Chicago: The Spirit of Medgar Evers
at 1142 North Orleans
Revolutionary Worker #987, December 20, 1998
For the city authorities, real estate developers and banks of Chicago, 1142 North Orleans is just another building standing in the way of their "progress." They are preparing their wrecking ball to bring it down--as one more step toward eliminating the Cabrini Green housing projects and dispersing the Black community.
For people of this neighborhood, 1142 North Orleans holds special memories and connections--links to their hopes, to their struggles in the past and the present. "This was where Medgar Evers stayed," they say. Some remember the warm summer evenings in the late '50s, when the carefully dressed young activist from the Mississippi Delta would sit on the 1142 stoop on Orleans Street.
By the 1950s, 1142 N. Orleans was over a half century old, and had sheltered people all through the explosive growth of Chicago's Black communities. Many folks moved into the three-story apartment building as they arrived, full of hope, "up North" from the plantation South. As Chicago's elite plunged into the wholesale construction of federally financed housing projects, working class families stayed in 1142, waiting for apartments in the nearby Cabrini Green highrises that were supposed to hold so much promise.
So when the famous fighter against segregation Medgar Evers arrived in Chicago, people in Chicago's Black community were eager to meet him. They knew well the hard realities of Black life "down home" in the Mississippi Delta--and they wanted to see for themselves this man who dared challenge the powerful and heartless machinery of Jim Crow. And the people of the Cabrini Green neighborhood came to pour out their own stories--about life in Chicago--how the power structure conspired to keep them penned into crowded streets, how the Chicago police played their role in the enforced segregation, and how Black people were regularly beaten for crossing into nearby neighborhoods.
Medgar Evers was a field representative of the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi. He came to Chicago in 1955, to gather information about a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till, who was lynched by white racists.
One of today's Cabrini activists, Margo Crawford, recalls playing with Emmett Till when she was a young girl in Chicago's Altgeld Gardens housing projects. Emmett Till went "down home"--to spend the summer of 1955 with family friends living on a plantation near Money, Mississippi.
Emmett Till already knew about segregation Chicago-style when he rode in the "colored car" of the railroad into the south that summer. But he was a fun-loving city kid--who liked to dress smart and talk the talk. He showed his new friends a picture of a white girl from his school up north, and when one of his new friends dared him to speak to a white woman in the local grocery store, Emmett playfully said "bye baby." Three days later, on August 28, two armed white men drove through the cotton fields to Moses Wright's shack and took Emmett off in their car. His body was found decomposing in the nearby Tallahatchie River. One of his eyes had been gouged out and his head was beaten in. A cotton gin fan had been attached to his neck with barbed wire--to weight him down in the muddy waters.
This lynching deeply shocked Chicago's Black community. Thousands of people lined the city streets for days to view Emmett's open casket and express their outrage. Medgar Evers came to Chicago repeatedly to meet with Emmett's family, to gather evidence, and to help expose the case in the Black press.
Dr. Nehemiah Russell, a leading activist in Cabrini Green, remembers the times when Medgar Evers came to Chicago, and stayed at 1142 North Orleans: "It seems like he was always writing when he stayed there. And he was in and out, going to meetings a lot." This work helped create the civil rights movement--it created awareness and support among Black people in the Northern cities and among progressive people of all nationalities.
The Klan threatened to kill any Black person who testified against the men who murdered Emmett Till. So there was jubilation when Moses Wright dared to stand tall in the courtroom and sweep his arm to confront each of the murderers. Afterwards it was Medgar Evers who helped Moses Wright escape from Mississippi. When an all-white jury quickly found these killers "not guilty"--the whole Jim Crow system stood exposed in the glare of a national spotlight.
These were the events that Medgar Evers discussed on those summer nights on the stoop of 1142 North Orleans. And these were some of the contributions that people remembered on June 12, 1963, when they heard the terrible news that Medgar Evers had been assassinated in his driveway by a racist sniper.
1142 North Orleans marks a special moment in the history of Chicago's Black community. It marks the days when resistance in the Deep South touched them like an electric shock--when that spark ignited their anger over the horrors and indignities that have shaped Black life in the U.S., North and South. And this is one of the reasons that people of the Cabrini Green neighborhood say that this historic building at 1142 North Orleans should be preserved and honored.
Urban Cleansing of the '90s
It is now 1999--over forty years after people met Medgar Evers on the stoop of 1142. And this apartment building on North Orleans has suddenly taken on a new role in the struggle.
Today, 1142 stands alone on a block of rubble next to the Cabrini Green projects. The surrounding buildings have been torn down. The City of Chicago now owns 1142 North Orleans after they seized it from Patricia White by declaring "eminent domain"--a legal way officials have of saying, "Gimme." The city has torn down the surrounding buildings and they are prepared to send in their wrecking ball.
The leveling of this block is just one step in a far larger plan to destroy Cabrini Green--and public housing itself. For years, bankers and political officials have eyed the Black community of Chicago's Near North Side. They see the potential for huge profits if they can remove the thousands of poor Black families of Cabrini Green. And the city planners fear having such a large concentration of poor people so close to the glitter of their downtown.
The Chicago Housing Authority has allowed the housing projects to deteriorate. They let the heat and the water and the elevators and every other necessity of life to fall apart. They have left apartments vacant and uncared for. Meanwhile, the authorities have torn down one Cabrini Green highrise after another. And they have seized and demolished homes and businesses in the surrounding Black community.
