Soapbox Speakers

The Bughouse Square Debates (part 3)

The Bughouse Square debates were revived in July 1986.

This year, 2019, the main event may be live streamed. The subject is “The Legacies of 1919”, referring to the Chicago race riots. See more on

The debate is between Natalie Moore (South Side Reporter from, WBEZ 91 Chicago radio ). and Charles Whitaker the interim dean/professor from  Medill School, North-western University.

Two awards are sponsored by Newberry Library: the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award and the Dill Pickle award for the best soap-boxer of the day.

The John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech award is named for former Governor of Illinois Altgeld,(1847-1902), who granted clemency to anarchists rounded up after the Haymarket Labour Day bombing of 1886. Altgeld saw their trial as a travesty of justice.  Though there are many posted videos of the debates online, live streaming is something new.

The oldest video was posted on July 31ST 2010. That year, the Altgeld Award for Freedom of Speech was awarded to Kartemquin Films.  This Chicago-based documentary film company holds a mirror up to American society and disseminates reports of difficult, ignored and unpopular issues.

The Dill Pickle award is named after the bohemian Dill Pickle Club. It is indeed a large plastic green dill-pickle.  (The 2013 Bughouse Sq. debate) Runners up awards for soapbox speaking are wooden plug nickels about the size of a penny. All this is done in the name of free speech and good humour.

I visited Newberry Library in 1997 and received my research readers ticket. On Saturday July 26, 1997, I helped judge the speakers on the soapbox in Bughouse square! The organizers divided the square into four sections. I was given a questionnaire in which I had to mark from 1 to 10 my opinions of the speaker’s ability; subject, delivery and audience reaction. It was fun to do.

I met a lot of interesting people in Chicago. Sadly many have died over the years. I was lucky to hear Studs Terkel writer (radio broadcaster 1912-2008) open the debate that year.  The Main Debate: “Multiculturalism: Ebonics or Moronics?” being between Michael Silverstein, University of Chicago professor of anthropology, and Leon Todd, Director of the Milwaukee School Board.

Studs Terkel   had lived close by the Bughouse Sq. and the Dill Pickle Club in Tooker Alley. Studs never forgot the characters he had met.  The Dill Pickle club was a bohemian speakeasy frequented by literary figures and radicals of all kinds.  Both the square and the club played a vital roll in life of Chicago. See more:   ttps://     

Newspaper writer Wallace Willits, who gives us a sample of soapboxers of those times in his article, had this description of the speakers: ‘the “ardent vegetarian,” “the psychopathic expert,” “atheists and left-wing socialists,” “Freudian psychologists,”  and a drunk hoping to “promote” 50 cents from some distracted passer-by so he can purchase another pint.             “Free speech never was freer than in this unique spot on the near north side,”.  Willits continued to write. “This freedom, he seems to imply, is also the freedom to speak without making any sense. It occurs in a space outside state surveillance and iconography, which the shedding of “Washington” in popular reference to the park reflects”.

World War II and a post-war crackdown against socialists and communists led to Bughouse Square’s decline and, by the mid-1960s, it had all but ceased to exist. The area also went through an upgraded development period. In 1986, the Newberry and community activists officially revived the spirit of the park in the form of a yearly event, The Bughouse Square Debates.

I interviewed Hank Oettinger, (1924-2014 )  who was always on hand at Bughouse debates. He is best known for his letters- to- editors. Hank Oettinger worked in the Chicago newspapers as a printer. He knew most of city’s best journalists and where they liked to drink and they knew he was worth publishing. Collections of his letters to the editor are held on;

Hank gave me great insight into the Chicago Democratic Convention protest of 1968, which ended in a police riot. The Convention was split between anti-war and pro-war campaigners. The brutal assassinations of civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy ensured that there would also be a large protest from those movements.

In Hank’s opinion, during the eight days of protest there was a great effort to unite the anti-war campaigners and the civil rights movement, but also great efforts by others to divide the two. If the left could have united them, Mayor Daily’s hold on the city would have crumbled.

I also met with people who were in the Chicago police department at the time. Their job was to go out into the streets and convince protesters not to trust the others. For example, anti-war campaigners were said to be young white draft dodgers, while civil right campaigners were ‘dangerous radicals’. That was before the police got into the action and all hell let loose.

Just as the Bughouse speakers corner has been revived with an annual debate, so too has the tradition of the Dill Pickle Club;–with a weekly meeting called “The College of Complexes”.  In fact, it was founded in 1953 with the counterculture motto “The Playground for People who Think” and with its promise of “No Homework – No Credits / No Sleeping in Class”   I was again lucky in Chicago to meet Charles Paidock who invited me to the College.  Now he is program co-ordinator of the College of Complexes. From time to time, I drop in and view their program. It’s always interesting for me. As I said, I met a lot of interesting people in Chicago – too many to list and thank.

This ends my story of Chicago’s free speech venues. That said, anyone at any time can visit the web and view the BUGHOUSE DEBATES.

Steve Maxwell.

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