We’ve all probably heard of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic visit to Chicago, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge his legacy and contribution to our local history during our celebrations of what would be his 84th birthday. In 1965, King was invited by local civil rights activists in Chicago to assist in the campaign against the city’s segregated public school system. Segregationist redlining in Chicago gave rise to overcrowded African-American schools (in some cases 40 and 50 to a classroom) which prompted local activists like Al Raby to lead the charge against CPS school superintendent Benjamin Willis. The movement of local residents against the injustices of the public school system would become known as the Chicago Freedom Movement, which featured a collective of local and national civil rights figures, including King. In addition to joining the effort to end school segregation in Chicago, King also joined local efforts to stand up against housing segregation. As part of his 1966 campaign to bring attention to the racial disparity that existed in Chicago housing, King resided in North Lawndale (1550 S. Hamlin). The violent opposition from whites during King’s marches in the city would lead to one of his most famous local quotes that Chicago was one of the most hostile segregated cities in the North (my mother still quotes King on this today).
During each of his visits to the city, King made Bronzeville’s Liberty Baptist Church (4849 S. King Drive) his headquarters for meetings and rallies. According to David Garrow in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Liberty Baptist Church would also be the place where the differences between King and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would come to a head. During his August 1966 speech at Liberty, King was confronted by SNCC members for calling off a scheduled march on Chicago’s infamously racist Cicero neighborhood in exchange for an agreement from Mayor Richard J. Daley to make the city’s housing more equitable for African-American residents. After being heckled with cries from the audience for “Black Power”, King allowed SNCC Chicago chapter president Monore Sharp to speak. Sharp proceeded to take the podium, openly criticizing King’s agreement with Daley as well as his overall leadership in the movement. King responded to Sharp’s criticisms with an impassioned speech that warned the audience “Whenever Pharaoh wanted to keep the slaves in slavery, he kept them fighting among themselves”. Despite his efforts to quell the growing apathy of young movement participants, the confrontation between King and SNCC at Bronzeville’s Liberty Baptist Church would reflect a rising youth consciousness that would later be known as the Black Power Movement.
As time would quickly tell, Daley did not honor his agreement of open housing in the city which prompted King to return to Liberty Baptist Church in March of 1967 to lambaste the Daley Administration. King was also scheduled to speak at Liberty in April 1968, but his assassination that same month in Memphis, Tennessee will leave us all wondering what he would have said when he returned to Chicago.
On a personal note, I took the time this past January to ask my mother and older sister about their memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago. During the 1960s my grandparents owned and operated a neighborhood bar on 51st and Indiana called The Club Alabam. My Mom managed the bar and told me that one day she saw a car stop out in front of H&H’s Soul Food Restaurant across the street and as the men exited the car onto the sidewalk she spotted Martin Luther King Jr. “The whole bar filed out onto 51st street to meet him.” she recalled, “He was very nice to everyone, shaking hands and holding conversations”. My mother also recalled being at the Club Alabam when she first heard about King’s assassination: “One of our regulars came running in the door hollering ‘Helen, turn to the news, they shot Martin Luther King'”. She told me that the family stayed in the bar all night to make sure the angry masses of the city wouldn’t bust out the bar’s windows, or burn it down.
Along the same lines, my sister (who would have been 8 or 9 years old at the time) remembers a day when she noticed a distinguished looking man come into my grandfather’s barber shop (next to the Club Alabam on 51st) and chat with both my grandparents before going over to H&H’s. When she asked who he was my grandmother told her “That was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., he’s visiting Chicago to help the black people up here”. My grandmother’s love for Martin Luther King Jr. would prove true to her very last day. After an evening of watching the news footage and celebrations of Martin Luther King’s legacy, my grandmother passed on the 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. “He was always one of my favorites” was one of the last things she said.
As I watched the local programming of this year’s Martin Luther King holiday, I was a bit baffled as I recalled that I never learned the history of King in Chicago in any classroom of any school I attended. I even sat in the choir rows of Liberty Baptist Church during my 8th grade graduation and never knew that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there until I was a young adult. Our local histories are so critical to help us understand who we are in the larger context of things. For that reason, I am calling for all readers who have memories of King’s visit to Chicago to please share them with us in the comments section. I am also calling for our young readers to interview the elders in your family and community and write about their memories of King in Chicago. Our local memories are too important to let fade away.
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Becker, Lynn “Modern Struggles, Modern Design: Dr. King and the Story of Liberty Babpist Church” http://tiny.cc/cjeoe
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Harper Perennial Press, 1999.