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Newberry Library Brings Soapboxers, Hecklers Back to Bughouse Square

By Mark Konkol | July 26, 2013 7:26am
 A heckler takes aim at a soapbox orator at last year's Bughouse Square Debates.
A heckler takes aim at a soapbox orator at last year's Bughouse Square Debates.
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Newberry Library

GOLD COAST — On Saturday, radicals, socialists and, if we’re lucky, a collection of crackpots are set to return to Washington Square Park — Chicago’s original bastion of free speech — for the Newberry Library’s Bughouse Square Debates.

Every July for 28 years, the Newberry’s afternoon of public discussion has captured the spirit of early-1900s labor activists who gathered there to expound on the rights of the working man, debate the growing rift between capitalist bosses and labor unions and sometimes loudly spout crazy talk.

Chicago’s first park — a tiny rectangle in the Gold Coast’s Washington Square historic district — got its funny nickname, frankly, because it attracted so many “crazies” and thousands of people who came to hear them talk.

“Bughouse” is slang for an insane asylum. And Bughouse Square became nationally known as a spot where anybody could climb on a soapbox and say anything.

“In the first decade of the 20th century, the standout speakers were the Industrial Workers of the World who were very active in talking about the rights of labor,” said Newberry historian Rachel Bohlmann, who runs the debates.

“And they were also very creative telling stories. They had great soapbox speakers who were very inspirational and very entertaining and people in the crowd would heckle, which made it very interactive.”

In the 1920s, Moody Bible Institute preachers came to Bughouse Square to deliver soapbox sermons alongside the left-wing radicals.

In a June, 1937 edition of the TribuneChicago Poet Rachel Albright described the scene at Bughouse Square as “slow-milling mobs of men. … Thin Russians rave of Lenin and labor, the masses circle, words surge to and fro: Bread, cannons, capital and love thy neighbor.”

But by the 1960s, soapbox speeches had gone extinct at Bughouse Square thanks to a nationwide government crackdown on communist and socialist activity during the 1950s, Bohlmann said.

In 1986, the Newberry Library and a group of community activist established the debates to get Chicagoans with strong opinions back up on their soapboxes and in front of a crowd for at least one day a year.

“Free speech is the bedrock of the democratic process,” Bohlmann said. “These days, social media is an aspect of that, but this is where people in Chicago started talking face-to-face in public, interacting with each other. It’s important to keep outdoor oration alive.”

On Saturday, dozens of soapbox speakers will challenge the status quo with riotous speeches about whistleblowing, abortion laws religious freedom and, of course, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

I’ll be there grading the modern day soapboxers on the opinions, showmanship and how well they handle hecklers.

The Tribune’s Rick Kogan, a master orator in his own right, is set to officiate the main event — a soapbox showdown between ESPN’s Lester Munson and activist organizer Tom Tresser as they debate whether Chicago taxpayers should subsidize Wrigley Field renovations to keep the Cubs in Chicago.

Heck, if the opportunity presents itself, I might put on my Sox hat and do a little heckling of my own.

It sure sounds like fun.

More details:

What: 28th Annual Bughouse Square Debates

Where: Across the street from the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St.

When: 1-4 p.m.