The Cicero Race Riot of 1951 occurred in July 11-12, 1951, when a mob of 4,000 whites attacked an apartment building that housed a single black family in a neighborhood in Cicero, Cook County, Illinois.
The aftermath of World War II saw a revival of white attacks on blacks, mostly on Chicago’s South and Southwest Sides, but also in the western industrial suburb of Cicero. Aspiring African American professionals seeking to obtain improved housing beyond the increasingly overcrowded South Side ghetto, whether in private residences or in the new public housing developments constructed by the Chicago Housing Authority, were frequently greeted by attempted arsons, bombings, and angry white mobs often numbering into the thousands.
In early June 1951, Mrs. DeRose, who owned an apartment, got into a controversy with her tenants and was ordered to refund a portion of the rent. Afterwards, out of anger and/or profit, she rented an apartment to Harvey E. Clark, Jr., an African American war veteran and a graduate of Fisk University, and his family in an all-white neighborhood in Cicero. A high Cicero official found out that an African-American family was moving into a Cicero apartment and warned Mrs. DeRose that there would be “trouble” if he moved in. At 2:30 pm, in June 8, a moving van containing $2000 worth of Clark’s furniture was stopped by the police. The rental agent was ushered out with a drawn revolver at his back. Then the jeering crowd started to gather and Clark was told by the police to get out or he would be arrested “for protective custody”. A detective warned Clark that, “I’ll bust your damned head if you don’t move”. At 6:00 pm, Clark was grabbed by 20 police officers. The chief of police then told him, “Get out of here fast. There will be no moving into this building.” Clark was hit eight times when he was pushed towards the car which was parked across the street and was shoved inside the car. The police told him, “Get out of Cicero and don’t come back in town or you’ll get a bullet through you.”
The suit was filed in by the NAACP against the Cicero police on June 26.
After the incident with the officers, word was passed along that there would be “fun” at the apartment. On July 11, 1951, at dusk, a crowd of 4,000 whites attacked the apartment building that housed Clark’s family and possessions. Only 60 police officers were assigned to the scene and did little to control the rioting. Women carried stones from a nearby rockpile to bombard Clark’s windows. Another tossed firebrands onto the window and into the rooftops in which 21 family members already fled before the rioting. The mob also destroyed a bathtub, woodworks, plaster, doors, windows, and set fires to the place. Most whites joined in the rioting were teenagers. Fireman who rushed to the building was met with bombs of bricks and stones from the mob. The shieff deputies asked the fireman to turn their hose on the rioters but refused to do so without their lieutenant who was unavailable. The situation appeared to be out of control and County Sheriff John E. Babbs asked Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson to send in the Illinois National Guard. The troops began to arrive at the scene but the rioters fought with them. Armed with bayonets, rifle butts, and tear gas, the troops finally had the riot under control by setting a 300-yard perimeter around the apartment block in which the rioters were trying to wreck. By July 14, most of the violence had ended. When the riot was over, $20,000 in damage was done to the building.
A grand jury indicted four Cicero officials and three police officers on charges of violating Clark’s rights in connection with the race riots after the United States Attorney General launched an investigation in the incident. Charges were then dropped against the fire chief, who refused to fire their water hose on the rioters when asked by police, and the town’s President. The police chief and two policeman were fined a total of $2,500 for violating Clark’s civil rights. The federal prosecution was hailed as a courageous achievement in stepping up to someone civil rights since it was rare that civil rights in housing had often stirred action by federal officials before.
The Cicero Race Riot of 1951, in particular, lasting several nights and involving roughly two to five thousand white protesters, attracted worldwide condemnation. It was the first race riot to be broadcast on local television. Most viewed the uprising in Cicero from their comfort of the living rooms on TVs before they read it in the papers. The press in the 1940s Chicago housing attacks was largely ignored in the past but when the eruption occurred in Cicero in 1951, it brings a worldwide condemnation for the first time and dramatic climax to an era of a large scale house disorder. The black population continued to increase in Chicago despite the incident and the Chicago Housing Authority reported the decrease of numbers of black families request for police protection. Although the house assaults did not end, its problem was less frequent than the immediate aftermath of World War II.