Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy

by Mary C. Piemonte 

Activist and photographer Bernard Kleina (left) talks to Chicago Freedom School graduate Richard Wilson at a recent commemoration for Dr. Martin Luther King. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

People around the city recently celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while organizing to continue the fight for social justice.

The Chicago Freedom School, a non-profit organization which trains people at all ages in social justice organizing techniques, hosted an “intergenerational” program to honor Dr. King’s activism in Chicago at Grace Place, 637 S. Dearborn St., several weeks ago.

In the first half of their 3-hour program, an intergenerational roster of the organizations involved talked to the audience about how Dr. King “brought organizing, marches and political change to the South and beyond.” In this city, the event organizers recalled that King “mobilized mass marches on the Southwest side, lived and shared community with residents on the West Side, and fought for fair housing justice for all of Chicago.”

 

 

Discussion on Past and Present

After the film, the program participants broke out into small groups for an interactive workshop on racially motivated gentrification tactics by wealthy realtors between 1905 and 1962. They also examined current housing segregation and displacement in Chicago more than 45 years after Dr. King’s work locally.

In the small groups, the participants had to match up dates to example cases of segregation events that took place in the city before the Chicago Freedom Movement, such as the establishment of Chinatown around Van Buren and Clark streets in 1905.  They also dealt with the proliferation of “racial restrictive covenants” that began in 1927; the “restrictive covenants” were contractual agreements among property owners that prohibited the purchase, lease or occupation of their building by a particular group of people, usually African Americans.

The organizers then discussed how “redlining” of districts began in 1934, which primarily targeted African Americans, Latino, Asian and Jewish neighborhoods, deeming them “high risk” areas for real-estate investments and denying residents mortgages and home improvement loans, regardless of their financial history.

The establishment of the Chicago Housing Authority in 1937 was another highlight of discussion, which the Freedom School organizers said resulted in massive amounts of public housing being constructed in black residential areas on the South and West sides, largely due to white aldermen who refused to allow public housing to be built in their wards.

Construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway was another example the Freedom School organizers cited as having created “an enormous physical barrier” separating Black and white residents on the city’s South Side. First named the “South Route Expressway,” the new road was designed to travel along 400 west, a block from former Mayor Richard J. Daley’s home grounds in the Bridgeport area. But just a month after the former Robert Taylor Homes was approved to be built, the route was changed to go along Wentworth Avenue, “a street which was a well-established racial divide in the City,” according to the Freedom School.

 

Youth Alumni

Richard Wilson, a senior at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island and a 2011 Freedom School alumnus, said during the event that “I feel like without us studying the past social justice movement, we really wouldn’t understand the fundamentals of how to make a movement today.”

Jasmine Thomas, a 2011 Freedom School alumnus and senior at Young Women Leadership Charter School in the Bronzeville community, told RJ after the event that young people like her should become more like Dr. King and get involved in social justice issues.

“He knew who he was and what he stood for,” she said. “That’s what made people believe in what he did. So I feel like we as young people need to define ourselves instead of being involved in the latest trends.”

Chris Williams, a 2010 alumnus and senior at Walter Dyett High School, told RJ that by participating in CFS programs, he learned a lot about oppression and struggles within the community. He even gave a few speeches and did actions based on social justice. Williams added that young people should carry on Dr. King’s legacy.

“I think he was bold,” Williams said. “He fought for us to do a lot of stuff that we can do today.”

The program also included an exhibit of photographs of Dr. King and others during the Chicago Freedom Movement in Grant and Marquette Parks from 1965-66 captured by activist and photographer Bernard Kleina, who was a Catholic priest at that time.

Kleina told RJ that he donated his iconic photographs to the Freedom School event. “Some of the photographs also tell us about what we need to do now,” Kleina said. “The fight is far from over.”

Tony Alvarado-Rivera, coordinator of the Freedom School’s youth programs, told RJ before the program that youth participants at the school have been busy keeping the attitude of Dr. King and others regarding social justice issues. By doing things to eradicate racial inequalities among people of color, such as addressing the current food deserts in the low-income Englewood neighborhood, conducting restorative justice efforts around peer-juries in high schools, and holding workshops on the school-to-prison pipeline. They also collaborated with other youth groups to introduce the Chicago Safety Act, which Rivera said “would allow for more transparency around detentions, expulsions and suspensions in Chicago public schools.”

The event was sponsored by the Crossroads Fund.

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