Tracing Martin Luther King's Chicago footsteps in what would have been his 90th year

 
 
Updated 1/21/2019 10:03 AM
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  • The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives a speech at a Chicago Freedom Movement rally on July 10, 1966, at Soldier Field.

    The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives a speech at a Chicago Freedom Movement rally on July 10, 1966, at Soldier Field. Chicago Sun-Times

"He would have been 90 this year," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Jackson was reflecting on this year's holiday honoring his mentor and friend.

Jan. 15 was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, celebrated nationally today.

As the years go by, there are fewer of those who marched with him to share their memories. But Jackson, one of his closest aides, still can recount milestone moments from King's Chicago Freedom Movement of 1965-66 like it was yesterday.

"Our offices used to be at 366 E. 47th St., in what's now Bronzeville, and we used to meet every Saturday morning at Chicago Theological Seminary," says Jackson, 77, who first met the man of peace at an airport in 1964, when King was en route to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.

Jackson then marched with King in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

He soon joined the team of the charismatic civil rights leader and was assigned to run Operation Breadbasket, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's anti-poverty effort.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. falls after being struck by a rock from a taunting mob on Aug. 5, 1966, in Chicago's Marquette Park neighborhood. "I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I've seen here in Chicago," King said.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. falls after being struck by a rock from a taunting mob on Aug. 5, 1966, in Chicago's Marquette Park neighborhood. "I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I've seen here in Chicago," King said. - Chicago Sun-Times

When the Baptist preacher who espoused nonviolence brought the fight for equal rights north to Chicago, Jackson was at his side.

Chicago churches still standing today were the sites of their strategizing meetings, including Fellowship Baptist Church, 4543 S. Princeton Ave.; New Friendship Baptist Church, 848 W 71st St.; and Stone Temple Baptist Church, 3622 W. Douglas Blvd.

King's June 21, 1964, speech at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights at Soldier Field came days after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Then, after being asked by the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations to come help Black Chicago fight for quality schools, King led a July 26, 1965, march on Chicago City Hall; gave a fiery speech before tens of thousands at the July 10, 1966, Freedom Sunday Rally at Soldier Field; and on Aug. 26, 1966, held a globally covered "Summit Agreement" with Mayor Richard J. Daley.

As part of his "End Slums" campaign, King famously moved his family into a dilapidated, third-floor walk-up at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. in North Lawndale on Jan. 1, 1966. The building is long gone, but the Dr. King Legacy Apartments and Fair Housing Exhibit Center now marks the spot.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, kneeling, huddles with the Rev. Martin Luther King, center, and Bernard Lee of King's staff at a mass meeting held Aug. 20, 1966, in Stone Temple Church, 3622 Douglas Blvd. in Chicago.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, kneeling, huddles with the Rev. Martin Luther King, center, and Bernard Lee of King's staff at a mass meeting held Aug. 20, 1966, in Stone Temple Church, 3622 Douglas Blvd. in Chicago. - Chicago Sun-Times

King's open housing marches, and the attendant violence from angry residents on the Southwest Side, are most remembered, culminating with the infamous Aug. 5, 1966, march through Marquette Park, where the Baptist preacher was dropped to a knee by a rock to the head, lending credence to his famous quote: "I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I've seen here in Chicago."

"When King came to Chicago, we couldn't live west of Ashland, and blacks were hemmed into these ghettos," Jackson says.

Born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, King was ordained and became assistant pastor at his father's Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1948. He married the beautiful Coretta Scott King in 1953, and they had four children.

It was in 1955 that his civil rights efforts began in earnest, when he became president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group that led the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. It ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.

King gave his tide-turning "I Have A Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and in 1964 he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Selma-to-Montgomery marches, following the infamous "Bloody Sunday" at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, came in 1965. King would spend most of the following year in Chicago, marking the expansion of the civil rights battle from the South to northern cities, with key activists Jackson, James Bevel and Al Raby.

King's mark -- while combating racial segregation and discrimination in Chicago -- extended to suburban and downstate Illinois, such as his Feb. 10, 1966, speech before thousands at the Fred Young Fieldhouse of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.

Some still debate the success of King's Chicago campaign -- Illinois' largest city remains one of the nation's most segregated -- but the Chicago Freedom Movement inarguably led to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, signed into law a week after King's assassination.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 5, 1966, in Chicago's Marquette Park, before he was hit by debris thrown by the crowd.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 5, 1966, in Chicago's Marquette Park, before he was hit by debris thrown by the crowd. - Chicago Sun-Times

Jackson, however, says the larger quest at the heart of the revered leader's work in Chicago also is inarguably achieved -- empowerment and representation, evident in the diverse political landscape of Illinois, of Chicago and nationwide.

"King's legacy is the Voting Rights Act, which has stood the test of time and resistance," says Jackson.

"Today," Jackson continued, "Chicago is the urban center with the most U.S. senators of color, Carol Moseley Braun, Roland Burris and Barack Obama; and the home of two African-American men who ran for president, myself and President Obama. In Illinois, we now have an African-American lieutenant governor. So King's legacy stands tall.

"And on this past Nov. 6, his legacy manifested itself in the largest number of women and minorities ever elected in a freshman class of Congress, along with statewide candidates. If you look at Stacey Abrams' candidacy for governor in Georgia, Andrew Gillum's candidacy for governor in Florida, and U.S. Senate races in Texas and Mississippi, a New South is rising," Jackson adds.

"The gap that was once a horizontal gap between black and white is now a vertical gap of disparity between the haves and the have-nots. That, more than anything, is the unfinished business of Dr. King's work."

• Maudlyne Ihejirika of the Chicago Sun-Times can be reached at mihejirika@suntimes.com.

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