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Successful Defense of Poor, Black Tenant in Landlord’s Shooting Shows Strength of Unlikely Coalitions

(Image: Haymarket Books)

“People Wasn't Made to Burn” by journalist Joe Allen reads like a lively, creative work of fiction with its abundance of larger-than-life characters and a seemingly overdramatized backstory of shocking events awaiting one black family escaping rural poverty in the South and landing amidst Northern urban racism.

The story includes corruption, greed, a heavy dose of Chicago political intrigue,and, finally, arson, death and murder. It even has a surprise ending.

It has all the ingredients of a late-night bedside read, but it is all too real.

It is, in fact, the actual and very personal story of one black sharecropping family from Mississippi that faced multiple tragedies after moving north to Chicago in 1947.

Within a year of their arrival, their dreams of a better life were extinguished. Four of their young children died in a fiery blaze in their overcrowded, dilapidated tenement.

Locked exit doors, inaccessible fire escapes and other intolerable conditions prevented the children from escaping.

Unsafe living conditions had previously been reported by the James Hickman family and ignored by apathetic police, inept fire department officials and corrupt city housing authorities.

After experiencing the horrific loss of four of his infant children, the inconsolably distraught father shot and killed the landlord thought to have set the fire.

The landlord had consistently escaped justice for his alleged unconscionable deeds through the bungling and apathy of Chicago officials when, finally, an emotionally overwhelmed Hickman took justice into his own hands.

He was promptly jailed and faced murder charges.

Though the events described are quite extraordinary, the experience of the Hickman family serves as the common narrative for millions of other southern blacks living in squalor in the North after World War II.

Who Is Really Guilty of Murder?

Woven throughout by the author is another important and instructive historical reference. It takes the reader through the formation of the Hickman Defense Committee and an inside look into its strategy and leadership by an assorted group of trade unionists, civil rights activists, attorneys, socialists and, of all things, prominent stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead, all of whom came forward to defend Hickman.

All united in one powerful defense committee intent on exposing the criminal living conditions prevailing in the black slums.

Fortunately, several committee members were already veterans of struggle. Frank Fried, my good friend, lone surviving member of the defense group and cited by Allen as the book's inspiration, was among them.

He now lives the retired life in Alameda, California, but was then fresh out of the Navy and unemployed. He was available to do the legwork of the committee.

“I had lots of energy. I was only 20 years old, and besides, I already considered myself a revolutionary,” he told me.

“Our small socialist group was working with Westside tenants around the brutal housing conditions before the Hickman case, so we were involved from the start of his defense, because we were part of the struggle from the start,” said Fried.

All that political and practical experience would come in handy, since Hickman freely admitted to shooting the landlord. Plus, there were hostile witnesses.

Nonetheless, the Hickman committee successfully turned the tables on city authorities for allowing such horrid social conditions to exist.

“The big thing,” Fried explained to me, “is that the Defense Committee created an atmosphere in Chicago, and, to a lesser degree, around the country, that made it impossible for them to convict him of murder. Significant sections of the labor movement, for example, backed Hickman.

“He was a worker, and he was a victim of class injustice because he was black and poor and forced to live in segregated, impoverished neighborhoods. We successfully injected that social understanding and solidarity into the labor movement.”

Fried was among the small number of revolutionaries organized in the Socialist Workers Party that originated the Hickman Defense Committee. The extremely qualified and experienced lead attorney was also a member.

Even though he has not been a member of the Socialist Workers Party for several decades, Fried still says with great pride that, “It was among the Party's finest moments, I thought.”

The Defense Does Not Rest

The investigation, discovery and presentation of broader extenuating social circumstances into a criminal case is commonly called a political defense. It is a strategy shunned by most defense attorneys and certainly almost always ruled out of order by judges.

It is best, we are counseled, to stay focused exclusively on the facts of the case. Who did what, where and when.

But the Hickman defense committee's radical originators traced their heritage to the historic International Labor Defense Committee (ILD) of the 1920s, which built extremely broad support for Sacco and Vanzetti and other lesser-known framed-up poor workers.

The Hickman Defense Committee's initial core of leaders took their lead, for example, from ILD founder James P. Cannon, who once described “the real story of the ILD” as “the scrupulous handling and public accounting of its funds and the broad, out-going, non-partisan spirit in which all its activities were conducted.”

Modeled on this united-front approach, all defenders of Hickman's defense were welcome, regardless of political views on other subjects and regardless of the views of Hickman himself, who apparently held deeply avowed, almost mystical visionary religious conceptions.

None of this mattered. What mattered was that Hickman was a victim of racist segregation and mistreatment in Chicago every bit as wretched as what he experienced at the hands of the Southern plutocracy.

Northern Segregation Was Entrenched

For example, it was common to cram dozens of families into the same three- and four-room tenements, to gouge them for abnormally high rent and utilities, and then to eventually pressure them to move out so that higher rents could be charged to the next group of unaware, naive and desperate Southern refugees, all of whom were confined in their search to Chicago's overcrowded, segregated black neighborhoods.

Sometimes landlords would actually burn out discontented tenants when they gradually began to protest their conditions. In fact, in court testimony, it was noted that Hickman's landlord threatened several times “to burn them out” along with other complaining tenants.

These extreme and inhumane conditions often led to extreme reactions, and herein describes the essence of Hickman's political defense.

Years later, in 1965, Martin Luther King would describe the “de facto segregation” in Chicago as among the worst in America.

As a native Chicagoan, I vividly recall accounts of King being assaulted as he marched through neighborhoods, leading him to remark, after one famously televised incident of rock throwing on August 5, 1966, that “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today.''

The deeply entrenched racism in Chicago and throughout the North makes even more remarkable the success of the Hickman Defense Committee two decades prior to King's monumental crusade.

City prosecutors were ultimately pressured to admit mitigating circumstances and they dropped murder charges, allowing Hickman to plead guilty to manslaughter and to be released on probation.

He spent the rest of his life with his wife and two surviving children without ever again coming to the attention of the law – a truly amazing outcome, described poignantly by Allen.

Thus, readers learn not only of the horrendous conditions faced by this one family and by millions of other blacks who ventured north to escape poverty, but we also learn of the intrepid efforts of Chicago's left, on the eve of the McCarthy witch-hunt period, to politically defend marginal victims of social injustice.

Years later, I came to know several of these Chicago defense committee leaders during my anti-Vietnam war protest days. Their experience was once again put into play as we sought to involve the broadest possible united opposition to the war, regardless of opposing political views we may have had on other issues.

I very much appreciated Allen's biographical research of these radical activists and shall never forget the contributions several of them personally passed along to me and to other young activists in the decades after Hickman.

The current generation, I think, can also learn much by reading their story.

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