Michael Singleton was a leader of a student group called the New Breed at Harrison High School. He’s now employed at CIN, the Chicago Intervention Network–the city’s antigang program.

“Twelve to 15 of the New Breed leaders met the night Dr. King was killed to plan an appropriate memorial to him–a defiant memorial. It was a time to voice our anger. This would not be an ordinary protest march.

The next morning we pinned to our fronts and backs pictures of Dr. King that had run on the front and back pages of the Sun-Times. At school the principal tried to lead a memorial service, but he dared to try to have us sing the national anthem. We stood up and sang “We Shall Overcome,” and when we started, school officials knew they’d lost control. They canceled the memorial and we walked out of school and marched in the middle of the street down California to Madison and down Madison downtown. We picked up hundreds, thousands of kids along the way–kids from Farragut joined us as we passed their school. Downtown we held a silent vigil, stood around for about two or three hours and then headed back to the community.

Back home, the parish priest, Father Dan Malette, called us over and tried to get us to talk people out of rioting. He tried to get us to put controls on the people, but we refused. We felt people had to vent their anger in any way they chose. The rioting began soon after on Madison and Kedzie, Roosevelt and Kedzie, and the four blocks in between.

That night after the fires started, the sky was totally red. It was a night when there was no night. Five or six of us went out to see what was going on–not to join in the looting but to see what was happening.

Some establishments made the mistake of hiring so-called gang members as security guards, but as it got later, they themselves became the perpetrators. They had it both ways. They were looting the stores they were paid to guard. Some businesses took advantage of the riot to hire guys to burn their places down. I know because several acquaintances made money this way. I was approached by a friend to help torch a place.

The looting started out with the streeters, the guys on the corner, but when they started coming home with cases of sneakers, people of all ages and descriptions started getting into it. What was done was not being done in the name of Dr. King. It was done by opportunists who took advantage of a situation and soon they were joined by others who saw the stores open and started to get what they could.

Where were the cops? A number of cops could be seen hiding. There was no zeal to stop the looting or make arrests.

Later, after the National Guard came in, lots of people were picked up, innocent and guilty–indiscriminate arrests. Families and others couldn’t get in touch with people for weeks afterward. They were locked up and taken all over the city.

The riots destroyed the economic base of the Kedzie-Roosevelt area; there still is no economic base. We still feel the repercussions. But looking back, I would tell my grandchildren not to look back in shame. Even though many view it as blacks burning their own neighborhoods, it was not that way. Blacks were striking back at anything convenient, anything in their immediate environment, anything that represented white institutions. We shouldn’t be ashamed; we have suffered the repercussions of the riots for years afterward. But we should not be ashamed.”

–Interview by Hank De Zutter


Chris Chandler was a Sun-Times reporter in April of 1968. He had joined the paper in ’64 and on the side had been active in Dr. King’s Chicago housing campaign and in the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy. Late in ’68, he and several other young reporters (including Hank De Zutter and Ron Dorfman), disappointed with their employers’ coverage of the Democratic Convention riots, founded the Chicago Journalism Review to monitor and criticize the city’s establishment media. He left the Sun-Times in ’69 and founded the Daily Planet, an alternative biweekly, in 1977. He served for two years as Mayor Harold Washington’s deputy press secretary and is now the consulting editor of the New Patriot.

“My father [the Reverend Edgar Chandler, director of the Church Federation of Greater Chicago], my mother, my two sisters and their husbands, and my little brother were living on the west side, as part of an effort sponsored by the Ecumenical Institute in integrated living. They were the only whites living in an all-black community–what is called the Fifth City area.

When they saw flames down the street that Friday, they got worried and walked down to the church that was the center of the Ecumenical Institute. They joined lay people there in prayer. A group of black men came into the church, told the people to leave, and said they were going to burn the church down because it was a white institution. One of the men was a community leader, Doug Andrews, who recognized my father. He took him aside and told him to take the women and children and leave. They fled to the Eisenhower Expressway, flagged down a cab, and headed to the Loop, where they spent the night at a YMCA.

The group of black men set fire to the wastebaskets in the church, but police and firemen arrived before a larger fire could start. Later the next week, Andrews and the others were indicted for burning down other white-controlled institutions; it turned out that one of the ringleaders of the crew was an undercover policeman.

During the trial, Doug Andrews asked my dad to come from Worcester, Massachusetts, to testify as one of his character witnesses. My dad agreed to do it, and this blew the state’s case against Andrews and the others.

The arrest of Andrews and the others was used by Daley to try to prove that the riots were planned, and not spontaneous, and–though no one wants to say it–there was a pattern to the riots. The pattern of burning shows that it was mostly white institutions–white-owned stores, etc–that were looted and burned. It wasn’t blacks burning their own houses and stores down. People out there say there was a kind of joy in the crowds on the streets of the west side that night. You can call it a dance of death, but that’s a simple way to look at it. There was something deeper there. It was the first step in the political independence of the black community.”

–Interview by Hank De Zutter


Jack Kramer grew up on the west side, in Lawndale. At the time of the riots he was operating a currency exchange on Pulaski near Adams in West Garfield Park. Now 70, he is retired and lives with his wife in Skokie.

“I went into business with my currency exchange in 1956. The neighborhood was mostly Irish, Italian, and Jewish at that time. Hillbillies were moving in, and Mexicans. The blacks were congregated up on Roosevelt Road, and they didn’t come past the [Eisenhower] Expressway until a few years later. The neighborhood was changing slowly but surely. By the time the riots came the area was 99 percent black. Most of my customers and all my employees were black.

The day after King was shot started out regular. Nothing untoward was happening. I was working there in the morning, and people were coming in. But I noticed that the cars outside were riding with their lights on.

Then I got a call from a currency exchange guy over on Madison, and he said, “How is it up by you?” And I said, “Nothing’s up.” He said, “Well, they broke in my front window, but I’m still doing business. People are coming in to cash their checks, though I’m getting a little jumpy. In a little while I’m going to move on.” So I called the guy with a currency exchange on the other side of the expressway, and I asked him, “Howie, how you doing?” He said, “It’s getting a little rough around here.”

On the street I was seeing people running back and forth, carrying pieces of furniture and TV sets. It was open season on any article that was in a store window; those iron bars didn’t make much difference. The police came in, with a lot of squad cars.

My son Steve came in to help me after his college classes, and I said, “Steve, you shouldn’t have come here.” He said he was there and we’d go home together. “You go get the car,” I told him, “and pull it up in front–and when we leave, we’ll leave.” Well, I made a call over to Madison Street–my friend there had already left–and I made another call to another exchange on Madison, and the guy there said he was getting ready to go.

There was a black man who used to do carpentry work for me, and I asked him if he’d help me leave. I started taking my money and putting it into boxes, and this man would help me get it out to the car. I took everything out of the safe in terms of cash and paper money. I had a lot of change that day, so I jammed as much as I could of the coins-it amounted to about $1,000–into the safe. The money orders I had to leave.

