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Rev. Kwame John R. Porter, civil rights leader who marched with MLK, dies at 87

Dr. Kwame Porter

Dr. Kwame Porter | Provided photo

When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. held a “Get Out the Vote” event in Chicago in 1964, Rev. Kwame John R. Porter not only introduced him to the crowd at Ogden Park — he also brought 10,000 people with him.

“I can remember walking to the park with them. It was so packed and my husband introduced Dr. King and stood by him the whole time as he spoke,” said June Porter, the pastor’s wife, who also attended the demonstration.

Rev. Porter, 87, who died April 9 at his Hyde Park home, was at the forefront of the expansion of the civil rights movement north for several decades.

The Ogden Park event brought attention to the disenfranchisement of black voters and was the result of Porter responding to King’s open request to speak in local Chicago communities, said June Porter. Her late husband and King were friends.

“They shared stories and talked about what they wanted to do,” said June Porter. “Rev. King came to our church and spoke twice there, played pool with the kids who were in gangs and joked around with my husband.”

The civil rights activists first met after Porter traveled to Georgia for anti-segregation demonstrations organized by King in 1962.

Two years later, their relationship strengthened after King approved the first Chicago chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Porter’s church, Christ United Methodist Church in Englewood.

The civil rights activists soon joined forces in Chicago, as King moved in 1966 to join Porter in leading the Chicago Freedom Movement — a joint campaign by the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to end segregated housing practices in Chicago during the late 1960s.

Rev. Porter and his Englewood church directly worked with King and his campaign, organizing hundreds of mass protests across Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods during 1966, according to the family and an oral history posted online.

After earning his master’s degree from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Porter became assistant pastor at Normal Park United Methodist Church in Englewood.

He later moved on to a Christ United Methodist and served the community for the remainder of his career, according to the family.

“He was a father figure to so many young African Americans,” said Jorja Porter, one of Porter’s six children. “He really passed down the idea that there is greatness in everyone in a genuine way.”

Porter’s work extended beyond protests. He created the first “Freedom School” in 1963, pulling 100 children out of a Englewood school who were being treated poorly by the principal. He offered them safe learning spaces at the church instead, according to his family.

He also helped found Operation PUSH in 1971 along with Rev. Jesse Jackson, said the Porter family. The Chicago-based civil rights organization, still led by Jackson, now is known as Rainbow PUSH.

“His motivation was always the same: He had to do it. He saw our community and what was happening. He saw injustice and did something about it,” said Bishop Trimble, a friend of Porter for several decades.

Porter later authored seven books about historical African Americans figures and issues of inequality, some of which he wrote after he lost his sight more than a decade ago.

“He didn’t see it as a handicap. He felt the need to write so he hired people to help him,” said Jorja Porter. “He wanted to uplift and educate the African American community. Blindness wasn’t going to stop him.”

Born in 1932 in Mineral Springs, Arkansas, he was the oldest of three children of Steve Porter and Retha Hendricks-Porter.

After earning an associate’s degree and finishing a three-year stint in the Army, Porter completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1959 before attending the Evanston seminary.

Porter returned to academia later in life while remaining an active community leader.

He taught from 1968 to 1970 at Northeastern Illinois University and George Williams College and earned his Ph.D. in 1975, according to his family.

After school, he continued to serve as a pastor and worked as an advisor to many Chicago pastors and politicians, including former Mayor Harold Washington, said Trimble and the Porter family.

Porter is survived by his wife of 56 years, June, and their six children, 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 6-9 p.m. Friday at Leak & Sons Funeral Home. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the West Point Missionary Baptist Church. Burial will be in Oak Woods Cemetery.