Bud Billiken Parade Celebrates 80 Years

Bud Billiken Parade Celebrates 80 Years
Corky McClerkin holds a picture of himself when he was six years old. He was Bud Billiken parade king in 1948. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Bud Billiken Parade Celebrates 80 Years
Corky McClerkin holds a picture of himself when he was six years old. He was Bud Billiken parade king in 1948. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)

Bud Billiken Parade Celebrates 80 Years

One of the largest parades in the country is on the South Side of Chicago. Tomorrow the Bud Billiken parade celebrates its 80th anniversary. Bud Billiken celebrates family and black pride as it winds its way down King Drive and empties into Washington Park. Longtime parade-goers share these memories.

Corky McClerkin shows me a black and white photo of himself. A crown on his head, wearing a pair of pantaloons.

MCCLERKIN: That is me when I was six years old, clutching my panda, which I was given as a present when I was king of the Bud Billiken parade in 1948.

His queen was 16.

MCCLERKIN: I guess I kind of like older women at that point even though I had nothing to do with her.

The Chicago Defender puts on the Bud Billiken parade.

Who is Bud Billiken? He’s a fictional youth character that also represents back to school. The newspaper used to have a Bud Billiken club for children and Bud was the nickname of an editor at the Defender.

The parade is the second Saturday in August. Youth bands, corporations, grassroots organizations and drill teams march or have floats in the parade. Dignitaries - President Truman and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and celebrities – James Brown and Spike Lee have done the parade route.

McClerkin got to meet boxer Joe Louis in a VIP section when McClerkin was king. The other highlight was riding on the float.

MCCLERKIN: I’m waving at people; people are waving at me. What can I say, it was just a wonderful thing at the time.

Today Bud Billiken has 75,000 participants and more than 1 million viewers along the route.

Col. Eugene Scott is president of the Defender Charities. He’s responsible for the parade. Scott had an 80th anniversary commemorative poster made.

The collage has Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne. Scott points to a group picture taken in the 1950s. It’s in the center of the collage.

SCOTT: I jokingly call this the South Side mafia. This is Mayor Bilandic, John Sengstacke, owner and publisher of the Chicago Defender. Cecil Partee, John Stroger, George Dunne.
MOORE: I don’t think I’ve ever that young of a picture of John Stroger. SCOTT: A lot of people didn’t even think it existed.

Politics has long been a theme in the parade. Any savvy politician in office or seeking office knows its best to have a Bud Billiken float or car or an entourage to walk with. Just weeks before the parade, Scott says he’s still getting calls from people wanting be a part of the parade.

Bud Billiken has all the pageantry of any other major parade. But there’s also a down home feeling. People along the parade route often jump up and start walking in the procession. Families are along the boulevard barbequing and children sell snow cones on the sidewalk. Music blasts on the street and people gladly dance.

SCOTT: It’s just more than a parade. It’s a reflection of black Chicago. When you watch that parade, you’re looking at black Chicago: the youth, the present, you’re looking at the future.

When Delores Turner was a little girl living in Altgeld Gardens she started attending the parade.

TURNER: Just a tribute to our race, that’s how I look at it.

As she got older, Turner started a tradition of going with her father until he died in his 80s. She’d pack ham and cheese sandwiches and stuffed eggs. They sat in lawn chairs on the curb.

TURNER: My greatest memory is seeing the joy on my father’s face when I used to take him out there. It makes me kind of tearful. I think when my mother was living the greatest joy, when the parade was over with we’d used to go over to Washington Park and have our picnic and cook out.

There’s also that time she saw a young Johnny Mathis perform. President Barack Obama has been the grand marshal of Bud Billiken. This year it’s Mayor Daley.

But Muhammad Ali holds the all-time record – grand marshal 10 times.