From Monroe St. to Louisville: When Moral Obligations become Radical Acts
Program of Study: SSD MAPSS
As you take a (virtual) tour down West Monroe Street in the city of Chicago, you might walk past a modern-looking bricked building. It looks as simple as any other building in the lane and is easy to miss. If you go closer, you see a poster with the face of a black man on it, and you realise that even buildings are bound by history. The first floor of this building once had an apartment that was owned by two young black men in their 20’s. On December 4th, 1969, when it was after midnight in Chicago, there were loud bangs on the door of this apartment. Someone called out ‘Who is it?’. There was no answer. In no time there was an open fire. The owners of this apartment were leaders of the Chicago Black Panther Party: Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. They were shot and killed on the spot by the Chicago Police (Mitchell, 2019). Their only fault was that they were black men living in a White America. Since then, the apartment became ground zero for the black movement in Chicago.
Brief Racial History of Chicago
It seems strange that a city that has been the hope for building a livelihood for many migrants of different ethnicities, has also been home to their oppression. In the particular case of the black community, especially at the outset of World War I when the need for war production kicked in, newspapers such as the Chicago Defender put up advertisements of recruiting opportunities for black people at a time when black codes forced the community into slavery and sharecropping (History.com Editors, 2010). Attempting to move away from the low standards of life, black migrants moved to Chicago in the hope of employment and better living conditions. However, what they received in return was residential segregation, discrimination in job opportunities, and a lack of basic rights such as that to healthcare, education, and food.
The threat of white violence over black people has persisted in Chicago ever since the 1900s when the population of black people was less than even 2 per cent (William, 2013). However, it was undoubtedly in 1919 that the city saw its peak in racial tensions. The racial segregation of residential spaces was not limited to the private sphere but also extended to public spaces such as the Lake Michigan beach. When Eugene Williams, a black teenager accidentally drifted past an imaginary border that divided the water between black and white beaches, he was violently attacked by white people who saw him, leading to his unconsciousness and eventual death by drowning (Tuttle, 1970). This incident sparked one of the worst riots in the history of Illinois, also known as ‘The Red Summer of 1919’. Many black people in Chicago were attacked and injured, some lost their homes, and 23 even died. Meanwhile, the Chicago Police turned a blind eye to its black victims (Lorzel, 2019).
After this conflict, black people in Chicago started losing their already limited opportunities in employment. In addition, inadequate housing exacerbated their living conditions in the 1930s. With the rise of the predatory housing contracts in the 40s and the 50s, which denied black homemakers access to protective and conventional mortgage loans that their counterpart white buyers had (George et al., 2019), the density of the black population was approximately 70,000 people per square mile as opposed to 30,000 in the white-dominated areas (William, 2013). As a result, the black population increased, rents doubled, and redlining, which is the common practice of denying financial service to black people on the basis of their race, became rampant. Continuing through the 60s, black people had no option but to reside in clustered spaces, often forced to crowd themselves in any vacant areas remaining.
Chicago meets the Black Panther Party
In 1966, at a time when the city was living this history, the Black Panther Party (BPP) launched its ‘Illinois Chapter’ and set headquarters in Chicago. BPP originally started as a self-defence organization (Pasquale, 2020). With rising cases of police brutality against the black community, the party decided it was necessary to look out for each other, and so they decided to do something revolutionary– cop watching. With ‘policing’ becoming a form of ‘slave population management’ (Vitale, 2020) rather than a provision of safety for the community, why would the ones historically treated as slaves not want to provide safety for themselves? It was this human instinct of seeking safety that was interpreted by many as ‘radical’, or too extreme.
With a similar goal of bettering the social conditions for poor communities of the city, the Chicago BPP launched many breakfast programs feeding more than 4000 children daily (Hermida, 2015). The party also initiated free health clinics that screened black people for sickle cell anaemia, which was rampant amongst the community then (Sabino, 2019). One of the most admirable works the Chicago BPP attempted to do was to expand and make allies with people from different ethnicities. It launched the popular ‘Rainbow Coalition’ program, an activist group consisting of working-class allies from various races and social backgrounds (Akbar, 2020). Chicago, being home for migrants of multiracial ethnicities was a favourable starting point.
