[25 February 2008]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
If Chicago wins the 2016 Olympics, it won’t be the first time the city has hosted athletes joined together under a banner of world peace—although an earlier game was sanctioned not by the International Olympic Committee but by the Third International.
That’s just one of the many tidbits of the city’s history rescued from obscurity by Randi Storch, author of Red Chicago: American Communism and its Grassroots, 1928-35. Her book engagingly recounts the sunset years of Chicago’s reign as the radical capital of America. From 1886, when Chicago workers held the parade that would become the model for May Day celebrations, to the 1932 International Workers’ Athletic Meet, the city was a lodestone for those who felt the nation’s ills required drastic political surgery.
While that heritage is still honored abroad, how many contemporary Chicagoans would guess that May Day, the international workers’ holiday, was first celebrated here? Even the most dedicated devotees of sports trivia would probably scratch their heads at the news that in 1932, leftists staged at Staff Field on the University of Chicago’s campus a counterevent to the official Olympics held in Los Angeles.
It’s not just the passage of time that erased that heritage from Chicagoans’ minds. The McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s quickened the process. Communism became identified with Soviet totalitarianism. Even many leftists were persuaded to go amnesiac in the wake of notorious spy scandals, like the Rosenberg case. Yet Storch, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Cortland, argues that the documentary evidence doesn’t support a simplistic view of the years when radical politics were an everyday affair on Chicago’s street corners. Having studied previously inaccessible records in Moscow, she concludes:
“Chicago’s local records do not reveal espionage. Instead, they record Communists’ daily struggles facing police repression, mobilizing mass organizations, and raising workers’ political consciousness.”
Her research was prompted by a simple question: Why and how can workaday people be radicalized? Of course, it’s a telling fact that the records of communism in Chicago’s Bronzeville and Lawndale neighborhoods rest in Moscow. In contrast with earlier radical movements, American communism marched in lock step to a foreign drummer.
And American communists not only took their political instructions from the Soviets but, apparently, their sartorial styles as well. Storch cites the example of Richard Wright, the black novelist who became a communist during his years in Chicago. After his subsequent disillusionment, he recounted the slavish imitation of his former comrades “who, `in order to resemble Lenin, ... turned their shirt collars in to make a V at the front, and turned the visors of their caps backward, tilted upward at the nape of the neck.’ `When engaged in conversation, ... they stuck their thumbs in their suspenders or put their left hands into their shirt bosoms or hooked their thumbs into their back pockets as they had seen Lenin or Stalin do in photographs.”
Had it not been for Chicago’s radical heritage, Wright might not have had the opportunity to become disenchanted with white political allies. In the 1920s and ‘30s (indeed until after World War II), liberals, no less than other white Americans, had a virtually physical aversion to black Americans. But the Communist Party declared war on Jim Crow as well as on capitalism. Storch notes that Washington Park, lying between mostly white South Side neighborhoods and Bronzeville, was a political common ground. Its soapbox orators attracted interracial crowds to their message that racism was a trick of the bosses.
For many black Chicagoans, the party and communist-sponsored organizations offered their first chance to associate with whites. During the terrible years of the Depression, Chicago communists organized rent strikes and moved many an evicted family back into their apartments almost as quickly as sheriff’s deputies had set their belongings in the street.
The experience stayed with many black Chicagoans of that period, such as Dempsey Travis, subsequently a successful real estate entrepreneur and a historian of Chicago. “Growing up on Chicago’s South Side,” Storch observes, “Travis believed that any white person who talked to a black person was a Communist.”