The OAH Magazine of History

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Marching in Marquette Park

Carl Weinberg Carl Weinberg is the editor of the OAH Magazine of History.

When I was sixteen, my father taught me an unforgettable lesson: he took me to a neo-Nazi rally in Marquette Park on the southwest side of Chicago. It was not our first encounter with the members of the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) led by Chicagoan Frank Collin. Not only had they publicly announced their plans to march through Skokie, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago, but the neo-Nazis regularly telephoned our house in the middle of the night. As my father explained, they resented his civil rights activism and publications in favor of school desegregation. The fact that he was Jewish—and a former Communist—didn’t help.

That summer, it seems, Meyer Weinberg decided that he and I would confront Collin and company face to face. It was July 9, 1978. A large crowd stood on the sidewalk across 71st street from the park. Members of the Jewish Defense League were scrapping with neoNazi supporters. Most memorable and disturbing, however, is that some people emerged from their little brick bungalows, right behind where my father and I quietly stood, to cheer on the Nazis. At one point, they chanted, “Barbecue the Jews!”

Those words have lingered in my memory for decades, but only as we have been preparing this issue on the black freedom struggle outside of the South have I learned the history that lies behind them. In 1961, as a junior college instructor and teachers’ union activist, my father co-founded Teachers for as Integrated Schools (TFIS), in response to the firing of a black teacher active in civil rights. Soon, he enlisted Al Raby, a Chicago-born African American activist, to write for the TFIS newsletter which, in 1963, became Integrated Education, edited by my father. That same year, he began to chair the education committee of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), the broad multiracial coalition, led by Raby, which would ally in 1966 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to form the Chicago Freedom Movement (CFM). In this role, my father and Raby worked closely with Jesse Jackson, then a young divinity school student, and a host of others who descended on Chicago in the summer of 1966, including James Bevel, Bernard LaFayette, and Martin Luther King, Jr. As Craig Werner notes in his essay about music and civil rights, the “soundtrack” for the Chicago campaign was provided by, among others, The Temptations’ Curtis Mayfield, who grew up in the city’s Cabrini-Green housing project.

Beginning with a massive rally addressed by King in Soldier Field on July 12, 1966, the CFM took up the cause of open housing. As Thomas Sugrue argues in his essay, what is still often erroneously described as de facto—as opposed to de jure—housing segregation in the North resulted from deliberate decisions of a host of government agencies. Hasan Jeffries’s and Patrick Jones’s discussion of the 1958 case of the “Harlem Nine” attests to the institutionalized nature of school segregation in the Empire State. Even in “progressive” cities like Seattle—as Trevor Griffey shows us—racially restrictive housing covenants were common. Under the banner of “urban renewal,”blacks— and, as José Jiménez reminds us for the case of Chicago, Puerto Ricans in the Lincoln Park neighborhood—were forcibly removed. Confronted by redlining, steering, and other racist tactics practiced by local real estate companies—as well as terrorist violence when those measures failed—black Chicagoans were effectively excluded from a host of neighborhoods.

In that hot summer of 1966, the area around Marquette Park—known as Chicago Lawn—became a target for the CFM. As Patrick Jones explains in his article about similar battles in Milwaukee in 1967, residents of working-class neighborhoods often justified the exclusion of blacks on the grounds of “property rights,” neighborhood safety, and protecting their investments. Despite these high-sounding principles, things quickly got ugly in Chicago on August 5, 1966 when a group of five hundred civil rights supporters—probably including Meyer Weinberg—marched through Marquette Park, which sat adjacent to all black West Englewood. Surrounded by an angry mob of local residents, the marchers had barely entered the park when someone threw a rock and hit Martin Luther King, Jr. in the head (see cover image). King later commented to the press that “I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama—mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago.” Viewing this sea of hate as an opportunity, activists with George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party (ANP) swept into Chicago and appeared a week later in Marquette Park where the ANP speaker whipped the large crowd into a racist frenzy. They ended the rally by throwing bricks and bottles at passing cars driven by black Chicagoans.

While the number of conscious fascists in Chicago Lawn was undoubtedly few, the neo-Nazis in 1966 and again in 1978 clearly struck a popular racist chord. Jews were also implicated. As one Chicago Lawn resident said of Jews, “The niggers are their fault.” In court, NSPA’s Frank Collin added that “Jews are in the forefront of the international Communist revolution.” While this was classic scapegoating, the Communists’ early advocacy of racial equality did launch a good number of its members—who were disproportionately Jewish—into civil rights activity in the postwar period. Similarly, the left-leaning members of United Auto Workers Local 600 were the first to invite Rosa Parks to speak in Detroit in 1956, as we learn in Jeanne Theoharis’s retelling of Parks’s activism in the Motor City.

The open housing campaign ended rather abruptly in the late summer of 1966 when the CFM signed a “summit” agreement with the leaders of Chicago Real Estate Board and Mayor Daley, who promised to take action against housing discrimination if the CFM would call off its protests. Some CFM activists, including my father, considered this a sellout. So did the Chicago branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of whose members was a young Fannie Rushing, whose interview appears in this issue. In fact, the freedom movement was often divided, as Lisa Levenstein tells us, citing the refusal of the NAACP to defend the right of single mothers to public housing in Philadelphia. Despite the Chicago summit agreement, a contingent of the CFM, including my father, went ahead with a planned march in Cicero, a town considered the most violent nut to crack in the open housing fight.

From the vantage point of 2012, I can now see a bit more of the history that my father must have been reflecting on as we stood on that sidewalk together in 1978. We thank consulting editor Patrick Jones and all of our authors who have opened a window on the neglected but rich history of the black freedom struggle “beyond Dixie.”

Carl R. Weinberg