By Bill Clutter
An excerpt from Coal Tar: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing America's Children.
“This is a classic story with very good good-guys and very bad bad-guys, a tale of corporate greed, lethal pollution and sick children and the heroic people who fought to make things right.
A wonderful read” --Scott Turow.
Prologue Part 5
The year 1968 was a low point for our family and for our country, one of the worst years in the history of America.
At the raucous Democratic convention in Chicago, in the sweltering summer of ‘68, there was hope yet of electing another Kennedy as president. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley led a movement by the Illinois delegates to draft Teddy Kennedy. Mayor Daley tried to convince him to accept the party nomination. Still grieving for his brothers, Teddy declined the offer. The delegates instead nominated Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. What happened next may have been avoided, had Teddy accepted Daley’s invitation, or had RFK not been killed.
The young people who supported Eugene McCarthy, gathered in Grant Park along Lake Michigan to protest, shouting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” All hell broke loose as the Chicago Police stormed in, swinging Billy clubs as they mowed through the crowd of more than 10,000 students, cracking skulls, breaking ribs, and shattering forearms raised in self-defense. Those injured and jailed were the children of American GI’s who fought to defeat fascism in Europe in defense of Democracy. The police brutality was later characterized in the Walker Report, a commission led by business executive Dan Walker (later elected Illinois Governor in 1972), as a “police riot.”
“That violence,” said the Walker Report of the ’68 melee, “was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the area where confrontations were occurring.”
The “right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” was a fundamental right of every American citizen, expressly protected by the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Americans who had immigrated from Italy during the 1920s and ‘30s had seen this before with the regime of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. To maintain political power, brutal force was often used by the fascist dictator to quell political dissent.
Bigotry was on the rise.
George Wallace broke away from the Democratic Party and ran for president under a newly formed American Independent Party. He picked Curtis LeMay as his running mate, who had served as Air Force Chief of Staff during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was LeMay who advised President Kennedy to launch a nuclear strike against Cuba when U-2 spy planes detected the construction of nuclear missile bases 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Bobby Kennedy opposed the idea and advocated for less violent action. The conflict was defused after ships from the Soviet Union bound for Cuba with nuclear missiles aboard were turned away by a naval blockade.
The Wallace/LeMay ticket had the enthusiastic support of the Ku Klux Klan, whose top leadership held prominent roles in organizing Wallace’s campaign. The support from bigots enabled Wallace to win the electoral votes of five states: Alabama; Arkansas; Georgia; Louisiana; and Mississippi.
With the Democratic Party fractured into pieces, Richard Nixon narrowly won the White House in 1968 with his “Law and Order” campaign slogan, and with a pledge to end the war in Vietnam with “honor”. Nixon defeated Humphry by a very narrow margin, by only 511,944 votes.
Unbeknownst to the public, on the same day that Bobby Kennedy announced his candidacy for president, U.S. soldiers entered My Lai, a small hamlet of thatched huts in South Vietnam. The official military publication Stars and Stripes reported the operation as a “military success”. The government claimed 128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians were killed in a “fierce firefight”.
A year later, in November 1969, the truth of the My Lai Massacre was exposed by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, writing for The New York Times. There were no enemy combatants in the village. Only old men, women, and children. A rogue platoon of U.S. soldiers had slaughtered innocent civilians. Some of the soldiers participated in gang-raping the women. More poor villagers would have died that day if it were not for a helicopter crew of three American heroes who landed and aimed their guns to end the violence. A simple act of humanity. Hugh Thompson, pilot of that helicopter, later told a reporter, “I pray to God something like this never happens again.”
Only one person, Lt. William Calley, leader of the platoon, was court-martialed. His supporters held rallies for Calley’s release, while Thompson received death threats for his bravery. Desensitized by racism, Calley’s supporters referred to the victims as “Gooks,” a racial slur toward Asians, rather than acknowledge them as human.
As 1969 came to an end, Dad became deeply depressed. He lost his job with the railroad. Suddenly, our fortunes had drastically changed. I came home from school on a brilliant spring day in April in 1970 to find a large moving van parked in our driveway. I was in the sixth grade, attending Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. Our home on Lake Decatur was nestled on five acres of an old-growth oak forest. With daffodils in bloom and lilacs blossoming, movers were loading our possessions from the house and boxing them up. The Sheriff had served an eviction order. If it were not for the charity of my grandparents, we would have been out on the street.
The following Spring, on April 1, 1971, three days after Lt. Calley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, President Richard Nixon ordered Calley’s release and commuted his sentence to three years. Calley served the remainder of his sentence on house arrest.
Three years later, on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Campaign operatives of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building, gained entry into the file cabinets and were photographing documents of the McGovern presidential campaign when they were caught by an alert security guard. In 1972, there was no such thing as emails to hack into. The “plumbers” who staged the break-in were a mix of CIA operatives and Cuban exiles working at the direction of G. Gordon Libby, a former FBI agent, who headed Nixon’s re-election committee of dirty tricks.
