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July 21, 1951
Guest post by Mark Speltz, author of North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016).
On July 21, 1951, the Chicago Defender headline announced “Cicero Riots Over Vet.” The white riot, or “five day orgy of violence,” began on Tuesday, July 17 when Harvey Clark Jr., his wife, and their two children attempted to occupy their new apartment in the all-white suburb of Cicero. The Mississippi-born, Air Force veteran encountered a crowd of curious youth and angry housewives. Fearing for their safety, the Clark family left as night fell and the situation grew more dangerous. (Click to view article PDF.)
The menacing crowd continued to grow reaching upwards of 6,000 before a group of “yelling hoodlums” smashed their way into the building. Once inside the Clark’s new third floor apartment, rioting youths overturned appliances, kicked holes in walls, and tore the radiators from the walls. All of the family’s belongings were broken or tossed out the busted windows. Not even the family’s $900 piano was spared. The massive heap of furniture, rugs, and clothing outside the building was set afire to the delight of the cheering crowd. The building’s hallways were wrecked and several other apartments, all rented by whites, suffered damage and were evacuated.
The Clark family was not physically harmed, but lost everything they had accumulated during the previous nine years in less than an hour. Clark and his wife were stunned by the reaction, “I keep asking myself why all this just to keep Johnetta and me from moving into the apartment.” He vowed to return and said “I would be less than a man if I didn’t go into that apartment if it becomes available to us. If I should back down now, I would be letting down the 13 million Negroes in this country.”
Local and county police did little to curtail the rioting which continued for nearly two days before the National Guard were called up—the first time since the 1919 Chicago race riots. Five hundred soldiers arrived on the scene with two rounds of ammunition each and endured flying bricks and stones before moving in with fixed bayonets and plenty of prodding with gun butts. Soldiers encircled the building with barbed wire and made 157 arrests while establishing order.
The Chicago Defender’s national edition provided its readers with extensive photo coverage of the Cicero rioting and aftermath. Because the newspaper was published on Saturdays, the weekly edition was able to select pictures taken during the course of the week documenting the Clark family’s arrival and crowds of curious onlookers early the first day along with the raging fire outside the apartment building at the height of the melee. Other views include the ransacked apartment and the National Guard establishing control over the unruly mob. In the end, the Defender published a total of thirteen pictures—four above the front page’s masthead, one on page five, and seven images on a single inside news photo page—signaling not only the paper’s commitment to reporting on the “wild racist binge” but also making it visible for all to see.
Those interested in learning more about the well-known newspaper should see Ethan Michaeli’s 2016 book, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.