Writer reflects on father's role in fight for civil rights in Chicago

January 16, 2012

By Ellen Blum Barish

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Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in downtown Chicago July 26, 1965 to protest alleged segregation in the schools.

Writer Ellen Blum Barish shares the story of how Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired her father to join the civil rights movement.

In 1958, 29-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr was a guest speaker at Beth Emet synagogue in Evanston. Admission was $1.75. The sign said King was considered “one of the outstanding Negro leaders in the country.”

Five years later, in 1963, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, rhetoric that set the tone for the civil rights movement and ultimately earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.

(Dr. King:… A hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Negro is still not free...)

That same year, my parents moved to Glencoe. In nearby Deerfield, town leaders were threatening to keep an integrated apartment building from being built by turning the area into a park. Eminent domain, they said. My father, a white, Jewish businessman, had been moved by King’s mission to end racial segregation and discrimination. So he went to the rally in that park to protest and brought me along. I was almost four.

What happened there has stayed with me since: I can still see the huge crowd forming a large circle. I can still feel my father’s hand in mine and see the smile from a tall, black man as he took my other hand. And I will always hear that chorus of men’s, women’s and children’s voices singing “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome, someday…” CAN WE GET SOUND FOR THIS?

(Dr. King: …We need to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice…)

Later that year, my dad, who at 29 had become active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was arrested at a demonstration at the Chicago Board of Education office. CORE was demanding the resignation of the superintendent who was authorizing the building of new schools in white neighborhoods but not black ones. My father and 36 others were arrested and jailed at this nonviolent sit-in. A photograph of my father being dragged off by police made the cover of the Chicago Daily News.

Race relations in the 1960s was less about talk and more about demonstrations…. rallies … sit-ins … jail time or violence. The worst of course was in 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot on the second floor balcony of a Memphis motel.

A few years ago, a recording of King’s synagogue speech was found in a congregant’s basement. Beth Emet’s Rabbi Andrea London asked Second Baptist Pastor Mark Dennis to co-host a Friday evening sabbath service on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Evanston Jews and Baptists prayed and sang together. Portions of King’s 1958 speech were played, followed by dinner and a table discussion between the congregations about the challenges and next steps for race relations in the community.

Today, Martin Luther King would have turned 83 years old.
Would he be disappointed that we are still talking about race relations in 2012? Or would he be pleased at how different it looks?

(Dr. King: “I have a dream that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will sit down at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream.”...)

I have no way of knowing if the sons and daughters of former slaves and slave owners were in that room last Friday evening, but I do know that some fifty years after King first spoke about racial equality in this same community, his dream for blacks and whites to sit down at the table of brotherhood became a reality.

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