Ezekiel Emanuel shares an excerpt from his upcoming memoir, “Brothers Emanuel”
By EZEKIEL EMANUEL March 12, 2013 6:14PM
Clockwise from left: Benjamin, Marsha, Ezekiel, Rahm and Ari Emanuel, circa 1965 | Photo Courtesy of Ezekiel J. Emanuel
Updated: March 13, 2013 9:51AM
One hot, sunny summer Thursday, when my brothers Ari, Rahm and I were 5, 6 and 8, respectively, my mother gave us lunch, packed up some sandwiches, fruits and drinks and got us out the door by 2 o’clock. My mother had decided to join members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other groups that were going to march behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a three-mile route that took them through the South Side communities of Chicago Lawn and Gage Park, where real estate companies, rental agents and landlords refused to do business with blacks. By the time we reached Marquette Park in Chicago Lawn, my mother had gone through her instructions — “Hold hands, stay close to me, never wander off by yourselves”— at least a dozen times.
Ari, Rahm and I watched Dr. King’s arrival from a relatively safe distance as my mother kept us on the edge of the marching group. We had participated in other marches and demonstrations, but none of them had been met with this level of anger. In my mind flashed images I had seen on TV and in magazines of high-pressure fire hoses, attack dogs and billy clubs used against civil rights marchers. All three of us were nervous about what might happen. But we could see that the police were on our side, and we knew that when we began walking, we would be surrounded by friends and allies. Deep inside the ranks of the marchers, my mother held our hands and did her best to look and act unafraid. As we walked, people sang — “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” — and at some moments, the eggs and tomatoes that flew at us seemed to land in rhythm with our voices.
The worst of it came when we reached Sixtieth Street, a point that was just ten blocks east from the Airport Homes, where my mother, then just a girl, had witnessed this kind of conflict for the first time. Here, a group of men and women brought out an effigy of Dr. King, which they proceeded to stab and kick and rip to shreds. Small bands of men broke the windows on the cars that trailed the march and were driven by blacks. As police officers ran to protect these drivers, the sound of glass breaking and the voices of so many angry adults who literally screamed with rage because we dared to march against bigotry sent shivers through us. The march ended at a Baptist church, which we entered along with other marchers. Dr. King took to the pulpit.
Decades later, I cannot recall what Dr. King said in the church that night, but I do recall that I felt like I was bearing witness to something important. Those who were with him in private meetings after he preached would report that a fierce debate had broken out among the leaders of the movement, some of whom wanted to attend the next march “holstered up.” The Rev. King listened and then pressed them with a question: “How do you put out a fire?” He then explained that fire won’t extinguish a fire, but water will, and nonviolence is the water that would put out the fire of hatred.
While the leaders of the movement struggled over the best way to respond to what they had experienced, my mother found a driver whose car was available to take us home. The next morning, the newspapers would report that 28 people, including three police officers, had been sent to hospitals for injuries suffered during the march. Of the hundreds of people apprehended while attacking the marchers, only 40 were formally arrested and charged with crimes. The rest were let go.
It would be hard to exaggerate the impact my brothers and I felt from our direct experience at the march and from learning of what happened after we left. Being part of a mass display of courage made us believe that a great many people in the world are good and decent. We learned to draw strength from a group of like-minded souls and to stay cool under pressure and resolute in our convictions. Most importantly, we came away with the sense that even the biggest problem should be confronted and that we could be part of the solution.
Ezekiel Emanuel donated his fee for writing this column to WHYY Radio. His book, “Brothers Emanuel,” comes out on March 26.