I was the guest speaker in an AP US History class about three weeks ago, there to talk about my brief stint in Chicago the summer before I married—marching there with MLK, Jr., the types of jobs I did for VISTA, and the state of the Chicago Public Schools 49 years later. Neighborhoods are unchanged; schools are still segregated. Poverty is at the heart of it. If you follow school politics, you know the Chicago Public Schools are in an even more deplorable condition than they were a half century ago.
The teacher had read my blog post about JFK and touching—or maybe not touching—him when his motorcade came through my town during the 1960 presidential campaign. When she asked me to talk to the class about what I remembered, the substance was scanty—all inspiration and no information. But our conversation drifted to the Civil Rights Movement and for that I had more content—or thought I did. I agreed to talk to her classes.
When I got down to thinking about what I would say, of course, my memories turned out to be pretty meager in this department, too. It would have taken me about one minute to relay the following: “I was in Chicago; King came; I marched. We met in Grant Park, went through the streets of Chicago, ended at City Hall. He was up on a platform and I was too far away to touch him. We all joined hands. We did sing “We Shall Overcome.” I felt good.
So I had to do some research. I started with a box of letters and memorabilia from my college days. My mother had saved every letter I wrote home for the four years I was in college. In that box was a red pocket folder with a few “artifacts” from my time in Chicago the summer after graduation. In the folder was a flyer: Why We March. No date, but a little printer’s mark, indicating that the item was printed, not xeroxed, and a few details of the back story.
Names: Ben Willis and Mayor Daley. Al Raby. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations.
I found a book–out of print—and ordered it: Northern Protest by James R. Ralph, Jr., Turns out, his account of King in Chicago had been a source for Isabel Wilkerson, whose astounding and fascinating story of the great migration of southern blacks, The Warmth of Other Suns, captured a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.
In Ralph’s book, I found the date of the March: July 26, 1965. 15,000 people. The largest civil rights demonstration Chicago had ever seen—so said the Chicago Daily News.
I read further in the book and then online about 1966, the year King returned and lived in Lawndale (western suburb, black, the destination of many African-Americans migrating from the South) and the cat and mouse game Daley played with him, the marches that turned violent. All the online texts were about 1966; the Eyes on the Prize video, all about 1966; the accessible newspaper coverage, all about 1966.
How could I prove I had been there? Even the papers in the online Southern Christian Leadership Conference archives are about 1966.
Finally, I found two articles in the Chicago Defender, the leading black newspaper of the day, about the 1965 march—written two days after it was over. The Tribune archives for that year: not online. The Sun-Times? I’d have to sign up for a 7-day free subscription and then I’d probably forget to cancel it.
Finally, finally, I happened upon an edu site (Students, listen: edu sites always yield the best stuff!)—the University of Illinois at Chicago–that had a summary of 1965 and had reproduced on their site the very flyer I had in my hands. Oh, wow! I’d hit pay dirt and was excited beyond belief.
So funny. The kids would have believed me, but I wanted the proof that what I held was indeed a primary source. This was, after all, an AP history course.
That summer–1965–Al Raby, a black schoolteacher from the South side, had become the head of an umbrella group of community organizations, all (until then) working independently for better schools, better housing, better employment opportunities. But the focus was on the schools, still (11 years after Brown vs. The Board of Education) 90% segregated. The CCCO marched every day that summer on City Hall. They wanted Daley to dismiss Ben Willis, the Superintendent, because his policies perpetuated segregation. Recently, the schools had gone to double shifts because they were so crowded–that is, the black schools had gone to double shifts. Some white schools had empty desks. But the CCCS was getting nowhere–Daley was a formidable and cagey foe–so they appealed to King, who had led a huge rally at Soldier Field the summer before in 1964 (estimated attendance: from 30,000 to as many as 60,000) and was at that moment looking to expand the movement into a northern city.
A perfect meeting of purposes.
King was in Chicago in 1965 on a five-city tour called the People to People campaign to see which city would be best—Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, or DC—for his northern protest, his “Freedom Summer” in the north. That was to have been what 1966 would be.
