The killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, and the resulting community reaction, has put police brutality protest in the spotlight. The mass marches, limited looting, and confrontations with aggressive or ‘militarized’ law enforcement that typified the Ferguson protests seem like a relic of an earlier age. Many have been quick to draw parallels to Harlem (1964), Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Camden (1971), among others. I would like to add one more historical note, pulled from a chapter that I just so happen to be drafting this month. My case involves several similarities to Ferguson, but it is remarkable mainly because of a difference. The August 12, 1966, Summerdale March in Uptown Chicago was almost exclusively white.

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

Uptown Chicago 1966

1960 So Whites

Map depicting the number of whites who moved from the south to Chicago between 1955 and 1960.

An uncommon density of vacant low-rent housing in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a postwar job crisis at home attracted tens-of-thousands of working-class and poor whites from Appalachia and the south through 1970. By 1960, many considered Uptown the nation’s foremost “Hillbilly Ghetto,” even though the area’s low-income community also consisted of American Indians, non-southern whites, a smattering of African Americans, and a growing Latino population. Uptown’s postwar southerness has been ‘discovered’ time after time by various segments of the dominant culture: urban renewal advocates, social workers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, country music radio executives, the New Left, sisters religious, the War on Poverty, and on and on up through…urban historians.

When the SDS created the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP) in 1964 to work towards an interracial solution to urban poverty, Uptown was a natural choice for one of the early projects. By 1966, SDS members were clamoring to be part of the Uptown ERAP effort known as Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). Noted organizers like Rennie Davis, Richard Rothstein, Vivian Leburg Rothstein, Todd Gitlin, and Casey Hayden lived in Uptown, undertaking the slow and uneven process of pushing locals towards political action. Early successes included a sit-in at the city welfare office, and tenant strikes that resulted in contracts between collectivized renters and landlords. These efforts antagonized most of the local political and social elites. The notorious “Red Squad” of the Chicago Police Department quickly placed JOIN under surveillance, and soon relied upon information from a local JOIN member who had become disgruntled with the outside activists’ “Unamerican” opinions about increased involvement in Vietnam. A law student soon infiltrated JOIN on the CPD’s behalf.1

Meanwhile, patrolmen from the local precinct prosecuted an aggressive policing of Uptown low-income teenagers and young people. When outside JOIN organizers—operating under the banner of “participatory democracy”—sought to create political consciousness around the grievances expressed by locals, police brutality came to the fore. JOIN leaders were mostly unprepared and unwilling to base organizing around the issue, preferring instead to confront economic injustices and the shortcomings of the local War on Poverty “Urban Progress” program. Yet anger simmered, most notably with the politicization of the “Uptown Goodfellows,” a street organization of southern and Appalachian tough guys. The Goodfellows took cues from similar black and Latino groups that were beginning to evolve from gangs into political units.2 Despite some reservations and occasional strains, JOIN worked with the Goodfellows, and the two groups often overlapped and seemed as one.

The Uptown Spark

One incident specifically pushed the Goodfellows, and to a lesser extent, JOIN to directly confront police brutality in Uptown. While searching for a robbery suspect, patrolmen entered the apartment of a family sympathetic to JOIN and violently removed a 19-year old boy, badly breaking his arm in the process in front of several witnesses. The boy languished in the precinct jail overnight without medical treatment. The attack came on the heels of dozens of other confrontations between local activists and low-income residents, including a clash between an officer and a JOIN activist in which the cop offered to take off his badge and gun and ‘have it out’ with the activist in the alley (only after berating the activist, “You should be in Vietnam.”)

Alcantar

Breathless account by the mother of a police brutality victim, which spurred the Summerdale March. (Peggy Terry Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society)

We would like to end this by saying we have read your JOIN letters on police brutality, but we seriously doubted you in our minds. Most of us all said to ourselves, OK now, JOIN must be stretching it just a little. But after witnessing this incident last night, it has made a believer out of us…

—Letter from residents previously suspicious of JOIN community organizers, after witnessing the Alcantar beating

A flyer for the police brutality protest march. (Peggy Terry Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society)

A flyer for the police brutality protest march. (Peggy Terry Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society)

Within days, the Goodfellows were organizing a protest march from the JOIN office to the Summerdale police precinct. Most JOIN leaders urged caution in confronting the police, if not outright abandonment of the protest. Police surveillance reports confirm that the march was largely a local affair: intelligence officers recorded the names of dozens of ‘known’ subjects marching, only two of whom were outside JOIN organizers. One local Uptowner remembered several JOIN leaders nervously waiting in the JOIN office while the Goodfellows led the march. Yet JOIN organizers worked hard behind the scenes in the days leading up to the march, collecting along with the Goodfellows dozens of affidavits that outlined horrific instances of police brutality.

