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Fred Hampton’s murder

Friday is the 40th anniversary of the killing of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.  A Panther alumni site features a page of  photos of Hampton and Chicago Panthers by Paul Sequeira. Hampton is recalled as incredibly charisimatic, and as a highly effective organizer.

“Under Hampton, within months of its founding the Chicago chapter had five daily breakfast programs serving thousands of children; a free medical clinic, and a door-to-door health program including testing for sickle-cell anemia and blood drives for Cook County Hospital; an emergency heating program pressuring landlords to maintain heat during the winter; free buses to prisons for relatives of prisoners; and a project promoting community control of the police.”  (Remembering Fred Hampton, the Guardian, November 29, 1989)

Twenty years ago, I interviewed then-Alderman Bobby Rush and Hampton’s fiance, Akua Njeri.  One of the things they recalled – which resonates strongly today – was his role deterring gang warfare.

“He felt the gang element was uneducated, but they were not the enemy; they were victims,” said Njeri. “Fred believed he should sit down with them and explain how they were being used by the system to kill their own people.”

“He felt the gangs could be stimulated and organized and persuaded to go in a direction that was less counterproductive,” said Rush.  “He would try to talk to various gang leaders and establish a rapport.  And they respected Fred.  They respected his leadership ability, they respected his commitment, they respected his courage.

“He could speak the language of the gang-banger, and had Fred lived he would have had a major influence on curtailing gang activity in the city of Chicago and transforming those gangs into more of a constructive political force,” Rush said.  (Hampton was 21 when he was killed.)

It was a long and tortuous court battle to expose the conspiracies behind his murder and the coverup which followed, detailed in Jeffrey Haas’s new book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton.  There were highly fortuitous elements – an unrelated criminal case in which Hampton’s bodyguard was revealed to be an FBI informer; Senate hearings on the FBI’s COINTELPRO program which revealed that documents released by the FBI in a civil case were highly incomplete.

At In These Times, Salim Muwakkil, himself a former Panther, reviews the book.  In an older piece, Black Agenda Report editor Bruce Dixon, a former Chicago Panther, offers a personal reminiscence of Hampton.

On Wednesday, the Center on Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago marks the anniversary with a retrospective on the Black Panther Party at International House, 1414 E. 59th Street (pdf).  At 3 p.m. there’s a screening of “The Murder of Fred Hampton”; at 4:30 a panel with Haas and Njeri joined by two former Chicago Panthers, Willie Calvin and Lynn French, as well as Tracye Matthws of CRPC, who is working on a book on gender politics in the Panthers.

At 6:15 a second panel features two scholars joined by Emory Douglas, the Panther Minister of Culture and the artist whose graphics – incredibly bold, in content as well as style – gave much of the character to the party’s newspaper, which at its height had a weekly circulation of nearly 140,000.

An exhibit of Emory Douglas’s work opens Sunday, December 6 (reception from 2 to 6 p.m.) at DOVA gallery, 5228 S. Harper.  Examples are featured on a webpage for a similar exhibit last year at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

“They are dangerous pictures, meant to change the world,” wrote curator Sam Durant for a recent exhibition at New York’s New Museum.  Columbia College Professor Collette Gaiter offers an overview of Douglas’s career at AIGA.

Harold Washington

Today is the 22nd anniversary of his death.  Here’s the obituary I wrote in 1987.

Reunion at Lathrop Homes

What started last fall as a few old friends talking about getting together has snowballed (with the help of a Facebook page) into a reunion of hundreds of former residents of Lathrop Homes this weekend – and connections with current residents who are working to preserve the historic CHA development as affordable housing.

Six hundred former residents are expected for a dinner dance tomorrow night at the White Eagle Banquet Hall in Niles (October 17, 6 to 11 p.m.). The event will raise funds for the Daniel Cotter Boys and Girls Club, where many participants belonged while growing up in the low-rise development along the Chicago River. During the day they’ll gather for tours of Lathrop Homes and nearby Schneider School and an open house at the Cotter Club, starting at noon.

“It was very positive growing up there,” said Jose Zayas, whose family lived at Lathrop from the 1950s to the ’70s, and who still lives nearby. “It still is for the families that are still there.”

“It was a neighborhood; everyone knew each other,” he recalled. “There was all the green space. And there were these anchor institutions, the boys’ club, the Crane Childcare Center, the churches….Looking back, it was the families and it was the institutions that are still there.”

