The Chicago Non-Defender’s Cowardly Cuddle with Anti-Communist Cancel Culture

The Chicago Defender and the “Eye of the [Racist-Imperialist United States] Government” One Century Ago

First, some haunting history. In early 1918, an agent from United States (US) Military Intelligence visited the offices of The Chicago Defender, the most influential Black newspaper in the US. Read by masses of Black folks north and south, the Defender was “known for its exposes of lynching and Black disenfranchisement.”  The intelligence agent told the Defender’s editor that “the eye of government” was “centered on his paper” and that “he would be held strictly responsible and accountable for any article” that could be seen as undermining Black loyalty to the US government.

“That eye seems to have accomplished its aim,” the historian Adam Hochschild writes in his remarkable and chilling book American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, “for the Defender, although continuing its protests against lynching and discrimination, now filled many columns with expressions of patriotism.  The editors present [and American] flag to Black infantry regiment and pledged to buy Liberty Bonds with money that he had put aside toward a new press and building” (American Midnight, p. 117).

The previous year the influential Black leader W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and editor of the influential civil rights magazine Crisis, “urged his readers to ‘close ranks’ with white Americans in the fight against Germany.”  As Hochschild explains, DuBois had “no illusions about the sacredness of the Allied cause” and was “keenly aware of the rivalry of all the major European powers over colonies in Africa…..[but] he “was an activist whose prime loyalty was to his fellow Black Americans.  He fervently hoped, like millions of them, that if Black soldiers fought bravely, the country would treat them more fairly once the war was over.”

“The Cries of the Condemned Men”: Unrewarded Patriotism

How did this outward flag-waving Black American patriotism work out for Black people living in racist America? Not very well. Here is one the many horrible stories told in American Midnight:

“The military made sure that, even in uniform, Blacks lived in fear.  At Camp Dodge, in Iowa [in 1918] for example, all men stationed there were ordered to witness the hanging of three Black soldiers who had allegedly raped a young white woman…The 3,000 troops of the all-Black 92nd Division in training at the camp were deliberately placed in the front ranks before the specially  constructed gallows.. ‘All were unarmed,’ reported one eyewitness, ‘while the white soldiers and officers were armed with rifles and revolvers.’ Horror-stricken, Black men who had hoped that serving in the military might lead to a better life found themselves forced to watch what looked all too much like a lynching…It was a …shattering experience… ‘The cries of the condemned men echoed and echoed [a local newspaper reported]. Soon the shrieks of Negro soldiers, unwilling and terrified spectators, driven into a hysterical state, added to the sickening scene.’” (American Midnight, p. 115)

Lynchings? Hochschild describes many examples of that terrible practice deployed against Black Americans during and after the World War I (see American Midnight, pp. 107-08, 114, 115, 138, 250-52).  He also records the attempted lynching of “Omaha’s unusually enlightened mayor, Edward Smith,” for trying to intervene against a white, Omaha, Nebraska, mob that burned down a courthouse containing a Black man accused of raping a white woman in the summer of 1919.

Omaha was the scene for one the many “white riots” – racist pogroms – that took place in more than two dozen US during the “red summer” of 1919. “The worst violence of all,” Hochschild notes:

“was in Phillips County, Arkansas. The killers included American Legion members who joined a sheriff’s posse, other vigilantes from outside the county, and 550 federal troops. There were at least 103 known Black deaths, but some estimates put the total number at double that or higher. One reason nobody could completely pin down the toll, in an echo of what happened in East St. Louis two years earlier, is that many dead bodies were thrown in the Mississippi River…The Justice Department made no move to investigate the leaders of the white mobs that instigated almost all the killings, instead looking for signs of IWW or Bolshevik influence among Black protesters” (American Midnight, p. 255).

Chicago itself was home to a massive racial conflagration in July of 1919. White-Irish “mobs roamed the streets, puling Blacks out of streetcars, Hochschild reports, with “cars full of white gang members…firing at random” in Black neighborhoods. When Black Chicagoans defended themselves they were shot at by racist police.