The route north toward home was different than usual. I was afraid to drive down Independence Boulevard or Pulaski Road. Jackson Boulevard seemed to be open, so I took it as far west as I could go, to Austin. This was two or three o’clock in the afternoon. I headed north. You could see the fires, the smoke. I was very, very scared, and I asked my son and he was scared, too. I took the money to the Lincoln National Bank. I deposited the money and got rid of the Kennedy silver dollars I had been collecting, turning them in at face value.

It was days before I thought about going back, but after I figured the riot had cooled down some I called this guy who lived upstairs. I said, “How does it look there?” He said, “Jack, don’t even think of coming back. It’s just madness out here; I’m afraid to go out in the street myself. There’s canceled money orders from your store strewn all over the street. I even seen an old lady walking out of your store with things in a box. Everybody joined in.”

Going back I almost cried. The building itself was not torched, thank God, but they did break into the store, and wrecked it. They broke the front window and got into the cage through some mesh at the top. Must have been a kid who climbed over and opened the door from the inside. Someone also broke in the back door. My money orders were gone, but they didn’t do much damage to the safe. That sucker was made out of concrete and steel–it was a good safe.

I was scared. I had a silent partner, and I went out to see him one day. I said, “I’m not sure I want to keep the business going.” But I made up my mind to do that, and within a month I was open again. Nobody even mentioned the fact that there was a riot. They were glad to see me back, and that was it. No animosity; in fact, a lot of them had been put out ’cause they’d had to go out of the neighborhood to get to a currency exchange, and they couldn’t cash their checks because nobody knew them.

I did reinforce the place. Instead of a back door I put in a little escape hatch.

Afterwards, people were found cashing my blank money orders as far away as Alabama. There was one particular guy arrested in the store during the rioting. His case came up in court. I was sitting next to this young black fellow, 19 or 20 years old. The case was called; he went up, and I went up. Later I started to talk to him. I said, “What possessed you to go in there?” He says, “Everybody else was, so I figured, I can get some of the stuff, too. But I couldn’t get anything–I couldn’t get into the safe.”

After a while the neighborhood deteriorated even more. One day you would see a building, the next day it would be vacant, with everything flapping out the windows. I had to have a special guard to meet me in the morning to come in with me, and at night he would come again. Finally, though I was making a good living, I said to myself this isn’t worth it. The second exchange I bought at Broadway and Cornelia was doing great, so I put the west-side exchange up for sale, and I got a very good price. That was seven years ago. The day I walked out I was very happy.”

–Interview by Grant Pick


Eva Magee still owns and runs the corner grocery store at 15th and Lawndale where her husband, Woodrow, was shot in the chest 20 years ago during the riots. He recovered from his wound and lived until February 1987, when he succumbed to bone cancer at age 73. Eva lives behind the grocery, in the same apartment she and Woodrow had shared since 1962, when they bought the building.

“The disturbance began in the afternoon. Young people just seemed to have lost their heads. They started turning over cars. But people knew the worst was yet to come. A neighbor came into the store and said the word was out they were going to burn the stores, the schools, whatever. We was just hoping that it wouldn’t reach this area.

We had these big double doors in front then, and we were looking out through them–me, my husband, and my niece, Antoinette, who was a teenager. We saw so many people who had been looting–carrying food, clothes from the stores on 16th Street. They had an opportunity–all the stores on 16th Street had closed early, and on Roosevelt Road also, and there was no police patrolling the area, ’cause they were afraid too.

We saw some fellows on a porch on the next block with torches lighted. I knew that torches meant something, and it wasn’t good. There was a family who lived upstairs here, and one of them was a boy named, Herman. The boys on the porch saw Herman as he came into this building, and they yelled, “Herman, do you live there?” “Yes.” Well, whether they planned to actually set this store on fire I don’t know. But we said if they did, perhaps after finding out that Herman lived in the building, that may have been what changed their minds.

We closed early because you couldn’t see after dark–the fires had started and they had affected the current. We lit candles in the rear. We watched out the front doors a long time. You could see the smoke coming from 16th Street. I got tired of standing there and I went back and I said I’m gonna fix a bed so we can all sleep in the same room tonight. And before I did that I prayed, and I asked the Lord’s protection for us for the night. Just as I finished my prayers the phone rang. One of my neighbors who lived on the next block had called to ask if she and her children could come spend the night here, because the fires on 16th Street were getting close to where they lived. I told her she could.

By the time I hung up the phone, my husband and my niece came to the rear where I was, and he said, “Antoinette, are you hit?” She says no. He said, “Well, I’m hit.” They said some boys had pulled up across the street, and one of them reached into his pocket and pulled out a pistol and shot two or three times. And then kept on going. The door panels was very thick, but that bullet somehow ricocheted through them and it struck him way back where he was leaning against the bubble gum machines.

I said, “We must get out of here tonight. I must get you to a hospital.” He said, “No, we’ll have to wait until morning.” I said, “Oh, no, that cannot wait.” We had tried to call neighbors that afternoon, and we couldn’t even get a dial tone, the traffic was so heavy on the phone. But when this happened, I said, “Lord, enable me to get the police station.” I picked up the phone, I held it one or two minutes, and then I was able to get through. I knew God answered prayers–that somehow he would take care of us.

They took us in a squad car to Mount Sinai. The doctors said one of his lungs had been punctured. We got there around ten o’clock, just before the big crowd, and he was carried up right away. While I was in the waiting room, there was so many people who came in with all kinds of injuries.

One of the nurses was kind enough to bring me home the next morning. Our store was all right–my neighbor had stayed there with her kids, and her brother had stayed in the store as a lookout. But on Roosevelt Road, it looked like a holocaust–just like the world was coming to an end. Just nothing left but smoke. That one night left a lot of vacant lots. They’re still vacant.

It was senseless, that’s all, just senseless. Just some dumb people didn’t know any better. Just wanted some excitement. It didn’t bring him [King] back to life. No one here killed him, it was down in Memphis. Down south, so many miles from here. It didn’t prove a thing. Just hurt so many innocent people.”

–Interview by Steve Bogira


Dick Criley and his wife, Florence, were progressive activists who had been living in Lawndale, at 1845 S. Keeler, for about 15 years, and were among a very few white people still living on the west side when the riots occurred. Dick was executive director of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights and Florence was an international representative for the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers. Both were active in neighborhood organizations, block club councils, and anti-Machine independent politics. Florence died in 1976 and Dick moved to California, to a house his family has owned since 1917 in the Carmel Highlands north of Big Sur. “It’s a considerable change from Keeler Avenue,” he notes. At age 77, he is still active in progressive causes and has been executive director of the Monterey County ACLU for the past ten years.

“What was unusual in our experience was the degree to which our neighbors became a protective army around Florence and me. By that time there were virtually no white residents left in that area. I remember black neighbors coming by every hour or so. They’d ask if we were OK and if there were errands they could do for us so we wouldn’t have to go out. We did continue to go to work, and there was one experience Florence had. She was driving south on Pulaski–and at that time cars with white drivers were in many cases being hassled, people were being dragged out of cars at stoplights, being pulled off buses. Florence was stopped at an intersection, and three young men got into the car, one on the driver’s side, who pushed her down on the floor. He knew her name and said, “Florence, get down.” They drove her home and said, “OK, get into the house.” We never learned who he was. The one little incident that happened: while our adult neighbors were so careful about us, the little children couldn’t sort things out and they threw rocks at me that morning as I walked to the el station. These were tiny children.

