|Frank Sinatra at Gary Memorial Auditorium, Nov. 1, 1945|
Who knew? Frank Sinatra, who my generation looked at as an old school brawler, was the Sinead O'Connor of his day, an artist who put it on the line for his political beliefs.
Ever since I've learned about this incident, almost 20 years ago, it has interested me, particularly his moving speech to the students. I thought it was my own private knowledge, and was pleased to hear this report by Yolanda Perdomo about it on WBEZ Friday, and realize other people knew about it too.
There's a lot more to this story than appears in either of our explorations. It touches upon labor, race and celebrity, and I am planning to turn it into my next book. I've gone to Gary a number of times to sift through the Froebel archives at the Indiana University, and am beginning to seek out people who were either there or, even better since memories fade, have letters or journals from that time. Anyone who has any leads is invited to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like Boy Scouts, newspapers try to be prepared. One reason the coverage of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin's funeral was so extensive was that the cardinal—considerate to the end—gave the media so much advance notice.
So when a rumor came out of California a few weeks back that Frank Sinatra was at death's door, the gears began to turn at every newspaper and TV station in the country.
For me, that meant sitting down with a half-foot stack of beige envelopes stuffed with old newspaper clippings about Sinatra and searching for material to put into his obituary. Most everything in the clips corresponded exactly with my preconceptions about Sinatra. Judging by what got into the newspapers over the last 50 years, you'd think he was a man famous for brawling with casino managers and dating starlets and, as a sideline, also sang.
Reports of Sinatra's impending demise—to paraphrase Twain—were premature. The preparations were set aside.
But one aspect of the man found hidden in his yellowed and crumbling newspaper clips just shocked me. Since it will no doubt be reduced to a sentence, if not completely overlooked, in the rush to summarize his life once the inevitable does occur, I thought I would address it here, just because it resonates so much with our world today.
As a young man, Sinatra was passionate about one issue: race. In our telegraphic view of history, we slap the civil rights movement into the '50s and '60s, but of course it goes back far earlier than that. In the 1940s there were huge conflicts over integration, particularly in schools and Sinatra chose to insert himself into the middle of the battle addressing groups of students as he criss-crossed the country on tour.
One such talk occurred in the Chicago area.
In mid-September, 1945, a fight at a football game prompted 500 white students at Froebel High School in Gary to walk out for two weeks, demanding that blacks, who made up 36 percent of the school, be segregated to their own classrooms.
The strike ended with vague promises of "improvement," but a month later the students were out again, in larger numbers—600 this time—claiming their principal was "favoring" the black students and demanding they be removed from the school.
Sinatra, at the invitation of a "tolerance group," flew in from New York and spoke at an emotional meeting of 5,000 teens and their parents in the Gary Memorial Auditorium.
First he sang a couple of songs. Then, clutching the microphone, he gave an extemporaneous speech. Sinatra may be famous for "Summer Wind," but the Gary talk was one of the finest things he ever did.
"You should be proud of Gary," he began. "But you can't stay proud pulling this sort of strike—taking the remarks and advice of outsiders, people meddling, people dictating to you."
Sinatra was referring to rumors that the Indiana Ku Klux Klan was behind the strike.
"Their aim," he continued, "is to divide and conquer you. If you stick together, they can't do it. Why should you have two groups fighting each other, anyway? You don't know what you're missing, not being friends, playing together, visiting each other's families, sticking up for each other. Other kids in other centers don't have things like you have. Educational advantages, especially. You're throwing them away."
He said believing other races to be inferior was a pillar of Nazism.
"Don't let it happen here," he pleaded. "I implore you to return to school. This is a bad deal, kids. It's not good for you, and it's not good for the city of Gary, which has done so much to help with the war for freedom the world over."
He ended on a personal note.
"I know something about this business of racial intolerance," he said. "At 11, I was called a 'dirty guinea' back home in New Jersey. We've all done that sort of thing. We've all used the words Nigger or Kike or Mick or Pollack or Dag. Cut it out, kids. Go back to school. You've got to go back, because you don't want to be ashamed of your student body, your city, your country.
"This is 1945, and it's time we began to live together like civilized people."
How the strike turned out was not, of course, in Sinatra's clips. The Gary Board of Education had no idea, and suggested I try the Gary public library. Then I realized the answer had to be closer at hand.
In the newspaper library I found an enveloped marked "GARY, INDIANA—SCHOOLS—RACIAL DISTURBANCES."
Sinatra's wise words didn't end the Froebel school strike. That sort of thing only happens in the movies. The kids stay out 10 more days, and the problem of intolerance lasted much longer, festering and mutating into the current mess we cope with every day.
Why couldn't those kids have just listened to Frank? Well, at least give him credit for trying. It's more than most entertainers do nowadays.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 24, 1996