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Dr. King legacy seen in diversity of elected Illinois, Chicago, national leaders

Rev. Jesse Jackson, kneeling, huddles with King and Bernard Lee of King's staff on Aug. 20, 1966. | Sun-Times file photo

“He would have been 90 this year,” says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Jackson was reflecting on this year’s holiday honoring his mentor and friend.

Jan. 15 was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, celebrated nationally on Jan. 21.

Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right, and his aide, Rev. Jesse Jackson are seen in Chicago, Aug. 19, 1966. | AP Photo/Larry Stoddard

As the years go by, there are fewer of those who marched with him to share their memories. But Jackson, one of his closest aides, can still recount milestone moments from King’s Chicago Freedom Movement of ’65-’66 like it was yesterday.

“Our offices used to be at 366 E. 47th St., in what’s now Bronzeville, and we used to meet every Saturday morning at Chicago Theological Seminary,” says Jackson, 77, who first met the man of peace at an airport in 1964, when King was en route to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.

Jackson then marched with King in the ’65 Selma to Montgomery marches.

He soon joined the team of the charismatic civil rights leader and was assigned to run Operation Breadbasket, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s anti-poverty effort.

Dr. King leads civil rights marchers in song and prayer in front of real estate office on the Southwest Side on Aug. 6, 1966. King’s aide Andrew Young stands at right. | AP photo

When the Baptist preacher who espoused nonviolence brought the fight for equal rights north to Chicago, Jackson was at his side.

  • Chicago churches still standing today were the sites of their strategizing meetings, including Fellowship Baptist Church, 4543 S. Princeton Ave.; New Friendship Baptist Church, 848 W. 71st St.; and Stone Temple Baptist Church, 3622 W. Douglas Blvd.
  • There was King’s June 21, 1964, speech at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights at Solider Field, days after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Then, after being asked by the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations to come help Black Chicago fight for quality schools, King led a July 26, 1965, march on City Hall; gave a fiery speech before tens of thousands at the July 10, 1966, Freedom Sunday Rally at Soldier Field; and finally, on Aug. 26, 1966, held a globally covered “Summit Agreement” with Mayor Richard J. Daley.
  • As part of his “End Slums” campaign, King famously moved his family into a dilapidated, third-floor walk-up at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. in North Lawndale on Jan. 1, 1966; the building is long gone, but the Dr. King Legacy Apartments and Fair Housing Exhibit Center now mark the spot.
  • King’s open housing marches, and the attendant violence from angry residents on the Southwest Side, are most remembered, culminating with the infamous Aug. 5, 1966, march through Marquette Park, where the Baptist preacher was felled to the knee by a rock to the head, lending credence to his famous quote: “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

“When King came to Chicago, we couldn’t live west of Ashland, and blacks were hemmed into these ghettos,” Jackson says, taking a reporter down memory lane.

Dr. King in Marquette Park on Aug. 5, 1966, before he was hit by debris thrown by the crowd. | Sun-Times file photo

Born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga., King was ordained and became assistant pastor at his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1948. He married the beautiful Coretta Scott King in 1953, with whom he had four children.

It was in 1955 that his civil rights efforts began in earnest, when he became president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group that led the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. It ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling segregation on public buses unconstitutional.

King gave his tide-turning “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and in 1964 came the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. King falls after being struck by a rock from a taunting mob in Marquette Park on Aug. 5, 1966. | Sun-Times file photo

The Selma to Montgomery marches, following the infamous “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, followed in 1965. King would spend most of the following year in Chicago, marking the expansion of the civil rights battle from the South to northern cities, with key activists Jackson, James Bevel and Al Raby.

King’s mark, while combating racial segregation and discrimination in Chicago, extended to suburban and Downstate Illinois, such as his Feb. 10, 1966, speech before thousands at the Fred Young Fieldhouse of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.

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Some still debate the success of King’s Chicago campaign — Illinois’ largest city remains one of the nation’s most segregated. But the Chicago Freedom Movement inarguably led to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, signed into law a week after King’s assassination.

Jackson, however, says the larger quest at the heart of the revered leader’s work in Chicago also is inarguably achieved — empowerment and representation, evident in the diverse political landscape of Illinois, of Chicago and nationwide.

“King’s legacy is the Voting Rights Act, which has stood the test of time and resistance,” Jackson says.

Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, wave from apartment he rented on Chicago’s West Side., Jan. 26, 1966. Dr. King announced he will spend two or three days a week in Chicago directing a campaign against slum conditions. Mrs. King said she would stay in the flat for tonight only, and then return to Atlanta. Dr. King pays $90 a month rent for the four-room apartment. | AP Photo/Edward Kitch

“Today, Chicago is the urban center with the most U.S. senators of color, Carol Moseley Braun, Roland Burris and Barack Obama; and the home of two African-American men who ran for president, myself and President Obama. In Illinois, we now have an African-American lieutenant governor. So King’s legacy stands tall.

“And on this past Nov. 6, his legacy manifested itself in the largest number of women and minorities ever elected in a freshman class of Congress, along with statewide candidates. If you look at Stacey Abrams’ candidacy for governor in Georgia, Andrew Gillum’s candidacy for governor in Florida, and U.S. Senate races in Texas and Mississippi, a new South is rising,” Jackson adds.

“The gap that was once a horizontal gap between black and white is now a vertical gap of disparity between the haves and the have-nots. That, more than anything, is the unfinished business of Dr. King’s work.”

This Sun-Times story kicks off the Illinois Important Dates series, a collection of stories written by newspapers around the state and distributed by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors Association and the Illinois Press Association. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a speech at a Chicago Freedom Movement rally in Soldier Field, July 10, 1966. | Sun-Times file photo