One of America’s most destructive riots occurred in July 1951 when a mob of 4,000 Whites attacked an apartment building that a Black family had just moved into in Cicero, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.
Harvey Clark Jr., a World War II veteran who migrated to Chicago from Mississippi, was working as a bus driver when he decided to move his family from Chicago’s South Side to Cicero for a much better life. At the time, attacks on Black people had increased in Chicago after World War II. Thus, Black families were relocating from the city’s South Side to other areas.
Clark and his wife Johnetta, who he met while they were both students at Fisk University, were living with their two children in a two-room tenement with a family of five on the city’s South Side when they found rents that were cheaper in all-white Cicero. In June 1951, Mrs. Camille DeRose, owner of a building in Cicero, rented an apartment to Clark despite being warned that renting to a Black family would bring problems.
On June 8, 1951, Clark came to Ciceron with a moving van that contained family furniture worth about $2,000. He was stopped by the police in Cicero who told him to “get out of here fast”. The police officers then grabbed him, hit him several times, and pushed him inside a car parked across the street as a crowd watched. The officers warned Clark to leave Cicero or he would be killed.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) subsequently filed a suit against the Cicero Police Department on June 26, 1951. Not too long after, Clark and his family moved into the apartment building but then the unfortunate incident happened.
On July 11, 1951, after about two weeks of moving into the apartment in the all-white neighborhood, Clark’s apartment building was attacked by the mob of 4,000 Whites.
The Zinn Education Project writes: “That night, the mob stormed the apartment and hurled the family’s belongings out of a third floor window: the sofa, the chairs, the clothes, the baby pictures. The mob tore out the fixtures: the stove, the radiators, the sinks. They smashed the piano the couple had saved up for their young daughter to play, overturned the refrigerator, bashed in the toilet. They set the family’s belongings on fire and then firebombed the building, leaving even the white tenants homeless.”
Police officers who were assigned to the scene found it difficult to control the rioting. The mob also threw stones and bricks at firemen who also arrived to douse the fire. Amid the chaos, the Illinois Governor, Adlai Stevenson, was compelled to call in the National Guard for the first time since the 1919 race riots in Chicago. About 600 guardsmen, alongside police officers and sheriff’s deputies, were finally able to quell the riot. The guardsmen set a 300-meter (328-yard) perimeter around the apartment block. By the morning of July 12, the rioting had ended.
Clark and his family were not injured in the attack as they fled the apartment building before the violence began. More than $20,000 in damage was done to the building. Still, the Cook County grand jury did not indict any of the men arrested in the rioting. Rather, an NAACP lawyer, the rental agent and the owner of the apartment building were indicted for inciting a riot by renting to a Black family. The charges were later dropped.
A federal grand jury also launched its own investigation into the incident and indicted four Cicero officials and three police officers. The Cicero police chief and two officers were fined a total of $2,500 for violating Clark’s civil rights. It is reported that the Cicero race riot was the first to be viewed on television, attracting attention almost everywhere across the world.
“I was a newcomer to Chicago, and being a Southerner, I thought I was in a free state, Abraham Lincoln’s state,” Clark later said of the incident.