American Midnight’s epilogue recounts a soul-chilling anti-Black pogrom in which white vigilantes and local authorities burned down Tulsa, Oklahoma’s unusually large and prosperous Black business district.  The carnage left “more than 1,400 business and homes covering 35 blocks…in charred, smoking ruins” in late May and early June of 1921. The death toll reached 300, with nearly all the victims Black. “The National Guard arrested 4000 Black people, keeping many as long as eight days.  No whites were taken into custody.” The cause was a spurious claim that a Black man had threatened a white woman. Reflecting the proto-fascist spirit of the Red Scare times, the Los Angeles Times actually reported that “Bolshevik propaganda was the principal cause of the riot”  (American Midnight, pp. 355-56).

Much the same irony was repeated on a less grisly scale during and after World War II, when murderous anti-Black violence was far from prevented by Black service in the US military or by the Defender’s  (and the rest of the Black press’s) “patriotic” embrace of the inter-imperialist Second World War. If anything, as during and after WWI, violent white reaction was sparked by the existence of Black men in military uniform under the banner of the Stars and Stripes, which elicited white fears of Black equality and power. (My Uncle Connie, stationed for training in Fort Dix, Kentucky, wrote back to his South Dakota family in 1942 about how the US Army “sure keeps the colored soldiers under control!”)

“The Mournful Wail of Millions”

American history is loaded with stories of Black loyalty to the Star-Spangled Banner being rewarded with blood-soaked oppression.  Five thousand Black men fought in the American Continental Army during the American War for Independence only to see the American “revolution” create an imperial republic whose remarkable economic expansion over the next seven-plus decades relied on the savagely racist and largely torture-based system of Black chattel slavery. Looking back on this “revolution” in 1852, the great Black escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass reflected with bitter and brilliant oratory:

“Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them… What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour… for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

It wasn’t the Confederate Flag (born in 1861) that flew on the porches of planter homes attached to slave labor camps across the expanding sea of cotton that was the Antebellum US South (1816-1861), of course; it was “the Star-Spangled Banner,” the US flag. The US national anthem bearing that name is a racist, pro-slavery tune penned by the white lawyer Francis Scott Key, who “spoke of Black people as ‘a distinct and inferior race’ and supported emancipating the enslaved only if they were immediately shipped to Africa…During the Andrew Jackson administration,” the Washington Post reported three years ago, “Key served as the district attorney for Washington, D.C., where he spent much of his time shoring up enslavers’ power. He strictly enforced slave laws and prosecuted abolitionists who passed out pamphlets mocking his jurisdiction as the ‘land of the free, home of the oppressed.’”  His song’s third verse contains these lines, referring at the outset to Black American slaves who tried to escape bondage and torture by taking up British offers of freedom and land in return for military service during the War of 1812:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The Black singer Jill Scott’s re-work of the US National Anthem last July 4th would have made Frederick Douglass proud.“Oh say, can you see, by the blood in the streets,” Scott sang, slowing her voice so every word reverberated: “That this place doesn’t smile on you, colored child. Whose blood built this land with sweat and their hands. But we’ll die in this place and your memory erased. Oh say does this truth hold any weight?”  Ms. Scott’s rendition ends by replacing Key’s “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” with “This is not the land of the free but the home of the slaves.”

Two-hundred thousand of Black Americans served in the Union Army and Navy under the US-American Flag during the Civil War only to see Black slavery largely reinvented under new names in the proto-fascistic, racially terrorist, and persistently cotton-extracting Jim Crow South. Then came: mass Black ghettoization (the concentration of millions of poor Black people in de-industrialized and opportunity-bereft communities) in the north and across the nation; an ongoing half-century of racist mass Black arrest, incarceration, and felony branding; chronic racist police brutality including recurrent and indeed chronic cop slaughter of Black people; the brazen underfunding and ill-equipping of persistently hyper-segregated Black schools; endemic anti-Black hiring, lending, and real estate discrimination and numerous other contemporary forms of US-American racism, deeply understood.  Reflecting the massive cumulative inter-generational disparities produced by persistent anti-Black racial oppression, the current US racial wealth gap is so extreme that Black median household net worth is equivalent to seven cents on the white median household dollar. Life expectancy in the affluent and predominantly white Chicago neighborhood of Streeterville exceeds that in the Black South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood by thirty years – an entire generation!