I remember going to one meeting near Madison and Pulaski, and these were people I knew. They were expecting some people coming from another area. Finally Sammy Rayner [an independent black alderman] said, “Look, I better take you home before these other guys come.” So for a period following there was a considerable upsurge of black nationalism with hostility toward whites. There were debates between people who were followers of Dr. King and some of the more nationalist leaders who were saying, this just shows that nonviolence doesn’t work. This was appealing to some of the young blacks, and I remember talking with some of them and saying, morally I don’t disagree, but you got your peashooters up on the roof and they’ve got helicopters and guns, and what are you gonna accomplish with your peashooters?

There was such profound distress that I had long arguments with even some very close personal friends about violence being the wrong weapon to use. The black independents with whom I was working on the west side, including Danny Davis, had been waging contests in election after election and were gaining some ground, but it was very hard on the west side because the Democratic Machine was merged with the crime syndicate and our candidates were likely to be subject to assassination attacks. One of our candidates was in fact shot, and that didn’t help us attract people to the cause.

We made increasing showings, and [in 1972] when Nixon ran and Hanrahan was on the Democratic party ticket, I worked in seven precincts and McGovern carried 97 percent and Carey better than 60 percent. [Police attached to the office of State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan had killed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. Bernard Carey was his Republican opponent in ’72.] For Operation Split Ballot, headed by Richard Barnett, we spent weeks going around showing people how to split the ballot, after generations of pulling the straight-ticket lever.

People who were part of the Daley Machine were actually helping on the qt in that campaign, so the loyalty to the Machine was not that strong. In ’68 the Machine was still pretty dominant. It took a while. Its strength did not lie in any deep-rooted feeling in the community; Daley was not that popular on the west side. When he did something like that [issue the “shoot to kill” order], there were lots of activists denouncing him, but the Machine’s power was not based on Daley’s popularity, it was based on buying votes, patronage, and doing favors for people.

In one election I was an observer for one of the independent black candidates. I always took the worst precincts. At one time they arranged for the police officer to be absent. Three guys came in and stood there and eyed me. And when they left the precinct captain said, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes; we don’t appreciate white people coming in and telling us what to do. Just then two big fat guys from [29th Ward Committeeman Bernie] Neistein’s machine came in and started berating him about how he was not getting out enough votes. Later he gave me a ride home and he was fairly sympathetic on a personal basis; he, and others like him, worked for the Machine but in their hearts they knew they were not serving the black community.

[After the riots] there was a wave of fires in white-owned businesses, some of which at least was an insurance scam. Pretty soon most of the white businesses left. I lived near a little shopping strip on Kedzie that had been Italian–bakeries, meat markets, and so on. They tried to stay on, but they weren’t making a living. The people had different tastes, and the community had become so much poorer.

The anger in the riots was kind of a flash point, setting off the explosion, but there had been an accumulating grievance toward the white community building up in the black community. I remember going to a big meeting; Wesley South was running for ward committeeman and I was campaign managing for him, we went to this meeting with about 200 people, and speaker after speaker was lambasting whites, and then I got up and made a speech and people hadn’t noticed that there was a white person in the room, and after I spoke there wasn’t any more of that talk. I didnt make reference to it.

I sat in political meetings where some guys articulating that black-power, antiwhite stuff would not take notice that I was there; they’d talk right through me. Then one of them called me a couple months later and asked me to help him. The antiwhite rhetoric was purely expedient.

Black friends of mine were visited by these guys saying, Harry, you’re too friendly to the Crileys. In one case, a friend of ours kicked them out and said, they’re blacker than you are.

Being a white person sharing the work that progressives believed in on the west side, some guys would go through the act of denouncing you but it didn’t hang on. When the street gangs were very involved in things, the Reverend C.T. Vivian was articulating for this coalition, which included the street gangs, that proclaimed a curfew on the west side, where no white person was to be allowed after 6 PM or after sundown or whatever it was, and I called C.T. and said, this is a problem, how the hell do I get home? And he said, oh hell, this isn’t about you.

The profound agony of the assassination was so deep and so personal that the most nonviolent people were ready for violence against whites. White people were being pulled off buses along Pulaski Road. There was a guy named Alex Dychacowsky, a Ukrainian who spoke with an accent and who was always defending blacks in the Ukrainian community. He got attacked and was in the hospital, and when he came out all bandaged up his neighbors said, Alex, now have you changed your mind about blacks? And he said no, the anger is understandable.

But his neighbors were almost delighted that he’d got beat up by these people he was always defending–justifying their own racist attitudes, which is the other side of the black-white chasm in Chicago.”

–Interview by Ron Dorfman


Ben W. Heineman Jr. was a Sun-Times reporter in 1968, taking a year off between Oxford University, where he had been a Rhodes scholar, and Yale Law School. He’d been one of the top editors of the daily Harvard Crimson and had worked summers for Time magazine in London. His byline tagged him as the son of Ben W. Heineman, chairman of Northwest Industries and one of Chicago’s most important business and civic leaders. After law school, he clerked for associate justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court, then became a public-interest lawyer in Washington. He later served as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, working on national health-care and welfare-reform proposals (“the assistant secretary for lost causes”) in the Carter administration. His 1980 book Memorandum for the President on how to organize the domestic presidency, was well received. Last year, after several years of private practice in the Washington office of Sidley & Austin, he was named senior vice president and general counsel of the General Electric Corporation.

“King was shot Thursday night, April 4. I was with my family–it was my niece’s birthday–and we flicked on the news and there was this horrendous bulletin. The next morning everybody I arrived early at the Sun-Times and about 11 or 12 o’clock we had reports of vandalism downtown. Indeed some kids had come from the west side and defaced some signs and broken some windows. I covered that action and went back to the office to write a memo for the desk, and somebody said “Look at the west side!” From the window we could see a plume of black smoke rising from the west side. I was immediately dispatched with a black photographer to West Madison Street. There was already a lot of frenzied activity; I don’t know if you’d call it a riot, but we both felt insecure. There was a certain amount of looting and civil disorder in the street. I tried to talk to some of the kids but it was impossible. After a couple of hours it was clear the civil disorder was just beginning.

I went back and filed a memo, and then was sent to go into the riot areas with the National Guard, which was convening at the armory on the south side. I was in the lead jeep going into the west side led by a black colonel named Earl Strayhorn [now a Cook County Circuit Court judge]. It was about 10 PM, and there was no action by the Guard. The convoy rolled up and down West Madison Street. Buildings were burned out and windows broken. We imagined we heard gunfire, but who knows? And then we spent the night sleeping in the Chicago Stadium; it was cold, and some of the guys slept in the washrooms under the hand blowers for warmth.

There was little contact between the Guard and the citizens of the west side, but by that time there were some fires. I remember being more afraid of the National Guard guys behind me than of the people on the street. They were college or graduate students and were pretty scared and inexperienced; you’d hear them saying things like, how do we load these guns?

