Memory fades over time. Images, incidents that lose their sharpness, and the clear lines of places, streets, even people with voices that have blurred. So I was jolted a bit to hear that it has been 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march into Marquette Park, Chicago's symbol of extreme racism. I was there that day, marching with King. I too was pelted, bloodied from the rocks and bottles thrown by a large racist mob.
Marquette Park is on Chicago's South West Side. Fifty years ago, it was one of the biggest and best appointed public parks in Chicago. Built around 1917, the 323 acre park proudly housed a swimming pool, golf course, many ball fields and picnic areas. The usual, just more. It just happened that the patrons of this exemplary public park were all white. In spite of the large black south side population and growing Latino population, that was to remain the reality for 62 years, until 1979.
Over the years, Black people had been beaten on many occasions trying to use the park. There were many ugly racist incidents. I remember, all too well, when a black CTA bus driver was dragged off his 71st Street bus and ferociously beaten by white thugs. Western Avenue, 2400 west on the city's grid, was the unofficial racial dividing line separating black and white Chicago with the railroad tracks just east of Western being the actual dividing line.
An integrated group of about 600 marchers went down 71st Street to California into Marquette Park. Going west on 71st street, after two blocks, we passed a typical Chicago two-story building which just happened to be the headquarters the American Nazi Party. The exposed brick on the west side of the building had a sign with huge letters that could be seen from blocks away, proclaiming Niggers Beware! These Nazis were active. They showed pre-WWII German Nazi films to a packed room every Friday night. They had numerous rallies in the park, organizing among the alienated poor white working class youth. Their pipsqueak Fuhrer, Frank Collin, declared that Marquette Park was for "whites only" and declared his mission was to keep it that way.
As soon as the marchers entered the park, the improvised volley of missiles began. There was a rowdy crowd of mostly young men, some waving Confederate and Nazi flags, and it seemed that every hand had a brick, bottle, rock, stone or fire cracker ready to be hurled. Their other hand held a beer bottle; and the empties in cases piled high around them attested to the fact that many of them were already drunk.
These were seemingly happy, yet mean-spirited, hateful racists. And there a lot of them -- thousands, perhaps as many as 7,000, outnumbering us 10 to 1. The police formed a line separating us from the haters -- barely. The cops mostly ignored the assault on us marchers, occasionally pushing back a particularly unruly thug now and then. A few were arrested. But basically we were sitting ducks, awaiting the slings and arrows of the racist crowd.
I was at the rear of the march. It was the safest place to be. Most of the rocks and bottles were directed at the first line of marchers, the "dignitaries", Al Raby, Dr. King and others. Their bodyguards held up paper placards for protection. I was one of a group of young people at the rear who didn't subscribe to the King school of non-violence; to turn the other cheek, and get hit hard with no response philosophy. We picked up every damn rock, stone and bottle thrown at us, and threw them as hard as we could back at the bastards.
The theme of the march was Open Housing. Chicago, like many cities was (and of course, still is) severely segregated and there were obvious racist policies and practices that legalized racism in the renting of apartments and the selling of homes. Real estate agents steered blacks away from particular neighborhoods, acceding to the defined racial boundaries. This despicable practice was referred to as "redlining". The so-called faith community (mostly Catholic but others as well) also were active in maintaining racial segregation. Many churches had committees whose sole purpose was to monitor real estate agencies and agents to make sure they followed subscribed to race-based practices.
What creates the hate? Where does the racism come from? A big question, one for a book, and many have been written. Racism, like all other ideas, is learned behavior. So is anti-racism. Hate is not innate; Ideas do not fall from the sky. They are taught and learned, absorbed and embraced, can be made deeper or discarded. They come from the society at large. In this case, they come straight from the leadership, from the rotten top. Capitalism needs racism, indeed would not stand without it. A hierarchal society of richer and poorer, a class society has to have a justification for why there are rulers and the ruled. They teach us that there are "smarter" and "dumber" and, of course, those strata generally correlate to richer and poorer. Behind the platitudes of "equality and justice for all", there is the insidious reality state sanctioned separation ("black" wards, Latino "districts", "white ethnics" (!) and the like. Politics and religion stand to maintain segregation and justify hierarchy. The rich owners stay on top, divide and rule their method, distrust and even hate ("I'm smarter than you, I'm better than you") are the salient lessons taught every child.
