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The 1966 March on Cicero, A Step Towards Equity

posted January 2, 2014

A film at a Chicago archive is assured of telling the tale

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A scene from “Cicero March.” Courtesy: Chicago Film Archives.

Nonviolent protest will often elicit a violent response from state authorities — that was never news to civil-rights protesters in the United States of the 1960s. Surely at least one protester posed a threat of violence, even if in self-defense.

Such is the backdrop to Cicero March, an eight-minute, black-and-white film from 1966 that the United States Library of Congress announced on December 18 2013 was among 25 films it had selected for permanent preservation. Under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, the Librarian of Congress annually enters onto the National Film Registry 25 films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and at least 10 years old. The Librarian — currently James H. Billington — confers with the National Film Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit body that the Act established, as well as with Library staff and film curators, as well as members of the National Film Preservation Board, a body of prominent film-industry figures. Those various personnel reach a selection after reviewing hundreds of titles nominated by the public, whether individuals or institutions. (If you’d like to nominate something for next year, go now to the NFPB’s website.)

During the summer of 1966, the Chicago Freedom Movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., made Chicago the front in their battle to end de facto segregation in northern cities by pressing for better housing, education, and work for black Americans.

The CFM – sometimes called the Chicago Open Housing Movement – was a collaboration of Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations. The latter,  formed by Al Raby, a Chicago high-school teacher; had brought the civil-rights movement to the north. The coalition’s goal was to urge the city of Chicago to end discrimination in many areas of civic life: criminal justice, housing, education, transportation, income, employment, healthcare… walks of life where discrimination persists even if less starkly, today.

Local churches and civic organizations did their bit as did the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social-justice organization. Active from mid-1965 to early 1967, the Chicago Freedom Movement was the largest civil-rights campaign in the northern United States.

A scene from “Cicero March.” Courtesy: Chicago Film Archives.

At the time, African Americans made up a quarter of Chicago’s population but the protests had little effect as long as activists mounted them in neighborhoods where most black Chicagoans lived, such as the city’s ghettos. It was only when protesters moved on exclusively white areas of Chicago — to cities like Cicero and Chicago Lawn on the metropolitan area’s suburban western outskirts — that white Chicagoans paid notice, and responded with bitter hostility.

The more prominent organizers realized that marching on those outlying areas could spark enormous violence. City officials and Al Raby’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations favored not even risking that. Much to the disgust of local activists, Raby’s group forged an agreement with city officials to hold off on the march.

When raising the specter of uncontrolled rage, city officials could hark to what had happened the last time African-American citizens had attempted to make Cicero less than 100 percent white: a race riot had ensued.

That had occurred July 11-12, 1951, when a mob of four to six thousand people attacked an apartment building where Harvey Clark Jr, an African-American bus driver, and his family had had the effrontery to try to become the first black residents of the city.

The mob burned down the building, prompting Governor Adlai E. Stevenson to call out the Illinois National Guard. The Clarks were forced to leave the city. The events brought Cicero condemnation from around the world – it was the most notice taken of Cicero since 1924, when Al Capone had moved his family there to shield his gang from Chicago police attention.

In the summer of 1966, Martin Luther King and other protest leaders agreed with city officials to a 10-point agreement on enforcement of open-housing laws and desegregation of public housing. More-militant activists within the Chicago Freedom Movement coalition had little faith that appeasement or patient negotiation was any longer an acceptable approach to racist public policy and practice, and insisted there was no other way forward than to move towards whatever violence awaited them.

There was little doubt that violence did await — in fact, the northern response to protest claims was barely less brutal than the southern. In August 1966, a march on Chicago Lawn was met with a barrage of bottles and bricks. But on September 4 1966, Robert L. Lucas, the Chicago chairman of the well-established Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), nevertheless led about 250 marchers to Cicero. They arrived to find 2,700 National Guard troops and 700 police officers struggling to contain a mob of angry white residents hurling abuse and bricks.

Illinois National Guardsmen try to disperse a mob of teenagers protesting an African American family's attempt to move into a nearby apartment building in Cicero, in 1951. Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Illinois National Guardsmen try to disperse a mob of teenagers protesting an African American family’s attempt to move into a nearby apartment building in Cicero, in 1951. Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

White anger was already high because black workers had begun to find jobs in the city, even though Cicero still had no black residents, 15 years after Harvey Clark Jr’s brave attempt to become the first. What had changed, however, was that the Cicero marchers did not feel bound by King’s earlier pledge to nonviolence — and in fact were increasingly persuaded by the separatist philosophy of Malcolm X. When they were subjected to “a hail of curses, bricks, rocks, and bottles from crowds of hostile whites,” as the Los Angeles Times reported on September 7 1966, many protest marchers gathered up the missiles, and returned fire. (For more detail about the events, see the excellent website of the public-television series, Eyes on the Prize.)

