August 5, 1966: Marquette Park riots in Chicago

In late 1965, Martin Luther King moved into a dilapidated apartment on Chicago’s West Side, from which he would spearhead Chicago’s “open housing” initiative. In order to make clear that inequality was not just a Southern problem, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) imported the South’s tactics and songs. Just as they sent black members into segregated facilities in the South, they conducted large marches through all-white working-class neighborhoods in Chicago. It caused havoc. The Marquette Park riot on August 5, 1966, at which King himself was hit in the head by a thrown brick, was particularly ugly. Thousands of white counterprotesters sought to defend their turf by throwing bottles, bricks, rocks, etc. Up through a week after the initial event, gangs of white boys could be found circling the park, chanting (to the tune of the Oscar Meier Weiner song):

I’d love to be an Alabama trooper

That is what I’d really like to be

For if I were an Alabama trooper

Then I could hang a nigger legally

All the racial hostilities that had been festering beneath Chicago’s surface were suddenly forced to the top.

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Here’s a white Chicagoan, Jim Caprano, speaking to Studs Terkel about the day of the riots:

I was sixteen when Martin Luther King marched through the park. That corner we just passed, I grew up on that block. One day I walked out of my house. I had just gotten my driver’s license and was really excited. Dad said I could borrow the Chevy and I had a date. I was flying high. There’s the house! I couldn’t pull the Chevy away from the curb because, in blocks around, there were buses. They were the size of the yellow school buses. But these were blue. I didn’t know what was going on until I watched all those police officers get off in riot gear. It was the first time I had ever seen the riot helmets that became famous during the Democratic Convention in ’68. They were forming up on my block in little platoons and double-timing down to Marquette Park.

My world changed that day. All of a sudden things I didn’t understand happened. I grew up believing that this was part of America, with equal opportunity for all. That’s what the Adrian Dominican nuns taught me at St. Rita, what my parents taught me. Here I was watching police going down to protect people who were trying to exercise free speech. I went down to the park to see what was going on. This was troubling, unsettling, and confusing.

I watched a car with two black people, who were unfortunate to be stopped by a red light. They were surrounded by a crowd of angry people. I watched a teen-age girl, who under other circumstances I might have thought was pretty, a girl I’d have liked to ask out on a date. I watched her jump on the hood of the car and start to kick at the windshield, yelling and screaming. Her face was twisted in rage and fury. I watched as cars burned and other things were set on fire. I remember the helicopters overhead. I had never seen them before, close up. The people standing around screaming and yelling.

My friends felt the same way I did, troubled. But a lot of the kids I grew up with were out there throwing rocks and bottles.…

We had a great neighborhood in a lot of ways—pick-up baseball, Little Leagues, the YMCA swimming pool—we always expected that we wouldn’t live here someday. We expected it to racially change and the neighborhood wouldn’t be quote good anymore. That it would be a bad neighborhood. There was some sort of fixed time period when all of a sudden things would change and get bad. In their minds, it was linked to racial change.

There was fear. There were some who felt actual hate. But the majority, I think, simply felt fear that the cohesive neighborhoodness wouldn’t be here any longer.

After the King march, the neighborhood went back to being what it was. Nothing changed immediately. In the interim, there had been other incidents. Marquette Park became the symbolic battleground in the war of the racists. It became to that war what Vietnam was to the fight against communism. It was the place where people of strange ideologies would come to do battle. The American Nazi Party, with twenty-four members, opened up an office, just down this street. It was stuff of high visibility.

I have a black brother-in-law. Who would have thought, in 1966, when I stepped out my door and saw all those police in riot gear, that twenty-four years later, I’d still be living in Marquette Park and have nephews of a mixed race whom I love very much. My brother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and their children sleep over on occasion, as people in families do. We have a happy life as an extended family. Would that sixteen-year-old kid, a Marquette Park regular, ever dream it would come to this?