In July 1951, a mob of 4,000 Whites attacked an apartment building that a Black family had just moved into in Cicero, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, resulting in one of America’s most damaging riots.
Harvey Clark Jr., a World War II veteran who moved to Chicago from Mississippi, was working as a bus driver when he and his family chose to relocate from Chicago’s South Side to Cicero in search of a better life. After World War II, attacks against Black people had intensified in Chicago. As a result, Black families from the city’s South Side were relocating to neighboring places.
Clark and his wife Johnetta, whom he met while both attending Fisk University, were sharing a two-room flat with a family of five, on the city’s South Side, when they discovered that rents in all-white Cicero were cheaper. Despite being warned that renting to a Black family would cause problems, Mrs. Camille DeRose, the owner of a building in Cicero, rented an apartment to Clark in June 1951.
Clark arrived in Ciceron on June 8, 1951, with a moving van loaded with $2,000 worth of family furniture. In Cicero, he was halted by the cops, who instructed him to “get out of here fast.” As a crowd watched, police officers grabbed him, hit him several times, and pushed him into a parked car across the street. Clark was informed by the officers that if he did not leave Cicero, he would be killed.
On June 26, 1951, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a lawsuit against the Cicero Police Department. Clark and his family moved into the apartment complex not long after, but then the sad tragedy occurred.
Clark’s apartment building was attacked by a mob of 4,000 Whites on July 11, 1951, after he had been in the apartment for about two weeks in the all-white neighborhood.
“That night, the mob attacked the apartment and tossed the family’s things out of a third-floor window: the sofa, the chairs, the clothes, the baby photographs,” reports the Zinn Education Project. The mob ripped away the fittings, including the stove, radiators, and sinks. They shattered the piano that the couple had set aside for their little daughter to play, tipped over the refrigerator, and smashed the toilet. They set fire to the family’s valuables before firebombing the building, displacing even the white occupants.”
The riots were tough to manage for the police officers sent to the location. The mob also hurled stones and bricks at firefighters who arrived to put out the blaze. In the midst of the pandemonium, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson was forced to deploy the National Guard for the first time since the 1919 Chicago racial riots. The unrest was finally put down by some 600 guardsmen, police officers, and sheriff’s deputies. A 300-meter (328-yard) cordon was established around the apartment complex by the guardsmen. The rioting had stopped by the morning of July 12.
Clark and his family escaped the attack unscathed because they evacuated the apartment building before the violence started. The building was damaged to the tune of more than $20,000. Despite this, the Cook County grand jury declined to indict any of the rioting suspects. Instead, an NAACP lawyer, the rental agent, and the apartment building’s owner were charged with instigating a riot by renting to a Black family. Later, the charges were dropped.
The incident was also investigated by a federal grand jury, which indicted four Cicero officials and three police officers. For breaching Clark’s civil rights, the Cicero police chief and two officers were fined a total of $2,500. According to reports, the Cicero race riot was the first to be shown on television, capturing the interest of people all over the world.
“I was a novice to Chicago, and being a Southerner, I mistook myself for being in a free state, Abraham Lincoln’s state,” Clark later explained of the incident.