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Fourth International, September-October 1947


World in Review

The Case of James Hickman


From Fourth International, September-October 1947, Vol.8 No.8, pp.229-230.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


Social Symbols

Every so often a previously unknown individual suddenly attracts wide attention. There is usually a social reason for this. The story connected with the particular case epitomizes the plight of voiceless millions, focusing attention on the needs of one group and the crimes of another, bringing into the light of day the festering rottenness of class society. In the years immediately preceding the American Civil War, for example, the case of Dred Scott, a Missouri chattel slave, who had fled to the North and courageously challenged the right of his master to return him to servitude in the South, dramatically exposed the danger to the nation’s freedom emanating from the slaveholding autocracy.

Then came John Brown, the warrior for freedom and justice, whose heroism aroused the souls of men, stirring them into action against the slaveholders who kept all the Dred Scotts in inhuman degradation. In our own time the frameup and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti threw into the limelight, for the whole world to see, the vengefulness of the modern American slave-masters, baring their class justice in its hideous cruelty.

A no less dramatic instance today is the case of James Willis Hickman whom the State of Illinois now seeks to convict and execute on the charge of murdering his landlord.

Hickman’s story is the story of Jim Crow as it is practised north of the Mason-Dixon line. Lynchings and Ku-Klux terrorism in the South are the most sensational manifestations of this system, and they receive the most publicity and attention. But there is much more to it. There are other, more “routine;’ day-by-day, “less violent” by-products of this system which are no less destructive, no less barbaric in their effects on the victims. For proof – there is Hickman.

Restrictive Covenants

This Negro steel worker brought his family from Mississippi to Chicago, a city where hundreds of thousands of other Southern Negroes have sought a haven but, like Hickman, found instead another man-made hell. Unlike the hell described by the Italian poet, Dante, Chicago’s “Black Belt” and other slums where Negroes may dwell bear no tell-tale inscriptions over their portals. The promoters of modern American infernos prefer to keep their restrictive covenants less public. But their message is the same as the one Dante wrote: “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here!”

Doomed to house himself and his family in a dilapidated, disease-ridden ghetto, Hickman found his plight doubly aggravated by the housing shortage which, on top of restrictive covenants, made him, like millions of other people, easy prey to unscrupulous landlords. He and his family had to live, to put it in Hickman’s own words, “like rats in a hole.”

Hickman’s hole happened to be in a fire-trap. His landlord, wanting to reconvert the building’s apartments so he could get still higher rents, threatened to burn Hickman out after he refused to move. When a fire did indeed start soon after, four of Hickman’s children were burned to death; another was critically injured; his wife still suffers from leg injuries resulting from her leap from the blazing third floor.

It was only one of many similar calamities that every day befall the Negroes and the poor generally. The others generally pass unnoticed – the casualties, you see, are not high enough to merit briefest mention in the daily press. Add this toll of “accidents” to the even greater toll that the day-to-day routine of the Jim Crow system takes in crippled bodies, mangled limbs, shattered minds and broken lives. Hickman did add all this up, not in his mind’s eye, not as an observer, but as a direct victim of it all. His soul had been seared by flames as scorching as those which had consumed the lives of his dear ones. Add all this up, too, and you will grasp a measure of the desperation that drove Hickman to his deed.

Who The Real Criminals Are

On October 27 the State of Illinois will place James Willis Hickman on trial. But the real criminals, who took the lives of Hickman’s children and who drove him in the end to kill the landlord – these criminals will continue to walk at large, respected members of the business community, free to continue their crimes. The identity of these criminals is not unknown to the people of the State of Illinois.

They are the real estate sharks who are the chief promoters of restrictive covenants.

They are the housing profiteers who fatten on the housing shortage and who strive might and main to perpetuate it.

They are the ruthless and unscrupulous landlords who profit from inhuman housing conditions, as Hickman’s landlord did.

They are the corrupt local authorities with their callous disregard, over a period of years, for the enforcement of the pitifully inadequate regulations of the building code, health and fire ordinances.

Finally, they are the local, state and federal authorities who tolerate and in fact condone and encourage both the Jim Crow practices of restrictive covenants and the housing shortage.

The collective name for the list of these real criminals is the capitalist system, the fountainhead of all of men’s inhumanities toward fellow men. Its upholders are the criminals who should be in the defendant’s dock. This is the system that should be indicted, tried, punished and prevented from continuing to turn workers’ blood and sweat and tears into dollars.

Not to come to the defense of Hickman is to be on the side of the Jim Crow system, whose victim he is. The millionaire publisher of the Chicago Sun, Marshall Field, who boasts of his liberalism and friendship for labor and oppressed minorities, has again shown his true colors by refusing to publish even as a paid advertisement a stirring appeal in defense of Hickman by the brilliant young novelist Willard Motley. But a different response has come from the labor, Negro and community organizations in Chicago – the CIO and AFL unions, the NAACP, tenants unions, veterans, religious groups – who have formed the Hickman Defense Committee and through it are mobilizing mass sentiment to win freedom for Hickman.

“This defense movement to save Hickman’s life and liberty merits support everywhere that workers are crowded together and restrictive covenants are enforced,” says the Hickman Defense Committee. We agree wholeheartedly. They need support; they need financial aid. All labor, Negro and progressive organizations should take a stand at once on this case and its vital issues. Resolutions and donations should be sent to the Hickman Defense Committee, 4619 South Parkway, Chicago 15, Illinois.

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Last updated on 16.2.2009