Lightfoot’s Martin Luther King celebration honors community leaders propelling civil rights legacy, racial justice

Three groups named “community healers” will be honored during the city’s virtual MLK interfaith celebration. King’s birthday is Friday; the King holiday is Monday.

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This photo is among others in a collection of photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. by Tweedle called, “A Lasting Impression: A Collection of Photographs of Martin Luther King Jr.” Edited By Hermene D. Hartman, Published by University of South Carolina Press.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who brought the civil rights fight North with the Chicago Freedom Movement of ‘65-’66, gave a fiery speech before tens of thousands at the July 10, 1966, Freedom Sunday Rally at Soldier Field, a month and a half before his globally covered “Summit Agreement” with Mayor Richard J. Daley on Aug. 26, 1966.

John Tweedle/Chicago Sun-Times

From a coat giveaway for needy children to cleanup of a garden honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you’ll have many ways to honor the legacy of the revered civil rights leader across Chicagoland this weekend. His birthday is Friday. The holiday is Monday.

In a pandemic, some events we’ve come to expect annually, like the Museum of Science and Industry’s annual Black Creativity Family Day, are cancelled. Others, including the Chicago mayor’s 35th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Celebration, have gone virtual.


This year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s event, open to the public, is to be keynoted by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former judge and City Council member and a Democratic Party rising star who was on the short list to be named vice president by President-elect Joe Biden.

Bottoms, who led Census and housing efforts for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, rose to prominence last year in clashes with Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp over her COVID-19 mask mandate for Atlanta. She turned down Biden’s offer of a Cabinet-level position last month, reportedly as head of the Small Business Administration.

Lightfoot’s event features an inaugural Chicago Community Healer award — going to The Chicago Community Trust, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago and Lawndale Christian Health Center (LCHC), for their work propelling King’s vision of racial equality.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms


“To eliminate racism is explicitly our mission, everything that Dr. King stood for,” said Dorri McWhorter, CEO of the YWCA, which last year launched its “Until Justice Just Is” initiative offering tangible ways to advance racial equity in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

There are resources for individuals, from a Learning Library on systemic racism to an Anti-Racism Discussion Guide. Its Racial Justice League engages corporations and organizations to commit to diversity, equity and inclusion, in the workplace and through philanthropy.

“After George Floyd, we saw a lot of companies making statements. We were like, ‘Yeah, but what are you going to do?’ We also knew that although everyone wasn’t out there marching; they needed a way to engage in this moment, in this movement,” McWhorter said.

“In King’s time, we absolutely were fighting systems perpetuating racism, and perpetrators were attacking Dr. King and individuals fighting for change. Now that his work has contributed to evolving those systems, we see, as at the Capitol last week, the attack is now on government at all levels,” she said.

“It’s up to us to continue to support the change that needs to happen as America works to fulfill the promise of what we believe Democracy should be — without racism.”

Dorri McWhorter, CEO, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago.

Dorri McWhorter, CEO, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago.


McWhorter’s group was among 384 recipients nationwide last month to share $4 billion from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist, author and former wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos known for supporting groups committed to gender and racial equity.

At Lawndale Christian Health Center, 3860 Ogden Ave., leaders there are deeply cognizant of proximity. Sited just blocks from where King and his family lived for a short time in North Lawndale, the group’s mission is to fill the gap in inner-city hospital health care deserts.

“Proximity matters. You won’t find our clinics on the outskirts but right in the heart of our neighborhoods,” said the Rev. James L. Brooks, vice president of mission and community engagement at LCHC, which serves 70,000 West Side residents at five sites.

“We want to care for the most vulnerable in our city — that’s going deeper for us. We want to care for our homeless, for those suffering from substance abuse, our seniors facing dementia, those impacted by COVID-19 — quite aligned with what Dr. King stood for.”

It was in 1965 that the charismatic Baptist preacher brought the civil rights fight north, with the Chicago Freedom Movement. As part of his “End Slums” campaign, King, who would be assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, famously moved his family into a dilapidated, third-floor walk-up at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. on Jan. 1, 1966.

Rev. James L. Brooks, vice president, Mission and Community Engagement, Lawndale Christian Health Center.

Rev. James L. Brooks, Vice President, Mission and Community Engagement, Lawndale Christian Health Center.


“So many like Dr. King have paved the way for us to be able to serve in our community. His moving here to bring attention to the housing disparity and how poor people were being treated taught us something in that moment about being proximate,” said Brooks.

North Lawndale would be one of the most devastated in the ‘68 riots that followed his assassination. Brooks equates the events at the Capitol with the hatred King had battled.

“As I witnessed the images of the rioters desecrating the sacred halls of our U.S. Capitol, it broke my heart. Of all the disgusting images, the noose outside the Capitol impacted me most,” said Brooks. “Tears welled up, thinking of my grandparents sharing childhood stories of friends who had been lynched. What made the noose all the more disturbing is it was surrounded by images and banners invoking the name of Jesus.”

Born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929, King became assistant pastor at his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1948, the same church where the Rev. Raphael Warnock — recently elected the first Black senator from Georgia — is senior pastor.

Earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King would arrive in Chicago in 1965, spending most of the following year here.

Helene Gayle, president and CEO, The Chicago Community Trust.

Helene Gayle, president and CEO, The Chicago Community Trust.


“We’re incredibly honored to be recognized at this ceremony that has become an important recognition of the role of Dr. Martin Luther King and everything he stood for,” said Helene Gayle, CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, which last year launched a “Together We Rise” initiative.

The three-pronged effort is raising funds for workforce development and employment, small business support and community investment, engaging the private sector in that work and propelling government policies to spur economic recovery in communities of color.

“If we think about what happened in the last recession, many of the communities that were hardest hit never fully recovered,” said Gayle. “We are very committed to making sure this time it is different, particularly as this pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color that were already economically fragile.”

That effort comes on the heel of the Trust spearheading the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund that raised some $35 million to support nonprofits helping families. The Trust’s focus under Gayle has been alleviating the racial wealth gap between white, Black and Latinx households.

“As a health professional, one of my favorite quotes of Dr. King was something he said in Chicago in ‘66: ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.’ We are seeing this with this pandemic. And in his last days, he was looking at issues of economic inequity linked to racial equity,” Gayle said.

“America is a work in progress. We continue to evolve towards building that ‘beloved community.’ In this moment, in the wake of what happened at the Capitol, his words must propel us to a bigger vision: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.’ How do we choose light and love in a way that pulls us together as a nation, while being realistic about the challenges we face?”

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