The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
Fifty years ago today, our city was burning. Gary Rivlin described it in the opening paragraph of his 1988 essay, “The Night Chicago Burned.”
Friday, April 5, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, and thousands of young protesters stalked the streets of Chicago, exhibiting a harsh, unbridled rage the likes of which the city had never seen. Those living amid the rioting could do little more than pray that some mob wouldn’t converge on their building. Those living far away were gnawed by terror nonetheless, their fears fueled by the fires that illuminated the western sky.
In his essay, Rivlin lamented that no Chicago media outlets had seen fit to look back on the 20th anniversary of the riots following King’s assassination that, he argued, left a permanent mark on the city. This, he felt, “[confirms] the suspicions of a great many Chicagoans about the mainstream white media’s lack of interest in the west side and in the black population in general.” So four months later, on the eve of the anniversary of another 1968 riot in Chicago—the one downtown outside the Democratic National Convention—he decided the Reader should do it. He and six other writers interviewed 16 people—lawyers, politicians, shopkeepers, reporters—who had been there, and Hank De Zutter, who had covered the riots for the Daily News, provided a chronology of events.
Most of Rivlin’s essay concentrates on the way the riots reshaped the west side, wiping out entire blocks and driving whites out to the suburbs but also serving as the catalyst for a rebellion against the Daley machine, a rebellion that would lead to the election of Harold Washington as mayor in 1983.
But the story is also an indictment against the Chicago news media itself, which was, at the time, 90 percent white, Rivlin included; many of those reporters and editors and producers, Rivlin noted, had been inspired to go into journalism by the events of 1968, particularly the convention. Rivlin wrote:
It would be unfair to fault these journalists for looking back at such a pivotal event in their lives, but one can’t help believing that if there were more blacks in positions of power in the media, some editor would have penciled in his calendar a reminder to commemorate the King riots in this their 20th anniversary year.
“It’s a racial myopia,” says Nate Clay, news editor of the Chicago Metro News, a paper that proclaims itself the “largest BLACK oriented weekly” in Chicago. “It’s that simple. If you don’t have people inside the editorial-board rooms who understood and felt the significance of these riots, you won’t see any mention of the riots. It probably never crossed their mind.”
This is still mostly true of Chicago newsrooms today. But over at Chicago magazine, someone had the sense to ask Eve Ewing to write a poem for their website. Here is “April 5, 1968,” about the burning of Madison Street.