James Hickman was a Black sharecropper who‘d come up north in 1944 with his wife and six children to get a job in a steel mill. He managed to find a one-room apartment in a falling-down tenement building, but soon after the family moved in the landlord began trying to evict them. The landlord wanted to subdivide the building even further, to take advantage of the high rents brought on by the critically tight housing supply.
After repeated threats to burn them out, the landlord set fire to the place while Hickman was at work. Three of the children escaped by jumping out a window. The other three were killed.
There was a big outcry in the city, but the landlord (who was Black himself) had the support of the real estate industry, and therefore of the Democratic machine. Nothing happened. Six months later to the day, the enraged Hickman claimed he had a vision, went to the landlord’s house and shot him.
Milt Zaslow, who did his political work under the name Mike Bartell, was the SWP’s top organizer in Chicago. Bartell had been working for years, and with some success, to organize tenants in the neighborhood where Hickman’s tragedy had happened. He had led fights to keep rents down and beef up inspection, and to keep landlords from discriminating against Black tenants.
Mike‘s work had earned him, and the SWP by extension, a solid reputation in the area. lt was Mike that Hickman’s neighbors immediately called on to help rescue Hickman from a murder rap. I had just got out of the Navy and had no job. Military unemployment insurance paid me a few bucks a month, and I was staying at my mother’s house while I looked for a better situation. When Mike Bartell asked me to work with him, I didn’t think twice about it.
We organized as broad a defense committee as we could pull together, meaning that most of the people involved owed nothing to the SWP, but simply knew a case of racial injustice when they saw one. Willoughby Abner, a vice president of the Chicago CIO Council and a very militant black leader, was a left-leaning social democrat who was friendly to the SWP. Charlie Chiakulas was president of the United Auto Workers local at Revere Copper and Brass, and a natural leader. Sidney Lens was a gifted mediator and writer, a Trotskyist in his youth, who had made a brilliant career of organizing tough industrial union locals. Henry McGee was president of the Chicago NAACP.
Mike Myer, one of our lawyers, had defended the Minneapolis Trotskyists in the original Smith Act case; William Temple was Joe Louis’s lawyer; and Leon DesPres was a prominent civil rights lawyer on Chicago‘s South Side. I got to be the committee’s secretary, in charge of keeping everything going day to day.
Our immediate line of defense was based on class: in essence, Hickman had a right to shoot the landlord. The landlord had murdered his children, and he had got no justice. It was an unorthodox way to make a legal argument, but then the case itself was pretty unprecedented.
So was the public response. Tallulah Bankhead spoke for us at a rally that drew twelve hundred people to a Black church on the South Side. in the midst of a magnificent reading of a speech Sid Lens had written for her, she came to a part about the Negro race. She stopped and remarked, “I love the Negro race,“ and brought the house down.
I toured the Midwest and the East Coast, speaking to small groups of union members and churchgoers, raising money and support. Several labor unions came to our aid, and not just on paper. My connections in the American Veterans’ Committee paid off when I got the AVC to send us a message of support.
We knew that the only way to free Hickman was to win a political struggle in the black community and in labor around the housing question, which was the reason he had done the shooting. You couldn’t narrow the defense.
Before long, we could tell the social heat was building in the city. We knew we had a hung jury — one of the jurors was a member of Chiakulas’ local, which had adopted a resolution in support of the Hickman defense committee, and had given money. This was a time when a union resolution meant something to most members. There was no way that juror was going to vote to convict.
The State’s Attorney knew everything we knew, and as soon as it became clear that we had the social backing we needed, he began to back off. The case was causing a big international stir, and it was just not worth the bad press.
Finally the verdict came down. It was a hung jury. After about a month of negotiating over the retrial, the state offered a deal: Hickman could plead guilty to manslaughter and serve no time.
The Chicago Tribune was hysterically opposed, and the Chicago Board of Realtors tried to scuttle the deal at the last minute. They didn’t want it written into case law that tenants could shoot their landlords.
Until the last gavel fell, nobody knew whether the deal was going to go through. But it did, and Hickman never served any more time in prison.
Hickman‘s wife became friendly to the SWP, but Hickman himself really believed that just as God had directed him to do the killing, it was God who had freed him. That was all right with us. We had accomplished what we set out to do. Besides redressing an injustice, I think we had also alerted some people to their rights and put the landlords a little on the defensive about what they could and couldn’t do.