More Than 50 Years After The MLK Riots, The Same Section Of Chicago’s West Side Is Reeling From Destruction

Mary's Bar-B-Que
Michael Walker cleans up inside Mary's Bar-B-Que on Chicago's West Side, which was smashed up and set on fire overnight. Walker said he does not believe the people who caused the damage across the city were protesters, but instead were people taking advantage of the situation to steal and destroy. Patrick Smith / WBEZ
Mary's Bar-B-Que
Michael Walker cleans up inside Mary's Bar-B-Que on Chicago's West Side, which was smashed up and set on fire overnight. Walker said he does not believe the people who caused the damage across the city were protesters, but instead were people taking advantage of the situation to steal and destroy. Patrick Smith / WBEZ

More Than 50 Years After The MLK Riots, The Same Section Of Chicago’s West Side Is Reeling From Destruction

In 1968, Thomas Morris rioted on Chicago’s West Side after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. He’s lived in the area his entire life. On Monday morning, he walked down Madison Street near Pulaski Avenue, checking out the damage that had been done over the weekend.

Now, five decades older, Morris laments the recent destruction. But he still understands it.

“It seems like for us to get any attention, we have to do wrong,” Morris said. “It’s just systemic racism in America. … And this has to change and we have to do things to be fair.”

The stretch of the West Garfield Park neighborhood where Morris has lived all his life was badly damaged by vandalism, looting and arson over the weekend. Madison, one of the hardest-hit streets during the riots in 1968, was marked with signs of the chaos that started Sunday and was still lingering into Monday morning.

Morris looked across the street, where a couple people with plastic shopping bags were going through a beauty supply store that had its front smashed open. They were looking to see if there was anything left to take. A few blocks west were several police cars, guarding firefighters who were working to put out a burning building.

“I’m looking at the consequences of being stupid. You torched stuff in the community that you [need]. Now, you got no place to buy food, medical [supplies], because you destroyed it,” Morris said. “And you dishonored the man who lost his life.”

The unrest in Chicago is part of a national outcry over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

“What they did in Minneapolis to that guy was wrong, but two wrongs don’t make a right,” Morris said.

Morris said this weekend’s destruction is similar but “more violent” than the riots in 1968. He said he’s frustrated with the damage, but also angry that people in 2020 have to “protest and fight for the same things” they fought for in the 60s.

“How in the hell can the racism in the 60s be allowed today in 2000s?” Morris asked.

Less than a mile south down Pulaski, near the border of Garfield Park and Lawndale, three men worked to clean up the damage at Mary’s Bar-B-Que.

Mary’s, which specializes in rib tips, has been in the same location on the West Side since 1968, the year of the riots following King’s death. Chris Jones took it over from his mother, the eponymous Mary, in 1995. He’s biased, but he said Mary’s is the “number one barbecue on the West Side.”

Jones said he got a call that his alarm was going off at about 5 a.m. Monday. He said as he was getting to the restaurant, firefighters were leaving. At some point, vandals smashed through the windows and set a fire. The fire consumed almost everything inside the small barbecue shack, damaging the walls, the roof and all of the cooking equipment.

“I don’t know [what to think], just, you know, get back open somehow, some way. But I mean, the gas stations, all the gas stations have been looted, the supermarket over there has been looted,” Jones said standing outside his burned out restaurant. “So I’m not by myself. I’m not the only one in the town with tears in my heart today.”

photo of Chris Jones in front of Mary’s Bar-B-Que
Chris Jones stands in front of Mary’s Bar-B-Que on the West Side Monday morning. The restaurant, which has been in the neighborhood and in the Jones family for more than 50 years, was set on fire overnight. Patrick Smith / WBEZ

Mary’s has been closed since March 16 because of the coronavirus. Jones said he had been looking forward to reopening on June 3. He said those plans are “pretty much nixed now.”

Jones said he is intent on reopening, but he doesn’t know how long that will take.

Kevin Mason, who said he lives about a block-and-a-half from Mary’s said he was “shocked” to see the barbecue restaurant burnt and smashed.

“It’s in our own neighborhood. I mean, we don’t have anything too much here and now you’ve torn it up, it just don’t make any sense,” Mason said. “Just the little small things that was around here that you use, now, it’s not even there, you got to go really out of your neighborhood to get anything.”

Jones said he’s worried there’s still more destruction to come. But Michael Walker, one of his employees who was helping clean up, said he believes it’s over, at least in this part of the West Side.

“There’s nothing else to get,” Walker said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.