Timuel Black was close behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when the 37-year-old preacher was hit in the head by a rock or brick during the 1966 march on Marquette Park.
“That’s when I said to myself, ‘If one of them knock me with a brick, this nonviolent movement is over,’ ” the educator, author, political and civil rights activist, now 98, recalled. “A lot of us said this was the worst darn thing we had ever seen. A lot of people said they couldn’t take the nonviolent movement any more after that.”
As president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council founded by A. Phillip Randolph, Black had spearheaded Chicagoans’ participation in the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s 1963 march on Washington. When King and the SCLC announced plans to expand their civil rights activities to northern cities, Black supported the movement.
“Those of us from the North, black and white, had to be trained to be nonviolent,” the Chicago native said. “For us, it was a tactic; for Dr. King, a way of life.
“There were people who had been with Dr. King in the South, who tried to warn him against going into neighborhoods like Cicero or Marquette Park, knowing what was going to happen. Dr. King said he just had to do it. He just had that courage.”
The Chicago that King came to in 1966 could trace its segregation to the Great Migration, during which 6 million blacks left the South for the North and West between 1915 and 1970, said Black, whose own parents, Alabama sharecroppers, came in that wave.
“They fled the South for better opportunities — education, jobs, housing, the right to vote,” he said. “Instead, they were ghettoized by landlords determined not to rent or sell to Negroes, and those racist practices were protected by restrictive covenants, then bank redlining. By the mid ’50s, the population in what was called the Black Belt was 84,000 per square mile — four times the 23,000 density of adjoining white communities.”
King moved into slum housing in North Lawndale to highlight those conditions and then expanded his efforts, including the march on Marquette Park.
“We organized with Catholic priests and nuns,” Black said. “And when we entered Marquette Park, the vulgarity that was used was unbelievable, particularly in a predominantly Catholic community against their Catholic sisters and brothers. Many of our cars — including the Rev. Addie Wyatt’s car — were burned.”
The march and the photo showing King knocked to the ground had great impact. Said Black: “The issue of segregation and housing took on a national tone, which was a very dramatic thing.”