In a particularly bold move, protesters singled out one police officer who they considered the most brutal. The officer was also widely hailed as the CPD’s most decorated officer. For several years, the newspapers had recounted his heroic exploits. The Goodfellows and their sympathizers held a polar opposite opinion, and literally said as much on the signs they carried to the Summerdale station.

The march grabbed the attention of much more than the Red Squad. Up to 300 joined the march, including a few allies from the South and West Sides. An even greater number of counter-protesters awaited the marchers near the police station, brandishing signs and hurling at least one brickbat at the protesters—ironically, the only thing approaching violence during the whole ordeal. Major newspapers, including the Tribune, the Daily News, and the Sun-Times, covered the march.

In what my research is yet to determine was a coincidence or shrewd planning, the Summerdale March occurred the same day as the Jesse Jackson-led open housing march through the all-white Bogan neighborhood on the Southwest Side. Jackson’s march was the second in a series of marches that included Martin Luther King, Jr’s march through Marquette Park one week earlier, which was violently met by working-class white teens and young men (among others).3 This created several opportunities for media commentary on the oddity of whites marching against what was even then assumed to be a black issue. One headline, indeed, read “Hillbilly Power!”

 

Young white men resist Martin Luther King, Jr’s open housing march through the Marquette Park neighborhood. One week later in Uptown, young white men marching against police brutality confounded some assumptions about race and oppression. (Collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift of Bernard J. Kleina and Susan Keleher Kleina, © Bernard J. Kleina)

It should be noted, however, that the Summerdale March was not just a “Hillbilly” or even just a white endeavor. The boy who’s brutal arrest triggered the march was Latino, after all. And neither the Goodfellows nor the Summerdale marchers were exclusively white or southern.4 But, as with Ferguson, the racial composition of the protest leaders made the uprising most legible to outsiders. Despite remaining largely behind the scenes, the march raised the profile of JOIN. Two weeks after the Summerdale March, the CPD raided JOIN headquarters and arrested several activists on drug charges.5

Two days later, the Goodfellows received what many felt was a direct retaliation against the anti-police brutality movement. A police officer shot and killed Ronnie Williams, a Kentucky migrant and the younger brother of a Goodfellow. Witnesses described the killing as an execution of an unarmed young man.6

The Summerdale March was an important touchstone of political action among many Uptown locals, especially considering the CPD raid and Williams killing that happened in the days after. The Goodfellows continued their evolution, eventually rechristening themselves the Young Patriots Organization. By 1969, the YPO had forged a short-lived alliance with the Black Panthers and the Young Lords and was operating a community health clinic.

There are more differences than similarities between Ferguson and the Summerdale March. But one similarity—the class position of those who experience the bulk of police brutality—should not get lost in the justifiably important discussion of race that that has grown from the Brown killing and the community’s response.7 As both 1966 Uptown and 2014 Ferguson show, it is the marginalized status of people, via class or race, that creates the environment for aggressive policing that often leads to outright brutality.


 

Further Reading

Todd Gitlin and Nanci HollanderUptown: Poor Whites in Chicago (1970). The activists’ classic chronicle of organizing in Uptown.

Studs Terkel interview with Dovie Thurman (1997). Thurman, an African American Uptown local, recounts the birth of her political activism after coming in contact with JOIN organizers.

Jennifer Frost. “An Interracial Movement of the Poor”: Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (2001). The most complete history of the SDS Economic Research and Action Program.

Roger Guy. From Diversity to Unity: Southern and Appalachian Migrants in Uptown Chicago, 1950-1970  (2007). The historical sociologist’s account includes a chapter on community activism.

Amy Sonnie and James Tracy. Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power (2011). Insight and reminiscences of the Uptown Goodfellows and the Young Patriots.

Jakobi Williams. From the Ballot to the Bullet (2013). A chapter includes an account of the original “Rainbow Coalition” among the Young Patriots, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords.

Michael James. “Like a Bruegel Painting, 1966” (2014). JOIN organizer reflects on police brutality in Uptown and the Summerdale March.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting read.

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