Horseshoe Lake, 2016

Venice Riots, 1969

December 1, 2021

Last modified: December 1, 2021

On the night of June 24, 1969, a riot occurred in the city of Venice, Illinois, which resulted in the arrest of 30 individuals by local law enforcement agencies.1

A protest was held that evening at Venice City Hall in which demonstrators demanded the reassignment of an African American policeman away from predominately Black neighborhoods, greater employment opportunities for African Americans at the nearby Dow Chemical Company, and mattresses to be added to bunks at the city jail. Rebuffed by Mayor John Lee, violence spread once night fell, though local law enforcement received advance notice that property damage would occur.2

Local businesses were attacked, as were fire trucks, police cars, and an apartment building. Incendiary devices including Molotov cocktails and firebombs made from gin bottles, gasoline and cloth fuses inflicted minor property damage, but no injuries were reported.3

The forewarning received on June 23 helps to explain the minimal damage as well as the variety of police forces present, which included: Venice Police Chief John Essington and riot-equipped Venice police; Madison County Sheriff George Musso, Assistant Chief Deputy Demos Nicholas, and twenty-five deputies; Illinois State Police Captain Emil Toffant and fifteen state policemen; and other unnamed local police forces, as well as firemen. 4

Thirty-two African Americans were arrested, including two juveniles, who were later released, on charges of disorderly conduct. Taken to the County Courthouse in Edwardsville, twenty-two were released on their recognizance on $500 bond. Eight others, considered “known police characters” and the accused ringleaders of the disturbance, were held on $1000 bond. These men were Lemon Smith, 27, of Venice; J.B. George, 25, of East St. Louis; Tyrone Walker, 21, of Venice; Henry Picket, 25, of Venice; Marvin Clemons, 25, of Madison; Claude Garrett, 22, of Venice; Tommy Williams, 23, of Venice; and Clement West, 22, of Venice. 5

Their arraignment was scheduled for July 17, 1969. Unfortunately, as the charges against them were considered misdemeanors, no records have survived detailing the sentences received by these men.6 Additionally, every participant in the riot that could be traced was deceased as on 2021.7

According to the Edwardsville Intelligencer, further disturbances were noted the next evening, Wednesday, June 25, 1969. An abandoned house was destroyed, a shed set alight, and cars vandalized. However, no arrests can be traced to these incidents.

Despite being a part of a wave of social unrest across the 1960s, Venice police were explicit in denying the racial cast of the violence.8 One Venice police officer stated at the time, “This was not a local race riot. This was a gang of outside hoodlums and police characters who came into town to start trouble and disrupt this community.”9

Conflicting coverage of these events reflected the contested interpretations of popular uprisings during this era, especially in terms of race. Although police attempted to downplay the riots, the Alton Telegraph headline called the disturbances a “Venice Rampage,” and claimed police tried to “quell gangs of rampaging black youths who raked the town with firebombs.” This was in stark contrast to coverage by the Edwardsville Intelligencer, whose shorter coverage was more moderate in tone.10

Regardless of the size of the disturbance, the Venice Riot of 1969 was significant enough to stick in the memory of Bryan Mathis, who makes mention of the events in his 2016 oral history stored in the Madison Historical archives.11

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. “Youths Hurl Firebombs in Venice Riot, Edwardsville Intelligencer, June 25, 1969; Ande Yakstis, “30 Youths Arrested In Venice Rampage,” Alton Evening Telegraph, June 25, 1969.
2. Available sources do not state how the advanced notice was received or by whom. Also, there’s a discrepancy between the Intelligencer and the Telegraph as to when the protest occurred, with the Intelligencer stating Monday, June 23 and the TelegraphTuesday, June 24.
3. “Youths,” Intelligencer; “30 Youths,” Telegraph.
4. “30 Youths,” Telegraph.
5. Ibid.
6. Several of the named defendants had charges against them filed in July and August. Whether these charges stemmed from the Venice Riot is unclear as the records are incomplete, and for each defendant, the charges were eventually dropped.
7. Of the eight named individuals, only five could be definitively identified via available records. J.B. George, Lemon Smith, and Marvin Clemons could not be definitively located.
8. For further information on race riots during this time, see Peter B. Levy, The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Ashely M. Howard, “Prairie Fires: Urban Rebellions as Black Working Class Politics in Three Midwestern Cities” (PhD diss., University of Illinois, 2012).
9. “30 Youths,” Telegraph.
10. “Youths,” Intelligencer; “30 Youths,” Telegraph.
11. See Bryan Mathis, “Oral History Interview,” interview by Lesley Thomson, Madison Historical, accessed November 21, 2021, https://madison-historical.siue.edu/archive/items/show/42.
Cite this article: Andrew Niederhauser, "Venice Riots, 1969," Madison Historical: The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive for Madison County, Illinois, last modified December 1, 2021, https://madison-historical.siue.edu/encyclopedia/venice-riots-1969/.
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