Fifty years ago, on August 5, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march against housing discrimination through the Marquette Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Historians say there were about 500 civil rights marchers with King that day. They were met by a mob of thousands—angry residents from the all-white neighborhoods nearby— who opposed integration. Men, women and children hurled bottles and cherry bombs at King and the marchers.
There’s a moment in the march that many remember—King was struck with a rock and fell to his knee. It prompted the civil rights leader to make this proclamation about Chicago:
I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama—mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago.
Now, for the first time, Chicago is marking this chapter in history with a permanent monument, at the site of that long-ago demonstration.
Two artists, John Pitman Weber and Sonja Henderson, were tasked with shaping clay tiles, brick and that bitter history into something beautiful.
Here’s how Henderson describes the piece:
So as you walk into the memorial, you’re walking up a sidewalk, and there are three stela, or three large walls.
The stela are 10-foot high pillars. You can see them from the intersection of 67th and Kedzie, or from the sidewalk that borders Marquette Park.
They also have a slanted roof, which kind of references the home for the fair housing marches, and as you approach the first wall or the first stela, you begin seeing the reliefs, and they begin to pop out at you.
Each side of these stela is like a giant page of a history book, a deep clay color, made of brick, mortar lines running through the pictures.
So, there are no heads in this one, you’re really just seeing marching; hands and feet; the linked arms—which is very symbolic of the Civil Rights movement and the marches. And then also, people holding signs that say ‘Fair’ and ‘Stop’ and ‘Equality Now.’
Henderson and her artist partner carved the images into oversized bricks, which were delivered wet to their studio from Chicago’s last remaining brick factory. For two years they’ve been sculpting the life-sized images.That includes the image of King being felled by the stone.
People ran to protect him and move him to safety. So this is an image that is taken directly from the historic photograph. As we walk around this stela, you actually see the conflict scene. The marchers, they’re very stoic and peaceful, but then there’s a dividing line, and you can see the counter-protesters or the rioters. And you can see the violence. There are arms that are waving, there are bottles in people’s fists and stones that are about to be thrown.
This panel faces what in 1966 would have been a gas station. In photos from the time,
…you can actually see these young men rocking cars back and forth, and you can see the anger and the frustration and the hostility in the counter-protesters.
It would be hard to exaggerate how much hate was expressed that August 5, 1966. The white demonstrators –many of them immigrants or children of immigrants—waved Confederate flags and swastikas. They were driven by a blatant racism, but also by the fear that property values would plummet if blacks moved in.
A black Catholic priest, Father George Clements, had to be rescued by police from the mob that day. The signs white protesters carried were vile—many too vile to repeat. There were others: “Keep white neighborhoods white.” There were variations of “Go home.”
Henderson has felt the sting of comments like that herself.
It’s something that was written to me when I was a young woman—actually in grade school, I was not even close to being a woman, I was a child. And it was in my mailbox. And it said, ‘Go home, nigger. Go back to Africa.’ And it was something that really tore me apart inside, and it was something that affected me for a very long time.
This memorial, though it sits in a public park, was commissioned by the Inner City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN. The nonprofit runs a clinic, works on issues of police reform and race; they do the sort of organizing King advocated. Though the neighborhood is now largely integrated—black, Latino and Middle Eastern—IMAN wanted the historic scenes of conflict depicted.
And really wanted it to be palpable. They wanted it to be a moment in history that people could see the two forces and kind of colliding and hitting one another. Because, from things like that is where change does occur.
Other panels depict more hopeful scenes. The word “Imagine” appears above a multi-ethnic group on a front stoop. The word “home” is written in eight different languages.
We really feel that we’ve created a space that is for everyone….It’s a place that can teach. It’s a place where you can mourn. It’s a place where you can play. And so, the title is the Martin Luther King Jr. living memorial, because we want it to be a place that is active.
It needs to be out here for everybody to have whatever feelings come up. If we feel nervous or if we feel sad—that all of it is OK, and that’s what art does. It is evocative. It is emotional. And it makes you feel.
The memorial is being dedicated Friday. There’s a commemorative march planned for Saturday, called the Thousand Mile March. It’s actually just eight blocks or so down Kedzie Avenue, but the name is a reference to a comment King made about his Chicago efforts; he said the civil rights movement here had taken a “first step—in a 1,000-mile journey.”
Linda Lutton is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @wbezeducation.