The importance of documenting the march was apparent to filmmakers from the Chicago-based Film Group, Inc., a collective of local documentary and industrial filmmakers that produced dozens of commercials and documentaries between 1965 and its disbanding in 1973. Two of the members, Mike Shea and Mike Gray, placed themselves among protesters, and used lightweight, handheld equipment to record the venomous nature of northern anger towards the civil-rights campaigns.

Another group member, Jay Litvin, edited the footage into the the cinema-vérité-styled Cicero March.

Cicero March …raising consciousness of racial discrimination

Cicero March eventually became one of seven “modules” of “The Urban Crisis and the New Militants,” a series that the Film Group Inc. produced, released in 1969, and intended for audiences of junior-high, high-school, and college students. Five segments dealt with the infamous 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention; Cicero March and Black Moderates, Black Militants, addressed similar issues of civil rights and civil disobedience elsewhere. Cicero March is the only known significant film footage of the September 1966 march.

The Chicago Film Archives acquired Cicero March in 2005 as a donation from William Cottle, the co-owner of the Film Group. It had received other parts of the series from Cottle and another Film Group member, Mike Gray.

The archive had submitted Cicero March twice for Registry consideration, in 2006 and 2008, and in 2006 had undertaken restoration work on its print. In fact, 2005 and 2006 grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation enabled the archive to preserve all of the series’ seven component films, of which it now holds release and preserved prints in its FilmGroup Collection.

Fred Hampton

A scene from “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” a 1971 documentary film by Film Group members Howard Alk and Mike Gray about the infamous assassination of the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.

One of the three filmmakers of Cicero March, Mike Gray, would later work in Hollywood as a writer, director, and assistant director. He was the screenwriter of The China Syndrome (1979). By that time, the Film Group was a fading memory – its last significant productions were the feature documentaries American Revolution II, 1969, about the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and The Murder of Fred Hampton, 1971, about the infamous assassination of a charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Mike Gray and Howard Alk were its directors.

In 2011, the Chicago Film Archives received an NFPF grant to preserve two films by Chuck Olin (1937-2005), a member of the Film Group who made several films about unrest from the mid-1960s to early 1970s. The grant enabled restoration and conservation of two films. 8 Flags for 99 Cents (1970) is a documentary about a Chicago blue-collar community’s unease with the Vietnam War; it records thoughtful, pained analysis by citizens from a variety of walks of life. A Matter of Opportunity, from 1968, presents obstacles to African Americans entering the medical profession, and means to improve recruitment. Olin went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and interviewed African-American medical students, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals.

The productions of the Film Group had in common, then, a commitment to social change in America. As the Chicago Film Archives’ Anne Wells puts it, the Urban Crisis and the New Militants series “presented tough, raw, and real content to students, and let them figure it out, or at least consider it on their own terms.” The modules were designed to provoke consideration of such issues as racism, citizens’ rights, social protest, police brutality, the media industry, and politics at large.

Sadly, says Wells, the last living member of the Film Group, Bill Cottle, reports that the series did not sell well. How many copies of the series of individual films were distributed through rentals is hard to gauge. Certainly copies of the films are very hard to find – the Chicago Film Archives appears to hold the only complete set. Wells muses: “Who knows how many prints from the series have been de-accessioned over the years, or even properly cataloged and entered into a union catalog like Worldcat?”

What of the outcomes of the march on Cicero and other activities in Chicago around that time? The violent response to the Cicero march was sadly indicative of the persistence of racism in the United States, a century after a blood-curdling civil war was waged ostensibly to end it. Yet, the protests did push ahead the inevitability of at least partial remedy of discrimination in many walks of American life. The protests increased pressure for the adoption of such measures as the Fair Housing Act, which Congress approved in 1968. The Act extended federal prohibitions against discrimination to private housing – an extraordinary accomplishment given the legal fetishization of property rights and other individual privileges in the American polity. The act created the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development‘s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, to enforce the law.

Watch “The Urban Crisis and the New Militants” series on Chicago Film Archives’ site here, or its YouTube channel. The CFA’s Collections Portal provides free online-streaming access to more than 700 films from its collections.

—   from Library of Congress and Chicago Film Archives releases, and research

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