By Kay McSpadden, Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society Board Member
On Nov 4, 2019 Marjorie Fritz-Birch spoke as part of the Living History program. Fifty years ago, Her mother Jean Fritz had been one of the jurors at the Chicago 7 Trial, one of the most important and controversial events of 2oth Century Chicago History.
Jean Fritz died last year at almost 100 years of age, and to mark the 50th anniversary of the trial, which began on Sept 24, 1969, Marjorie spoke about her mother’s ordeal, from her own perspective as the 20-year-old daughter of a sequestered juror.
Before, during and after the trial, Jean Fritz saved many materials connected to the experience, such as her jury summons, newspaper articles, magazine, and book accounts. She also kept meticulous notes during the trial, recording her observations in a journal she kept during the evenings of sequestration when she was allowed no access to television, newspapers or contact with her family.
As background to her talk, Marjorie explained that eight protestors were indicted for conspiring and crossing state lines to induce a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. (It became the Chicago 7 when defendant Bobby Seale was granted the right defend himself separately.) Marjorie pointed out that for a year before the convention, anti-Vietnam War protestors had been asking for permits allowing them to demonstrate, but that they were blocked by Chicago officials at every turn. When they protested anyway, the political pressure from public officials led to their arrest. According to Marjorie, “It was a violent, explosive time. There were people who hated anyone who had long hair.”
“The whole trial was ludicrous to begin with,” she continued. “As the trial went on, it became a travesty.”
As recorded in the journal, one juror resigned before the trial began and was replaced by an alternate who Jean Fritz believed to be a plant supporting Mayor Richard J. Daley. There were 115 defense witnesses; the witnesses for the prosecution were undercover agents. Judge Hoffman bound and gagged Bobby Seale for a period during the trial. The defendants were found innocent on the conspiracy charge but guilty of crossing state lines to encourage a riot. All the charges were dropped on appeal.
The jury was sequestered for the entire length of the trial, which lasted till February of the following year. The family didn’t see their mother for the first month of the trial. Marjorie recalled that Christmas was the first time that Jean was allowed a visit home, accompanied by U.S. Marshals. During the trial Jean’s mail was opened and her telephone calls were monitored. In her journal she tells how the jury voted. Eight of the jurors wanted the defendants guilty on all counts but Jean and a few others held out for acquittal on the conspiracy charge.
As the exhibit shows, Jean Fritz was transformed personally and politically as a result of the trial. At the beginning, she was fifty-one years old, with no experience of the counterculture, but Marjorie recalls that she was always open-minded, and was reading a book by James Baldwin at the time of her summons. When selected for the jury, she was overwhelmed, feeling she wasn’t qualified to judge the people on trial. She was ashamed and kept revisiting in her journal that she had had to quit high school because her family was very poor. By the end of the trial, she had become suspicious of the government, vowing never to judge anyone or to take anything at face value. She had become a liberal Democrat. She said, “I’ve never been afraid of my government before.”
Marjorie herself felt the effects of the trial. Her phone was tapped also, and she missed her mother. When she was younger, she didn’t realize what an important trial it was. When she was older, she re-read the journal, a couple years ago after not reading it for several years.
Following the trial, the anti-Vietnam War violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention was characterized as a police riot. Fritz received a letter from Studs Terkel which she saved and is part of the exhibit. Negatively, people came into her husband’s store saying they’d never patronize the store again.
Jean Fritz was interviewed about the trial in 1970; she said exactly how she felt. Bill Curtis included the trial in a show on A&E on trials that had gone wrong.
The journal and related materials form the basis of an ongoing exhibit at the Edgewater Historical Society “The Chicago Conspiracy Trial; One Juror’s Ordeal.” The Edgewater Historical Society is located at 5358 N. Ashland, Chicago 60660, and open Sat and Sun 1-4 pm. (Note: There’s a lot of reading connected with the exhibit, so be prepared to spend some time at the museum.)