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Moved by King, he left church, turned to photography, activism

Bernard Kleina with photos he took of the Civil Rights Movement in the background. | Bev Horne / Daily Herald

Bernard Kleina was a 30-year-old Catholic priest from Wheaton who came to the Marquette Park march with a Kodak Retina Reflex camera and an urge to snap pictures showing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the one causing violence.

“I photographed some people who were trying to disrupt the march by throwing rocks and bottles and cherry bombs,” Kleina recalls.

“White thugs,” he calls them. “I photographed the marchers to show how disciplined and respectful they were.”

Kleina, who didn’t wear his clerical collar that day, was standing about 15 feet from King when a rock struck King in the head.

“I didn’t see the moment he was hit, but I saw the reaction of the guys who were around him who were sort of like informal body guards,” Kleina, now 80, remembers. “And I saw the way they reacted, immediately protecting him, surrounding him, holding his head down.”

Kleina started snapping pictures.

“The police, they didn’t seem to mind if everything was thrown over their heads and hitting us, but if it hit them, someone got clubbed down to the ground.”

In the crowd, he saw angry, young men in shirts labeled with the names of South Side Catholic high schools. “I just thought, ‘There’s something wrong here.’ ”

Despite the chaos, Kleina wasn’t scared.

“In college, I played football,” he says. “And in that time and at that age, I felt kind of invincible. I think that’s kind of stupid now that I look back on it, but I just wasn’t intimidated.”

He later turned photography into a profession.

“I didn’t have any credentials or anything like that,” says Kleina, who grew up near Humboldt Park. “I don’t know why I thought I could document that march. But I guess — and I always tell people — if you wait until you think you’re completely qualified to do something, it might be too late.”

Marchers, separated by police from protesters who lined the route, walk along South Kedzie Avenue. | Bernard Kleina
Marchers, separated by police from protesters who lined the route, walk along South Kedzie Avenue. | Bernard Kleina

Kleina showed the pictures to parishioners. They changed how some people thought. Not everyone, though.

“A lot of people in my congregation hated me,” he says. “But you can’t stop doing what’s right just because it upsets a lot of people.”

In 1968, Kleina, who says his eyes initially were opened to the civil rights struggle after he marched in Alabama and was arrested, quit the priesthood.

“There really wasn’t a lot of support by the Catholic hierarchy, and I felt like I could do more of what I wanted to do, what I felt was important, by no longer being a priest and giving more of my energy to civil rights issues.

“I never met Dr. King,” he says. “I was standing as close as five feet from him that day, but I always thought, ‘I can’t talk to him today. But I’ll talk to him the next day or the next week.’ But that time never came.”

Kleina lives in Wheaton now. Formerly executive director of the HOPE Fair Housing Center, he’s still an activist.

He says King’s time in Chicago is often glossed over in the nation’s recollection of his life. That’s something he hopes his photographs might help change.

Some of them are now on exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama. The Smithsonian Institution displays more of them online — of the Marquette Park march as well as other events in Chicago. And Kleina gives talks around the country at schools and to organizations, aiming to remind people of King’s words and the significance they still hold.

“I’m trying to keep Dr. King’s dream alive, which, of course, is our dream — that everyone has an equal opportunity for success.”

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