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Tillman, an MLK aide in ’66, says too many not following his lead

Former Ald. Dorothy Tillman walks across the bridge of the Marquette Park lagoon, retracing the steps she and other supporters took with the Rev.. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

Dorothy Tillman stands outside New Friendship Baptist Church, 848 W. 71st St., where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kicked off his historic march on Marquette Park.

As drunks stumble past, Tillman — the retired longtime Third Ward alderman who came to Chicago from Alabama in 1965 as an aide to King — surveys the surrounding vacant lots and boarded-up buildings and shakes her head.

“Dr. King came here and fought for open housing because our people were stuck in the ghetto and couldn’t move out,” Tillman, 69, says of the mentor she followed half a century ago to help launch the Chicago Freedom Movement. “But most people who moved out never came back.

“Our leaders died so we could have better,” says Tillman, an alderman from 1985 to 2007. “It makes me cry to see sisters and brothers out here struggling, trying to make a way, and the people who are supposed to look out for them are not meeting their responsibility.”

Tillman was 19 when she took part in the Aug. 5, 1966, march on Marquette Park. She met King when she was only 9 years old, during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, triggered by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Tillman joined his staff at 16.

“Dr. King was like my father,” she says. “I met him at the Holt Street Baptist Church with my grandmother. In my last year of high school, Dr. King asked my grandmother if I could go to Chicago with him to help mobilize our youth.”

She remembers King moving to a tenement in North Lawndale, the meetings at their West Side headquarters — Warren Avenue Congregational Church, now New Greater St. John Community Missionary Baptist, the establishment of New Friendship as headquarters for the Marquette Park campaign, the prayers before the march.

Former Ald. Dorothy Tillman in front of the New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 848 W. 71st. The church was headquarters for the Marquette Park campaign. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times
Former Ald. Dorothy Tillman in front of the New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 848 W. 71st. The church was headquarters for the Marquette Park campaign. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

Driving down 71st Street, Tillman retraces the route where King led the marchers and, in Marquette Park, walks their route, toward the lagoon, to stand where she believes King spoke after the attack by a violent mob.

“Those who have reaped the benefits of economic and political empowerment are not putting it back into the community,” she says. “They’ve left behind the people who marched, who took the sticks, the rocks, the hits, the jailings, gave their lives.”

She says blacks in government and in business need to do more.

“Dr. King said, ‘I might not get there with you, but we, as a people, will get to the promised land,’ ” she says. “Never in his wildest dreams did he believe that, if these positions opened up in government, in corporate, these people would not come back and rebuild our communities. They reneged on him. They reneged on the promise.”

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