On Saturday morning I wrote a big feature for Sunday on the black colonel leading the Guard into the west side. Francis Ward and I put a memo to the editors on the bulletin board on Saturday, saying we really have to try to balance the coverage and tell the story of this event from the perspective of the blacks, because we were doing the classic “What are these people doing?” kind of coverage, rather than letting the story be told through the eyes of those involved. The memo disappeared from the bulletin board shortly, and I then got a lecture from management about doing these things privately.

On Sunday I covered the south side, where more disturbances had broken out. The Rangers and Disciples [the two major south-side street gangs] agreed on a truce, at that famous meeting on the Midway. Then I also did some reporting on the Army troops on 63rd Street, an Airborne unit. These guys were serious, this was not the National Guard: many of them were black, just back from Vietnam, and not happy with what they were doing. There was a lot of sullenness and anger about the shooting of Dr. King and they were unhappy about being assigned to bring peace to the south side of Chicago.

I then spent the next few weeks reviewing the deaths. We were following the example of the Detroit Free Press, which in 1967 had won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Detroit riots; they had done a profile of everyone who got killed: who were these people, how did they die? Joel Havemann and I did the reporting and Jon Anderson wrote the piece, “The Nine Who Died.”

Joel took the south side, I took the west side. I just happened to piece together that all four of the west-side people had died within about a two-hour period on Friday night. So what started out as a news feature became a different kind of story.

There was no question in my mind that there was a high likelihood that police in unmarked cars had fired indiscriminately, resulting in the deaths of four persons, and there was a high likelihood of serious misuse of deadly force. High in the story we raised all these questions based on our reporting. My recollection is that the morning the story appeared, under a huge front-page headline, Mayor Daley came out of Mass, read the story, got very upset, and, in an attempt to defend the police, said that in a civil disorder they should “shoot to kill, shoot to maim”–which in itself led to renewed tension and ultimately contributed to the later police riot at the Democratic Convention.

As a result of the riot, there was the civic commission [the Chicago Riot Study Commission]. I was then interviewed by a lawyer from Isham Lincoln & Beale, who was looking at the behavior of the Police Department. And I had copious notes and I gave him the whole file; there was nothing confidential there. As a result the commissions report said there was a serious question whether the four individuals on the west side had been killed through improper police activity.

But then the whole issue disappeared. The mayor referred it to the police internal investigations division and nothing ever came of it. And the Sun-Times, for whatever reason, stopped pursuing it. You would expect a paper that had done that reporting, which was then accepted by an official commission, would follow up.

The four west-side deaths were sad cases. One was a slightly retarded boy, another had nine kids, and another was killed while walking with his wife in an alley to avoid the disturbances.

The backdrop to this was the “backlash” [white ethnic resentment against the political gains of the civil rights movement]–and there was discussion whether members of the Police Department, given the occasion, whether these very antiblack cops took the occasion to go on a killing spree. The hypothesis was there between the lines of our story. All I could do was walk around and talk to people for two weeks, and could only raise questions, not nail down answers. There were no uniforms, just an unmarked police car with white men carrying shotguns. And four people killed in a four-block area in the space of two hours.

It’s not even clear that all nine deaths were riot connected. But there’s no question about the four on the west side.

A paperweight in my office today, and I’m very proud of it, is my Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick o’ Type Award for 1968 shared with Joel and Jon.”

–Interview by Ron Dorfman


Danny Davis, now alderman of the 29th Ward, was a west-side schoolteacher at the time King was assassinated. His school, the Magellan Educational and Vocational Guidance Center, was for “overaged, emotionally distraught, difficult-to-handle kids,” he says, and nearly all his students joined in the rioting. Davis remembers Lawndale in 1968 as a densely populated community with “every conceivable social problem that existed in urban America.” King “had given people in an area like that a tremendous level of hope that something might happen. There was a fair level of activism–community organizers were running all around, meetings were held, and there were signs of unrest all over the place.”

“When we went to school that morning the kids were unusually restless. There was tension in the air. Even before then there had been false fire alarms and kids walking out of school. But this day–the day after King was shot–I guess by ten o’clock for all practical purposes the kids had decided they were leaving. They just started to leave, milling around. Mostly there were the “why” questions. Around 11 o’clock we had determined we should close school down.

A group of us were out on the streets recommending that kids go home. By the time I headed for home, there was sporadic looting and rioting beginning to take place. By mid- to late afternoon, it had gotten serious–and all over the place. A number of us initially were trying to steer individuals away from what they were doing: “Why don’t you go home? Let’s not break into the store.” By evening it became clear that was not going to work.

By the time it went into high gear, there was a certain amount of glee you could see on the faces of people in the streets. They appeared to feel they were tearing down buildings, tearing down stores, and actually breaking the bonds of oppression, that they were freeing themselves from the shackles of hopelessness and helplessness. It was like a frenzied holiday.

It was interesting to observe how easily people got caught up in it, people one would not have expected. I saw people I knew looting stores, doing things uncharacteristic of their behavior. I remember riding with a friend to observe what was happening. People weren’t observing traffic laws. I said, “You ran a light. The police will get you.” And he said, “We’re the police.” I think he meant we’re making the rules. It was an eerie feeling, but at the same time I was hoping that something positive might happen as a result, that changes might occur.

It caused me to go public with my life. At the end of that year I left teaching and went to work as director of a community organization, the Greater Lawndale Conservation Commission. The connection was the thought that I could be a bit more effective addressing the problems and needs that brought on the riots as a public being than as a private being. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

–Interview by David Moberg


Dianne Morgan, 33, an administrative assistant with the Illinois Department of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, still lives near Madison and Pulaski, where she lived at the time of the riots. A 13-year-old then, she was one of the hordes of neighborhood residents who descended on Madison Street stores and picked them clean. On Madison, she saw a police officer shoot to death the man who rented the apartment above her family’s–Cyrus Hartfield, 32, one of nine people who died in the riots, all of them black.

“My mother had woke me up that evening when they started rioting. I seen people running everywhere, coming back with all kinds of merchandise–radios, TVs, clothes. And after that, next thing was just getting out there and doing it, cause everybody else was.

We [Morgan and some friends] went up on Madison. It was like a war–buildings burning, people running all over. They had broken up all the store windows where you could get at the stuff. There were people with trucks–those were the ones getting the furniture and TVs. I didn’t know exactly what was happening–you get in there, and your head is just flowing different directions, you don’t know what to look around at, it was just so much happening around me. It was like caught up in a whirlwind–you just went along with it. You didnt think about the consequences–I could have been the one that got shot, but you didn’t think about that then.

I got some shoes–about six or seven boxes, ’cause you can only carry so much in your hands. We came back and we was in a vacant lot, and a policeman yelled, “Halt” to some people. And he [Cyrus Hartfield] didn’t. And the policeman shot him. I froze when I seen him fall, and then I ran back and told my mother so she could tell the lady upstairs. And then they found out he was dead.

Then some of my friends came back, and my mother sent us back up there [to Madison Street]. Carried some lamps back. I just gave them to my mother, let her put them in her house. But if there was anything I could sell, like shoes too big for me, we would sell it. We went even that next day, still looting, taking shit back and forth.

