Art & Museums

Review: Troublemakers Chronicles the Power of Social Activism in Chicago

Troublemakers: Chicago Freedom Struggles through the Lens of Art Shay
By Erik S. Gellman
University of Chicago Press

In Troublemakers: Chicago Freedom Struggles through the Lens of Art Shay, historian Erik S. Gellman narrates Chicago’s history of social activism from the 1940s through the late ’60s. Highlighting Gellman’s narrative are some 250 photos by Chicago photographer Art Shay (1922–2018)—the majority never published before. This fusion of text and photos gives the reader a deeper understanding of the organizations and activists who fought for civil rights, fair labor practices, and organized anti-war protests during this period of time.

Throughout this book there are candid photographs of historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Joseph McCarthy, and the first Mayor Daley, as well as literary figures, such as James Baldwin, Nelson Algren, Carlos Cortez, and Allen Ginsberg.

But what is most impressive is Shay’s ability to capture candid moments such as an interracial prayer circle outside of a discriminatory real estate office; gangs doing community work in their neighborhood; and autoworkers forming a picket line during a strike.

The title of this book, Troublemakers, is inspired by a quote from bluesman Muddy Waters, who once told Art Shay that “Blues could be defined in one word: Trouble.” To Waters, his music was “an expression of trouble in mind, trouble in body, trouble in soul.” Shay’s photography forces us to take a closer look at the issues—“troubling” our own way of perceiving racial issues and social justice in our society.

Here is a small sampling of the events covered in this book:

Martin Luther King Jr. at Soldier Field, 1966

Art Shay, Martin Luther King Jr.

Art Shay, Martin Luther King Jr. at Soldier Field, 1966. © The Arthur Shay Estate.

In this photo we see Martin Luther King Jr. looking confident as he arrives at Soldier Field to give a speech at the Chicago Freedom Movement rally that was held on July 10, 1966. On that day, King echoed the abolitionist Frederick Douglass by saying “Freedom is never voluntarily granted,” but “must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Black Panther Party Headquarters Raided by Police, 1969

Art Shay, After the police had raided Black Panther Party headquarters

Art Shay, After the police had raided Black Panther Party headquarters, 1969. © The Arthur Shay Estate.

The Black Panther Party opened their headquarters on the near west side on Madison Street just a few blocks from where the United Center now stands. The Panthers started a breakfast program for children and a health clinic. On the last day of July in 1969, police ransacked their headquarters, arresting several people and setting fire to the second floor. In this photo, Shay photographed the aftermath—a front doorway riddled with bullet holes.

University of Chicago Draft Protesters, 1966

Art Shay, University of Chicago Draft Protesters

Art Shay, University of Chicago Draft Protesters, 1966. © The Arthur Shay Estate.

More than 400 students took over the University of Chicago’s administration building for five days in 1966 because they were protesting the government’s use of test scores and class rank to decide who was eligible for a draft deferral. This demonstration as well as other demonstrations on campuses throughout the country brought an end to using this information as a standard for the Selective Service. But despite these protests, the majority of the men who were drafted during this time were minority youths as well as whites from working class backgrounds.

Sleep-in Demonstration in Deerfield, Illinois, 1963

Art Shay, Demonstration in Deerfield, Illinois,

Art Shay, Demonstration in Deerfield, Illinois, 1963. © The Arthur Shay Estate.

In the late 1950s, developers attempted to build an interracial housing project, but were stopped by residents who got the land rezoned for a public park instead. This set off a long legal battle. On May 18, 1963, liberal-minded young people in Deerfield linked up with Chicago civil rights activists for a protest—between 50 and 100 people marched from Village Hall to the new park. In this photo, Shay captures activists at a rally as they sing freedom songs at dusk.

1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago

Art Shay, Democratic National Convention,

Art Shay, Democratic National Convention, 1968. © The Arthur Shay Estate.

Shay covered the Democratic National Convention for Time Magazine in 1968. He took many photos that showed the high level of tension that existed between the protestors and the Chicago police. In this shot we see the National Guard holding back demonstrators on Balbo Drive and Michigan Avenue.

Striking Autoworkers, 1955

Art Shay, Striking Autoworkers,

Art Shay, Striking Autoworkers, 1955. © The Arthur Shay Estate.

In the mid-1950s, a new business climate was initiated wherein companies began automating production and laying off workers in the process. This created a tense relationship between business and labor. Shay captured the dynamic of this tension when Ford employees gathered to strike in 1955 at a South Side factory.

This book is a timely read as demonstrations continue around the country for Black Lives Matter. The combination of Shay’s photography with Gellman’s text gives the reader a deeper understanding of Chicago’s turbulent history when social activists worked hard to change the status quo in a city steeped in racist policies and political corruption. Reading this book makes one question just how much has or has not changed in Chicago over the last 50 years.

Troublemakers: Chicago Freedom Struggles through the Lens of Art Shay is published by University of Chicago Press. Retail price ranges from $30 to $35 at various bookstores and online bookseller sites. Published in 2020, it’s 8.5 x 1 x 11 inches, hardcover and 304 pages.

Art Shay’s work can also be seen in photography books such as, Album for an Age: Unconventional Words and Pictures from the Twentieth Century, Nelson Algren’s Chicago, and My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story. Shay’s photos are in the permanent collections of major museums including the National Portrait Gallery and The Art Institute of Chicago.

Erik S. Gellman is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His other books include Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights and, co-authored with Jarod Roll, The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America.

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