Could a Baltimore Happen in Chicago?

06/03/2015 08:42 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

Recently we have witnessed the unfortunate sequence of legitimate and responsible protest actions being hijacked by those who use the crowd effect of many marchers as a cover for their criminal activities of looting and burning. This same juxtaposition occurred 50 years ago this summer in Chicago and there are some lessons to be learned -- so history does not need to repeat itself.

It was clear that Chicago was in for a long hot summer when on May 22, 1965 the board of education reappointed superintendent of schools, Benjamin Willis -- and in so doing, violated assurances that leaders of the civil rights movement had received that Willis would retire. Nightly marches from Buckingham fountain to city hall and the board of education soon followed -- in some cases marchers were arrested for blocking traffic. During the third weekend in July, Martin Luther King arrived in Chicago and led a march of more than one thousand participants.

By far the most noteworthy marches were those led each evening by the comedian, Dick Gregory. On August 1 and 2 his group decided to march to the home neighborhood of Mayor Daley. A crowd of over one thousand neighbors gathered and the police, in order to avoid a major confrontation, ordered the 50 marchers to leave or be arrested. Gregory and most of his followers were arrested.

Soon thereafter on August 12 riots broke out on the west side when an undermanned fire truck killed a black women. At the height of the riot a police car was sent to the headquarters of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations to bring the convener and civil rights activist, Al Raby to the troubled streets.

While any riot is lamentable, by comparison to the turmoil that occurred in the Watts section of Los Angles at the same time, matters in Chicago were quickly brought under control, largely due to the actions of the police and the leaders of the civil rights movement.

So what are some guidelines that might insure that protests and the actions of today's civil rights movement are not compromised by unlawful elements? Certainly, a network that pulls together churches, community groups and activist organizations can help organize and focus the demonstrations. And leaders who are known to public officials make it possible to have conversations and coordinate responses when actions on the street turn "ugly". A riot weakens the influence of the civil rights movement -- Raby spoke to the rioters, telling them that they were hurting the efforts of those who had been working so hard to correct the injustices.

The big challenge today is the need for the police, who are seen as part of the problem, to play their important role in monitoring and protecting those marching and demonstrating. During the high drama events of the 1960s the actions of the Chicago police were very constructive -- preventing Gregory and his marchers from being mobbed by the hecklers and protecting those of us who marched to the Chicago Lawn neighborhood during the summer of 1966 when King was in town to protest housing discrimination. On the march I joined, we were soon on the receiving end of rocks and bottles and the police wisely diverted our march back to a safer neighborhood.[1]

A Presidential task force has just released its report on 21st Century policing. This report makes important recommendations: "Community and police jointly share responsibility for civil dialogue and interaction. Law enforcement agencies should work with community residents to identity problems and collaborate on implementing solutions that produce meaningful results for the community." It is encouraging to note the number of efforts underway around the country to foster better relations between police departments and the communities they serve.

Chicago need not become another Baltimore.

[1] A Decisive Decade: An Insider's View of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s, Southern Illinois University Press, 2013.

Robert B. McKersie is the author of A Decisive Decade: Inside the Chicago Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s, published by Southern Illinois University Press. He is Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, MA.