It [the looting] hurt us in the neighborhood in the long run, because prices went up on a whole lot of things, but–it didn’t matter then. For that matter, it’s always been difficult for us. So if it get a little harder, so what, at least we got a little piece of it sitting up in our house or we got a little change in our pocket.

That riot really tripped off a lot of things in the neighborhood. After that, when trucks would come down here, people’d jump on the backs of ’em, throw the merchandise out, and then somebody was there to pick it up. The gangbanging, the fighting, the robberies–all this kicked in afterward. It’s like something get into your blood and then you execute it out–where you did it once, it wouldn’t be no thing for you to do it again.

When the riot started, it was just a retaliation. We had just lost something real valuable, just like if you had a diamond and then the main piece of it’s gone. It was our way of getting back at the white man. And what other way did we have? Nothing. It started out in anger because of the fact that King died. But later on it was, “Why not?” It was a way to get some money.”

–Interview by Steve Bogira


Renault Robinson was a 26-year-old policeman assigned to the west-side Marquette district in 1968 when the riots broke out. Within one month he and five other black officers formed the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League (AAPL); Robinson remained the league’s director, spokesman, and mainstay during an eight-year battle in federal court, the result of which was the imposition, in 1976, of hiring and promotional quotas for minorities and women on the Chicago Police Department. Later, he served as chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, resigning in 1987 in the wake of crisis and controversy. Robinson is now a free-lance business consultant.

“My partner Frank Lee and I were working the area around Pulaski and 16th where some of the worst rioting was going on. It was impossible to maintain any kind of order by ourselves. You felt helpless while people burned down everything. I saw a gang tear the burglar bars out of the foundation of a store, break in, just drag all the merchandise out–and the safe too! We were told not to use guns, and we couldn’t have gotten help if we tried to effect an arrest, because the same thing was going on everywhere.

Frank and I were taking a lot of pictures of the uprising on orders from the department. We got word that a guy on Kedzie was using his second-floor apartment as a storage area for stolen TVs. When we went there and rang the bell, he fired a shot right through the door. The bullet hit Frank in the chest. He was lucky. The injury wasn’t too serious but he was out of commission for a while. It turned out the guy thought we were gang members coming to swipe his stuff, and he wasn’t about to let it go.

Well, the police command started getting us organized into big squads of cops, maybe 50 of us at a time with two or three sergeants, and we were told to clear the streets. So we’d just sweep down a block and grab everybody and fill up the police wagons. I mean everybody. It was like going down the aisle of a supermarket and grabbing food off the shelf and throwing it in your cart. It didn’t matter who was guilty and who wasn’t. Everybody got written up.

When the burning continued, the firemen got scared they would be fired on if they answered any more alarms. So they refused to respond. [Later, after the rioting subsided], Daley issued his shoot-to-kill-arsonists and shoot-to-maim-looters order. That was an obscene thing to do. He was telling the police to maim looters! Now a lot of what happened on the west side had been petty thef– kids picking stuff off the street or out of the ashes of some building. Even if they were arrested and found guilty, the most they’d get would be a fine: $25 or something. And Daley said it’s OK to maim these people. That’s racism at its height, a horrible situation.

I was really concerned that we’d have a wanton slaughter of blacks. Because I knew the attitude of low esteem white police had toward blacks, especially young blacks. With the mayor’s sanction, there would be no restraint on these guys, nothing to hold them back.

Fortunately, the reaction to that order from all over the country forced the mayor and superintendent to back down.

When we realized how close we came to a wholesale slaughter, about five of us began meeting, and we formed the AAPL. First, we wanted to change the relationship between the Police Department and the black community. You know, most blacks looked on the department as an army of occupation, akin to what they’ve got in South Africa. The riots made that attitude worse. Second, we wanted to improve the relationship between black and white cops. Most of us felt like second-class citizens. And third, we hoped to cut down on the petty bribery and corruption on the force–to reform the department at its weakest point.

Pretty soon we realized we couldn’t just take the racism out of the white guys; we had to dilute it by getting more minorities on the force, women on the force, and in positions of responsibility. That’s where the lawsuit [first filed in 1970] comes in. Well, I endured a campaign of harassment organized by the police high command for six years. Life became almost unlivable. I can tell you a lot of black cops backed off when they saw what was going down. I can still remember when they put together a whole list of bogus charges and tried to dismiss me from the force. That was a tough whack. [Robinson was suspended without pay for a year in 1970 several months after filing the suit but returned to duty unrepentant the following year.]

Some cops stayed with us, and despite the casualties we won the case. I think the department today better reflects the community it’s serving. It’s approaching 50 percent minority and 6 percent women. Blacks are getting promoted, so there’s more respect for the police in the black community. I’m glad to say the old system is gone, the old racist diehards are gone. Leroy Martin was an AAPL member who let everyone know it in the old days, a street cop who was honest and hardworking. Now he’s the superintendent. That’s something!

Relationships between black and white officers have improved just because minorities have gotten into important roles in the department, including policy-making. And women have brought a kind of humanization to the force. The old white, male, macho ideal doesn’t rule anymore.

As for eliminating corruption, I think we failed. It’s not the wild west out there in the streets, but a lot of police bribery and collusion goes on with the big-time narcotics activity.

None of us knew what we were getting into back in 1968. We just believed a patently racist system couldn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely, not with a sure bloodbath waiting just around the corner.”

–Interview by Robert McClory


Arthur Mooradian, 60, is an associate of the noted criminal defense lawyer Allan Ackerman. In the mid-60s he was an attorney in the corporation counsel’s ordinance enforcement section, which monitored marches and demonstrations. His supervisor was Richard Elrod, who later became Cook County sheriff. Mooradian recalls saying, when he signed on with the city, that he was looking for a job with action. He found it.

“Our department would charge people with violations of city ordinances–what were called quasi-criminal laws. In other words, it would fall under our jurisdiction to prosecute people for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, obstruction of traffic, obstruction of a police officer, things like that. What we wanted to do was to control disobedience in the streets, to back up our police. If there were more serious charges coming from the state’s attorney, we would consolidate them with our charges and try everything together.

Before the riots, we worked on the open-housing marches and so on, and with civil rights leaders like Al Raby and Dick Gregory involved it was always very friendly. We would march every night with someone like Dick Gregory till two or three in the morning, for 90 days straight. I’d ask Gregory on a Friday night, “Listen, I want to go play cards tonight. What time are you going to quit?” Then Gregory’d ask me when the card game was, and I’d say at eight o’clock. He’d say, “OK, be ready to go at seven. When you see me disappear, you know it’s over.”

When the King riots hit, on that Friday, I was in a police car with my assigned driver. We were at 26th and California on something or other, and we were hearing on the radio that kids were walking out of the high schools. We pulled up in front of the County Building, on Clark Street. There was a bunch of high school kids in the Civic Center, harassing people, and this traffic officer gets in a fight with my driver about some fool parking ticket. The traffic guy just didn’t realize what was happening, but nobody really did, I guess.