Despite the crucial work the party did for the underfunded black neighbourhoods, the Panthers continued to be seen with a dishonourable gaze. The confrontational and bold nature of the party for rightly demanding something as basic as food, education, and safety, has time and again been interpreted as ‘impolite’ by society (Kendall, 2009). While the party’s ambitious program remained short-lived without a strong leader after the death of Hampton and Clark, and the detention of many of the party’s members, the legacy of the BPP continues to be spoken of as a ‘radical’ one even today.
Resonating the ‘Radical’: The University of Chicago
In the Chicago context, the presence of the BPP has significantly contributed to the black lives matter discourse and the city has seen the rise of many black power movements thereafter. Decades later, the slogan of ‘No Justice, No Peace’ is still stirring in Chicago’s air (NBC News, 2020). Many of these movements have been steered by students and communities of intellectuals, political leaders, and academic institutions.
Within this schematic, the University of Chicago has been central to Chicago’s growth as an intellectual space. Right from its founding, the University showed its willingness to include students of colour and women to pursue higher education, even when this was seen as an ‘extreme’ act. By 1940, the University had granted 45 PhD’s to people of the black community (Woodly, 2009), which was more than any university at the time would have deemed to be ‘polite’. In the 60s, after the death of Hampton, many University of Chicago students came together with independent academics and activists forming a ‘communiversity’ (a combination of the words community and diversity) for ‘confronting’ the actions of the police (Biondi, 2014). Not very long ago in 2009, the institution even held a two-day event inviting former members of the BPP to engage in a discussion on the party’s history in Chicago (CAN TV, 2010). Most recently in 2020, after the negligence seen in the case of George Floyd, not only has the university shown support by taking ‘bold’ steps in removing statues of white colonizers from campus spaces, but is one of the only academic institutions that has actively been speaking up about the social issue of racism. Repeatedly, the University has shown its ‘radicalness’ by simply fulfilling moral obligations.
While the University has repeatedly done commendable work in extending their sensitivity to the issue and attempting to make the campus a safer space for cultural diversities, it is in my opinion that they must take a step ahead and say #BlackLivesMatter, which is something that seems to have still not been done officially. The importance and often simultaneous discomfort behind saying this statement lies in the burden of the positionality of an entire institution, and many universities across America have been contemplating taking this so-called ‘radical’ position. However, taking a radical position has always been the instinctive nature of the University, making it unique from other top universities in the nation. Additionally, the University will only gain from this, as it has in the past as black scholars who have pursued their education here have grown to become intellectual leaders in the world with their centre in Chicago (Shelton, 2020).
#BlackLivesMatter is not a media slang or academic jargon, it is a response to not getting justice. When the city it is built in has seen decades of black oppression — from the killing of Fred Hampton, to the black communities in Chicago facing the brunt of gun violence during a pandemic (Zaru, 2020), the University must respond. It must respond to injustice, as it has done before. Not only must it say ##BlackLivesMatter as a moral obligation, but it must say it loud and clear at all times.
From Monroe St. to Louisville
The original building that Hampton and Clark lived in was torn down and renovated after the incident. Now there remains a sign next to the apartment number that says ‘No Soliciting, No Loitering, No Trespassing – Violators Will Be Prosecuted’. The neighbourhood in which this building stands has been under gentrification since the 60s and 70s (Miller, 2019). As the process of making it a racially mixed neighbourhood still continues, the working-class population remains affected as many are forced to evict due to higher rent prices.
51 years later, on March 13th 2020, there was another knock on the door. Now in Louisville. Someone calls out again ‘Who is it?’. Still no answer. This time it was for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black emergency medical technician.
What was her fault? She was a black woman living in a 2020 America.
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