Now, 50 years since the smoke from the fires cleared, two West Siders sit in a far south suburban café, reminiscing over a green salad and cold sunshine that pours through these clear glass windows.
Student and teacher, mentor and mentee, father and son, principal and protégé, we are. Paul J. Adams III and me.
If Frederick Douglass was the “Lion of Anacostia,” then Paul Adams is the “Lion of West Garfield Park” — a modern-day West Side abolitionist seeking to free our people from the chains of poverty and miseducation that consign too many to hyper-segregated isles.
And Providence-St. Mel School continues to be his vehicle for helping to set so many of us — black boys and girls — free.
But Mr. Adams’ roar, which proclaimed St. Mel’s domain and protected decades of students from the cruelest of elements on the city’s troubled West Side, is barely detectable this afternoon as his mind travels back in time:
To his Alabama roots; to the horror of the Middle Passage our ancestors endured; to memories of the news from Money, Mississippi, which found him at age 14 on that hot summer day in 1955, about another 14-year-old boy from Chicago; to memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
To thoughts of the stride toward freedom that sometimes still seems for black folks an unrelenting game of cat and mouse. To his continued effort to help young people harness Dr. King’s dream by grasping education in one hand, and hard work and faith in the other.
Stabbing a Cobb salad this afternoon, the words that spill from Mr. Adams’ mouth — comparatively subdued and reflective, though still rich with compassion and concern — are proof of the fire within. Proof that the flame stoked in the fire of civil rights, still burns within this still giant of a man on the verge of turning 78.
It is a number that resonates with me and also with Mr. Adams.
It was 1978 when the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced it was withdrawing its support and would close Providence-St. Mel, where Mr. Adams was then principal and where I was a senior. He chose to fight. So we all chose to fight: students, faculty, family, community…
The class of 1978 was supposed to be the school’s last class. Through Mr. Adams’ vision, the support of donors, and sheer faith and grit, however, the school opened its doors that fall of 1978 as a not-for-profit independent private school. A school with a 100 percent college acceptance rate over the past 40 years.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of my graduation from the school in which I — a ghetto boy — found a pathway to dreams sometimes buried beneath my poverty and hopelessness.
And clear to me still, even after all these years, is the greatness of a man who chose to stay and fight for children too often discarded, forgotten and abandoned.
A man who, whatever any human imperfections, remained steadfast and perfect in heart, faithful to his vision for inspired lives produced by the miracle of hard work. A man inspired by justice and a dream many years ago in the South.
Sitting here this week — 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination that sparked the West Side’s fires — he recalls being jailed in 1960 with 30 other Alabama college students protesting for civil rights. The sentence was 200 dollars or 200 days in jail, Mr. Adams says.
“If I had gone to jail for 200 days, I wouldn’t be talking to you,” he says, explaining that three preachers held a fundraiser to keep them out of jail. His saviors: Benjamin Mays, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr…
“I’m here because of them,” Mr. Adams says.
And I am here because of him.
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