March on Washington. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Whilst my anatomy of Chicago activism in the present reposes on newsstands, let’s turn our attention today to Chicago activism past. Every month I interview an author or activist onstage at the Seminary Co-op bookstore on the University of Chicago campus. Last month my guest was Don Rose, a legendary political consultant who, as I said when I introduced him, has been fighting for democracy in the Second City for literally sixty years. (Another sixty years, I joked, and maybe democracy in Chicago will finally arrive.) It was a pleasure to bring old Don out of the shadows, for he’s always been a back-room guy—but what back rooms!
He’s also a certified original bohemian. Born in 1930 to Jewish parents (his dad managed a shoe store), Don took up trumpet in sixth grade at the end of the swing era, heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, “and had a musical epiphany.” (At the Seminary Co-op, he told the story of the time Charlie Parker came to the Beehive on 55th Street near his apartment in Hyde Park. He repaired to the men’s room. “Next thing I know I’m taking a joint leak with the man we thought might be God on earth. Max Roach taxes this tremendous drum break, and the first word Bird says to me is: Max! I named my kid Max.”) He found his way to Paris, ran into a “young bug-eyed African-American writer who I knew from his essays, but he had just published Go Tell Him On the Mountain.” “Jimmy” Baldwin took him to meet Richard Wright, who was by then a little bit nuts: “When we take over,” he said, “you guys”—he waved to the white hipsters in the room—“we’ll save you.” He didn’t meet Samuel Beckett. “That was the one that got away.”
When he returned to Chicago the Trumbull Park Homes riots broke out. It was 1953. A light-skinned black woman was renting a home in a “white” housing project, accidentally. Her family was attacked. Months later, Chicago’s liberal housing commissioner Elizabeth Wood tried to move ten more black families in—and bloody-minded neighborhood whites rioted for days on end. A thousand uniformed police in four shifts patrolled around the clock. High-minded Hyde Park white liberals like Don (“foolish us!”) sallied forth, and “handed out beautifully written pamphlets about brotherhood. Little realizing that we were taking our lives in our hands. because if there was anything worse than a ‘Negro,’ it was a”—he pauses, not pronouncing the word—“______ lover.” And, since it was all but official city policy to ban the papers from printing news about racial strife in Chicago, they worked to get word of the riots into the press. They failed.