The high rate of vacancies, as CHA has refused to rent out vacated units, “impacts the residents in not really having a neighborhood,” he said. Currently only about 200 units out of a total of 925 are occupied.

“It’s really sad,” said Scott Shaffer, a Humboldt Park resident who cochairs Lathrop Homes Alumini Chicago, of the vacancies. When he visits now, he says, “it really hits you…It’s something so great that they want to take away.”

While CHA’s final plans for Lathrop are still under discussion — it’s the only remaining development listed as “to be determined” in the tenth year of the agency’s ten-year plan for transformation — the current parameters would require replacing existing buildings with new construction at much greater density.

As they’ve learned of the threat to Lathrop Homes — listed as endanged by Preservation Chicago (pdf) and Landmarks Illinois – Shaffer and several other alumni have joined Zayas, who was working with residents and community groups on the Lathrop Leadership Team to preserve the buildings.

They say the current scale and setting is ideal — low-rise brick buildings in a “garden city” design, with landscaping (designed by the lengendary Jens Jensen) now mature and lush — and top-notch supportive nonprofits are on-site. (The Crane Center, which moved to Lathrop Homes in 1963, was founded in 1907 by Jane Addams, who was a colleague of Julia Lathrop at Hull House; among other distinctions, Lathrop was appointed as the first director of the federal children’s bureau when it was founded in 1912.) Preservation would allow developers to make use of generous historical rehab tax credits.

And they say that focusing on public and affordable housing is appropriate in a neighborhood where a wave of high-end condo development has cost residents thousands of units of affordable rentals. CHA’s insistence on including market-rate housing in the redevelopment makes the plan dependent on volatile market conditions, and new construction would expose residents to even longer delays.

CHA’s request for qualifications should be recast so that it is open to nonprofit developers of affordable housing, they say.

“These buildings are good, solid, beautiful, historic buildings,” said reunion organizer Betty Howard. “There’s a dire need for low-income housing, and this area has been set aside for that purpose since the 1930s.”

(It was following protests organized by Howard and some friends in the mid-60s that the Lathrop Homes Boys Club began admitting girls. “We wanted access and we got it,” she said.)

Zayas says he agrees with residents’ demands (see Newstips 10-22-08) that vacant units be occupied. “It’s a moral issue, having 700 units shut when you have people who desperately need that housing right now,” he said.

Current residents will be among those speaking at tomorrow night’s event; the hope is to encourage more alumni to get involved in preservation efforts, organizers say.

Labor Day in Pullman

The Historic Pullman District is becoming the place to celebrate Labor Day.  This Monday, Governor Pat Quinn will appear there, and President Obama (who began his career nearby at Altgeld Gardens) is invited.  Music, food and festivities begin at 2 p.m. at 111th and Cottage Grove. 

“Speakers will celebrate the achievements of American working families, and commemorate past and ongoing struggles for a union wage, the rights of citizenship, healthy workplaces, strong communities, civil rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and service jobs that are good jobs.

“Speakers will rally for a better world for American working families – equal opportunity for all men and women, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation through the Employee Free Choice Act, healthcare reform, education reform, and “green jobs.”

“The event will provide access to services for working families: Get free advice from labor lawyers and representatives from the Chicago public school system, the Chicago Department of Public Health, labor unions, community organizations and others.”

More information at

Hail to the Pres

Today is the 100th birthday of Lester Young, dubbed “Pres” by Billie Holiday (whom he named “Lady Day”).  Here’s a bit of Fine and Mellow, a short, sweet video of the two of them in 1957.  Both of them died in 1959, within four months of each other, he at age 49, she at 44.



“His improvisations flowed with a melodic grace that was almost other-worldly; his music was delicate and vulnerable, but never fragile,” Neil Tesser has written.  “There was something timeless about the milky tone, the fantasy-world phrasing he applied to the simplest of thematic materials, raising them to other realms that he seemed at once beyond and yet innately bound to the human experience.”  

Read the rest of this entry »

Burnham and Addams

Daniel Burnham probably never actually said “make no little plans,” and he certainly recognized the value of small projects (like filling potholes), Bill Savage argued a few weeks ago in the Reader’s cover package on the Burnham centennial.  Also in that issue, Lynn Becker notes “the absence of skepticism” in the centennial celebration.

A healthy dose of skepticism, Jane Addams-style – and much attention to small-scale, on-the-ground projects addressing real-life problems  — is offered by Jan Metzger’s book, “What Would Jane Say: City-Building Women and a Tale of Two Chicagos,” due out this week from Lake Claremont Press.

