As a young child, growing up in Chicago in the 60s our family was familiar with riots. In 1966 Mayor Daley had called out the National Guard to quell a small riot on the west side of the city. Later that year, 5,000 white protesters turned out for a protest in a southside park where Dr. Martin Luther King was hit in the head with a brick. A time bomb was ticking.
The summer of 1967 was only hotter. It began in Detroit when police tried to shut down an illegal after-hours club where a group was hosting a party for several veterans, including two servicemen recently returned from the Vietnam War. On that warm July night at 3:35 a.m., the bar’s patrons were reluctant to leave the air-conditioned club. Out in the street, a crowd began to gather as police waited for vehicles to take the 85 patrons away. A small riot began and by 6:30 a.m. fires had spread throughout a 100-block area.
After four days of rioting more than 7,000 people were arrested and 43 people were killed. Some 1,400 buildings burned and 5,000 people were left homeless. Similar stories were repeated throughout urban America that summer, Watts, Newark all burned. This was a summer in which more than race 159 riots broke out, it was simply a foreshadowing of what was yet to come.
Issues of police brutality, unemployment, inadequate housing were at the epicenter of a pervasive system of racism and injustice that our country was reeling from. Each night pictures of protests were interspersed with footage from the Vietnam War front on our televisions. Winter came and the fever pitch of the protests continued. People were engaged and a presidential election was on the horizon. Richard Nixon was basing his campaign on the tactics of fear and division and dismissing the protesters as malcontents and communists.
The seeds of unrest were well on their way to exploding when the world shuddered on April 4 1968. I remember the moment distinctively. I was at home in my bedroom listening to AM radio and about 6:15 p.m. it was announced that Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Our family was crushed. My parents had taken our family to a march with Dr. King in `1966 at Soldiers Field. We followed his every act. Like the death of JFK his death marked the end of innocence for a generation and for many it appeared to be the beginnings of a race war in our country. Within minutes the nonstop sound of sirens could be heard, this would continue for days.
We lived in Woodlawn on 67th Street in a three-story apartment building on the first floor. We were surrounded and protected by a three-block ring of owner-occupied homes and a cemetery across the street. The reports of looting and fires four blocks away on 63rd Street soon began to filter in on the telephone and news.
The intensity of the fires and riots began to spread throughout the city and the National Guard was called out by the Governor, an immediate curfew was ordered and Mayor Daley issued his infamous “shoot to kill order.” For those who do not know what this means — if you were out past curfew you could be shot by the police, no questions asked. We did not venture out.
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Our family’s fear was real. We were afraid that the riots would move our way, afraid that the police would shoot one of our friends. Two days later the U.S. Army was called out. We watched from our apartment window as several hundred soldiers marched down 67th Street behind tanks and armored personnel carriers. They were headed to Jackson Park where they set up camp to patrol the southside until calm could be restored several days later.
When the smoke cleared the businesses on 63rd Street were gone. Burned to the ground were buildings that we had shopped at. The Hardware Store that sold Converse All Stars in the backroom., the grocery stores and taverns that catered to my neighborhood. You could look underneath the El tracks from one end of 63rd to the other and see nothing but ruins. These stores were gone and never to return.
However, some parts of Woodlawn were left intact. An unexpected truce between Chicago’s two largest street gangs the Blackstone Rangers and Disciples provided protection and safety for the places where they lived, but by then the footprint of the rioting had already extended to Garfield Park and West Side neighborhoods. Chicago was burning and the damage was devastating and in some ways the city has still not recovered from these events.
In 1968 more than 100 cities across America experienced destruction to the urban core of their communities. The legacy of these riots has been the subject of much research and debate and while progress has been made from those tumultuous times, it obviously has not been enough. We still have much work to do.
Like “68” the seeds of change are once again in the air. The anger and frustration across America is real. Simmering in our communities for several years and now exacerbated by a seemingly constant series of senseless acts of police violence we must act. By learning on the lessons from the 60s and incorporating new voices and leadership into the discussion we can rebuild the bonds of trust that have been allowed to fray over the years.
Adding fuel to the fire is the voice of hate and racism that has been embolden in recent years and is no longer afraid to hide in the shadows. Our democracy is once again being challenged by the forces of fear and division, not just by those with ill intent but from some within our own government. As we are called upon to act let us go into this journey by remembering the fundamental issues that caused the riots, the inequity, the bigotry, the brutality and focus on solutions as we work to make our community a better place for all to live. These are serious times.
Dale Todd is a member of the Cedar Rapids City Council and the vice president of development at the Hatch Development Group.