore through the West Side and pockets of the South Side with the fury of a hurricane and the rage of a California wildfire.
The catalyst? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death from a white racist’s bullet fired onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
“The assassination of Dr. King took everybody so much by surprise; it was pretty hard to try to pull together forces that might have been able to countermand [the violence],” recalls Brenetta Howell Barrett, 85, a noted civil rights activist who has lived in North Lawndale, Austin and Garfield Park.
Fifty years later, I went back to the West Side trying to make sense of it all, walking the streets with people who have lived there all their lives.
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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was traveling with King when he was killed, sums up the civil rights leader’s life this way: Americans “hated the marcher” but “loved the martyr.”
But back in 1968, not even the sanctity of Good Friday could restrain the hundreds of enraged young people who took to the streets in Chicago setting fires and looting stores as the news of King’s death spread.
By the time it was over, 12 people — all black — had been killed and 500 others had been injured. More than 200 buildings were destroyed, leaving a pockmarked landscape that still exists.
It has always been hard for me to reconcile King’s message of non-violence with what happened in Chicago after he was killed. Here’s the only possible explanation: All the progress he’d made was wiped out by that assassin’s bullet, which seemed to offer definitive proof of America’s hatred for black people in the late 1960s.
It was too much for many to bear.
“I think of it as a rebellion,” Barrett says of the riots in Chicago, where King had once lived in a West Side apartment.
“In terms of the organizations and community leaders that had some impact, if these people had been able to get in front of this, they might have been able to tamp down some of the physical and property damage,” she points out.
What resulted was destruction on a scale that Chicago had not seen since the city’s race riots of 1919, when 38 people died and 500 people were injured. Those riots erupted after a black youth crossed an unofficial dividing line into a white swimming zone along Lake Michigan; a group of whites stoned the teen, who drowned.
Unlike the crisis response that typically follows a natural disaster, there was no massive effort to rebuild what was destroyed by the 1968 riots.
“There has never been a plan for reconstruction. Buildings were there and the riots left huge gaps,” Rev. Jackson says. “There’s a political leadership change, but the economic infrastructure, we don’t have. Unemployment on the West Side is 20 percent. That has not changed significantly over 50 years. That is why vacant lots are still vacant.”
“This was a thriving business area. I mean just thriving. All kinds of businesses were here,” says Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., pointing toward littered lots and boarded up buildings surrounding his 7th District office near Madison and California.
“Community groups and organizations struggled hard trying to rebuild, but they didn’t really have the resources and could not get the help from any branch of government,” Davis says. “We’ve never had the level of social-economic will that it takes to rebuild a community like this one and others throughout the country.”
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Davis was a schoolteacher in North Lawndale in 1968 when rioters struck. He remembers that an eerie tension among his students had been building.
“They were pulling alarms every 10 minutes. There was a nervousness in the air. Then everything just broke loose,” Davis recalls.
But it wasn’t just the frustrations of unruly young people that were unleashed that day.
It was something much deeper.
“I had a friend who was a young fellow, very middle class. His father had been a principal of a school. I got in his car with him and this guy drove his car through the plate glass window of a grocery store,” Davis recalls.
“What’s your problem? The police are going to come,” Davis told his friend.
“We are the police today,” the friend responded.
It was actually a week after calm had been restored that Mayor Richard J. Daley issued his infamous “shoot to kill arsonists” and “shoot to maim looters” decree, according to an article in the Chicago Reader.
By then, 6,000 National Guard troops were patrolling the streets, and another 5,000 U.S. Army troops were called in to help protect firefighters from snipers.
Until then, bands of people roamed stretches of Madison Street grabbing whatever they could carry while others watched the chaos on TV.
“You could just see in the faces of some anger and frustration, and in the faces of others glee. People were walking down the street dragging TVs and things. They made themselves little carts so they could haul things away,” Davis recalls.
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What’s even more tragic is that a lot of King’s hands-on activism in Chicago happened on the West Side.
In 1966, he moved into a dilapidated apartment in North Lawndale to bring attention to substandard housing in urban ghettos.
The civil rights leader also forged a relationship with street gangs, including the Vice Lords.
Benny Lee, a former Vice Lord who now works as a trainer for an anti-violence organization, said when King marched against discriminatory housing practices on the West Side, the Vice Lords marched with him.
Lee was 15 when King was assassinated.
At that time, racial tensions were brewing because blacks were moving into Austin, which was predominantly white.
“I was in the first group of blacks to go to Austin High School. I was in the classroom and four white guys came in and jumped me. Two of my guys happened to witness it. All of us got suspended, but nothing happened to the white boys that jumped on us. I was the only one that ended up in juvenile court,” Lee recalls.
“I remember getting in trouble because my mother was watching the news about the rioting and saw me on Madison Street,” he says.
“The next day was April 5th, and we were trying to go back up on Madison and we ran into an Army truck. We were young, and it was like a game to us,” he says. “Some of those buildings are still empty lots.
“For some reason, in all those years not one alderman has put anything there or allowed anything to be done with those lots since that time.”
Ed Smith, who served as Garfield Park’s alderman for nearly 28 years before retiring in 2010, strongly disagrees.
On a recent tour, Smith points out that new housing construction and commercial properties had been built on the West Side under his watch.
But given the scope of destruction in areas the rioters hit hardest, Smith acknowledges that his efforts were “minuscule.”
“There is a multiplicity of things that caused it not to be rebuilt,” he says of those neighborhoods. “First of all, the resources that are needed to do the infrastructure of getting businesses going is just not there. The money that people need to start the businesses is just not there.
“The people who have the money that could be made available for people to [open] businesses, they have trepidations about loaning that money out,” he added.
Smith now works for Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, where the popular TV shows “Empire” and “Chicago Fire” are filmed.
The film studio is located in North Lawndale near Mount Sinai Hospital. It represents the kind of infrastructure that’s needed to close the gaps.
“I was really glad to see this facility come into the West Side of Chicago because it has given us an opportunity to fill a void that is here,” Smith says. “You don’t have a whole lot of people who want to come out and spend money in this community to help bring it back.
Smith sums up the 1968 riots this way: “To see things going up in smoke. That was absolutely devastating. . . . It’s just sad to know you are already at a low ebb and you’ve got to get from here to try to go back up the hill. It’s tough, and that is something that you don’t forget.”
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In a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace, King said, “a riot is the language of the unheard. “
“What is it that America has failed to hear?” King asked rhetorically.
“It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years,” he said.
The barren land on the West Side is a cruel reminder that 50 years after King’s assassination, his work remains unfinished.
If you are interested in this story, you’ll want to watch Sun-Times columnists Mary Mitchell (left) and Maudlyne Ihejirika talk about their jobs as reporters approaching the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. This is part of an ongoing video series we call “Working the Story.”