Late in the evening of July 16, 1965, a brief altercation with police officers outside the Octagon Lounge nightclub in Springfield, Massachusetts led to the arrest of 17 black club patrons. Witnesses to the event offered varying testimony. The police felt threatened after hearing a bystander shout, “Kill them, get them. Don’t let them push you around.” Others reported that police used their night sticks to beat the patrons, kicked them, and otherwise abused them on the way to the police station. By the end of August, 12 of those arrested were found guilty of breach of peace; conversely, by year’s end, the Springfield police commission would rule out any wrongdoing on the part of the city’s police force. In fact, the policemen who participated in the event outside of the Octagon Lounge were praised for stopping a potential riot.
This article explores the community protest and activism that emerged following the incident at the Octagon Lounge. The Springfield Metropolitan Area was by 1965 one of the fastest-growing regions in New England and saw an unprecedented rise in racial diversity within its borders. By the time of the Octagon Lounge arrests, Springfield’s schools, public facilities, and neighborhoods were more separate than equal, with no parity in sight. The Octagon Lounge incident reveals that the racial unrest evident in 1960s Springfield was about more than one nightclub—it was about a systematic removal of rights from the city’s residents of color.
The Octagon Lounge, July 1965 (Photo: Ray Kelly, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Christopher W. Tucker is a social studies teacher at Florida Southwestern Collegiate High School in Fort Myers, Florida.