Jim Capraro was 16 years old on August 5, 1966. He’d recently gotten his driver’s license. It had taken him a month to convince his parents to allow him to take the family Chevy Bel Air out on a date with a girl.
At home, he was a bundle of energy, primping for this date. The biggest event in his young life.
At 3 p.m. he walked out the front door of his family’s two flat at 6532 S. Francisco. But he couldn’t pull out. Blocking all of the cars were powder blue school buses. Capraro saw what seemed like thousands of police officers wearing riot helmets standing in military formation. They were facing toward Marquette Park. Capraro followed them.
“On the north side of the street thousands of thugs. In those days we had a type of teenager called a greaser. There were thousands of greasers,” Capraro said.
The screaming teens jeered racial epithets at people demonstrating for fair housing. The demonstrators had signs that said things like end slums, open housing. But the white protesters far outnumbered the black and white open housing supporters.
“There was a man who was very well dressed. In a suit. And I looked at him from a distance and I thought I’ve seen him before,” Capraro said.
Meanwhile, nearby saloons keepers stacked crates of empty bottles on the sidewalk to provide ammunition for the crowd to hurl at the demonstrators.
“There’s this rain of bottles and bricks and rocks and stuff,” Capraro recalled.
Capraro saw a red Chevy car stop. A middle-aged black couple was in it.
“The crowd surrounded the car and started rocking it back and forth and chanting ‘niggers go home, niggers go home.’ A girl who was about my age jumped up on the hood of the car and started to kick at the driver on the windshield side,” he said. “I think that those people didn’t know whether they were actually going to live to see the end of that day at that moment. I think it’s probably the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The light changed and the driver was able to slowly move out of the hateful crowd.
Capraro said he thought no good person should be here. He ran down 67th Street toward home. He passed burning cars. He passed men wearing swastika armbands chanting “white power.”
When Capraro watched the news that night he saw the man from the park who he’d thought looked familiar. That man was bleeding. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was a Catholic boy. The nuns in fifth grade taught me that Jesus taught the law of love. And as Christians that’s what we were called to do. I didn’t see love in the park that day,” he said.
Capraro felt everything he was taught up until then was a lie. America was not the greatest country. He says he wondered how could we have a culture that would allow this.
“In retrospect, even though it was a terrible day, it was probably one of the best days of my life,” he said. “Because it gave me purpose, it gave me focus, it gave me a mission. At 16 years old I knew what I needed to do. I didn’t know how to do it. But I knew what it was I wanted to do.”
For Capraro that meant staying in his neighborhood—and working to change it. For 35 years he worked for the Greater Southwest Development Corporation on issues related to housing and economic development.
Chicagoans will commemorate the 1966 fair housing march with a half-mile walk Saturday morning, along a portion of the original route in Marquette Park. That walk will conclude at the site of Chicago’s first permanent memorial marking the event.