'Something I shall never forget': MLK's historic speech still inspires suburban leaders

A momentous speech 60 years ago changed the course of Clyde Brooks' life.

On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of nearly 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the nation's capital.

Then 27, Brooks was among the throngs standing for hours in the stifling heat and humidity to hear King's galvanizing words that would serve as a guiding light for racial justice activists for decades.

“It's something I shall never forget in my brain,” said Brooks, of Arlington Heights, now 87 and a pastor who has continued the work to help realize King's dream.

Driven by the humiliating experiences of his youth, Brooks was a community activist fighting for civil rights in Chicago's suburbs at the time. He returned from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with a sense of greater purpose, and hope.

Brooks started working with King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

He now is chairman of the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations, which hosts annual MLK remembrance dinners bringing together community leaders fighting racism.

“When I think about (King's speech) and where we are today, I am sad,” Brooks said. “I think the dream that Dr. King had is no longer a dream, it's a nightmare.”

From the race riots of the 1960s to today's culture wars in schools over the teaching of Black history and critical race theory, Brooks sees a resurgence of hate, racist attitudes and policies reversing decades of hard-won progress.

“I think we are in a retrenchment,” Brooks said. “For the masses, there really hasn't been much change. Much of what Dr. King fought for was helping people to realize that change is coming. America is changing. It is no secret that in 25 years, the majority of Americans will be people of color. I think all this anti-immigration (rhetoric), the subordinating of people of color, is related to resentment of change.

“Even though I think the dream is dying, we've gotta be optimistic. And I think that optimism is what keeps people going.”

Michael Childress is sworn in as the first Black man to serve on the DuPage County Board. Childress spoke Sunday during a "Keep the Dream Alive" event at the Daley Plaza in Chicago reflecting on King's legacy. Karie Angell Luc for the Daily Herald

Staying the course

At 7 years old, Michael Childress wasn't at the national mall to hear King's speech firsthand. But his late uncle, Reggie Williams, was.

A civil rights activist in Chicago, Williams was an organizer with the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S. When he got back from Washington, Williams couldn't stop talking about the march, Childress said.

“It was one of the greatest events of his life,” said Childress, of Bloomingdale. “He was very proud to have been there. I was proud to just sit back and listen to him talk ... all about that day. He kind of lit the fire in me for fighting for our civil rights.”

Now 67, Childress is past president of the DuPage County NAACP and was appointed earlier this year as the DuPage County Board's first Black vice chairman.

Childress spoke Sunday at a “Keep the Dream Alive” event at the Daley Plaza in Chicago reflecting on King's legacy.

King's speech about how the words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir” resonates with Childress.

“Read the founding documents because they will serve you well as you fight for civil rights,” Childress said. “All men are created equal ... these are the words that created this country. These documents have lasted for hundreds of years ... which is why it's so important that we hold these (politicians) in Washington accountable. We have to stay on our game and be vigilant.

“That's what stayed with me to this day,” he said. “Any time you take your eye off the ball, then you are in danger of losing your rights. We are going to keep fighting. We are going to fight in Martin's image of nonviolence but that doesn't mean we're going to be passive.”

The Rev. James Shannon grew up listening to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons every Sunday. "He was always teaching preachers ... none of them had ever used the pulpit to advance the cause of justice through the scripture," Shannon said.

Pastoral justice

Perhaps the most profound impact of King's words was influencing generations of preachers to use their pulpits to advocate for racial justice and social change, said the Rev. James Shannon, senior pastor of Peoples Community Church in Glen Ellyn.

That started long before the march on Washington, he said.

Shannon was 7 years old when King first came to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, one of the more prominent Black churches in Montgomery, Alabama. The church sought out King, then a 25-year-old minister, to take on the pastorate. He served as pastor there from 1954 through 1960 and began his quest for civil rights.

Shannon grew up listening to King's sermons every Sunday.

At 15, he heard excerpts of King's Washington speech on TV.

“It was really a profound speech,” said Shannon, now 76. “It was really a great moment.”

But Shannon's favorite message from King is the open letter he wrote to fellow clergy in 1963 while incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama jail after his arrest for leading a civil rights march.

“He was always teaching preachers. ... None of them had ever used the pulpit to advance the cause of justice through the scripture,” Shannon said. “The (civil rights) movement came through the church because they shut down every institution that we had, but they couldn't shut down the church. That was ours. That was the part that was most powerful to me like no other preacher has ever done before. It keeps you on track ... realizing that God meant for all of us to be free.”

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