“I mean nobody wants to be stoned to death,” Synthia Littleton says.
“But he wasn’t really stoned to death,” says Synthia’s mother, Barbara Littleton.
Mother and daughter are debating about what really happened to Dr. Martin Luther King 23 years ago during his civil rights march through Marquette Park, the place where they now stand, waiting for their curtain call.
“But he was stoned, Mama.”
“That was somebody in the crowd threw one rock.”
“But rocks hurt, Mom.” Everyone laughs, a nervous laughter that breaks the tension.
High-school-aged Synthia and her two girlfriends, a trio called Appeal, have come from South Shore and West Englewood to sing and dance at the Dream Day festival. Spooked by television news of a Klan rally and the violent film footage of past civil rights marches, they say they almost canceled.
Erik Tucker, the trio’s manager, a cheerful young man in a black suit, sporting buttons for Harold Washington, “Race Is Unity,” and Dr. King, is obviously tense, though he said he feels better than when he first entered the park. A city worker with a sledgehammer and metal spikes is erecting a yellow-and-white striped tent that was supposed to be up by 7 AM. It is noon, the sun hot and bright.
The Global Committee Commemorating King Days is hoping to draw an interracial crowd to honor Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. But founding president Dee D. Smith Simmons says the press and the Klan have scared vendors, talent, and audience away from the cosponsored city event. The festival’s song and dance groups outnumber the audience. And police security looks so tight it may be frustrating festivalgoers from even finding Dream Day. The festival’s tents and portable stage stand in a hollow, the presence of police felt but not seen. As young tumblers somersault in the grass for the dozen or so applauding spectators, a police helicopter, blades whirling and clacking, circles in the blue sky.
At a nonthreatening distance, hundreds of police in rows of helmeted horsemen and slouching lines of blue shirts and billy clubs surround the Dream Day festival.
Zigzagging under the trees and across the open fields is row upon row of newly erected Park District snow fences laced with yellow tape that warns POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. Police are everywhere: under the trees, on the benches, the parkway curbs, strung out along the snow fences. They are blue walls shutting off sections of the 320-acre park so troublemakers cannot bushwhack the Dream Day festival.
As it is closed to traffic, I must walk into the park, past the uniformed troops, the deserted fields, tennis courts, and swing sets, my tape recorder, microphone, and dangling cord openly displayed. Bored and antsy, talking quietly or sharing loud jokes, some officers squat on their heels; others twirl their billy clubs or hold their hats in their hands, looking up at me as I pass. There is goof-around talk of “battle pay.”
In a shady cove a squad of black officers monopolizes a quiet bench, the leaves hissing in the breeze above them.
I tell Erik and the Appeal Trio I’ll try and catch their act. Then I chase the helicopter, which is circling over the Ku Klux Klan rally in the distance.
A half mile to the south, across a huge island and stagnant lagoon, the police are eyeball to eyeball with the curiosity seekers come to the White Pride rally. Wooden, blue-painted police barricades set in a huge half circle surround the Klan stage, where supremacist banners and swastikas are displayed. High-stepping police horses, clearing a no-man’s-land between barricades and spectators, plow through and maneuver the crowd. A row of cops inside the wooden barricades faces the spectators, while plainclothes units with billy clubs roam the crowd, listening, watching, fingers to their ears and their radio earphones.
When the Klan begins its speech making, in the glare of the hot sun, the young whites with acne, missing teeth, tattoos, long hair, and beer-belly swaggers punch their fists in the air, shouting slurs. The reporters, jockeying camera crews, and photographers stand mute and straight-faced. One skinny cameraman has two thick-necked bruiser football types following him wherever he roams. The older spectators, sprinkled about the younger crowd, prefer the shade of the trees, which march up the grassy knoll overlooking 71st Street.
Suddenly, taking police and whites by surprise, a black man with a shaved head, earring, and baggy shorts strolls brashly into the rally and is set upon by whites. Wild cries of “Get that nigger!” go up as whites whirl from the stage. In the confusion, plainclothes cops quickly surround and whisk him away for his own safety. Slurs bounce off his back and the backs of the police escorting him through the police lines.
Over a whistling PA system, a Klansman from Missouri says among other slurs that blacks do not deserve to live in houses but in mud huts. The crowd laughs.
A chubby young cop guarding the stage also begins to laugh, and unable to stop the jag covers his face with his hand, his body shaking.
A man with a bulbous nose and hazel eyes passes out cardboard signs to the young boys. He reads the hand-lettered signs one by one into my microphone: “Proud to Be White,” “Support Yonkers,” “Pucinski–the Polish White Traitor.”
A clean-cut father, tossing a football to his young son, turns to his friend and says, “Enough of this–let’s get some niggers.” Everywhere’s the smell of horse manure and beer breath.
Front and center of the crowd is a vocal group of men and boys with shaved heads and ragged clothes. Front and center of the police line, standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind a wooden sawhorse and staring back at the skinheads, are three uniformed black women. “Must be a pretty tough assignment for a nigger!” one of the skinheads shouts. The women officers stiffen, a bored but tough expression locked on their faces, their eyes invisible behind their dark glasses. A black photographer and a sound man for a camera crew go unnoticed by the rowdies. Amid the violent shouting, young people hold hands, rub up against one another. A couple in shorts and sleeveless T-shirts kiss tenderly, oblivious to the crowd milling around them.
