50 Years After King March, Chicagoans Retrace His Steps
Hundreds of people marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s anti-discrimination march through Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood Saturday.
At the original march on August 5,1966, men, women and children from the surrounding all-white community pelted King and others with rocks and bitter racial slurs.
The commemorative march was a rainbow of humanity. They gathered at 63rd and Kedzie —black, white, Latino, Middle Eastern. Men with yarmulkes and women in hijabs. Later, a few of the sisters of St. Casimir in their habits.
For many, the very diversity of the crowd felt like a victory over what had happened in 1966.
There were youth groups, church groups, little kids propped on shoulders. People old to young, all with their own reason for marching.
As drummers beat out their rhythms, 15-year-old Jamiah Stanford took her first steps in her first-ever march, which her grandmother invited her to join. “I’m here for equality,” she declared with a wide smile. “We shouldn’t have one person higher than the other, ‘cause we’re all the same, really, on the inside. We all strive for the same things. And we all should just accept each other, whether it’s blacks, whites, gays. We are who we are, and we love who we love. That’s how I look at it, and that’s what I’m really fighting for.”
A little ahead of her, two women in their 60s walked together—one white, one black. Edie Armstrong--who goes by Mama Edie Armstrong in her life as a professional storyteller--was dressed in African fashion.
“I am commemorating the 50th anniversary—especially since I was there the first time,” she says. “I was 14 years old.”
She introduces her friend, Sue O’Halloran, also a storyteller. O’Halloran also remembers the summer of 1966..
“I grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago, so it was all white,” says O’Halloran. “Dr. King not only marched in Marquette Park, but he marched down 79th Street, which was the edge of our parish. And I loved him! His posters were on my wall. But my folks were too afraid to have me come out as a teenager to be part of this march.”
O’Halloran says sometimes she and Armstrong tell stories together, about “me growing up on the white side of the dividing line, her growing up on the other side of the dividing line. And how that separation benefitted people like the realtors who turned the neighborhoods and made millions of dollars, how people were turned against one another.”
Armstrong says she’s also at the commemorative march to heal. “Because it was a hurtful experience the first time around. And I didn’t want to come to Marquette Park for many years. So now I’m back, to continue healing.”
Kevin Gwin--a white guy in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt-- was at the march with his three kids--two teenagers and a tween. They live in East Garfield Park. He says he wants them to know about 1966.
“The issues in our society just matter to us a great deal,” he said. “We live on the West Side of Chicago, our community is predominantly African American. So we just see every day how police injustice and all kinds of systemic racism affects our community. So we just want to be here with people-- just so people know that… people care.”
Huma Khan came from Lombard with her husband and children for the march. She wore a hijab and pushed a stroller—she said she was mindful that King was fighting for civil rights--relevant today, she says.
“I feel like our civil rights are very much in question. So, it’s like we’re part of the movement. It’s continued on—but we’re still part of it.”
King was a Christian preacher. But it’s been a Muslim community organization, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, that has coordinated the largest and most significant commemorations of King’s 50th anniversary in Chicago.
“The Journey to justice continues,” IMAN executive Rami Nashashibi yelled to the crowd of marchers before they set out. “It continues for our brothers and sisters who are locked up in this criminal justice system. It continues for those who continue to be detained and deported unjustly. It continues for those brothers and sisters growing up in neighborhoods that are under-resourced, that have been disinvested, that have been overcriminalized.”
After the march there were brief prayers in the park, music, a festival. Many moved across Kedzie Avenue to see a brand-new memorial to the 1966 march—the city’s first permanent marker in 50 years.
It was a group of students from Gage Park High School and their civics teacher who sparked the idea for a memorial. The teacher, Victor Harbison, marched Saturday. Some years ago, he had a student who flat-out didn’t believe that King had marched in Chicago.
“And I’ll never forget what he said. He looked at me and he goes, ‘Well if it was true, there’d be a sign, something.’”
Harbison says his students had no idea that King had lived in Chicago or brought his struggle for civil rights to the North. Harbison had them research the history. “When they finally started seeing photographs of where King was and where the protest was and where the marchers were, they’re like, ‘I stand on that corner every day waiting for a bus, and I didn’t know?’”
The students collected photographs and interviewed original marchers. They created a “kiosk” memorial that was exhibited at the Marquette Park fieldhouse and the DuSable Museum.
Harbison still remembers the dedication ceremony. “One of my all-time favorite students, she asked a question of the audience. She said, ‘Do you think there’s a child in Atlanta that doesn’t know King was born there? Is there a child in Memphis that doesn’t know what happened at the Lorraine Motel? Then how come generations of Chicago school children grew up in this community and didn’t know what happened here?’”
Historian James Ralph, who has studied King’s civil rights campaign in Chicago, says this is a town that loves its history--the Chicago Fire, the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He says King’s northern fight for civil rights has been dramatically underplayed.
“It’s necessary that we’re getting a monument in Marquette Park,” said Ralph. “[This history] needs to be more prominent in the memories of Chicagoans. And one way that you do that is by having memorials. They’re physical, they require there to be a kind of engagement.”
The new memorial carves the history of August 5, 1966, into brick. It shows King being struck by a rock, counter protesters attacking the civil rights marchers. It also lists the major cities of King’s civil rights efforts--Birmingham, Montgomery, Memphis--and adds Chicago to that list. Over the weekend, marchers and other visitors saw the memorial, touched it, ran their hands over that history--for the first time in 50 years.
Linda Lutton is a reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.