King's speech a turning point, black ministers say
As a black child growing up in Georgetown, Ill., in the 1940s, the Rev. Clyde Brooks wasn't allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts.
His family couldn't use the gas station in town, or eat in restaurants unless it was the kitchen.
The humiliating experiences of his youth drove Brooks to become a community activist fighting for civil rights in Chicago's suburbs.
And one momentous speech 50 years ago today changed the course of the then-27-year-old's life forever.
Standing among a crowd of nearly 300,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the nation's capital, Brooks witnessed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.
"When Dr. King spoke those words, and to see the momentum of the moment, black and white, all denominations coming together with a purpose, that stirred me and so many others," said Brooks, now 77. "It gave us hope that we were not by ourselves."
Brooks started working with King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and in Chicago's civil rights movement. He was the first black person to run, unsuccessfully, for the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 school board in the 1960s. To this day, he continues to work to realize King's dream for America.
"The purpose of the march was to galvanize people around the same kinds of issues that I have been talking about, the need for jobs, to integrate," Brooks said. "We gathered because we wanted America to be better."
The March on Washington was an unparalleled experience that defined Brooks and many blacks of his generation who went on to become community leaders in their own right.
The Rev. Nathaniel Edmond, pastor of Second Baptist Church of Elgin, was 12 years old when he saw King's speech broadcast on television.
Edmond said when King spoke of being judged by the content of one's character, it inspired and motivated him to be the best that he could be.
"I am a product of the Civil Rights Movement," said Edmond, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the heart of the movement. "That speech gave everyone in my generation, and perhaps those even older and some younger than me, a feeling of where we wanted our country to go. (King) tried to appeal to the conscience of our country. I still find that inspirational."
The Rev. Larry Bullock, pastor of Living Faith AME Church in Barrington and founder/senior pastor of Living Faith Cathedral Worship Center Church of Schaumburg, said King made it possible for him to kick down doors in high school.
At the time of the march, Bullock was 17 years old and the first black student at his high school in Mount Airy, N.C.
"Those newsreels were looped and looped so you could not avoid it, particularly if you lived in the South," Bullock said. "You saw black people and white people putting their lives at stake for equal treatment and equal access to public education."
Bullock became a poster child for desegregation.
"They recruited me out of the all-black school to go to a white school," he said. "My emotions ranged from anger to hostility to resolve. You had to accept the conditions as they were. I was immediately thrust into a world that I had not experienced before, into a laboratory of change. It has driven my life enormously."
Bullock was the only black quarterback on the Mount Airy High School football team. He also played basketball and ran track, and went to college, where he also was the first black student, on a basketball scholarship.
King's words made him work harder in college to overcome the challenges of a new reality.
Black community leaders agree that while segregation ended after the Civil Rights Movement, America today is still a divided nation when it comes to race relations.
"There is an awful lot of inequality still in America," Edmond said, adding that deep-seated divisions bubbled to the surface with the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. In July, a jury acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.
"The Trayvon Martin case shook the conscience of the country in terms of how much work there is to be done," Edmond said. "The victim became the perpetrator. It reminds us of how far we have yet to go."
Bullock said the country made great strides when Barack Obama was elected as the first biracial president, but there has been a backlash in his view.
"I see now a gradual, if not an outright, exacerbation of hostilities coming out of portions of the South and the North through these political candidates and especially parties," he said. "We didn't put the nail in the coffin of racism in this country, and we should have because now it's being resurrected."
Yet, Bullock added, he has hope because more people, including non-minorities, are beginning to take up the mantle of leadership on civil rights issues. Brooks, now a retired pastor and chairman of the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations in Bolingbrook, said while things have improved significantly for blacks since King's time, there are still issues that linger such as affordable housing, quality health care for the poor, diversity, integration, crime and voting rights.
"History repeats itself, but that's why we have to stay active and involved," Brooks said. "Yes, there's been a lot of improvement, no doubt about it. But there's a lot of retrenchment. We marched for voting rights, and now recently the Supreme Court has hampered voting rights. We fought for quality health care and now the backlash against affordable health care. If you just look at the attack on women's rights as it was at the time of the march and look at it now … those issues have not only come back but have spread. During the march, the churches, both white and black, were active. And now the silence is staggering.
"There's a lot of work to be done," Brooks added. "Dr. King told us how he wanted to be remembered -- volunteer."
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