November 6, 2015
Reaction Paper #2
Comparing 1968 Chicago to Present Day Fredericksburg
The Chicago of 1968 and present day Fredericksburg have almost nothing in common. They vary in size and racial makeup of population, they are in different parts of the country and are separated in time by roughly half a century. However, the comparison of the two is a valuable one as it illuminates which methods for achieving racial equality that hold the most value.
Chicago’s historical race relations are riddled with inequality, discrimination, and abuse. Chicago crowded its black citizens into two small ghettos, provided them with infrequent and unsavory employment opportunities, and attempted to segregate them entirely from the white population. Its reasons for doing these things are difficult to untangle, but stem primarily from Chicago’s status as a large, northern, primarily white city.(Abu-Lughod, 2007)
Historically speaking, Fredericksburg’s treatment of black people has been relatively uncomplicated. Fredericksburg is southern and small, which prevented many of the issues that arose in Chicago. However, simple is not a euphemism for better; historical race relations in Fredericksburg were markedly worse than those of Chicago. Not only was racism more prevalent in Fredericksburg during the twentieth century, but slavery was alive and well for much of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the corner of William and Charles Streets served as a slave auction block, and many of the taverns that lined Caroline Street sold slaves from their front porches and stoops. Slaves could even be purchased at the courthouse on Princess Anne Street. (Fitzgerald, n.d.) Fredericksburg’s historical abuse and commodification of black people is unmistakable, which left quite a hurdle for its present day citizens who are seeking racial equality.
In Chicago the Riot of April 1968 left little room for doubt among politicians: something had to be done to combat the racial tensions and ensuing violence. Taking this fact into consideration, Mayor Daley decided to establish a Riot Study Committee. The Committee made 39 recommendations on how to prevent another race riot from taking pace. Chief among them were closing ghetto schools if another incendiary event like the assassination of Martin Luther King should occur, calling the National Guard in early, should the beginning stages of a riot be seen, and improving police equipment and training. Of course, there are many vague—and somewhat condescending—recommendations that are not blatantly racist (like that “the skill, experience and financial support of downtown institutions (private as well as public) must be made available to the ghetto communities”); however, none of the recommendations are specific enough to be put into action, and all of them were ignored. (Abu-Lughod, 2007) Had the Riot Study Committee realized that race relations are difficult to manage from a top-down approach, then they might have made different recommendations. They might have even recommended that citizens simply gather and talk—the approach that Fredericksburg is taking today. Roughly one year ago Fredericksburg hosted a town hall discussion in which local residents gathered for a “dialogue and story sharing session…about the impact of race and racism on [their] lives and the community.” The discussion was a success and the participants reported that, “it was freeing to be able to open up, and also reassuring to hear other people’s stories. They felt connected to the others with whom they shared their experiences.” (Sidersky, 2014)
When comparing the Chicago of 1968 to modern day Fredericksburg, there are several things to keep in mind. First of all, Fredericksburg has had the benefit of almost fifty years to grow and learn and work towards equality. Fredericksburg also started from a much more blatantly racist place, which facilitated the combat against it. Because Chicago is a northern city, its racial issues were (and continue to be) more subtle, and thus more difficult to tackle. It should also be noted that the means by which black people came to live in Fredericksburg and Chicago were drastically different; in Fredericksburg black people were largely brought as slaves and remained after being freed, while in Chicago black people migrated there after in search of work after being freed. These elements make it somewhat difficult to fairly compare the two cities side-by-side.
However, this comparison is not an attempt to shame the Chicago of years past or proclaim Fredericksburg to be a beacon of racial equality—it is not. This comparison serves only to illuminate the fact that racial tensions are best assuaged from the bottom up. Equality is not issued or signed into existence. It is coaxed forth by citizens who are willing to talk and work openly about racial inequality. Of course, this is not to suggest that the government does not have a role in race relations—it does—this is only to say that bringing about racial equality does not lie on the shoulders of our government, it lies on the shoulders of each individual American citizen.
Abu-Lughod, J. L. (2007). Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fitzgerald, R. (n.d.). African-American History of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Retrieved November 06, 2015, from http://www.librarypoint.org/african_american_history_of_fredericksburg_virginia
Sidersky, R. (2014, November 14). Race Relations Draw Discussion at Town Hall Meeting. Retrieved November 6, 2015, from http://www.fredericksburg.com/news/race-relations-draw-discussion-at-town-hall-meeting/article_eaecda64-fe1f-5ef0-a77e-31e6f445ece2.html