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South Side March Honoring MLK Will Build On Powerful, Timely History

By Gwendolyn Purdom in News on Aug 3, 2016 8:00PM

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When participants gather at 63rd Street and Kedzie Avenue on Saturday morning to commemorate Martin Luther King’s 1966 civil rights march into Marquette Park, they’ll be following in historic footsteps that left an indelible mark on the city—and on the arc toward racial justice in this country that continues today.

Following Friday’s unveiling of a permanent memorial remembering King’s historic march, the Saturday walk comes 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. called his Chicago march rallying for open housing and against segregated schools “the first step on a 1,000 mile journey.” Because it was happening in a major Northern city, the original Marquette Park march of 700 activists, religious leaders and other community members, played a big part in shaping King’s civil rights legacy.

This year's march which will travel through nine blocks on the city’s South Side and conclude with the Takin’ It To The Streets festival in Marquette Park, which features music, dancing, and inspirational speeches.

King made several visits to Chicago in the ’60s, even moving his family into an apartment in what is now North Lawndale for several months in 1966. The city was a smart place to spread his message considering the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights named the it the “most residentially segregated large city in the nation” in 1959 (not that today’s Chicago is much better: we dropped a bit to the dubious distinction of third most segregated city in January). When King returned in the summer of 1966, Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations had teamed up with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to form the Chicago Freedom Movement. That summer he helped launch Operation Breadbasket, a push to support black-owned businesses; addressed a packed Soldier Field on the subject of housing discrimination; and tacked a list of demands on the door of City Hall.

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Just before the Aug. 5 march, racial tensions were extra high. That July, a police officer had shut off a fire hydrant neighborhood kids were cooling off in on the city’s West Side, sparking three days of violence in the area. The movement was holding regular protests in all-white neighborhoods by late July. The march itself was heated, too. Marchers were met with anger and, in some cases, bottles and rocks being hurled at them.
According to the MLK Living Memorial website, King told reporters that day: “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

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Rendering of the MLK Living Memorial by Bruce Bondy, image courtesy of Chicago Public Art Group

This weekend’s events aim to highlight how far the city has come from that time and, with racially-charged tragedies and violence still unfolding in the city and across the country, how far we have to go.

For more information and more first-hand accounts from the Living Memorial’s fascinating collection, click here.

Saturday’s march kicks off at 9 a.m.