The memorial has been dedicated; the march through Chicago’s Marquette Park honoring Martin Luther King’s encounter with northern racism is over — another day consigned to history. While organizers, funders and the media focused on the day in August 1966, when 1,000 marchers for open housing were met by jeers and bottles and cherry bombs hurled by angry white men, it is not the day but the relationships forged during that summer that need to be remembered.
It is not the day itself but the events that led to and surrounded it that are most important to remember, understand and celebrate. It was during that year that bonds of friendship were formed among a group of young organizers that I would argue changed the course of history — for Chicago and the nation — through the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, a little known and short-lived off-shoot of and force behind the events in August.
At the time I was a college student and newly-minted organizer in Chicago’s Uptown community at JOIN Community Union — one of the off-campus ventures of Students for a Democratic Society that hoped to “create an interracial movement of the poor.” Amid a community of Appalachian whites, African-Americans, Native Americans, we walked the blocks and organized rent strikes against slumlords, sat-in at welfare offices to protest the enforced poverty of women, and took on police brutality and the city administration behind it.
Whether it was Dr. Martin Luther King’s arrival or simply necessity, the Coordinating Council, then led by a young Al Raby, became the forum in which, for the first time, we began to seriously work with our counterparts from other parts of the city. While the march was a focal point, for perhaps two years, we met and strategized with leaders like Bishop Arthur Brazier and Leon Finney of The Woodlawn Organization, Al Sampson and Dorothy Tillman of SCLC, Bob Lucas of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Cha Cha Jimenez of the Young Lords and Obed Lopez of the Puerto Rican community, and Art Vasquez of an emerging Mexican leadership in Pilsen and Little Village.
While we marched together in Marquette Park, what emerged was a united group of blacks, whites and Latinos, who forged a common critique of capitalism, a shared agenda for change, and had each other’s back.
While Dr. King came and left, the Coordinating Council disbanded and a more militant Black Panther Party and student movement displaced the organizations and tactics of the past, the relationships endured and flowered.
These were the activists, joined by a growing on-campus peace movement who became the core of the 1968 demonstrations, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. King and at the August 1968 Democratic Convention. And again, when demonstrations died down and “leaders” left, the bonds grew stronger.
It was no surprise that, when I returned to Chicago to work with Harold Washington in his third run for mayor, I found these same men and women at the core of the campaign, this time through a more expanded network of activists called ProCan (Progressive Chicago Area Network)
Again, history was made — electing Harold Washington, changing the face of the City Council and eventually electing acCongressional delegation that reflected the very coalition forged during those days — consumer advocate Jan Schakowsky; black nationalist Danny Davis; advocate for Puerto Rican independence Luis Gutierrez; and Black Panther Bobby Rush.
Fast forward nearly two decades; it was this core group of activists who convened the nation’s first rally against George Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq – the demonstration where Barack Obama declared his opposition to Bush’s “stupid war, ” a distinguishing position that helped propel him to the presidency six years later.
And when Obama – against all odds, embarked on his Senate candidacy, it was again this set of folks – now expanded, that formed the initial core of relationships on which his Senate campaign, and eventually his run for president, was built.
Marilyn Katz is an activist, writer and president of MK Communications.
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