OLD TOWN — The Chicago History Museum is throwing open documents on an African-American Police League formed in the '60s in the belief that it can shed light and add context to the debate over police today.
The museum has made documents, memorabilia, photos and other artifacts on the group available to the public in its Research Center.
"Given continuing concerns about policing in Chicago, especially as it relates to black and brown communities, the papers of the [police league] illuminate how the past matters now,” said Joy Bivins, the museum's director of curatorial affairs. "This collection also shows the possibility and value of police and communities working together to address those concerns."
Included are fliers printed by the group actually urging residents to report police abuse, as well as logbooks and other documents tracking incidents of police brutality.
Officer Edward "Buzz" Palmer is credited with leading the formation of the Afro-American Patrolmen's League in May 1968. According to documents included in the collection, its stated goals were to "work for high standards of police performances in black communities; to elevate the image of the black policeman to a position of dignity and respect, especially in the black communities; to work for total police reform; and to strive for improved relations between black and white policemen."
Yet the Police Department fought creation of the organization and retaliated against its members, leading to lawsuits documented in the collection.
To put the state of affairs in context, keep in mind that the Department was embroiled in the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and the fatal police raid on Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark followed late in 1969.
Included is a 1971 interview Studs Terkel did with Renault Robinson, later a political ally of Mayor Harold Washington and head of the Chicago Housing Authority, when he was still one of the few minority Chicago Police officers. It figured in Terkel's book "Working" and is part of the WFMT Studs Terkel Archive at the museum.
The Patrolmen's League later changed its name to the African-American Police League and joined other similar groups to form the National Black Police Association late in 1972.
"African-American police officers have made tremendous gains since 1968," wrote volunteer Robert Blythe in a museum blog post. "Nevertheless, many of the issues identified by the [police league] remain active concerns, and the organization’s papers could not be more relevant today."