The year 1966 was in the middle of the now historic, but misrepresented (highlighting drugs -- which existed but were absolutely secondary) "60's". The bombing in Birmingham and historic bloody Selma had preceded Marquette Park. The courageous actions of Mississippi Freedom Riders electrified anti-racists throughout the country. But before the 60's and the 50's there was World War II, the "Good War". Millions throughout the world were mobilized to fight the Nazi concept of the "Aryan Race". And they (led by the Soviet Union) were successful. Thousands of U.S. soldiers, among them blacks, came back from Europe and Asia imbued with a sense of justice that had human equality as a foundation. They had fought the fascists to destroy the idea of a superior and inferior "race", only to come home to segregated housing, segregated public facilities and lack of good employment opportunities. They were pissed off and knew how to fight. The Civil Right Movement didn't grow out of thin air; it was part of the anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles of the 50's and 60's.
The Movement, as it was called, was based on the lessons of defeating Nazi Germany. My family believed in equality. My father lost his entire family, killed on the spot by the Germans and their fascist allies, or taken by train to gas ovens in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Thanks a lot, DuPont, GM, Ford, Citibank and other still existing corporations who profited from these atrocities. His two sisters, my aunts Renya and Fanya escaped to the forest when the Nazis entered Bialystok. For more than two years, they fought as partisans, known today as guerillas, fighting a rear guard against the Nazis. They led and died in the Bialystok uprising of 1943. My father survived because he left home before the invasion to join the Soviet Red Army. Mom grew up in the Soviet Union. Her father was a Bolshevik, who fought in the Civil War following the Russian Revolution, and again twenty years later in the Red Army against the German invaders. As a teen-ager, Mama carried a machine gun, fighting for the cause. When my parents emigrated to the U.S., they brought their experience, ideas, dreams and fighting spirit with them. They never stopped believing in the fundamental equality of all human beings. They understood there is only one race, the human race.
My brother Shelly, imbued in our family collective spirit, became a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in 1964, and we were all raised going to communist and civil rights activities. Before Marquette Park, I had participated in many marches and rallies. I picketed Woolworth's on State Street in a sympathy boycott to support the famous student sit-ins in the South. It was my first experience taking the train downtown by myself, and I remember today how proud my mother was when I told her about the picket line.
The Civil Right Movement moved steadily to the left, pulled by communists and pushed by militant black workers. Increasingly, there was broader recognition of the need for violence against the capitalist system and also that civil rights for blacks and eventually Latinos has to be tied to anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. A decisive turn was the Detroit Rebellion of 1967. Led by black veterans, some from the VietNam War, Detroit workers fought for better than a week against the racist establishment. It was the most significant uprising in the U.S. since the mass strikes of the 1930's, and the most important mass event in the U.S. since World War II. More details of this historic uprising can be found here http://www.detroits-great-rebellion.com/ Detroit rocked the rulers and the Civil Rights "leaders". Finally Dr. King spoke out aggressively against poverty affecting the whole working class -- including white workers -- for the first time. He also increasingly spoke out against the VietNam War.
As time moved along, The Movement changed and so did I along with tens of thousands of others. I continued to participate in the struggle to integrate Marquette Park. This was viewed as an important battleground for the next thirteen years. Jesse Jackson, the new darling of the mainstream civil rights movement, conducted weekly marches on 71st street, from the railroad tracks till wherever the police decided to stop us from going into the park. By 1969, I was a member of Progressive Labor Party (PLP). We participated in Jackson's Breadbasket/PUSH marches with the strategy of instilling militancy. After a while, PUSH gave up the marches. PLP picked up the responsibility.
The open, public and even aggressive Nazi organizing efforts in the Marquette Park community made their existence a national issue. Frank Collin, the would-be fuehrer, was an especially repugnant figure who relished the huge spotlight given to his every miniscule racist muttering. His words had meaning and consequences. Racist attacks against black youth and workers who unknowingly ventured into the "wrong" areas were a constant occurrence. There were incidents of letter bombs delivered to black families on the racial border. Black CTA bus drivers who worked late night routes going through the area were given escorts. And, of course, there weren't many black families moving west of Western. The few that did buy into Marquette Park were routinely harassed.
And then, there was Skokie. The Nazis applied for a permit to have a public rally in a park in the largely Jewish suburb of Skokie. Defended by the so-called civil libertarians of the ACLU, the Nazis prevailed in a legal wrangle. The Skokie lawyers tried to block the permit because of the harm that would be inflicted on the many Holocaust survivors who lived in Skokie. Each court appearance, with every twist and turn, gave the Nazis tons newspaper, radio and TV coverage, ad nauseam. The discussion about fighting racism was reduced to "free speech". None other than the great civil libertarian, Mayor Richard J Daley, defended the Nazis "rights". The Nazis finally had a muted mini rally, their right to congregate in the community and disseminate and preach their racist venom acknowledged.