March 27, 1997 in Nation/World

Black Boy’s Beating By Whites Sparks Calls For Tolerance, Marches

Don Terry New York Times
 

For the last few days, a parade of politicians and preachers have made their way to the bedside of a comatose 13-year-old black boy to pray for his recovery and for the city’s soul.

In a storm of fists and feet, the boy, Lenard Clark, was beaten into a coma by a pack of white teenagers as he rode his bicycle last Friday on the edge of Bridgeport, a neighborhood known for producing mayors and racial hostility. According to police, the teenagers later bragged about keeping blacks out of the neighborhood.

These are tense times in Chicago. The beating of Lenard came on the heels of another ugly but less serious racial incident two weeks earlier. During a high school basketball game, dozens of students from a predominately white, Catholic boys school taunted players from a largely black school with chants of “Buckwheat.”

Officials from the Catholic school, Brother Rice High School, apologized and the uproar seemed to be dying down when word spread through the city that an even worse incident between black and white had sent a child to the hospital, fighting for his life.

“Lenard is still in a coma,” his aunt, Tallulah Black, said Wednesday. “It’s going to be a long process for him to recover. Lenard is going to have to be taught how to do everything all over again. He’s moving his leg up and down. But the doctors say the movement is reaction to the pain, the pain from the beating.”

Now at least three protest marches through Bridgeport are being organized by different groups. Political, religious and civic leaders, from Mayor Richard Daley to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, are pleading for calm and the Archdiocese of Chicago is promising to “redouble” its efforts to teach its young tolerance.

Three white teenagers have been arrested and charged with attempted murder in Lenard’s beating. They have been released on bond. Two of the suspects, Frank Caruso, 18, and Victor Jasas, 17, are students at De La Salle, another Catholic high school and the alma mater of Mayor Daley. The third suspect in the case, Michael Kwidzinski, 19, is a recent graduate of the school.

The suspects are from Bridgeport, a place where black people have rarely felt comfortable after dark.

“Over the years, I’ve heard that people of color should be careful going to Bridgeport,” Black said. “But I never realized it was this bad. I never realized that a little boy couldn’t ride his bike on a beautiful spring day without fearing for his life.”

Bridgeport was the home of former Mayor Richard J. Daley, the city’s legendary boss and the father of the current mayor, who until a few years ago also called the neighborhood on Chicago’s near South Side home.

Mayor Daley went to visit Lenard at Cook County Hospital on Tuesday and condemned the child’s attackers as “thugs.” But lawyers for the three suspects say their clients were not involved in the brutal beating and that the media and the mayor have “rushed to judgment” because it is a racially charged case.

According to police, Lenard and two friends were on their way home from playing basketball last Friday when the white teenagers attacked them, ramming Lenard’s head into a brick wall and smothering him in a flurry of punches and kicks to the head.

On the streets of Bridgeport on Wednesday, several residents of the neighborhood expressed sympathy for Lenard and his family and sorrow that race continues to divide the city and the country.

“It’s a shame things like this happen, but that is the way it is,” said Tony Hoskins, 28, a baggage handler at O’Hare International Airport. “Chicago is a racially segregated town. Bridgeport symbolizes that.”

In the last few years, many more Asian and Hispanic people have moved into the blue-collar neighborhood, accounting for about 40 percent of the population. But almost no blacks live in Bridgeport, even though many shop in the stores during the day.

Rosemary Hudi, 68, a retired bookkeeper and a lifelong Bridgeport resident, said she was “embarrassed” by the beating of Lenard.

“What happened to that kid,” she said, “was awful.”

The Rev. Al Sampson, a black minister from the far South Side of the city, said he will lead a march through Bridgeport tonight to protest the beating. Sampson came to Chicago in 1966 with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to combat segregated housing.

“We marched through Bridgeport 30 years ago,” Sampson said. “This town is still one of the most racist cities in the United States.”

Wednesday, as she continued her vigil at her son’s side, Lenard’s mother, Wanda McMurry, visited with Jackson, who is helping the family establish a medical fund at a local bank. McMurry carried a plastic shopping bag full of get-well cards and letters from people across the city for her son, who she said likes playing basketball, riding his bike and eating.

“This man called me today and said he was putting on a march for Lenard,” McMurry said. “I told him that was fine, just as long as it wasn’t just blacks marching. I told him to get whites and blacks and Chinese and Mexicans together and then march. We’re supposed to get along with one another. What happened to my son should be the whole city’s business.”

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