By the summer of 1966 many Americans, moved by the moral clarity of the photos in Life magazine, were sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle for voting rights and against Jim Crow. But that year Martin Luther King came north, and, with a grand rally in Chicago’s Soldiers Field, launched a series of open housing marches that provoked a fierce racist reaction, forcing many to recognize that the legacy of slavery was not peculiar to the South.
At the same time, the movement was itself evolving. Earlier that year in Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) raised the cry of Black Power. That same summer he sent his white progressive allies out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and into their own communities, and the righteous old liberal-radical-religious coalition against racism was shaken.
After marchers were attacked on Chicago’s west and southwest sides, King decided not to venture into Cicero, where a black man had been killed when he stopped to make a telephone call. Bob Lucas, the local leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (at that time still a genuine civil rights organization) led the march. The National Guard was called out to protect the small group of demonstrators.
The marchers included black ministers and long-time activists singing “Eyes on the Prize,” but there were also restless members of Chicago’s powerful youth gangs, as well as at least two college students from an affluent, all-white suburb. The roar of the mob of counter-demonstrators was audible long before we passed under the rail line that marks the city’s western boundary. As soon as we emerged in Cicero we saw the twisted faces of the white working class youth screaming insults. The minuscule band of cranks in the local branch of the American Nazi Party had seized their opportunity and had distributed racist posters with huge swastikas and slogans like White Power. Some of the Cicero residents folded the posters to obscure the Nazi symbol their fathers had fought to defeat in WWII, but others waved it unabashed.
The National Guard looked frightened (and the students at South Carolina State and Kent State were to learn how dangerous a frightened Guardsman or cop with a gun can be). They were doing their best to hold the counter-demonstrators back under a barrage of rocks and firecrackers from the tops of buildings and the rear of the crowd. The more volatile marchers surged toward the sidelines, and macho challenges and obscene taunts went both ways.
It would be difficult to claim that anything was settled that day, but history moved, perhaps, a bit of a step forward. We knew that civil rights had come north, and that the Black Liberation Movement was being born. And American racism was further unmasked: in Cicero it was potent enough that some people waved fascist emblems while others were mobilized, educated, and radicalized. The struggle continues.