I went up into the office, and then out to near the University of Chicago, ’cause we had gotten word that gangs were facing each other on the Midway. One was Jeff Fort’s gang. The two gangs stood there for an hour, and then Fort’s group headed off toward 63rd Street. I’m talking 3,000 young men coming underneath the el, the full length of the street, and the glass all broken in all the stores. Some police lieutenant wanted them to get up on the sidewalk, to walk peacefully. I remember I had a meeting with a person I’m sure now was Jeff Fort. The irony is that he was very reasonable. He agreed to empty out half of 63rd Street, just to show he was willing to cooperate with the police.

Afterwards I got in the car and got out of there as fast as I could.

We next went to the Maxwell Street station, near Roosevelt Road. We were trying to keep everyone out of the area where the riot was, so we could contain it. The police I saw weren’t going in there–the cops were four men to a car, with helmets on, but if they drove in they would have gotten pelted with rocks. Going in were the reverends and the social workers, people who had rapport out on Madison Street going west. We stayed on the periphery, hoping that these community workers would go in there and calm everybody down. The streets were closed–nobody in, nobody out. We stayed in the station, but when somebody wanted us we would jump in the car and be there inside of seconds. We were couriers. The real decisions were being made in City Hall all night.

The people who were arrested we had to process at 11th and State. The bond hearings took place that very night. We had state’s attorneys there, too, to handle serious charges like mob violence. It was a long night. I remember lying on a bench in a courtroom waiting for people to be processed–they appeared in groups, and it took time to get enough of a group to bring in front of the judge, who was in his chambers sleeping, too. Food was ordered. Big boxes of sandwiches came for prisoners in the lockup, where they were waiting for their bond hearings. I hadn’t eaten myself. I ate the same food the prisoners ate, with nothing to drink but water from a fountain.

At 6:30 in the morning I drove home, showered, shaved, and then drove back to the courtroom because some of the cases were set for nine o’clock the next morning. The defense lawyers were starting to come in–Anna Langford, Kermit Coleman, Leo Holt, Jean Williams, and other civil rights lawyers of the day.

We had to learn to distinguish which cases were serious ones and which were simply reactions to the tragedy. Most were dismissed out, with a continuance and a discharge. The motive for the riot was a sympathetic one, and lots of leniency was shown. You relied on the defense lawyers to tell you, “Look, this guy is a good kid. He hasnt done anything. He got picked up in a sweep.” Those cases that we didn’t work out we tried, but everybody was trying to calm things down, not to compound the tragedy. I If someone was looting a store or burning it down, I could not see how this fulfilled the ideals of Martin Luther King. But the kid who was swept along, that’s the guy you have to have sympathy for. The whole neighborhood is out of control, and he’s going to react like his elders are reacting.

The underlying factor that caused the riot had the sympathy of a large section of the community. It wasn’t criminals doing wrong, but it was frustration being picked up by a mass of people. Here their leader got assassinated, and this frustration exploded over the United States. I understood what many of them were doing, and if I were them I’d be doing the same thing, even though I was a typical white guy who grew up in a white neighborhood, at Pulaski and Lawrence, who never had contact with black people.

That was a riot completely different from the others that we had. There was a mass of a community in a rage. It wasn’t like the Democratic Convention, where it was all ideological and political. Every disturbance has its own qualities, you know.”

–Interview by Grant Pick


Lawrence Kennon, 59, is an attorney presently with the Chicago firm of Jones Ware & Grenard, specializing in personal injury, contract, and business law. Soon after graduation from DePaul University Law School in 1956, he became active with the predominantly black Cook County Bar Association and the NAACP. During the next 25 years he represented scores of clients in racial discrimination and civil rights cases, while maintaining a relatively low public profile himself.

“When the riots started in April 1968, I had this feeling of deja vu–the same thing happening again. Back in the summer of 1958 I had been one of the lawyers involved in the effort to integrate Rainbow Beach. We had mass arrests there day after day, and we got a lot of experience. Almost every year after that there was something. From 1960 on, the protests over the Willis Wagons [the portable classrooms imposed on overcrowded black schools by school superintendent Ben Willis to maintain segregated education] led to hundreds of arrests. From 1965 on we had riots and other disturbances on the west side every summer. The courts were kept open in the evening to handle the overflow. Our defense operation was set up through the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, and like a lot of young lawyers I got to handle large numbers of defendants.

When Dr. King was killed, Kermit Coleman [since deceased] and I called the members of the group again and we went to work at the courts–at 26th and California and at the First District police headquarters, 11th and State. There were about 50 to 60 lawyers who worked constantly over that first weekend and into the following weeks. In particular, I remember Leo Holt [now a Cook County Circuit Court judge], Jean Williams [now a circuit court judge in Phoenix Arizona], Anna Langford [currently a Chicago alderman], Connie Toole [then the NAACP counsel], Jim Montgomery [later the Chicago corporation counsel], and a lot of others.

Besides, we had dozens of volunteers–movement people who came down to interview the arrested people and help process everyone. We needed help because people were being picked up in droves and piled into the lockups like cattle. In this huge mass you had very different categories of persons. You had some out in the street protesting the fact that Dr. King had been killed. And you had looters: people who picked up merchandise lying around in stores and on sidewalks. And of course you had real crooks out there, torching buildings and taking advantage of the situation. There were onlookers too, the curious who came just to see what was going on. Then, after the thing went on for a while, there were the protesters of the mass arrests and the brutality.

That’s a very diverse bunch of people all lumped together. The police, you see, just grabbed everyone in sight. In some cases whole families had been picked up, mother, father, and kids! Well, we tried to represent the arrested as they were called one by one before a judge for their bond hearings. Each case took only about 20 minutes. Most of the prosecutions were handled by just two city attorneys: Arthur Mooradian and Richard Elrod [later Cook County sheriff]. Mooradian was a decent man just doing his job; Elrod was something else.

For those with previous arrest records or with felony charges like arson, bail was set very high. The city wanted to keep them in custody. For others with no records or minor charges like disturbing the peace, they might have to put up only $200 or so. Of course, there was no question of anyone being found not guilty. During the riots the judges went solely on the written charges of the arresting officers. Through the NAACP and the Roger Baldwin Fund [of the American Civil Liberties Union], we were able to raise a lot of bond money, and everyone was released eventually, though some stayed in jail for several weeks. I remember we never got a lot of that money back.

In the following weeks and months we tried to represent the people when their cases came up for trial. I would be working full days at my regular law office, then going down to night court from like 8 PM to 1 AM for these other cases. People would ask me why I did it or how much I was charging. I’d say, you can’t pay me enough to work until 1 AM. No way! This was a cause, and we did what we could for free. That’s the only way we would do it.

I would say the whole judicial procedure was a kangaroo court. Justice was not meted out. Anyone alleged to be a looter was a looter. Three cops would appear at the trial maybe three months after the mass arrests and say, yeah, we all remember this one and that one, and we saw them do such and such a thing. And you knew darn well they couldn’t tell one of those persons from another or who was guilty of what!

The judges didn’t try to be fair or impartial. There was this aura of “we versus them” because of the harsh stance of Mayor Daley. The judges and the police were part of it. One associate judge, Maurice Lee [since deceased], stands out in my recollection as being particularly racist. I’ve always been a calm, mild-mannered man, and the only time I ever lost my temper in court was before him. I was charged with contempt. Another judge, Dan White [now a Cook County supervising judge], would at least listen to the defendants and made some effort to be fair. So he stood out from the rest.

