Nearly eight years ago, a dynamic black man from the South Side of Chicago stood before a crowd of 240,000 in Grant Park and declared victory over the nation’s exclusionary past.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” Barack Obama said after winning his historic election as president.
Amid a crowd that reflected people of every race, young women swooned. Grown men cried. Strangers hugged. And gray heads bowed in silent prayer, thanking God for what seemed a miracle.
Just 42 years earlier, at another park just a dozen miles from there, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been stoned for daring to bring the struggle for equal rights to Chicago.
When King and 700 marchers stepped into Marquette Park on Aug. 5, 1966, they were challenging one of the city’s strongest white-ethnic enclaves, a neighborhood of Lithuanians, Germans, Polish and Italians.
Families gathered on doorsteps to watch, as if awaiting a parade. But instead of waving American flags, they shouted obscenities and racial slurs. They hurled rocks and beer bottles and lobbed cherry bombs in a display of hatred so shocking people who were there still recall it in detail.
“I saw people that I knew, people who lived in the neighborhood, people who went to my church,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a teenager then, who rode his bike to the park to see the ruckus. “I was horrified.”
Struck in the head by a rock, King fell to a knee. Later, he told reporters: “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”
Today, 50 years after the Marquette Park march, the surrounding neighborhood of Chicago Lawn is a very different place from the all-white enclave King encountered. Whites now account for just 4.5 percent of the neighborhood’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. African-Americans make up 49 percent and Hispanics 45 percent.
But integration has never been about achieving some particular racial balance. It is about allowing all people in America to live anywhere. And from the turmoil that propelled the Chicago Freedom Movement of 1966 came the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 — signed into law a week after King’s assassination in Memphis.
Marlin Carter, who’s 50 and black, lives across the street from Marquette Park. He was born during the summer of Chicago’s Freedom Movement. But he knows where the infamous rock struck King.
“Right over there,” Carter said, pointing across Marquette Road to a spot between Francisco Avenue and Mozart Street.
Deep thinkers still debate whether King’s presence in Chicago accomplished much, as the city remains one of the most segregated in America. Still, Carter’s ability to live in the very block where civil rights marchers encountered the worst hate imaginable is proof King’s Chicago crusade wasn’t a failure.
“It stood for something,” Carter said. “It got national attention that needed to be. Without him coming here, we still couldn’t be over here.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of the march, a coalition of religious, political and community organizations are holding a three-day celebration Friday through Sunday. The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Living Memorial Project includes a march, festival and a ceremony Friday to unveil the city’s only memorial marking the campaign — at Marquette Road and Kedzie Avenue.
“That was a pretty horrible moment in time,” said Alia J. Bilal, director of community relations for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, one of the project’s organizers. “Those moments are so relevant, especially today, as we are going through very similar issues 50 years later.
“We don’t want to turn a blind eye to the grueling work that it took and the courage that it took to do what they did — walking in to a neighborhood that would be openly hostile to them.”
Some historians have been critical of the Chicago Freedom Movement, saying it folded its tent on the strength of mere promises.
As bold as King was to have taped a list of demands on City Hall’s door, Mayor Richard J. Daley was as bold to ignore them, testing marchers’ commitment to non-violent protest. But they were up to that.
“We never shouted things back at people that threw rocks and bottles and cherry bombs at us,” said Bernard Kleina, the longtime former executive director of the HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, the only person known to have taken color photographs of King during the march. “Marchers got dressed up with a suit coat and a tie . . . to show everyone the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.”
Aurie Pennick, former longtime president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, said: “It is a mistake to put so much emphasis on whether one trip to Chicago was successful, when no one human being can attack all of these things with the emphasis that is needed at the same time.
“Dr. King helped people by empowering them,” said Pennick, who recently retired as executive director of the Field Foundation. “King’s coming helped Harold Washington get elected and Anna Langford to become the first African-American elected to the Chicago City Council.
“Dr. King would be elated that Chicago is the adopted home of the nation’s first black president. But if he went to Ogden Park in Englewood, I think he would be in tears over what is left of that community.”
James Capraro, founder of the Greater Southwest Development Corp, grew up and lived near Marquette Park until he and his wife became empty-nesters. He lived there when King was “struck down by the forces of evil,” he said. And he lived near Grant Park when Obama made his speech on winning the presidency.
Capraro was 16 when he witnessed young white men chanting “white power” at 67th and California and remembers seeing two tavern owners stacking crates of empty beer bottles to be used as ammunition against marchers.
“In retrospect, it was an epiphany,” Capraro said. “As neighborhoods became racially inclusionary, we worked to see that they did not resegregate. Marquette Park became more and more minority. But Marquette Park was not victimized by the white flight that you saw in other communities.
“Did Martin Luther King change policy? To some degree, he did,” Capraro said. “Did Martin Luther King change economic policies? No. Did Martin Luther King light the pilot light in the hearts of some people who wanted to work for positive change? He did that.”
Until this week, I had never set foot in Marquette Park myself. I once drove through the area, in the 1970s, looking for an apartment. Someone threw a beer can at my car. That was that.
It wasn’t fear that kept me away. Fighting to live next door to people who detested the thought of living next door to me didn’t seem worth the effort.
Weeks before Marquette Park, I heard King speak at a rally in Soldier Field. The message he delivered there was just as important as the statement he made by going to Marquette Park:
“We must desegregate our minds. We must believe and know that we are somebody. We must not allow anybody to make us feel that we are inferior. We must appreciate our great heritage. We must be proud of our race. We must not be ashamed of being black. We must believe with all of our hearts that black is as beautiful as any other color. This is freedom. This is a weapon greater than any force you can name.”
Monday afternoon, Marquette Park on the 67th Street side was quiet. Two orange-vested workers sat on the steps of the towering Darius and Girenas Memorial, dedicated to two Lithuanian-American pilots who tried to set a record in July 1933 by flying from New York to Kaunas, Lithuania, but crashed and died. Two years later, 40,000 people gathered in Marquette Park for the dedication ceremony.
Now, there will also be a memorial to Dr. King’s historic march to finally mark Marquette Park as a welcoming place and help erase the stigma of hate that’s hung over Chicago Lawn.
“Today, 50 years later, this is a neighborhood very, very different,” Bilal said. “This is where black, white, Latino can come together. We live, work and play in this area. That wouldn’t have happened had Dr. King and 700 marchers not come and shown us that was possible.”
• Timuel Black: close by when MLK was hit
• Moved by King, Bernard Kleina left Catholic church, turned to photography, activism
• Former Ald. Dorothy Tillman, an MLK aide in ’66, says too many not following his lead
• ‘I don’t mean you, Mr. Policeman’
• Jesse Jackson: ‘Urban movement really born in that confrontation’