On the evening of July 11, 1951, one of the biggest riots in U.S. history began after a young black couple moved into an apartment in all-white Cicero, IL, west of Chicago. The husband, Harvey Clark, was a World War II veteran who migrated to Chicago from Mississippi and was working as a bus driver.
He and his wife Johnetta had been crammed with their two children in a two-room tenement with a family of five on the city’s overcrowded South Side. The couple found more space and cheaper rents in Cicero, closer to his work, but the sheriff turned them away when they first tried to move in.
With a court order in hand, the couple moved their belongings into the apartment on July 11, as a mob formed around them, heckling and throwing rocks. The mob, many of them eastern European immigrants, grew to as many as 4,000 by nightfall. The couple fled, unable to stay overnight in their new apartment.
That night, the mob stormed the apartment and hurled the family’s belongings out of a third floor window: the sofa, the chairs, the clothes, the baby pictures. The mob tore out the fixtures: the stove, the radiators, the sinks. They smashed the piano, overturned the refrigerator, bashed in the toilet. They set the family’s belongings on fire and then firebombed the building, leaving even the white tenants homeless.
The rioters overturned police cars and threw stones at firefighters who tried to put out the fire. The Illinois Governor, Adlai Stevenson, had to call in the National Guard for the first time since the 1919 race riots in Chicago. It took more than 600 guardsmen, police officers and sheriff’s deputies to beat back the mob that night and three more days for the rioting over the Clarks to subside.
The Clarks were prevented from spending a single night in Cicero. A total of 118 men were arrested in the rioting but none were indicted. Instead, the rental agent and the owner of the apartment building were indicted for inciting a riot by renting to the Clarks in the first place. The Cicero riot attracted worldwide attention and became a symbol of northern hostility to the arrival of millions of African Americans during the Great Migration.
— From the book, The Warmth of Other Suns