(Originally appeared 06/20/09, Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center)
The Peoria Journal Star owes a long overdue public apology to the late Mark Clark, and especially to his remaining family members.
Peorian Mark Clark, then 22, was murdered by Chicago police authorities during the infamous predawn raid on December 4, 1969 at a West Side apartment where he and a group of fellow Black Panthers were sleeping. The renowned and charismatic Panther Fred Hampton, age 21, also was killed by police, shot point blank in the head while still on his mattress.
The incident became a landmark event in the urban civil rights movement with both Clark and Hampton considered martyrs to the causes of worldwide black liberation and the revolutionary human rights struggle. According to published newspaper reports, 14 police officers assigned to the office of then Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan (who died just last week, on June 9, at age 88) stormed the apartment at 2337 W. Monroe St. occupied by seven Black Panthers in a 4:40 a.m. raid.
A federal grand jury determined that the police fired between 82 and 99 shots at the people in the flat. Only one shot was proven to have come from a Panther gun. Four other Panthers were wounded along with two police officers.
On June 27 this year, special ceremonies will be held at Lovejoy Church in Peoria to commemorate what would have been Mark Clark’s 62nd birthday and the 40th anniversary of his death. So now is a fitting moment for the Journal Star to finally acknowledge its racist and paternalistic accounts of that turbulent period.
Apparently, that will not happen. When I recently contacted the paper’s Opinion Page Editor Mike Bailey about running this commentary, I received the following reply:
“Due to budget cuts, we no longer have an op-ed page that can accommodate a piece of this length. I can flip it to the newsroom if you’d like to see if they have any interest.”
Talk about flipping your responsibility.
In its December 10, 1969 editorial, less than a week after Clark’s murder, the Journal Star stated, “And it was finally put together under the Panther label by a coterie of articulate ex-convicts and jobless civil rights activists who duped a few young men who were not overly bright to sell their newspapers and play the cannon-fodder roles of tough-guy revolutionaries.”
With appalling gall, the editorial went on to posit that “Hate coupled with intimidation and demagoguery made the Panthers into a sort of black Ku Klux Klan. The white sheet was replaced with the black beret and jacket.”
Mark Clark, in fact, is remembered as a visionary humanitarian who started a free breakfast program for underprivileged school children in his hometown.
“Certainly, Mark Clark should be considered one the martyrs to the cause of black dignity and human equality,” the Rev. Blaine Ramsey said back in 1999. “He came to my church and asked me, ‘Rev. Ramsey, can we use Ward Chapel A.M.E. for our breakfast program?’ And I consented to it — no other church in Peoria would open their doors — for what I considered a worthwhile endeavor. There were a number of little children who really needed a good breakfast.”
Rev. Ramsey recalled that the Peoria Black Panthers’ breakfast program for children headed by Clark served approximately 30 students Monday through Friday for six months. “Mr. Clark was committed, very warm, very affable, and he had a dedication to help his people. At the same time, Mr. Clark was of the avant-garde and these people were not very well received. He preached a very radical black self-help philosophy. And people were not really ready for him.”
Confidently asserting that “We doubt very much that anything resembling a murderous police conspiracy against the Panthers exists” the Journal Star also arrogantly maintained in its editorial, “Just as intelligent whites refused to have anything to do with the Klan, intelligent blacks must refuse to tolerate or associate with the Panthers. The real sympathy that the Panthers need from black leaders of the day is the kind which attempts to protect these young men not from the police but from the idiotic Panther leadership which should not be allowed to continue to drive young men like Mark Clark to early graves.”
Indeed, the Journal Star was so secure in its, ahem, historical understanding and social sensitivities that it even titled this paternalistic editorial, “The Panthers Need Help.”
In the aftermath of Clark and Hampton’s murder, an enormous 12-year court battle involved the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Attorney General, the U.S. Court of Appeals and a special federal grand jury, not to mention the City of Chicago and Cook County. In the end, the case reportedly became one of the longest and costliest civil lawsuits in federal court history. A $1.85M settlement in the early 1980’s was split between the raid survivors, families of Hampton and Clark, and their lawyers.
Attorneys for the victims at the time said the “settlement (was) a clear admission by federal, county and city authorities that there was a conspiracy to murder Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and destroy the Blank Panther Party,” reported the Chicago Tribune.
The FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO operations, not to mention J. Edgar Hoover’s claim the Black Panthers were “the most dangerous organization in America” leaves no doubt about the authorities’ intentions and actions toward the Panther self-defense and revolutionary socialist liberation groups that sprung up all across the nation, even in Peoria.
A week after its first Panther editorial, the Journal Star published a follow-up piece on December 17, 1969 entitled “Slowness in Washington” that decried the US Attorney General’s apparent foot dragging in ordering the FBI to investigate Clark and Hampton’s murders.
The reason for that delay? Again, incredibly, the Journal Star blamed the victim: “The slowness of Attorney General (John) Mitchell’s response and the complete silence from the White House in regard to the Chicago affair is a discouraging commentary on how far the extremist tactics of the Black Panthers and other violent groups have set back black people in their quest for justice.”
That editorial concluded, “We know justice will be done in Chicago . . . but it may be a little longer in the doing.” Though charges were eventually filed, no police officers or other officials have ever been convicted in the Clark and Hampton murders.
A little longer indeed.
Clark was in Chicago at the time of his murder to attend organizing and strategy sessions of Black Panther Party leaders from throughout the state, U.S. Congressman Bobby L. Rush (D-1st, IL) said a decade ago at the time of the 30th anniversary of Clark’s death. Congressman Rush was a founding member of the Illinois Black Panther Party. “Mark Clark was a quiet leader,” the Congressman recalled. “He was one of those people whose strength came from within.”
To put it mildly, back when it really mattered, the Journal Star not only didn’t do its homework, it indulged in grotesque assumptions regarding Mark Clark and the Black Panthers.
Now, however, it finally has the timely opportunity, and the institutional responsibility, to help set the record straight as a whole new generation is beginning to know more about another Illinois native — in addition to Fred Hampton and more — who devoted, and ultimately lost, his life in the service of others.
Perhaps the Peoria Journal Star’s Op-Ed pages might someday find the space to finally start its atonement process with a simple public apology to Mark Clark and his remaining family members for its racist and paternalistic declarations published in the wake of his tragic demise. 
The Mark Clark Memorial Tribute will be held on Saturday, June 27, 2009, at Lovejoy Church located at 1500 S. Easton Street in Peoria, Illinois, commemorating his life and death
The Mark Clark Free Breakfast Program will kick off the event in honor of the founder of the Black Panther Free Breakfast for Children Program in Peoria. Exhibits on African-American History, FBI and COINTELPRO documents, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense will be on display throughout the day.
The Murder of Fred Hampton, a documentary with live footage of events surrounding the December 4th raid, will be available for viewing. The event will culminate with the Mark Clark Memorial Tribute Program, followed by a banquet dinner.
The distinguished panel of speakers includes the widow and son of Chairman Fred Hampton: Chairwoman Akua Njeri of the December 4th Committee has kept the legacy alive for 40 years; her son, Chairman Fred Hampton, Jr., of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee, an advocate for political prisoners, is a powerful voice for social change.
Also in attendance will be the family and friends of Comrades Hampton and Clark, Black Panther Party members, leaders from religious, academic, and social organizations, as well as the community at-large.