At the core of what I do is a belief in advocacy, a commitment that began when I was a teenager, with its genesis in the civil rights movement which emerged from the ashes of the 1960′s inner city riots. I was in seventh grade the summer of the worst rioting. When I was in 8th grade, Sports Illustrated published a landmark story on the Black Athletes protest, a protest that made its way to medal podium at the Mexico City Olympics, where one of the heroes, Tommy Smith, stood with a black fist raised. For the Sports Illustrated story, click here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Olympics_Black_Power_salute
Illinois was core to my continued interest in civil rights while I was an undergrad student at Northwestern University near Chicago. I had a great fascination in the tragic development of the most segregated place in our country on the south side of Chicago. It has been more than a generation since those years, the El rides to White Sox Park, the slightly intimidating walk from the 35th St. El station to the ball park in the shadows of the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project on a bigger scale and more tragic than Cabrini Green. During those years, Chicago was averaging more than 900 murders a year, most of those young black males. The Robert Taylor project was accounting for more than a quarter of that amount.
Today, the projects are gone in Chicago and the murder rate cut in half. Legitimate urban renewal has now come to the South Side. Its resurgence is one of the great miracles of my life time.
With that as my personal history, the below AP story was a surprise to me. I knew nothing of this early Illinois riot. This story again reminds me of my advocacy on issues broader than brain injury. My thoughts today are whether we are doing any better for the African American young men who are no longer on the streets of the south side of Chicago. Will the emergence of a great man such as Barack Obama make a fundamental difference so that finally the great assimilation into the American mainstream quality of life can occur?
Attorney Gordon Johnson
©2008 Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Date: 8/9/2008 4:07 PM
By CHRISTOPHER WILLS
Associated Press Writer
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) _ One hundred years ago this month, mobs of white residents tore through Springfield, hanging two black men, burning dozens of homes and businesses, and forcing families to flee. As the city commemorates the violence, the event inspires deep feelings among people from all backgrounds:
Thomas Richmond understands history and racism, and wants to make sure his grandson understands them, too.
The retired history teacher took 8-year-old Panagiotis to a museum exhibit about the Springfield riot to show him how far America has come in the past century. He said blacks can’t truly understand where they stand in America today without knowing the past and how ugly racism can be.
“A child has to know where he comes from. He needs to know what this country is about,” he said.
Tamara Douglass, a high school history teacher in Springfield for 14 years, has taken it upon herself to make sure her students hear about the riot, which until now has gotten little notice.
The story usually provokes a strong reaction, she said.
“They’re angry. They’re wondering why they have gotten into their teen years without learning about it,” Douglass said. “They’re shocked at what humans beings do to each other.”
The riot in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln delivered an unpleasant message to much of the country, argues researcher Roberta Senechal de la Roche.
“White Americans in the North pretty much thought violence against blacks was a Southern thing. The Springfield riot really came as a bolt of lightning to Northern newspaper readers,” said de la Roche, author of the book “Sociogenesis of a Race Riot.” ”The question was, if it can happen in Springfield, maybe it can happen anywhere.”
Many of the rioters shouted about Lincoln during their rampage. “Curse the day Lincoln freed the slaves,” was one cry.
To the Rev. Wesley McNeese, it made perfect sense for Springfield’s churches to have joint prayer services to mark the centennial of the riot.
Some in the city’s ministerial alliance fearing such services would open old wounds, but the group ultimately decided to go forward with eight “solemn assemblies” — one at each of the markers noting a key location in the violence.
Now black churches and white churches are holding joint social functions and inviting each other’s pastors to preach. McNeese, who leads the New Mission Church of God, thinks they can keep building on the good will.
“This was the right thing to do. There’s no question in my mind,” he said.
The violence was shocking by itself. Even more shocking to 18-year-old Evan Preston was the macabre interest in riot souvenirs.
People kept chunks of the trees where men were hanged. They bought postcards showing the rubble of buildings destroyed by the mobs.
“They turned it into tourism dollars, this horror that occurred in their hometown,” said Preston, studying the riot in a summer program at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
“This would be like seeing a shirt that had the towers falling on 9/11 — people making money off the tragedy that everyone had to endure.”
Murray Hanes, then a young man, watched as the Springfield mob hanged a man. He watched as they set fire to homes — with people still inside, he said decades later.
“The Negroes would come to the window and rush back — they didn’t dare come out for fear they’d get shot. They went back in. And anybody that I knew or talked to said there were Negroes in there that were burned up,” he said in an oral history recorded in the 1970s.
Hanes denied sharing any guilt for the violence and grew defensive at any questions about his role. “It’s a funny thing — I can understand why few people want to talk. You can see right away that you’re accused of participation just by assumption.”
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.
Attorney Gordon Johnson
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice
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