“Reparations” for two and a half centuries of North American Black chattel slavery are long overdue but they would need to be supplemented by the equally incalculable compound interest compensation for the ongoing and outrageous record of US racism, deeply understood, since 1865.  Such is the harsh reality imposed by the mutually reinforcing interactions of American capitalism and American racism.  Reparations are a nice idea but what’s really needed is a revolution over and against this savagely racist, sexist, and imperialist profits system.

“The Bud Billiken Parad is Not the Time or Place for Political or Social Agendas”

How sad and telling a century after the proto-fascistic office of US Military Intelligence menaced the Chicago Defender to learn that the Black bourgeois Chicago Defender Charities Board chose this summer to ban the Revolution Club of Chicago from participating in Black Chicago’s annual Bud Billiken Parade through Chicago’s Black South Side. The parade is the creation of the early 20th Century Black lawyer, publisher and editor Robert Abbot. Abbot founded the Defender in 1905.  It grew to have “the highest circulation of any black-owned newspaper in the country. An early adherent of the Baháʼí Faith in the United States,” his Wikipedia bio reports, “Abbott founded the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic in August 1929. The parade, which has developed into a celebration for youth, education and African–American life in Chicago, Illinois, is the second largest parade in the United States.” As Wikipedia elaborates:

“The Bud Billiken Day Parade is the largest African-American parade in the United States. Held annually on the city’s south side on the second Saturday in August, the parade route travels on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive through the Bronzeville and Washington Park neighborhoods. At the end of the parade, in the historic Washington public park is a picnic and festival. Robert S. Abbott, the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, created the fictional character of Bud Billiken, which he featured in a youth advice column in his paper. David Kellum, co-founder of the newspaper-sponsored Bud Billiken Club and longtime parade coordinator suggested the parade as a celebration of African-American life. Since its beginning, the parade has featured celebrities, politicians, businessmen, civic organizations and youth. It[‘s]…focus is on celebrating youth, education, and African-American life. The parade is also cited as the ‘back-to-school’ celebration, marking the end of summer vacation and resuming of school for Chicago’s youth.”

The Revolution Club Chicago, a revolutionary socialist organization located in the Black South Side neighborhood of South Shore, has participated in the parade for many years, winning applause from South Side residents for its strident opposition to the United States’ foundationally and fundamentally racist capitalist-imperialist order.

What changed this year? Why was the radical group cancelled from the parade in 2023? In a poorly written, un-edited letter sent to the Chicago Revolution Club by the Black bourgeois Chicago Defender Charities Board (CDCB), parade gatekeepers cited a video showing a club member tearing up a US flag during the 2019 procession:

“There was an incident on thep arade route were member of The Revolution Club of Chicago encouraged our childrent o rip an American flag. This was captured on video and went viral on the internet. The Chicago Defender Charities received several very real threats from right wings extremist groups to harm those children and to hurt parade participants. Those actions were irresponsible and but thousands of people who participate in our parade in harms way just spread ‘Your Agenda,’ and not the one of the parade or those innocent children. Our decision is specifically based on the behavior of the Revolution Club of Chicago. The Bud Billiken™ Parade is for Parade is for children. It’s purpose is to provide entertainment and recreation for them and their families. Charities reserves the right to deny permission to participate in the Bud Billiken™ Parade or After Parade Activities to any individual, group, company or organization that does not fully comply with our rules, the mission of this organization…Inconclusion, the Bud Billiken Parade and Festival is not the time or place for political or social agendas. It’s a celebration of culture a black excellence, and or opportunity to promote education within our community. About 70 % of the organization/Corporations that participate we work with 365 days of the year not just on parade day.” (PS: I have resisted the temptation to correct the numerous typographical errors in this note, preferring to leave them intact to suggest the cynical indifference at the heart of the CDCB’s engagement in anti-communist cancel culture.)