The smoking gun implicating Nixon was obtained after the House Judiciary Committee voted 33-3 on April 11, 1974, with Republicans joining Democrats, to subpoena the White House recordings of Nixon’s conversations with key aides. Several of these aides had already been indicted by a special prosecutor the year before, including White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, White House counsel John Ehrlichman, and the Attorney General of the United States John Mitchell. A total of 14 people connected to the President went to prison. The charges included obstruction of justice, perjury and conspiracy involving the Watergate break-in. After obtaining the incriminating audio tapes of Nixon’s involvement in the coverup, the House voted to impeach the President with bi-partisan support. A delegation of Republican Senators, led by Barry Goldwater, met with Nixon to inform him that he had lost their support as the leader of their Party, after which, Nixon chose to resign rather than face trial in the Senate.
The following year. Dad wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the Bloomington Pantagraph on November 28, 1975, after reading about yet another train-car collision. By this time, we were living in Normal, Illinois. I was a senior at Normal Community High School. He bitterly accused the railroad’s corruption of public officials as the reason his idea never gained traction. “It is ironically appropriate that the Amtrak Turboliner was filled with politicians when struck by a tank truck near Joliet,” wrote Dad.
“Ten years ago, I sat in then Governor Kerner’s office in Springfield with various state department heads and representatives. I was attempting to get the state help in evaluating and requiring the railroads to adopt a train warning system that I had developed. Roughly 2,000 people a year are killed at grade crossings that were struck by trains since that meeting. A lousy $5 receiver could have prevented those deaths.”
“Why wasn’t the system even given a study? The reason is simple. The railroads through favor-seeking and outright corrupt politicians, have killed it just as surely as they will continue to kill people at their grade crossings,” he wrote.
The meeting at Governor Kerner’s office included upper management of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the ICC, which regulated the railroads. After the meeting, railroad executives were tipped off that a guy named Clutter was causing trouble for them in Springfield. By the time Dad wrote this op/ed, former Governor Otto Kerner had been convicted of political corruption and had been sentenced to serve time in federal prison.
Dad would tell us the story of witnessing how political corruption worked. He was playing poker one night with railroad executives. A Decatur state legislator joined their card game. The politician was there to collect an envelope full of cash, a campaign contribution. This was before campaign finance laws required strict reporting requirements and limitations on how much individuals and corporations could contribute to politicians.
Dad was right.
The December 1987 swearing in ceremony of Springfield’s first Aldermanic government since the 1908 Race Riot. Left to right is Chuck Redpath, Phil Burnett, Frank McNeil, Bill Clutter and Jack Andrew.
Years later, in 1987, I would become an elected official sitting as the youngest member of a new city council in Springfield, Illinois, hometown of Abraham Lincoln. More children would die needlessly at railroad crossings, as I had to deal with unsafe rail crossings as a member of the city council.
Two years before that election, I got my start as a private investigator when I got a call from attorney Michael Metnick to serve the complaint in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit he filed on behalf of African-Americans. That lawsuit alleged that in 1909 city leaders abolished a democratic ward-aldermanic form of government and replaced it with a system intended to dilute the voting power of blacks--a system of 5 commissioners who were elected city-wide. It was also the same year that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, was formed because of what had happened in the hometown of the Great Emancipator in 1908. That summer, two black men were lynched and African Americans were driven out of the city by a lynch mob. This civil unrest was triggered by a white woman who bore false witness, one of sins of the 10 Commandments. Her husband unexpectedly came home from work, finding her in a state of undress, the wife exclaimed she had been raped by a “n*****!”
A federal judge sided with the plaintiffs and ordered a new government. I was elected Ward 1 Alderman in a special election. My closest ally on city the council was the person who initiated the lawsuit, lead plaintiff, Frank McNeil. He was the first African-American elected to the city council and represented a minority district. That special election also saw the election of another African-American, Dr. Allan Woodson. What made his election to the city council more historically significant than McNeil’s was the fact that his district, Ward 10, had the highest percentage of whites of all of the 10 wards. As an independent, Woodson overwhelmingly defeated a Republican precinct committeeman who had the backing of the politically powerful Sangamon County Republican Party, which had controlled city politics for more than a decade.
That election in 1987 would prove, “Yes We Can” overcome bigotry and racism as a country. In Springfield, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln, there was hope for electing an African American as president.
I spent the next 14 years working as Mike Metnick’s investigator and it was he who agreed to initiate the lawsuit to represent the families whose children were crippled and killed by a rare cancer called neuroblastoma.
To pre-order copies of the book go to: www.coaltarandneuroblastoma.com Release date scheduled for September 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Clutter Published by Investigating Innocence Media | Springfield, Illinois. Cover and book design by Polly Danforth | Morning Star Design
The author will provide a free paperback copy of Coal Tar to individuals who donate $20 or more to a not-for-profit organization of private investigators that he started at www.InvestigatingInnocence.org
About The Author
Bill Clutter is a private investigator who started his career in Springfield, Illinois. Clutter got his start as a private investigator by serving the complaint filed by Africans-Americans who alleged that the old commission form of city government elected city-wide, violated the Voting Rights Act in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. Clutter was elected in 1987 as the first Ward One Alderman in the City of Springfield. Also elected that year to the new aldermanic government were two African-Americans. The attorney who filed that lawsuit also initiated the lawsuit against CIPS.
In 2001, Clutter started the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. His investigation on two death penalty cases contributed to the exoneration of three innocent men who were among the 20 innocent men who were freed from death row in Illinois. The Chicago Tribune credited Clutter, among others, for the abolition of the death penalty in 2011.