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The Hickman Case

(9 August 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 32, 9 August 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Socialist Workers Party isn’t just another TALKING party – it’s an ACTING party. That’s one thing, among others, that makes the SWP different from all other parties in the 1948 presidential elections.

Although the SWP is still small in numbers and resources, it has done more than all other parties put together in the fight for civil rights and in defense of labor and the Negro people.

This is the first of a series of articles to inform our new friends and readers on the record of the Socialist Workers Party. We have earned the right to ask your support of our candidates, Farrell Dobbs for President and Grace Carlson for Vice President, by our record in the struggle against the labor-haters, fascists and Negro-baiters.

If there’s one real test of any party, that is its record in the fight for Negro equality. The proud record of the SWP is written large in such recent historic actions as the Fontana case in California, the Freeport case in New York and the Hickman case in Chicago.

An appropriate start for our series is a description of the role of the SWP in the successful defense of the life of the Negro steel worker, James Hickman, twice tried for the killing of his landlord after his four children had burned to death in a fire-trap blaze in Chicago’s Black Ghetto.

The significance of the Hickman case and the historic mass defense movement initiated and inspired by the Chicago Local of the SWP is attested to by a 14-page article, The Hickman Story, written by John Bartlow Martin and published in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine. It is a dramatic, moving and honest account of the events.

During the war, James Hickman brought his wife and eight children up North from Mississippi, seeking an opportunity to work at decent wages, raise his children to be honest, self-respecting citizens. He came to Chicago, hoping there to find the “promised land.”

He didn’t find it. He found the misery and degradation of the Black Ghetto, the incredibly crowded segregated area to which Negroes are confined because of restrictive covenants and the greed of real estate interests.

Hickman was forced to house his family in a fourth-floor attic room of a dilapidated old dwelling. His “home” had no running water, no toilet – and just one exit. He paid the landlord, David Coleman, $100 for the “privilege” of moving in and the promise of a basement flat later on, plus $6 a week rent.

Then Hickman found out the promised basement apartment was leased to another family. He went to the landlord Coleman and demanded back his $100 deposit. Coleman refused, threatened to burn the Hickman family out if Hickman held back the rent.

On the night of January 16, 1947, while Hickman was at work on the night shift; a fire broke out on the landing outside the Hickmans’ door.

There was no escape. Mrs. Hickman and an older son leaped from a fourth-floor window. They lived, but horribly burned and injured. Four of the youngsters, huddled under the bed, were burned to death.

That was when the SWP entered the picture. It investigated the fire and began a campaign to organize the tenants into a Tenants League. It secured legal aid for Hickman to sue the landlord. It pressed for a city investigation and action against fire-traps and restrictive covenants.

Hickman was a man bereft. He was convinced Cqleman had set the fire – -and all evidence pointed to arson. He brooded until he got a gun. He went to look for Coleman, found him, and shot him to death. Hickman gave himself up to tne police. He was hooked without bail. He had no money for a lawyer. He faced the electric chair.

“But suddenly to his rescue came some citizens – an organizer for the Socialist Workers Party, Mike Bartell, and two labor union men, Willoughby Abner, a Negro and first vice president of the central CIO Council in Chicago, and Charles Chiakulas, president of a United Auto Workers (CIO) local,” writes John Bartlow Martin.

The SWP representatives proposed and secured a broad united labor and Negro defense of Hickman. A campaign was launched to arouse the conscience and support of the city and the nation. One of the chief attorneys for the defense was M.J. Myer, noted for his legal assistance in the famous Minneapolis Labor Trial of the SWP leaders.

The Harper’s article states: “Many such groups degenerate into luncheons and resolutions. Hickman’s defenders worked hard, effectively, fast, and according to plan.” Before the trial was over, money and moral support poured in from organizations all over the country.

Hickman was tried by an all-white jury and a white judge. But the defense soon turned the case into a trial of the Jim Crow system, restrictive covenants and greedy landlordism. The result was a hung jury – seven to five for acquittal.

The prosecution started a new trial. By now the Defense Committee, in which SWP representatives played a leading role, had aroused a nationwide response. The pressure was so great, the court agreed to accept a plea of manslaughter instead of murder. On Dec. 16, 1947, Hickman was found “guilty” and released on two years probation. Hickman, his wife and three remaining sons, are now living in a housing project. He is working at a job obtained for him by the Defense Committee.

The Hickman defense, initiated by the SWP, saved the life of a poor, unknown, victimized Negro worker. It put a national spotlight on the shame of the nation – the Black Ghettoes of the cities. And, above all, it taught the lesson of how to mobilize the workers, Negro and white, for successful mass struggle.

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