Why the four-year delay in cancelling the club from the biggest Black parade in the US because of an “incident” that took place in 2019? What has happened this year to change the CDCB’s mind?  The letter gives no answers.

The parade is “not the time or place for political or social agendas”? Seriously? That statement is   laughably absurd and hypocritical: major party and especially Democratic Party politicians and activists have marched prominently in the parade for as long as it has existed.  As the Chicago Sun Times reported on the event two weeks ago, “Dancers, politicians and other parade participants were cheered on by spectators in the crowd, who sang and danced to rap, house and hip-hop beats.”  Yes, “politicians,” as usual, including white ones alongside the city’s new Black mayor and other Black elected officials.   Do these politicians have any “political and social  agendas” that make them want to appear in the nation’s largest Black parade by any chance?

The 2019 flag “incident” provoked “very real threats from right wings extremist groups”? Gosh, does the CDCB propose to surrender a constitutionally protected free speech right – the right to destroy the US flag, an objective banner of white supremacist oppression and empire – to fascist threats of violence? Is the CDCB aware that white racist terrorists regularly threaten violence against any expressions of Black freedom, rights, and identity, hardly requiring the presence of socialist revolutionaries to menace public assembly and free speech?  Does the CDCB really want to teach Chicago’s Black children that the proper response to fascist intimidation is to cower and stay home? That’s an insult to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Does the CDCB know that public libraries now face regular threats of violence from the Amerikaner right?  Shall those vital public cultural institutions lock their doors?

If right-wing terrorists threaten voters with violence in Black precincts next year, should Black Americans in contested states avoid the ballot on Election Day? Should fascist threats convince parishioners not to attend Black churches?

Here (below) is an eloquent letter sent to the CDCB last August 9th by Gregory ‘Joey’ Johnson, a revolutionary communist who was the defendant in the high court ruling that found the burning of the US flag to be constitutionally protected free speech:

“Dear Chicago Defender Charities, I write in response to your decision to ban the Revolution Club Chicago from participating in this year’s Bud Billiken Parade. This decision is not right, it is not just, and I strongly urge you to reverse it.

I was the defendant in the U.S. Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson (1989) that decided burning the American flag in protest is symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment. This was a hard fought for decision against government suppression of anti-patriotic expression. I am also a member of the Revolution Club.

In the summer of 2020, between 16 and 24 million people across the U.S., along with many more around the world, came out in the streets against the savage police murder of George Floyd. In the U.S., many people in these protests were tearing down symbols and monuments of white supremacy, and of course in many instances that included the American flag. I think more American flags were burned that summer than at any other time in U.S. history. This was a real people’s verdict on the flag and the oppression of Black people.

What if Jill Scott offered to sing her beautiful rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Bud Billiken Parade? Would you turn her away too? Would you say she was bringing her ‘agenda’ to the Parade?

Why is it that the ‘American patriotism’ which this system indoctrinates people with is perfectly legit, but when someone speaks truth about the horrible suffering through centuries of slavery and oppression Black people have suffered – of genocide of the native peoples – of the hundred years of Jim Crow segregation with tens of thousands of Black people lynched, and now the ongoing terror of police brutality and murder – along with all the ongoing mass incarceration of millions, disproportionately Black and brown, along with all the wars for American empire all over the planet – when you speak of any of that, all of a sudden: ‘You have an agenda.’

You make the point that the Parade is ‘for the children.’ But to allow Black children to grow up without exposure to these ANTI-patriotic, and politically revolutionary, ideas of the Revolution Club, does great damage to the importance of young people being able to think about and decide for themselves whether the future could be any different than the past and present?

You also note that the Chicago Defender Charities received several very real threats from right-wing extremist groups to harm Black children and other parade participants for shredding the flag. Well, yes, the fact of the matter is that the Republican Party has become a fascist party: banning Black history, claiming Black people ‘benefited from slavery,’ and has millions of its followers anxious for a civil war, thru which a fascist victory could establish an open and aggressive white supremacist, male supremacist, Christian fascist republic.