As blocks have been cleared, new expensive "town homes" have been built--and for the new inhabitants there are now new malls, a library and a new school. There is a special bitterness for the inhabitants of Cabrini that all these new facilities and shopping areas are being built--just as they are being forced out. Cabrini residents shake their heads as they point out that the park scheduled to replace 1142 N. Orleans will be equipped with horseshoe pits. Clearly, they say, this park is not intended for them.
Unfortunately for the authorities, that spirit of Medgar Evers has resurfaced in this community and in this historic building. There has been a movement brewing in Cabrini Green against the conditions and police harassment that people face--and against the plans to remove them from their homes. And a new generation of young fighters for the people resides at 1142.
Now home to the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB), 1142 North Orleans has become a symbol of the need to stop the destruction of low income homes and the Black community of Cabrini Green. Over 200 Cabrini Green residents have signed a petition defending 1142 North Orleans. They point out that it is structurally sound and is historically important. Their petition adds, "We are opposed to the policy of the city's tearing down everything in the community and feel that this policy is part of a two-part attack on the less affluent Black residents of the Near North Side. One part is getting rid of our history. The other part is erasing everything in the neighborhood so the physical community itself is gone.... We want 1142 North Orleans preserved, re-habbed and put to use to serve the community in a continuing way. In a phrase we say, as we say about public housing, `Fix it up--Don't tear it down!' "
Dr. Nehemiah Russell, principal of the nearby Cabrini-Green Middle College, says that his school has earmarked 1142 North Orleans as a site for vocational training for students at his alternative high school. "It would adequately train the students to get jobs on the Cabrini-Green redevelopment project," he said.
Grant Newberger, a resident of 1142 North Orleans, adds: "The house is literally and figuratively in the middle of an issue about the displacement of Black people from the land. It stands in the way of the national model for eliminating public housing and breaking up the communities of the oppressed."
The people of this community are attempting to "draw a line" against the plans of the developers and financial speculators to destroy even more low-income housing and disperse the Black people of this neighborhood.
The Blood of the Youth and the Spirit of Resistance
On Monday, November 30, the whole Cabrini Green area was extremely tense. The Chicago police had executed a young Black man, Brennan King, in the stairwell of one of the projects a few days before. It had been the third police killing in the projects this year--each of them by bullets in the back.
There was resistance, there had been a public rally in the projects, and people announced plans for a protest march the next day on Tuesday.
A plainclothes police car pulled up in Monday's late evening darkness, in front of 1142 North Orleans, and cops stepped out to confront two young activists leaving the building. One cop announced that he knew "what you are up to in this area"--and the other openly threatened one of the young women, saying "you could get killed for that."
The authorities are very aware that 1142 N. Orleans today has become part of the struggle for Cabrini Green. Banners in the windows can be seen from passing elevated trains, proclaiming "Stop Urban Cleansing." On the wall inside are the words "It's time for heroes." On the door, Black Panther-style, are "points of discipline" that lay out house regulations, and nearby on the wall a poster of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the revolutionary activist on death row in Pennsylvania. The activists here are Maoists, and these days 1142 North Orleans is often known simply as the "Brigade House." For years, the Brigaders have been deeply involved here in the struggle to save people's homes--joining in "Fix 'em up" campaigns with residents to make these neglected projects livable. They have stood firm with the people in the face of police raids and the constant threat of arrest and brutality--while working hard to seek out allies for this struggle and help expose the injustices widely throughout society.
AK Small, a well-known RCYB activist in the Cabrini struggle, says, "This whole community is under attack. And the destruction of Cabrini is being used as a national model--a pattern for removing and dispersing oppressed people and offering up their communities to real estate developers and banks. The whole process puts profits first, and the people a distant second. We have seen them attack the projects here, but also small property owners and immigrant merchants. And now they are coming to destroy our Brigade House. This house is part of the people's resistance. And the fight to save this house has become a way people are taking on the oppressor now--not letting them just beat everyone down and drive everyone out."
Predictably, the residents of this Brigade House have been targeted for daring to stand with the people of Cabrini Green. The media portrays the residents of Cabrini Green housing projects as "criminals" who have no right to speak--and then portrays their allies and supporters as "outsiders" who have no right to speak.
Medgar Evers had some useful words on this point in a famous TV rebuttal he made to the Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early '60s: "Now the Mayor says that if the so-called `outside agitators' would leave us alone everything would be all right. That has always been the position of those who would deny any Negro citizens their constitutional rights." He added, "The mayor spoke of the 24-hour police protection we have... There are questions in the minds of many Negroes whether we have 24 hours of protection or 24 hours of harassment." The lessons from Mississippi, 30 years ago, still apply in Chicago in 1999.
Even before the recent police threats, the activists of the Brigade House were targeted by the authorities. AK Small and another activist Shawn Wall are scheduled to go on trial in mid-February for charges stemming from protests of Cabrini Green residents against plans to tear their homes down.
The petition of Cabrini Green residents says: "The current residents of 1142 N. Orleans, members of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, have made their apartment into a center from which they serve the community. They have done video showings, community meetings and discussion of issues in the struggle to save public housing among others at the House."
As these words are written, the City of Chicago is pressing ahead with their plans to destroy 1142 North Orleans. A new hearing will soon be called at which the City attorneys will demand final legal approval for the destruction of the building. When the power structure and real estate investors look at this house all they see is an obstacle to their profits and their plans. But to the people here at Cabrini this house is a monument--linking the past to the present and symbolizing a spirit of resistance that refuses to give ground to the bulldozers.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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