Race and Policing in 1960s Springfield: An Interview with Christopher Tucker
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
By David Brandon Dennis, NEJH Digital Editor
September 2, 2020
DENNIS: Thank you, Chris, for agreeing to speak with me today about your article, “What Happened in Springfield”: Housing, Police and the 1965 Octagon Lounge Incident,” which was published in our Fall 2018 issue. Your article’s focus on issues of race, policing, protest in 1960s America reminds us that these are long-standing patterns in U.S. history. Before we discuss your thoughts on your article’s relevance to the current national focus on these issues, could you briefly tell our readers just what happened in Springfield in 1965?
TUCKER: By the mid-1960s, the Springfield Metropolitan area had one of the fastest growing Black populations in New England, and with the changing demographics came some tension between whites and Blacks in the region. As I mention in the article, this tension was mostly economic in nature. Unemployment and housing inequality were rampant; 90 percent of Springfield’s Black population lived within one square mile. 30 percent of nonwhite families were living in poverty. So, jobs were scarce and homes were segregated, as were public recreation spaces. The Octagon Lounge was one of these segregated spaces. It was a nightclub and restaurant on Rifle Street in Springfield, and it was incredibly popular with Black residents. It was not uncommon for the club to be full on the weekends. July 16, 1965 was a Friday night and around 11 PM, about 20 patrons—all but one of them Black—had left the club and were congregating outside. Not long after that, a police patrol car arrived to respond to a noise complaint. This is generally where the eyewitness accounts begin to differ. The police who first arrived said that a mob began to surround them, they felt afraid, and then called for backup. Witnesses reported that the police shouted racial slurs and then began using excessive force, including nightsticks, on the patrons who had gathered outside. By the end of the ordeal, 18 club patrons had been arrested—only one of them, an 18-year-old woman, was white. This singular event was debated and discussed all across Massachusetts and the region for months. The Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, as well as national organizations like CORE and the SCLC got involved. The Massachusetts CLU actually sponsored a detailed report of the event, called The Five-Month Summer, which to this day is the best primary source we have on what happened that night. The mayor of Springfield promised to look into the incident, but really just passed off responsibility to the police commission. CORE spearheaded a mass protest in Springfield, complete with a list of demands drafted by the protesters; the protests turned violent and arrests were made. There was an investigation and a trial regarding the Octagon Lounge incident. In the end, the policemen who responded were all celebrated in the mainstream press as heroes for stopping a race riot, while 12 of those arrested were found guilty of disturbing the peace and had to pay fines. George Higgins, the lawyer who wrote The Five-Month Summer, basically concluded that the event—and he puts the blame purely on the police, who reacted impulsively—did irreparable harm to the community. He said it “inspired bitterness and fear” in both whites and Blacks, and it only further perpetuated the distrust of the police. This was 55 years ago but it could have happened yesterday.
DENNIS: What, in your view, are the take-aways from your article for readers who are looking to place contemporary problems of systemic racism and policing into historical context?
TUCKER: My article is about one incident at a place called the Octagon Lounge, but the reaction to it—especially the reaction in Springfield itself—is not about one self-contained event. As historians, we know the famous Dr. King quote: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” And we often—I’m including myself in this—forget the next part: “And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met, and it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” When we see instances of police brutality, and we witness the protests—some of them violent—that emerge afterwards, it’s critical to remember that any sort of uprising is often a result of preexisting tension. Chances are, that tension is felt beyond the boundaries of any one city or region. When Benjamin Swan, who was a local CORE leader in Springfield in 1965, encouraged Black high school students to hold a four-day sit-in at Springfield City Hall, followed by a three-mile march, it was no longer just about the Octagon Lounge. It was about a populous that had been repeatedly told, “you don’t matter.” When the Rhode Island CORE leaders told all Black New Englanders to go to Springfield, it wasn’t just about the Octagon Lounge. When Black men and women from Maine or New Hampshire or even New York City went to Springfield, it wasn’t just about the Octagon Lounge. It was about solidarity and focusing on humanity. So, then and now, when we see protests that turn violent, it is about so much more than a singular event. And it’s not about violence for the sake of violence. This is about disrupting that status quo Dr. King spoke about.
DENNIS: And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn't ask about the differences you see between what happened in Springfield in 1965 and the events and concerns of 2020?
