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New exhibit center highlights King’s fight for fair housing

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Updated: January 19, 2014 11:01PM

In the mural at the new Martin Luther King Fair Housing Exhibit Center, which will host a soft opening on Monday in North Lawndale, King peers out at visitors in intense contemplation.

Behind him in the painting by renowned artist Paul Collins is the three-story building where the civil rights leader and his family lived in 1966. Picketers wave “End Slums” signs on the street below, as King, his wife, Coretta Scott, and their children lean out of a top-floor apartment.

U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, then in his 20s and teaching at a nearby alternative school for troubled youth, remembers well the scene captured in the mural commissioned by the nonprofit Lawndale Christian Development Corp., which is spearheading the new center.

“A fellow teacher’s parents lived not far from there. We’d often go by his father’s house to eat, and any chance we got, we’d go by Dr. King’s apartment,” Davis recalled. “Sometimes there would be a crowd outside, other times a few people, looking up. Dr. King and his family were like royalty, in a sense. There was such a feeling of appreciation by people that ‘Hey, they’re drawing attention to our community.’ ”

The new center, at 1558 S. Hamlin, won’t officially open to the public until Jan. 26 — 48 years to the day King’s family moved into the West Side community. It’s a neighborhood that today still bears scars from the rioting that occurred in wake of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

Destruction from rioting was compounded by decades of disinvestment that earned North Lawndale its dubious ranking among the nation’s most impoverished neighborhoods — and more recently, among its most dangerous. But public, private and nonprofit efforts in the last decade are bringing increased rebuilding.

“In 2003, Lawndale community residents shared a dream that their community would be recognized for its rich history. It became the commitment of Lawndale Christian DevCorp to ensure it happened,” said Executive Director Kimberlie Jackson. “The cool thing is the Fair Housing Act of ’68 was passed because of Dr. King’s presence here, an impact that has changed the world and the way African-Americans live in it.”

The center is part of a 4-acre MLK Memorial District honoring King’s Chicago Freedom Movement of ’65 to ’66 — the fight against deplorable conditions that blacks were forced to live in because of housing segregation — which helped bring about the Fair Housing Act .

The historic district includes the Dr. King Legacy Apartments, 45 units of modern, affordable rental housing at 1515 S. Hamlin, which opened in 2011 on the site of the building — long-ago torn down — that the King family had called home. It was the only place in the North that King ever lived.

His son, Martin Luther King III — just 8 when his family moved to Chicago for that long hot summer —attended the ribbon-cutting, calling the project “a tribute to what my Dad envisioned, what he had hoped to see.”

The district includes a campus park in partnership with nearby Penn Elementary School and a job training center, the Cornerstone Chicago Center for Arts & Technology, and there are plans for a new library.

“I’ve been working on this mural close to a year,” said Collins, one-time board member of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, and close friend of the late Coretta Scott King, who commissioned him to design the famed Martin Luther King Peace Prize Medal.

“This project offers an intimate look into Martin’s life in Chicago, while providing a positive example for our children, who need to be reminded that people lost their lives for us so we could sit in the front of the bus, live in a decent neighborhood, go to decent schools,” Collins said. “It’s never been about race. It’s always been about justice and injustice.”

Collins, the first African-American commissioned to paint a sitting U.S. president, Gerald Ford, will attend the private opening where the mural will be unveiled. Rep. Danny Davis and two other Chicagoans — Jane Ramsey, longtime executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and Dennis Deer, founder of Deer Rehabilitation Services, a North Lawndale mental health center — will be honored for their social justice efforts.

The center’s project manager, Todd Wolcott, and its designer, Vernon Lockhart of Art on the Loose, Inc., walked a reporter and photographer through the vibrant exhibit space last week.

It’s filled with floor-to-ceiling historic photos. Particularly grabbing is a replica of the King family’s apartment, against a photo of King and Coretta Scott on their couch; a 1930s redlining map depicting African-American communities where banks refused to lend; and Wolcott’s story of resurrecting the “End Slums” symbol.

“While researching, I kept seeing this symbol come up and didn’t know what it meant. Finally, we came across a woman who was 22 years old at the time and worked for Dr. King, Al Raby and James Bevel,” he said.

“She was able to identify it for us as the ‘End Slums’ symbol. The circle stands for unity. The V stands for victory and the line stands for the slums. King and others wanted a symbol that would represent the Chicago Freedom Movement, and two interns came up with it. We will rebirth it in efforts to rebuild North Lawndale and communities like it.”


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