It looks at the Burnham plan from the perspective of the settlement movement, based on the writings of scores of progressive Chicago women.

Newstips gave an extensive preview of the book earlier this year, based mainly on several conversations with Metzger, a longtime staffer at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

ADAPT at 25

The Chicago chapter of ADAPT celebrates 25 years of nonviolent direct action in the service of disability rights at its annual awards ceremony this Friday.

Originally named Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, ADAPT was founded in Denver in 1983 by Rev. Wade Blank, taking the civil disobedience tactics of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to push for civil and human rights for people with disabilities.

R. Kent Jones, a civil engineer for the city, returned from a visit to Denver that year “saying we need to do the same thing here,” recalls writer and disability activist Mike Ervin.

Chicago ADAPT’s first action, in April of 1984, was a sit-in at the CTA’s offices demanding the agency stop buying buses that weren’t accessible, Ervin said.

Jones, who died in 2004, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the CTA, charging that the agency’s failure to accommodate people with wheelchairs violated their civil rights. The five lawyers who represented ADAPT — including Robert Gettleman, now a U.S. District Court judge — are being honored Friday.

On Martin Luther King Day of 1988 a Chicago Human Relations Commission judge ruled in Jones’s favor, ordering the CTA to begin buying buses with wheelchair lifts.

Accessible CTA buses, the group’s first victory, have made a big difference for many people, Ervin said. But equal access to public transit is still an issue, he added. Barely half of the CTA’s rapid transit stations accommodate people with wheelchairs — and a Beachwood Reporter/Chicago Talks report earlier this year showed that equipment isn’t functioning in many of them.

In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed, enacting into law the principle ADAPT has propounded — that equal access is a civil right.

The group’s major focus since then has been directing public resources toward home care as an alternative to institutional care. In September 2007 a national ADAPT action in Chicago blockaded state offices as well as the offices of the American Medical Association and AFSCME, the union that represents institutional care workers. They won a restoration of cuts to home care by the state, and an endorsement of legislative reform by the AMA.

Nationally, the group is focused on passing the Community Choice Act, sponsored in the House by U.S. Representative Danny K. Davis, which would put federal funding for community-based attendant services on an equal footing with subsidies for institutional care.

Perhaps ADAPT’s greatest accomplishment is changing consciousness, particularly among people with disabilities. It turned out that sit-ins were even more effective when carried out by people in wheelchairs — and that such mass actions were highly empowering for a group that had been shut out of the mainstream.

The disability movement in Chicago has created “one of the strongest, most well-rounded disability commmunities in the world,” Ervin said. Beyond political activism there’s the disability studies program at UIC and a thriving arts and cultural scene. And in part through Access Living’s youth programs and ADAPT’s emphasis on leadership development, young leaders continue to emerge, he said.

ADAPT’s 25th anniversary gathering takes place Friday, June 31, starting at 5:30 p.m. at Access Living, 115 W. Chicago.

Chicago race riot

Developing Communities Project holds a symposium on the 90th anniversary of the Chicago race of 1919, with community leaders and clergy reflecting on “the work in progress” of race relations in America, on  Monday, July 27, Lilydale First Baptist Church, 649 W. 113th.

As everyone knows, the riot began on July 27, 1919, when a raft carrying some kids drifted from the black section of the 29th Street beach toward the white section.  Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old African American, drowned when he was struck by rocks thrown by a white man; a police officer on the scene declined to assist Williams or arrest the rock-thrower.

Thirty-eight people died and 537 were injured — most of them black — as white gangs rampaged through the Black Belt, committing murder, arson, and looting, over the next several days.  A thousand African Americans were left homeless after their homes were burned down; some got back on the trains they’d come on and returned to the South. It ended when the governor called in the National Guard to set up a perimeter around Bronzeville.

History Matters reprints the July 28 front-page Chicago Daily News article by reporter Carl Sandburg, featuring reactions by black community leaders.  Jazz Age Chicago has a photo of white marauders, bricks in hand, and links to several contemporaneous newspaper accounts.

John Hagedorn’s Gang Research site has a piece on the Irish gangs that were found by an investigating commission to be the ‘”primary instigators” of violence.  The University of Illinois library offers a digitized version of a pamphlet on the riots — urging black and white workers to organize together against economic exploitation — by Mary Marcy, who edited the International Socialist Review (where Sandburg also appeared), published by the Charles Kerr Co. of Chicago.

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