TUCKER: My initial, gut-check, very non-academic answer is… not much! Like I said before, the protests that are derived from police violence are often not just about a singular act. That was the case in 1965 and it is today. But I do think that the way we consume news and information has changed. Cell phones, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle have all altered how we receive and process news. If the Octagon Lounge event were to happen tomorrow, Americans from coast-to-coast would read about it with their morning coffee as they scrolled through Twitter or Buzzfeed. I think visibility has evolved. I think the emphasis on allyship by organizations like Black Lives Matter has been incredibly impactful, especially for white Americans such as myself. I think celebrities and other high-profile people are using their fame in productive and proactive ways. There were celebrity activists during the movement in the 1960s—I always think right away of Harry Belafonte and Bill Russell—but visibility is so much more heightened in 2020 thanks in no small part to social media and the 24-hour news cycle.
DENNIS: As you say, today, video footage from personal cell phones plays a key role in documenting racialized police violence and, when spread via social media, in sparking protests. This has been true for years now, and certainly is a key social and technological context for the Black Lives Matter movement. How did African American activists seek to document and publicize incidents of police violence in the 1960s? What successes did they have in Springfield? What were the hurdles they faced?
TUCKER: The use of public space, like today, was very deliberate and strategic. Then and now, public space has a role as a place to gain exposure and, here’s that word again, visibility. Protests in public spaces—like Springfield City Hall—spark conversations that otherwise may not have been had. And here is where I think local newspapers were critical. The Boston Globe was one of the first regional newspapers to pick up the Octagon Lounge story, and not just write about it, but also write why it might have happened. Beyond that, the national Black press was crucial. Throughout the summer of 1965, Black newspapers like the Daily Defender in Chicago, the Amsterdam News in New York, and the Call and Post in Cleveland were all reporting on the Octagon Lounge incident. In August of ’65, the Call and Post actually published a list of cities that were protesting police brutality and included Springfield on that list. The Defender wrote about how A.R. Sampson, one of Dr. King’s SCLC aides, visited Springfield, which of course added another layer of excitement because people wanted to know if Dr. King was going to visit Springfield. Sampson quickly squashed that rumor, but for many people in the area it was as though King sent Sampson as a proxy. So, I think the media—both local and national—were really critical in spreading the word. But I also think the networks of activists that perhaps started local then garnered the attention of national networks—CORE, SCLC, etc.—were quite important in getting the message out about this event and the general vibe of Springfield at that time.
DENNIS: You’ve taught history in both high school and undergraduate classrooms. What advice do you have for teachers at either level who would like to use your article in their classroom? Are there additional primary and secondary texts that you would recommend using to help students think historically about today’s problems and protests?
TUCKER: If I had one piece of advice for educators, whether they use my article or not, I’d just say be willing to offer a space for discussion. The things I write about in the article clearly aren’t going away. We need to, as Dr. King says, stop worrying about tranquility and be willing to have open dialogue about systematic racism and inequality, especially with young people. As far as primary sources go, The Five-Month Summer is available online with a simple Google search. I discuss it at length in the article but it really is a great piece of writing on its own. In a classroom where my article is assigned to students, The Five-Month Summer is assigned alongside it! On the other hand, one of the best parts of this project has been the wealth of amazing secondary sources I’ve been able to dig into. Brian Purnell’s Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings is about CORE in Brooklyn, and I appreciated how he looked at the intersection of local and national political activism. Jason Sokol’s All Eyes Are Upon Us was published as I was writing the article and is a great deep-dive into civil rights activism in the Northeast. He also explores the Octagon Lounge incident concisely in his book. Jeffrey Ogbar’s first book, Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity changed my entire academic perspective when I first read it. It was published in 2005 but a new edition with a chapter on Black Lives Matter was released in 2019. Finally, so many amazing writers, thinkers, and activists have released great, important work recently, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Layla Saad, Isabel Wilkerson, and Colson Whitehead.
Christopher Tucker's article "'What Happened in Springfield': Housing, Police, and the 1965 Octagon Lounge Incident" is our featured article for Fall 2020 and is available for complimentary download until the end of 2020. It was published in The New England Journal of History, Volume 75, Issue 1, Fall 2018.