Seeing the way guilty sentences were handed out, we’d often settle for a plea-bargain arrangement. The client got probation instead of a jail sentence. That was often about the best we could do.

In the long run, I don’t think the riot experience did much to disillusion the black community about the court system. Black people knew all along that justice meant “just us” for whites and “not us” for blacks. So nobody was surprised.

Today I believe the system as a whole is less racist because of the presence of more black judges and because of the change in rules that prevents prosecutors from using their peremptory challenge to dismiss black jurors. Also, the administration of Harold Washington affected everything in this city, including the way judges handle cases. Washington had such influence that if the word got around that some judge was racist, there was a genuine chance he wouldn’t be retained by the voters. I don’t know if that will continue in the new administration.

The problem of racism is still around. If you asked in 1960 where racial discrimination was most prevalent in Chicago, the answer would be: education, housing, and jobs. Ask that question today and you’ll get the same answer: education, housing, and jobs. The big difference is that in the old days discrimination was more open, more overt, easier to attack. Now it’s harder to get at.”

–Interview by Robert McClory


Jim Griggs surveyed the riots as special assistant to Deton Brooks, who was head of the city’s antipoverty Program and the highest-ranking black in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration. He’s now an administrator at the City Colleges of Chicago.

When the heavy rioting started that afternoon, I was in Deton Brooks’s apartment in Marina City while he was preparing to go to the opera with his daughter. He got on the phone and urged Daley–even cursed at Daley–saying that he should get on TV and make a positive statement about King. Some people say Brooks was an Uncle Tom, but they should have heard him then. He was infuriated. He said to Daley something like, “Goddamn it you guys, can’t you get on the goddamn TV and say something?” He couldn’t believe that Mayor Daley wouldn’t do anything or say anything. Of course, by then it was too late anyway; the rioting, the burning and looting, had started.

Brooks went to the opera with his daughter. I went home to 115th Street, but as soon as I got there I had a message from Brooks to come back downtown and get ready to go with him into the riot area on the west side. Brooks was director of the Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity, the antipoverty program; he was called the Prince of Poverty. We went out that night to check on the antipoverty offices, called Urban Progress Centers. We had an identifiable city car with city plates and a driver, so we had little trouble getting into the riot area. Brooks made a wise decision to keep the centers open all through the riots. There was burning and looting all around the center on Kedzie and Madison, but the center itself was not touched.

I wasn’t afraid. I grew up around the area and I knew practically everyone. We were telling people not to loot, but they smiled and kept on looting. It was a carnival atmosphere, like a community celebration. People of all ages were grabbing everything they could. The riots started in a mood of anger, but they ended up in a mood of exhilaration.

There were so many fires on Roosevelt and Kedzie, it was like daylight out there. Again it seemed everything was either being broken into or burned down–even the welfare office was burning–but our own Urban Progress Centers were not touched.

The only real trouble we ran into that night was up around Cabrini-Green. We made the mistake of stopping next to a marked police car and started talking to the officers. Then we heard rifle fire. We were pinned down by a sniper. They were shooting at Cabrini-Green.

The next night, Saturday, we went out to the south side, Woodlawn and Englewood. Driving west on 63rd we saw the darndest thing: we saw cops loading up their cars with boxes of liquor. People were looting a tavern, and the cops were participating. Brooks got on the phone and told city officials that some of their own police officers ought to be checked out for looting. He was angry.

Looking back, the black community still has not recovered from the riots either in terms of the commercial areas or the housing stock destroyed. The riots wiped out a major shopping district at Kedzie and Roosevelt; it killed Lawndale. The pathetic thing is that shortly after the riots, we had to bring food and supplies in to the communities affected. There are still vast areas of the city–particularly the west side–where people have no place to get prescriptions filled. I don’t think we got any more minority businesses out of it; there are probably fewer black businessmen now than then. One thing, though, it was the first sign of independence–especially for the west side. Until then, everyone thought the west side was under tight control–what with the lopsided voting patterns and all. The riots were the first earmark of political independence–a movement that ultimately resulted in the election of the first black mayor.”

–Interview by Hank De Zutter


James Butler was a beat patrolman working out of the old Fillmore district, at Pulaski and Fillmore, when the riots began. A native of Jackson, Tennessee, he had been on the force for 11 years. Now 62, he still works the same turf, as the cop assigned to the Park District field house in Garfield Park.

“In the period before, when Martin Luther King was here walking through the different neighborhoods, I was in the walkalongs, the police protection, on the north side and on the south side. He was in our district quite often, him and Reverend Jesse Jackson. A lot of King’s followers stayed in a church at Warren and Albany; that was his headquarters when he was on the west side.

When King was shot, I was working a part-time job, in security. The afternoon of April 5, when the rioting got going, you could see smoke everywhere, and I said to myself, this is going to be some night. I kept my TV on, and I saw how the city was burning. I lived 4700 west on Harrison Street, and I could see all around. Smoke covered the west side. The whole area was ablaze.

When I got to work that night, me and another policeman were standing out in front of the station, and all of a sudden we heard shots. You could just about hear the bullets passing by beside your head. We had to run inside the station. It was like a battle zone.

We got into our squad cars and went out into the district. Our helmets were on. There were two guys to a car, and at one point three. I was with officer Clay Sostand and a third patrolman named Childers. Sostand and I were regular partners. We had an assigned area to patrol, between California and Kedzie, but we would take calls to wherever else, ’cause it was hard to keep to your exact beat that night.

We were never told to go easy, only not to threaten anyone with our weapons unless we were in danger. Though there was a curfew on that night, it was still like being on the front line. Oh yes, we were afraid, but we had to try to protect life and property.

We got burglar-alarm calls, because people were breaking into stores. The west side was in turmoil. You had the Fire Department and the Police Department just about running over each other. We worked extra hours. I put in 10 or 12 hours that night.

Woolworth’s and S.S. Kresge, they had stores on West Madison right at Spaulding. I remember going into the basement of Kresge’s. People were going in and taking everything they could take, and we had to secure the store. We had to lock up people, ’cause they were taking merchandise and hauling it out. Robert Hall had a place at Washington and Pulaski, and that store was taken during the afternoon, before I came to work. They took it by storm, cleaned it out and then set it afire. Practically all the stores along Madison Street closed early, but they still got burned.

The people we were arresting, when we locked them up the only justification they would give for their actions was, “Well, they killed Martin . . .” These people were just common folk, who lived in the neighborhood. They were young, old, everything–there wasnt any age limit on it. They were just people, people we charged with arson, burglary, riot and attempt to riot.

There could be no sympathy for them, for they were wrong. They were tearing up the community, the A & P stores and all the stores, leaving the west side in a shambles. I hated to see that. It was uncalled for. At one cleaners we stopped and saw some people taking clothes. I said, “Why are you taking these clothes?” They said, “It’s owned by a white man.” I said, “These are black people’s clothes. Why are you taking them?” But the looters figured a white man killed Martin, so they were taking it out on white owners. As far as I was concerned this was simple burglary.

Sure, I was a black officer, but that didn’t put me in an awkward position. No, no, not at all. I was a police officer, and I had a duty to perform.