These are ALL powerful reasons to allow paradegoers the freedom to be informed about and to join the struggle against these fascists as part of preparing for a real revolution to overturn all these oppressive relations, including the oppression of Black people, as an important part of emancipating all of humanity. I urge you to reverse your decision, and to allow the Revolution Club Chicago to participate in the 2023 Bud Billiken Parade.”

Oppression systems past and present (American racist capitalism included) have long found and cultivated “elites” among subjugated groups to preach and enforce “loyal” obedience to reigning power structures.  In playing its role as part of the Black bourgeois mis-leadership class entrusted with that task, the CDCB has this summer cancelled Black (and white and brown) revolutionaries who know that the Star-Spangled Banner is a symbol of class, race, and gender oppression, slavey, genocide, war, and empire – a banner for a capitalist-imperialist system that menaces all of humanity with ecocide, pandemicide, imperial nuclear war, racism, sexism, and fascism.

Looking Ahead: Take a Stand Against Racist Hate and Jason Aldean in Chicagoland

Thankfully the Revolution Club Chicago does not need the CDCB’s approval to undertake its next action – leadership of a protest against the white-supremacist “country singer” Jason Aldean’s coming concert in the largely Black south suburbs of Chicago this coming Saturday. My next commentary will go into exactly how the club is correct to see Aldean’s hit song “Try That in a Small Town” as a fascist anthem (see Rafael Kadaris’s excellent analysis of this horrific tune as a “straight-up white supremacist lynching song and a rallying cry for civil war”).

Here is a recent call for action and request for support sent out by the Revolution Club Chicago:

“Jason Aldean’s mega hit, ‘Try That in a Small Town,’ is a vicious celebration of America’s lynch mob tradition that topped the country music charts for weeks this summer. It gives expression to a whole move by fascists, led by but not limited to Trump and the Republicans, to bring back the “good ol’ days” of undisguised white supremacist, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-immigrant violence and repression. Don’t take my word for it. Watch this video by Rafael Kadaris on the RNL (Revolution Nothing Less) Show that dissects the song and video.

Now, days after a Nazi racist mass shooter murdered three Black people in Jacksonville, FL, and a week after the assassination of shop owner Lauri Carlton for flying a gay pride flag in a California “small town,” Jason Aldean is coming to spew his Klan-loving poison in Chicagoland, out at Tinley Park. NO!

While Aldean didn’t directly cause those murders, he is guilty of celebrating and promoting a mindset that murders like these have grown out of historically AND right now. Where will YOU stand? We know the outcome when good people choose to ignore these fascist movements, hoping they will be exempt from the violence or someone else will stop them. And those outcomes are uniformly horrendous.

The Revcoms say:

No More Lynch Mobs in and out of Uniform!

No More Standing by while “Good Ol’ Boys” Prepare for Civil War!

We Need and We Demand a Whole New Way to Live. We Need to and We ARE Organizing for Revolution!

The Revcoms call on EVERYONE who is sick and tired of the growing racist, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-immigrant hatred and violence to join them in protest next Saturday, September 9, in Tinley Park.

If you understand the danger these armed fascists pose and the need to expose and protest their agenda, your contributions are urgently needed to make this action as powerful as it needs to be. The needs are many: join us in Tinley Park on Sept. 9, send a statement of your support to the Revolution Club Chicago, share their social media posts (@revclubchi and @TheRevcoms), help them find videographers and photographers, and donate to cover the expenses of the volunteers who are making this happen.

PROTEST, 6 PM Saturday, Sept 9, 191st & Oak Park Blvd, Tinley Park

Shuttle available near Arby’s in Brookside Marketplace Mall, 191st & Harlem, Tinley Park

Call, email or DM the Revolution Club Chicago to find out how you can help make this a powerful action:

Revolution Club 312 804 9121 * @revclubchi

Donations by PayPal or credit card can be made here.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).