No Cotton Picking Solution Urban Crime

By Larry Teren

News Item: Chicago has 1000 shootings for 2016

Considering it is not yet four months into the year 2016, that means an average of nine people a day are shot in Chicago. Granted, not all die but who’s quibbling with a technicality? How did we get to this situation? It all started with John Daniel Rust and the automatic cotton picker.

During the 1930s, Mr. Rust showed that a device that could pick cotton would eliminate the need of humans to toil long hours to do the same work. However, he was not a good businessman and his company eventually went bankrupt. International Harvester Corporation of Chicago took up the mantle with a better instrument and by 1942 had an efficient working model. The lack of steel availability, however, put its distribution into the market place on hold until after World War Two.

Mr. Rust did get back into the business and ended up making a lot of money for himself and investors but it was now a more crowded field. And this little cotton-picking device possibly single-handedly changed the entire scope of American Society post World War II. 

The cheap Black laborers who sharecropped cotton were no longer needed. The automated device- probably today we would call it a robotic- could pick up to 30,000 pounds of cotton in a 24 hour period. A human working an eight hour shift could pick 120 pounds. The Blacks now had to find labor somewhere else. They were practically shut out of the South’s economic system.

The solution was provided by eager Northern industrialists who were willing to give free transportation by rail to thousands of Blacks to head to the big cities of the North- Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and others- to work cheaply in their factories helping produce the anticipated post-World War Two economic boom.

In 1946, there were about 350,00 to 400,000 Blacks in Chicago. 250,000 were squeezed into the near South Side- an area south of Cermak (2200 south) to 67th Street, close to the main artery of State Street. Ironically, a generation earlier many of the very wealthy lived in mansions in that same enclave. In fact, in 1925 the size of the population in that area was about half- 125,000. The population had doubled, but not the living space. At that time in 1946, this was the most concentrated Black Ghetto in America, even taking Harlem into the calculation.

In those days, most White Chicagoans did not feel a threat from Blacks. If anything, they sympathized with their lot. In fact, an appeal was made to the Chicago newspapers back then to avoid playing up Black crime so that racial tensions which were starting to be noticed would be minimized. Only the Chicago Tribune refused to cooperate. (above facts and figures per John Gunther in his epic “Inside U.S.A.”)

I’ve seen a publicity photo taken in 1949 of the first Black family to move into the Lawndale area. Its south border is Cermak Road and to the north at the now Eisenhower Expressway. Its east border would probably be considered near California Avenue (2800 west) and the west border at Pulaski Road (4000 west). In the picture, the husband and wife were cheerfully shaking hands with their White neighbors. By 1955, the Lawndale area would become more than 90% Black. The neighborhood reeked with crime and white flight took- not because of real estate blockbusters but because of fear for lives.

In November 1954, the Chicago Tribune reported that a Lawndale community leader made public a letter to then-Mayor Kennelly citing a list of gang violence actions against the local (White) population. He wrote that it was “sufficient to indict you and your police department for gross negligence, carelessness, and derelict in your civic duties.” He demanded that a policeman walk beats on every block in the district.

The alderman of the 24th ward- Mr. Deutsch- was going to urge the hiring of one thousand additional policemen. He said, though, that the problem was not racial but was caused by the promiscuous sale of narcotics. The police commissioner- Mr. O’Connor- sympathized but said that they did not have the funds but would definitely hire many of the 300 police academy graduates coming up in December.

The official Police October crime report indicated that close to 7% of all offenses in the city were reported from the Lawndale area. It replaced the Wabash Avenue area as the most crime ridden. (Guess which neighborhood belonged to the Wabash precint? Hint: re-read the third paragraph)

This was not the first time the community leader had begged the mayor for relief. The previous summer’s plea was ignored and the situation got worse. The man castigated the mayor because nearly 300 policemen were sent to quell disturbances because of one Black family moving onto Trumbull Avenue but nothing done for the greater good of all who lived there. Fed up, the Whites left en masse and until this day the Greater Lawndale area is essentially a Black ghetto.

There are numbers that cannot be disputed- more than one million Blacks live in the Chicago city limits. The exact number is open to debate. Close to 200,000 have left since 2000. City schools are being closed because of underpopulation. It is fair to say that more than 90% of the 1000 people shot have been in Black neighborhoods. Blacks themselves are disgusted with the lack of safety and the impotence of Law Enforcement agencies to stop it. They also vent their frustration at the Police as if they are the main culprits in Black’s killings.

Technological improvements are going to further reduce the need for lower level skill type of jobs. For some, crime seems to pay better than legitimate work. Does anyone have any cotton-picking solutions?

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