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Editorial: Putting Chicago’s indomitable spirit on parade

The South Shore Drill Team 82nd annual Bud Billiken Day Parade. Saturday August 13 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

The South Shore Drill Team in the 82nd annual Bud Billiken Day Parade. Saturday, August 13, 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 16, 2013 6:14AM

Nothing represents the indomitable spirit of Chicago, even in the most hard-pressed corners of town, like the South Shore Drill Team.

Young men and women from the neighborhoods, all African-American, transform a military discipline, the twirling of rifles in lockstep precision, into an art form, with quick spins, insouciant shoulder shrugs, syncopated footsteps and infectious drum beats. They are far more Alvin Ailey than U.S. Army.

We can think of no better representatives of Chicago in next week’s inaugural parade in Washington celebrating President Barack Obama’s swearing in for a second term in office. Fifty-four of the troupe’s 275 members will make the trip.

To anybody who has ever attended the annual Bud Billiken Parade, the South Shore Drill Team needs no introduction. It steals the show every year, even when a Michael Jordan or Oprah is the parade’s guest of honor.

The South Shore Drill Team was founded in 1980 by Arthur Robertson, a Chicago public school teacher, to create a positive alternative to the streets for inner-city kids. Now it performs in more than 125 events a year, and the young people, ages 8 to 21, excel in many ways. Almost all of them graduate high school and most go on to college.

The drill team is an excellent example, as well, of how a serious civic commitment by the private sector can make Chicago a better city. The team is funded by foundations and corporations, and its home base is the Gary Comer Youth Center in Grand Crossing, founded by the owner of Lands’ End, the clothing retailer.

The drill team applied to participate in Obama’s first inaugural parade, in 2008, but failed to make the cut. This year they had a little extra clout in the form of Michelle Obama, who had treated a group of foreign first ladies to a troupe performance last summer when the NATO Summit was held in Chicago.

“The impressive talents of the South Shore Drill Team,” Mrs. Obama later wrote in a thank-you note, “delighted our European guests.”

Like that tree in Brooklyn, the South Shore Drill Team grows on the South Side of Chicago.

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