One guy looked at me and said, “Hey, you’re a brother, and you ought to be helping us.” I said, “Can’t help you, brother–you ought to be obeying the law.” We had a job to do, and we did it.

At times there was respect for us police, and at times there wasn’t. You had to get tough. Some people just didn’t care. They called you all kinds of names, “MF” and all of that. “Pigs.” But that bounces off.

We stayed out there for three days. The National Guard was called in that first night, and it started to die down. This was part of history, and I was part of it. I was lucky to come out alive, but then you’re lucky to come home alive any day if you’re a policeman in Chicago.

The west side was just gutted, and it still hasn’t been built back up. Those old owners got their insurance money and went. Now all you see are these vacant lots with weeds, and we don’t have the stores we had at that time. People have to go out of the area to shop. Buildings aren’t being taken care of. The community is trying to build, but it’s hard. Madison Street used to be all neon lights before the riots, and all night long the streets were crowded. Sometimes during the summer now you can shoot a cannon down Madison and won’t hit no one.

As I look back King was a great man, and I loved him as a leader. I was sorry to see him go so soon. I thought he would probably get killed, for the good he was doing. There is so much prejudice and hate in the South; hell, we had so much prejudice and hate in the city of Chicago. It didn’t prove anything.

We have somebody who has come along to take Martin’s place. Jesse Jackson. He’s a fighter. If something happened to Jesse, you can never tell what might happen. You never can tell. In 1968 I never thought a riot would occur, but it did and now anything can happen. Jesse takes a lot of chances. He’s in the limelight, so I look for him to get shot at any time.”

–Interview by Grant Pick


Nate Clay is news editor of the Chicago Metro News, a black weekly. In 1968 he was a 20-year-old postal worker living on the west side. When he heard of the assassination, he called the Sun-Times and, through his tears, told the woman who’d answered his call, “I’m sure y’all is glad they killed Dr. King.” Then, wanting to feel a part of something, he went outside and watched the trouble begin.

“I happened to be on the corner of Pulaski and Madison, across the street from a Goldblatt’s that’s no longer there. A stream of kids was coming west on Madison toward the Goldblatt’s, making a lot of noise, shouting angry epithets at passing whites. They started smashing the store windows. One of the things that really struck me was this mannequin that they dragged out of one of the windows. I watched them tear it to pieces.

You knew what was happening. You knew that this was just the start of something. I watched as store owners desperately put up signs in their windows that said things like “Soul Brothers,” hoping to fool would-be rioters into believing these were stores owned by blacks. Even they knew something was coming.

There were some preachers and community leaders expressing their grief in whatever public forum they had available. This only fired up the more militant element, the element that had always opposed Dr. King’s philosophy of turning the other cheek. They were in no mood to be listening to rhetoric about turning the other cheek.

There was kind of a delayed reaction. After an initial period of stunned disbelief, people reacted in basically the only way they knew how to–lashing out against the whites in their midst. Or against the symbols–the stores, the businesses, symbols of what they thought was the oppression of whites, with the murder of Dr. King being that proverbial last straw.

It was like throwing a match into a tinderbox. It didn’t take much to get started. There was a rage that was lingering below the surface for a long time. Things were really horrible out on the west side. I recall you used to see white men, on Friday nights in particular, in the neighborhood, looking for black women. They would come right up to people on the street, usually an elderly black man, and ask them if they couldn’t take them to a black woman. That was a real source of anger. People knew that a black man wouldn’t dare go into Cicero and walk up to a white stranger and say, “Take me to a white woman.”

There was a real anger about that. So when the riots occurred, some of the young black men stood along the expressway off-ramps looking, specifically, for white men who looked like they were coming into the ghetto looking for black women. They stood along the expressway. I saw them. I saw them drag one white guy out of his car and beat him up. There was that kind of anger.

There was an anger at getting gouged. You’ve got to remember that the west side was made up of mostly southern blacks who were rather unsophisticated. Many of them came here straight from the country. They didnt know from credit. These merchants preyed on them. I remember these big sandwich-board signs along Roosevelt Road, saying “E-Z Credit.” I remember those signs like it was yesterday. Folks would be lured by that. They’d go in and buy a bedroom set and later realize they were paying three times what it was worth. When the riots started, a lot of folks saw it as an opportunity to get back at these people who had gouged them.”

–Interview by Gary Rivlin


Willie Lomax was assistant manager of the Howard clothing store, 4025 W. Madison, when the trouble began. Now director of the Chicago Roseland Coalition for Community Control, he works with banks, and sometimes against them, to bring investment money into his far-south-side community.

“At 11 AM all hell broke out. People were running down the street, breaking windows, snatching white people out of cars, running in and out of stores. They were coming down the street, moving west down Madison, like a cloud of locusts. While they were in the block just before ours, we got ready. The white manager and clerks were in the back of the store. Security officers who were off-duty police grabbed shotguns and pistols and patrolled the front of the store. They fired them in the air several times to keep people away. Ninety percent of the employees of the store were black, so it looked like a black store. Ours wasn’t hit–neither were others that had black people guarding and protecting them.

It was a wave of people, they stayed in each block about 30 minutes and then moved further west. During that time it was a madhouse. I recognized the faces of many of the looters; they were the same guys who gave us so much trouble as shoplifters, guys on the corner. It wasn’t organized. It was just these same guys taking advantage of a situation.

The cops got the hell out of the way. Some were snatching stuff with the crowd and filling their squad cars.

The communities hit by the riots have not come back–businesses, jobs disappeared overnight and have not come back. An already suffering community is suffering even more.”

–Interview by Hank De Zutter


Richard Barnett is widely recognized as one of the west side’s most important behind-the-scenes political organizers. When the riots began, he and other community activists, all of them veterans of local anti-Machine electoral battles, went out into the streets to try to keep the lid on.

“Looting we knew we couldn’t stop. I realized the best we could do was prevent people from torching any building that had apartments above the first floor.

I got into all types of stuff. I never want to go through that again. I almost got caught up in real stuff at this one place. It was a building that was just torn down two months ago, at 15th and Pulaski. There was a store there called Molly’s.

I came across there just after they had finished looting it. There must have been 50 people in there. One clown was saying, “Let’s torch this mother.” It had two apartments above it–a store on the first floor and two apartments.

I jumped in and said, “Dont burn it.” And when I said that, they surrounded me, all of them. They were standing between me and the door, so it was real sticky. This clown said to me, “If you were any kind of so-and-so brother, you’d torch this mother yourself.” So I said, “You see, it’s a matter of my being a brother that I don’t want to torch it. See, if we torch it, Molly is insured, but those folks up on the second and third floor you can bet don’t have insurance. If you torch it, they lose what little stuff they have. So if you can torch this and keep the flames from going up the stairs, I’ll light the match.”

Then this other chap said, “Hey, this dude’s right.” Others started to agree, and this clown backed down.

[Barnett then mentioned Daley’s “shoot to kill” order.] Suppose I was inside there trying to talk to this clown and the police passed by. It wouldn’t have been this clown who killed me.”

–Interview by Gary Rivlin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, Holger Leue, E.K. Osowski.