Monday, November 10, 2008

Grant Park Revisited - 2008 and 1968

It has been almost a week since the Presidential election was held. I have spent the week in deep reflection over the unprecedented events of election night, and I would like to share some of those musings.

As I watched the scene from Grant Park in Chicago being covered by all the major TV networks, I eagerly awaited the appearance of President-elect Obama. I knew that his words would be iconic. Only a few minutes into his landmark address to the world, tears were coursing down my cheeks. The friend with whom I was watching the coverage turned to me and said: “You seem to be getting emotional.” The question for me that night was, “Why is this historical moment moving me to tears?” In terms of pure policy, I probably find myself more often in agreement with Senator McCain than I do with the President-elect. But Barack Hussein Obama’s ascendance to the Presidency of the United States is about so much more than matters of policy. And it was these larger forces and dynamics that moved me and took me back in time. My roots in Chicago are deep.

Chicago – 1968

I was an undergraduate student at Wheaton College in Illinois, majoring in Sociology. As part of a field study for a Sociology class, I was involved in a project that resulted in my organizing the parents of street gang members on the West side and South side of Chicago. Their sons were incarcerated in the St. Charles Training School, one of the nation’s largest and most violent reform schools. Their sons were also members of Chicago’s two largest street gangs – The Disciples and the Blackstone Rangers (later known as the Black P. Stone Nation and later still as El Rukn.) In a sense, like Obama did later in time, I was doing community organizing in microcosm in the notorious Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side.

It took several months for me to get the mothers to trust me enough to be willing to meet together to form a peer support group. Mrs. Early volunteered to host the first meeting in her modest home in the projects near Roosevelt Road on the near West Side. The meeting was to be held on an evening early in April. As I prepared to leave my dormitory room to head into Chicago for the meeting, my phone rang. It was Mrs. Early:

“Mr. Chase, this is Miss Early. I have been talking to some of the other mothers, and we think it would be best if you did not come tonight.”

“But Mrs. Early, we have been planning this meeting for weeks, and you seemed enthusiastic about hosting the meeting.”

“Well, we don’t think it would be safe for you to drive into the city tonight. Dr. King has just been shot, and there are riots and fires breaking out all around us.”

Once things calmed down in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination, the mothers’ meeting eventually did take place, and I became involved in the lives of several of the families – particularly several of the families whose sons were members of the Black Stone Rangers. As they learned to trust and accept me – a white face in an otherwise almost totally black neighborhood - I learned things about life in Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods that are usually not apparent or accessible to someone growing up in the serene suburbs of Boston’s North Shore.

On a regular basis, I saw shootings, apartments destroyed by fire, frequent trips to the Emergency Room at Cook County Hospital, funerals for victims of gang violence, drug overdoses, suicide attempts, and street violence. And police brutality. On more than one occasion, I was the victim of intimidation by the overwhelmed Chicago Police Department and the feared Gang Intelligence Unit, who were trying desperately to cope with escalating gang violence and increasingly violent political protests against the Viet Nam War and against racism. These were the days of the Black Panthers and the notorious Chicago Seven. The police probably figured that this white college kid with longish hair must be up to no good in a neighborhood where he “did not belong.” So, it came as no surprise to me in August of that year when what was termed a “police riot” broke out in Grant Park and environs during the chaotic Democratic National Conventional. As police clubbed and bloodied young protestors, the students shouted: “And the whole world is watching.”

Chicago - 2008

Last Tuesday night, once again from Grant Park, “the whole world was watching.” And how that world has changed. In the 40 years since I first walked the mean streets of Chicago, a lot of progress has been made. In 1968, a white college student could not enter an all-black neighborhood without arousing suspicion and recrimination. Tough black street gang members were afraid to enter the all-white suburbs to the north and west of Chicago. A conversation I had with some of the Black Stone Rangers will stay with for the rest of my life: “Al, we have been told that in the suburbs, like Wheaton, where your college is located, the white folks have machine guns behind their hedges in case any black people try to come into their neighborhood. Is that true?” Fear ruled – on both sides of the racial divide. “They” were as much afraid of “us” as “we” were of “them.”

So, last Tuesday, as I watched the images being beamed by satellite from Grant Park, my heart was full and my mind was racing – back to 1968 and forward into the future. Thus I was moved to tears when I heard our next President proclaim: “We are not just a collection of Red States and Blue States. We are and always will be the United States of America . . . It’s been a long time coming, . . . but change has come to America. . . To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help, and I will be your President, too. . . Our Union can be perfected. . . We have come so far, but there is so much left to do. . . Yes we can!”

As Obama’s earnest and eloquent words soared into our hearts and into our history, the TV cameras panned to the tear-stained face of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. And I was transported back to 1968 when he led Operation Breadbasket. I had Jackson’s home phone number in those days so that I could discuss with him whom we should invite to speak at Wheaton College for our event for racial reconciliation.

As Obama reminded us, “Yes we can,” the camera caught an ebullient Oprah Winfrey. And I was taken back to a day I spent with her on Chicago’s West Side. Oprah and I and two federal inmates worked side-by-side that day to build a Habitat for Humanity house for a poor black family. Black and white working together for a common cause.

So, you see, there are myriad reasons why my heart was full and my tears we flowing last week. Reflections of the past and ruminations about the future. Rejoicing with my adopted city over the history-making success of its adopted son.

May God grant wisdom to the man who spoke in Grant Park and who, with the power of his words and the force of his spirit, dispelled the ghosts of 40 years ago.

God bless America!

1 comment:

Di said...

Aging baby boomers scare me...agreeing more with McCain's policies than Obama!" Well, you are older than me!!!!!

I think you were exceedingly kind to the Chicago Police who picked you up more than once and showed you hospitality in their jails.

It was very emotional for so many reasons and thank you for a peek at your perspective.

I was reading a passage about the 1968 convention in Tom Browkaw's, BOOM, today. A very interesting look at a very confusing, hurtful time for our nation. We just now may be recovering from that time.