Contrary to what I had always assumed, Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, had been a racist society since before the Civil War. As a number of historians have pointed out, the Black Codes instituted in the Middle West in the early nineteenth century were designed to keep blacks from entering the state and settling there. Indeed some people argue that the so-called “Free Soil Movement,” which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western states, was based not so much on a love of liberty as on a hatred of blacks and a desire to keep them out of their part of the country.
Indeed Lincoln’s own attitude was by no means pure or enlightened by modern standards. While opposing slavery, he spoke out against social and political equality, denied that he wanted to give blacks the vote, said that the two races could not live on the North American continent in harmony, and suggested that the best solution to the race problem was to ship blacks back to Africa. His Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in the five Union states where the “peculiar institution” was still legal in 1863; it didn’t even free them in those parts of the South then occupied by federal troops.
That historical legacy had left Illinois with what many northerners would regard as the best of two possible worlds: a segregated society without the stigma of Jim Crow laws. How well such a society has functioned over the years can be measured by the number of major race riots in the City of Chicago since the turn of the century. No area, North or South, has produced so many. With the exception of the New York City draft riots of 1864, the Chicago uprisings may have produced the highest number of fatalities for such brief and violent confrontations. In Alabama and Mississippi the lynchings and murders were perennial, an ever-present possibility in even the smallest communities. Over the years they added up to more racial murders than occurred in the state of Illinois, but they were spread out and were therefore less spectacular. In Chicago all the hatred and frustration would build up over a long period and then explode from time to time in an orgy of mass violence and bloodletting that made headlines all over the country.
The last such explosion had occurred in the forties. In 1965 it appeared as if the time were ripe for another. It was into that world that we stepped when we got off the plane at O’Hare Airport, ready to take on the City of Chicago.