Chicago, mid-60’s: protests, marching, riots, tanks in the streets. I was working for the original Mayor Daley’s Commission on Youth Welfare and it put me in the middle of all the action.
Martin Luther King marched for open housing, and George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of a latter-day Nazi group, held a counter rally in a public park. I was standing on a small hill where I could see the jack-booted speaker and his lieutenants on the platform, swastika flags limp in the summer heat.
The crowd was largely eastern European immigrant, escapees from Communism, holding down two jobs to keep their houses neat and their neighborhoods white. Just when things were reaching a fever pitch, a black man in a Cadillac with a blonde white woman sitting beside him chose that moment to drive by the rally. I don’t know if he was oblivious or a total idiot. It was like watching a dam burst.
First there were shouts from the people closest to the street, bottles started flying through the air and windows started breaking in the car. Then the whole rally of thousands surged toward the car. I could see the mass of emotion flowing like a river in flood, swirling, eddying, heading for that car and its two terrified occupants. I thought, “Oh my God, they are dead.”
There were perhaps half a dozen reporters and news photographers standing by the street when this started. They were between the stopped car and the onrushing mob.
Perhaps today journalists in that situation would keep shooting the action and win a Pulitzer prize. These guys didn’t have time to think. They reacted instinctively. They stood lined up beside the car with its smashed windows and they faced the overwhelming mob. They extended their hands, palms out, in the universal gesture for halt.
And the mob stopped. Probably five thousand strong, unthinking, running at full strength, enraged and intent on murder, they stopped.
The driver of the car had at least enough sense to seize the moment and drive away. I guess the rally was over. At least I don’t remember anything else happening.
Who were these guys (and they were guys, this was the 60’s), these mild-mannered, ordinary looking, nondescript newspaper reporters? Probably nobody you ever heard of. I suppose if you were interested enough, research could turn up many of their names, but I’m not so sure it matters. I just know I saw the human race at its worst and at its best, simultaneously, face to face. And the best won.