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. In 1966, King moved into an apartment in Lawndale, deliberately moving there to draw attention to housing inequities. He was still interested in employment and education, but the focus that summer was on open housing. I explained to the students about redlining—the sly and exclusionary tactic of delineating certain areas of the city and then refusing to sell property in those areas or provide financing to people of color who wanted to buy there.Online, I had found maps of Chicago with the neighborhoods clearly marked off. I brought these to class, and I reminded the students of Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful play, written in 1957, A Raisin in the Sun—still in our 9th grade English anthologies—about a black family that prepares to move into a white suburb of Chicago (a play with connections to Hansberry’s own family story). Many of the students had read the drama, nodded in recognition. I recited some lines from Langston Hughes, lines the students knew (Thanks, English teachers!!!):
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?
Or does it explode?
It exploded in 1966: rioting, marches that turned violent, Dr. King himself hit by a rock thrown at a march in Marquette Park on the South Side. And Daley repeatedly outmaneuvering King. Ultimately, fearing violence in Cicero (a white community that bordered Lawndale and the West Garfield area where I’d been stationed in 1965), King settled with Daley–a 10 point agreement that did make some inroads–and called off the Cicero march. Stokely Carmichael and others, though, went ahead with it on their own, and the march in Cicero did turn violent–bloody and awful.
But in 1965, the year I was there, Chicago was by and large peaceful. It gave King hope that the non-violent tactics of the south could work in the north.
Isn’t history wonderful? It can tell you all about what you were involved in.
Consider this, though: If King hadn’t come to Chicago–or any other place–the laws would not have changed; even less, the climate. If the Civil Rights Movement of my day had never happened, would there have been a Women’s Movement, a Native American Movement, Stonewall and the Gay Rights Movement, a Latino Movement? King’s compromise in 1966 was a setback, and the assassination was devastating…but ultimately, progress.
But so much, too much, left to do.
The kids asked me how I reacted to MLK’s assassination. I put my head down on the dining room table and cried, I told them. I remember that distinctly. It was the death of a hero.
The message to the students: Your voice matters. I was one insignificant person in 15,000 that day–but 15,000 insignificant people were not insignificant in their impact. 15,000 helped to convince King to come. He came, and even though he didn’t achieve exactly what he sought, progress was made.
You can change the world, I told the students. You can. But you must stand up, speak up for what is moral and right.
Apparently, the talk was inspiring. Kids clapped, thanked me, and some came back to hear the presentation twice. (I talked to four classes.) The teacher asked me to partner with her next year and do all this during the Civil Rights Unit instead of as a guest speaker. To which I readily agreed and suggested that next year the kids do the research, now that I know it is there and so much is available online.
In all these years, I have not spoken at length about marching with King, though it is something I look back on as significant in my life. Oh, I had mentioned it a few times to kids in school, but not as part of a long discussion with facts and details and questions and answers. I was never quite comfortable. In the first place, I had forgotten the facts. In the second, I was stopped by the feeling that throwing it into a conversation—even one about racism in this country or one about the pernicious effects of poverty—would have been gratuitous, even self-congratulatory. And what was there to congratulate myself about? Of course I marched.
So here I am, old enough to be a primary source and to have had the chance to tell this story.
What did it feel like to speak to these students? Was I comfortable? For starters, time seemed to melt away. Once the details came back to me—through the research—it didn’t feel like nearly fifty years had gone by. It didn’t feel like it had been that long ago. And, armed with information, yes, I was quite comfortable. I had something to say beyond a one-minute delivery of basic information. The students asked great questions, stayed awake the whole time, and seemed to genuinely care about the topic. They put me at ease and at the same time, lit my fire.
I was comfortable because I was at the front of a classroom, not at a dinner table, not in some random gathering place where the conversation is supposed to be focused on a problem, not on personal biography. The occasion and the venue were right.
But maybe it is even more simple than that.
Maybe it is just this: I do love to teach.