Walking in MLK’s footsteps
BY MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA Staff Reporteremail@example.com January 31, 2011 11:18PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
“When years have rolled past, when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live, men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization, because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
If a Nobel Peace Prize winner and others risked life and limb marching down your block decades ago for your right to live there — and no evidence remains — did it happen?
This was an authentic question tackled at one Chicago public school. It was asked by students in Victor Harbison’s civics class at Gage Park High School, in Southwest Side Chicago Lawn.
“I had a student who didn’t believe Dr. King had marched in our community. When asked why, he just said, ‘Well, if it was true, there would be a sign or something,’ ” said Harbison, a 16-year veteran who was CPS’ first National Board Certified social studies teacher.
“Someone who had lived their whole life in this community didn’t know what had happened here,” Harbison said. “That was the inspiration for this civics project.”
“In order to march with Dr. King, you had to agree to be non-violent. I had to say it was very difficult for me. In college I played football. I wasn’t accustomed to people spitting at me, poking me, throwing things at me. It was very difficult not to retaliate.”
— Bernard Kleina, civil rights photographer, director of the HOPE Fair Housing Center.
That civics project of fall 2008 would lead to the first and only memorial to the ugly, transforming events that took place in Marquette Park on Aug. 5, 1966 — 10 blocks south of Gage Park High, 5630 S. Rockwell.
The neighborhood was the site of one of the most notorious civil rights marches held in the north by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I really had no clue about it. And when I found out, I felt kind of angry and upset, really, that even though it happened right here in our community, we don’t even have a plaque or a sign, nothing,” said Beatriz Hernandez, 17, a senior involved with the project for the past two years.
“I live on 59th & Albany, two blocks from where he marched, and I go past that gas station everyday. I could have been walking right in King’s footsteps!”
That Citgo gas station at 6659 S. Kedzie — then a Clark — is memorialized in photos of the march which captured young white hoodlums attacking marchers in their cars there.
“I never felt more afraid than when I marched in Marquette Park, because it was so verbal. I was hit by a rock in the head. It broke a blood vessel. I saw the woman who had thrown the rock and she was a pregnant woman.”
— Mary Cray, retired teacher and environmentalist
King himself was famously struck by a fist-sized rock behind his ear that dropped him to his knees, while leading 700 in that protest against housing discrimination held during the Chicago Freedom Movement of 1966.
“I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate,” King would say of that long hot summer.
Each year, Harbison’s 16- to 17-year-olds tackle an issue in the community, but their Martin Luther King Jr. memorial took nearly two years to see fruition, with subsequent classes picking up the mantle.
“A whole lot of courage, a whole lot of heart, to be able to be in a march where people are downgrading you and talking about you and jumping on some of the people, and beating them down, destroying the cars out in Gage Park. But out of ...them seeing that, a few other white folks ...decided they would be a part of the movement.”
The Gage Park students learned how to lobby elected officials, community leaders and city government for support for their project — envisioned as a WiFi interactive kiosk that would feature photos, videos, oral histories and documents downloadable to phones or iPods.
“A lot of people think that, like, teenagers don’t care, but a lot of students were really interested in this project when we found out it all happened just down the street,” said Gage Park senior Abigail Hoyos, 18. “I mean, you read about it in history class, but I couldn’t believe it happened right here, especially because today, you go to the grocery store and you see all races, black, white, Latino, everybody.”
Then all-white, the Chicago Lawn area encompassing Marquette Park today is mostly black and Latino. The high school’s 50/50, with 98 percent of students living below poverty.
“We met tremendous racial resistance in Marquette Park and Gage Park. Blacks could not live west of the tracks. It was just totally segregated west of Halsted, and blacks were hemmed into these ghettos,” recalls the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of many the students interviewed.
“But of course, all that led to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, so when people say that the Chicago Freedom Movement was not successful, it’s not true,” said Jackson.
“The police were taking up a formation line shoulder to shoulder, blocking entrances into the park. In the streets, there were literally thousands of thugs...a furious mob. They were screaming and yelling terrible things at...the people in the park...And I remember at the front...there was an African-American man, a little shorter than the rest, very well-dressed. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew that I’d seen him somewhere.”
— James Caparo, executive director, Greater Southwest Development Corp.
Through the support of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, the high-school students were linked with the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) program, where college students help tackle real-world problems. IPRO students helped design the memorial.
Then, the kids spent months of research wading through microfiche at the Harold Washington Library, learning graphic design and video editing, and tracking down people like Kleina, Cray, Crawford and Caparo who were at the marches, for oral history interviews.
They were stumped though as to how to raise money for the technological endeavor. And that’s where Ald. Lona Lane (18th) came in. She found them a donor, George Burciaga, CEO of smarTechs.net, who agreed to build the $20,000 kiosk.
“These teenagers worked diligently,” said Lane. “...The finished product shows how good they are and were.”
In the end, the memorial, “A Community Transformed: The Legacy of Dr. King and the Housing Marches of 1966,” lost the WiFi aspect, but offers, at the touch of a screen, archives on King’s activism in Chicago and in the students’ Southwest Side community.
It was installed last June outside the Marquette Park Field House, 6734 S. Kedzie. But during Black History Month, it’s on loan at the DuSable Museum of African American History. The students also have a website, www.communitytransformed.com.
Said Latrice Jones, 19, who worked on the project from its inception and now is a freshman at Chicago State University: “Everyone in my community will benefit from the MLK memorial project, not just because Dr. King Jr. marched in Marquette Park, but because of what other marchers have done and went through to get where we are now. And I want to say thanks for that.”