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Labor & Worker Rights Mon Mar 05 2012

Remembering Chicago's Riotous Past

Despite the recent announcement that the G8 summit will be held at Camp David, not Chicago, the city can still expect protesters to descend for the NATO summit being held May 20-21.

Since history tends to be instructive, its lessons bear repeating.

"We often forget the connection to history," said Tracy Baim, who knows very well how the city of Chicago handled protests over 100 years ago. "We're still fighting a lot of the same battles."

Baim is the daughter of Joy Darrow — related through marriage to Clarence Darrow, the crusading "attorney for the damned" in such controversial cases as the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold and Loeb murder case. In 1902, Darrow eulogized former Illinois governor John P. Altgeld as "a soldier in the everlasting struggle of the human race for liberty and justice on earth."

Altgeld, since hailed as one of Illinois' most progressive governors, was once reviled as John "Pardon" Altgeld for pardoning, in 1893, the three surviving prisoners sentenced to death for Chicago's Haymarket bombing. Altgeld was widely vilified and his decision effectively ended his political career, a choice that perhaps represents a moment of integrity triumphing over political expedience.

It is just this issue of the "integrity of politicians" that will be the focus of this year's annual tribute to Darrow, which will take place next week on Tuesday, March 13. Starting at 10am at the Darrow Bridge in Jackson Park, there will be a commemorative wreath-tossing ceremony and a short 10-15 minute program of a few remarks. This bridge is significant not only because Darrow lived in the area and his ashes were scattered from it, but because he claimed that if there is an afterlife, then that is where he would appear.

While there may not have been any reported sightings of Darrow's ghost, the annual tradition is a "touchstone," said Baim, "to gather and honor his legacy."

Darrow recognized the importance of Altgeld's pardon, which will serve as the focus of this year's lecture and discussion. After the outdoor ceremony, the event will move inside to the New Columbia Room at the Museum of Science and Industry (57th Street and Lake Shore Drive) to hear a talk titled "Absolving Anarchy: John P. Altgeld and the Pardon that Shook Gilded Age America."

The lecture will be given by Heath W. Carter, PhD candidate in US History at the University of Notre Dame, and newly appointed assistant professor of modern United States history at Valparaiso University.

Carter echoed Baim's sentiment that Haymarket, Altgeld and Darrow are forgotten at one's own peril. Altgeld is still "relevant for Chicago politics today," Carter said. "He was a staunch advocate of a systematic overhaul of the economic system," and the inequality it inevitably bred. The protests that Chicago lawmakers and citizens anticipate occurring around the NATO summit — and had expected when the G8 was still scheduled to take place here — "are in some ways highly radical critiques of the global economic system, similar to those made in gilded age Chicago."

Focusing for a moment on the commonalities between then and now, one can see a general refrain that "this whole way of structuring an economy is problematic." For Carter, from a historian's long perspective, remembering the Haymarket protests, Altgeld's pardon and Darrow's eulogy (as well as his career as a whole) raises the same question of the "big picture" of how we "do" the economy as is voiced today with increasing frequency.

The arguments of both then and now are at the "level of the global system," said Carter. "It's a structural critique. There's a real resonance of this story with contemporary issues."

Darrow's own death in 1938 was memorialized worldwide, and the Darrow Bridge was dedicated to his memory by the Chicago Park District in 1957.

More information about the event can be found here.

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