A fistfight between two whites has the crowd whooping and rushing from the stage. Plainclothes cops hustle the pair over the grassy knoll into the street.
Police horses leap the curbs into traffic. One helmeted rider, towering above a bronze Chevette, leans out of his saddle, waving his arm for the driver to “Stop! Stop! Hold it right there!” His horse prances. A paddy wagon roars up; a fat cop rolls out of the cab and slaps open the back doors.
“Bull shit! Bull shit! Bull shit!” the crowd chants, as the two whites are pulled, stumbling over their own feet, to the wagon, a knot of press cameras in their wake. At the podium, forgotten for the moment, the hooded Klansman silently holds his script, watching the action. An incident like this could spark the crowd to bolt. But the police are quick to quash the spark, destroy the rowdies’ mood. “Move it,” yells a horseman on the knoll, his horse pinwheeling and scattering those gawking at the arrest. Calling for bail money, waving a huge manila envelope, a member of the local Nazi party, greasy-haired, in a brown polyester suit, marches through the crowd, mooching quarters and dollar bills.
While the rally and the Dream Day festival happen in the park, a group of ministers, priests, and rabbis who call themselves the Religious Coalition to End Racial Violence conducts a unity service at Saint Adrian’s Catholic Church three blocks away. The mixed crowd of some 300 persons sings “All Who Love and Serve Your City” and signs a covenant to confront racism and prejudice.
Absent from the park is the local neighborhood organization, which condemned the Klan rally and urged the press and residents to stay away.
There are a few more arrests and the restless young people suddenly break from the Klan staging area. Hundreds of people begin to move, fanning out across the grass and deeper into the park. From the area of the Klan stage I can barely see across the park the yellow-striped tent of the Dream Day festival. Because of the extensive police lines in the interior of the park, the only way to get to the Dream Day festival is to cross Mann Drive, then a stone bridge to the grassy island in the lagoon, then a second stone bridge. The police, shouting “Back on the curb! Back on the curb!” throw up lines to prevent the crowd from crossing Mann Drive and moving north. One man in a Nazi uniform and black leather gloves turns back to the Klan rally and many young people follow him. As I circulate I hear the rumblings of people wanting to chase after the blacks. But it is idle talk, in a tone and attitude they might use to discuss what cool video movie they might rent. The police, meantime, have put up walls of blue shirts and horses around the rally. Whites stand watching the rally. Whites stand watching the robed Klansmen packing up their cheap sound system and their banners, their hooded robes glaring in the sun. A skinny girl eyeing the police turns to her boyfriends and says, “They got us surrounded, y’know?”
The police, the eye of the helicopter constantly watching, allow the young people to trickle away from the rally and cross the bridge over the lagoon onto the grass island. By the far bridge that leads to the Dream Day festival, a dozen policemen sitting on a paddy wagon hood and on bridge abutments turn back everyone except the news people.
To a tiny audience, Appeal sings on the Dream Day stage, while, 100 yards away, lined up on the basketball court beyond the snow fence and the police lines, young white males hoot and holler. Word is that the rally is a bust. Suddenly, under heavy police escort, the religious coalition from Saint Adrian’s Church arrives at the Dream Day stage–ministers and priests and rabbis with a couple of hundred blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Arabs–transforming the occasion into something real. Their burlap banner reads “Covenant Walk” in Hebrew, Arabic, Lithuanian, Spanish, and English. They’ve walked the curves of the deserted park singing and chanting antiracist slogans. The crowd of young white males along the snow fence swells. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” is their chant, their fingers flipped in the air, as reporters rush to the spot. “Hey, get that fuckin’ camera over here on us!” a young punk yells. There is much laughing and clowning among the young whites, between the flashes of violent talk and gesture. Later, someone tells me the young whites never “had the balls” to out-and-out challenge the cops. The chanting is vicious but dies quickly, while most of the whites smile at their own antics.
Onstage, at the microphone, a woman stirs the gathered Covenant Walk into applause and whistles.
“The only way that we’re going to stop the gatherings of hate groups,” she says, “is for large groups of people to speak out and say: No more! We’ll not stand for it! This is our town, this is our city, and this is our neighborhood!” Her message sharply contrasts with the call by community leaders and public officials for neighbors and the press to stay away from the park.
After a few speeches on unity and the importance of facing community problems, with the Lee Street Band onstage slapping out tight, funky jazz, the police escort the interfaith, interracial group back to the church parking lot. The young whites, wrapped in police lines and kept at a distance, try to follow the coalition.
Erik, Appeal’s manager, turns to me and says he was sweating bullets when the church group showed up at the Dream Day stage. He didn’t understand the banner in foreign languages, or the crowd streaming toward him. Until he saw a few familiar faces at the head of the line (he mentions the Reverend B. Herbert Martin) singing “Glory, glory alleluia” he thought it was the Klan and their followers come to get him and his girls.
Once Erik and Appeal are packed into her backseat, Barbara Littleton says she hopes the police lines hold up until she gets out of the neighborhood.
“We’ll be all right the other side of Damen,” she says, waving out her car window.