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Jesse Jackson, mayoral hopefuls speak out on Van Dyke sentence at MLK breakfast

From left: Willie Wilson, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Lori Lightfoot

Rev. Jesse Jackson, flanked by Chicago mayoral candidates Willie Wilson (left) and Lori Lightfoot (right, front) are joined by other civic leaders at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition's 29th Annual MLK Scholarship Breakfast on Monday. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Reflecting Monday on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson cited the prison sentence of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke and ongoing government shutdown as the kind of injustices the civil rights leader would have fought against.

At a breakfast for PUSH Excel’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship program, Jackson and other community leaders discussed how to move forward after the sentencing of Van Dyke for the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Jackson said the 84-year sentence given last week to Mickieal Ward, convicted of killing 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, stands in stark contrast to Van Dyke’s 81-months sentence, handed down Friday.

“Justice has been covered up,” Jackson said.

Several mayoral candidates, including Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot shared similar sentiments. Lightfoot called for the FBI to reopen the grand jury investigation into the case, citing the federal government’s separate civil rights case into Rodney King’s beating by police as an example.

Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was one of several candidates for mayor of Chicago who attended the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s 29th Annual MLK Scholarship Breakfast on Monday. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

In continuing King’s legacy of exposing injustices, Preckwinkle added, it’s essential to not end the conversation with Van Dyke.

“[He] was the first police officer in 50 years to be convicted of murder, but he’s not the first officer in 50 years to have murdered one of our residents,” Preckwinkle said, “and that’s something we shouldn’t forget as we move forward.”

At the breakfast — attended by hundreds of educators, high school students and state leaders such as Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton — five honorees also were recognized for making “significant strides toward education equity.” They included Coca-Cola’s chief diversity and inclusion officer Lori George Billingsley, Hazel Crest School District Supt. Sheila Harrison-Williams and multicultural dance group Hiplet Ballerinas.

Jackson also criticized the continued government shutdown, the longest ever; Monday was its 31st day. Jackson and other officials called for an immediate solution for the families affected.

“Forced work without pay is slavery,” Jackson said. “These workers … have been used as pawns in a scheme of an unnecessary wall.”

Hiplet Ballerinas members

Members of the Hiplet Ballerinas were among those honored at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s 29th Annual MLK Scholarship Breakfast on Monday. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Asked how he believes King would view Chicago’s progress — or lack thereof — today, Jackson said poverty and income inequality for communities of color stand out as ongoing problems.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker also spoke at the breakfast, promising to “waste no time reversing the damage” of the past few years, mentioning gun violence and racial inequality as areas to address. Quoting King, Pritzker said the state hasn’t seen the “fierce urgency of now” or the “vigorous and positive action” the nonviolent activist called for.

“With Illinois having been stagnant on expanding people’s rights and standing up for economic security and economic rights, not just civil rights,” Pritzker said, “… the road ahead is an opportunity for us to make real change.”