We stand on the backs of giants so big, we often think of them as mythological figures in a faraway land as opposed to real mortals of sacrifice and change. Every year, January 15 is observed as a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.—a holiday signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Since then, we have celebrated that major milestone for such a significant honor for those who remembered opposition by many who harbored deep resentment toward such a great man.
Over three decades later, we continue to observe Dr. King’s holiday as a national testament to all the men and women who fought diligently for our civil liberties—sacrificing time with their families, putting their education on hold, losing their jobs and many losing their lives. As we face a new era of American democracy under President Donald Trump, the threat of many of these laws in place from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 being dismantled are dangerously close to home.
Chicago Social Activists
Since the arrival of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago in 1965, no other leader has brought out a movement that has planted the seed for great leadership.
Brenetta Howell Barrett is currently the President and CEO of Pathfinders Prevention Education Fund, an organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. She has been on the frontlines of social change and advocating for civil liberties before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his non-violence freedom rider movement to Chicago. A West Side resident, she has made it her mission for the past 60 years to plan, organize and participate on various levels, bringing attention to major issues such as equal rights, quality education, segregated schools, job discrimination and HIV/AIDs awareness.
Her first encounter with the young minister from Georgia was the March on the Conventions Committee which was co-chaired by Rev. Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph. During that time, the Democratic Congress held their national convention in Los Angeles while the Republican party had their national convention in Chicago at the International Amphitheatre. She says it was a call for action to enlist protestors from local communities to take part on marching at these conventions.
“The one here in Chicago was preceded by two rallies, one on the South Side at Liberty Baptist Church and one on the West Side at Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church. It was very important to not only have the rally but to rouse and rally people to take part in that march. So, the rally on the Westside was held the evening before the actual march. That was July 25,1960. The estimates around that time was about 4,000 people attending the rally,” Barrett said. “During that time, this was a great turnout to get most of those people.”
In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley ruled with an iron fist that often resulted in damage and constraints to the Black community. Barrett said the Civil Rights movement in the city pushed through blatant discrimination of the political machine.
“It brought together not only leaders and direct and file members of organized labor but also the individuals and organizations that were identified and took part of the non-violence efforts of Dr. King. It left room for organizations that was adamant and deeply committed to bring about change but didn’t necessarily subscribe to non-violence as a key element in the work that they were doing. It was a great coalition of individuals and organizations that decided that these marches were important,” she said.
Organizations such as The Westside Federation which comprised of local communities and entities on the West Side of Chicago held their meetings at Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church, which routinely opened its doors for meetings.
Barrett remembers, “The Westside Federation–a coalition of local communities and entities on the West Side of Chicago. This was very important as it was important as Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church which opened its doors. The church not only helped Dr. King but during the times preceding his arrival—local civil rights groups were welcomed to organize at the church and they paid a price,” she says.
“The building inspectors were part of Richard J. Daley’s Democratic party machine. They usually came down pretty hard on that church, finding all kind of building violations, making sure there was some kind of price to pay by the church. Not to mention, Rev. J M Stone had to constantly be present at court hearings so that he could protect the church.”
Rev. Stone understood the importance of providing a safe sanctuary for such meetings and was harassed because he gave a meeting space for civil rights and civil liberties activities.
Passing the Torch to the Next Generation
Although, word was spreading rapidly about the influence and uprising of the Montgomery bus boycott and eventually the countertop protests in the South—labor unions such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph, had the first organized Black labor union in the country.
National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum Founder Dr. Lynn Hughes says the organization of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1941 was a blueprint for Dr. King’s March to Washington in 1963.
“The first organized March on Washington movement (MOWM) was in the 1940s. A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, they were organizing it because of the lack of contracts and employment for Blacks in the military defense industry. By the 1940s they had already come into their own, the victory they won being the first Black labor union in America. So, they had a voice, they were our voice as Black people,” Hughes said. “They began to organize the march on Washington and when they got to a certain point—President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which gave Black people what they were asking for. Randolph organized and conceived this idea for this march on Washington and once he got what he wanted for our people—he simply folded that up and put it on the shelf.”
Coming up in his senior years, Randolph understood the importance of maintaining that same fire that sparked change for African Americans during the Jim Crow period. Hearing about King’s leadership, he asked a fellow friend and activist to reach out to him.
“Randolph saw something in him and he sent Bayard Rustin to talk to him about the movement. They literally drafted him, and he became part of this rebirth. They [general public] don’t want our people to know that. So, what I believe, it’s the consensus Randolph was smart enough to recognize that he was an elder. He saw in King what he knew he would not be able to see come to fruition,” Lyn said.
“He saw in him the ingredient that would be required—it was a sacrifice. It always had been, and it will always be there,” Hughes explains. “He saw in King a person who was willing to make that sacrifice and could not be bought. That’s what it takes. We’re still facing that dilemma today when they buy us.”
Help from the Pews to the Pulprit to the People
A young White Methodist minister at the time, Rev. Martin Deppe, was sent by his Bishop to sit in on a meeting of pastors and denominational leaders invited by Dr. King in February 1966. It would be an initial outreach to educate and encourage churches to participate as part of the Chicago Freedom Movement.
“Rather than attend the meeting, the Bishop sent me. He didn’t send one of our fine Black pastors, he sent a White pastor from a predominately Black church,” he recalls. “I was green and inexperienced. My bishop sends me to what would become the birth meeting of Operation Breadbasket. This is one of the almost unknown, nearly forgotten legacies of Dr. King and an important part of history because it was a way of putting bread on the table in the form of a steady job. That’s what Operation Breadbasket was about, using the power of the pulpit, the stewardship dollars from people from the pew; [they] would use their dollars as consumers to help secure jobs with companies that were fair with the African American community.”
During the 1960s, thousands of African Americans were migrating from Southern states to find a better quality of living. Although many thought escaping Jim Crow laws for a fair and equal system up North would be better—the fight for equality was just as challenging.
“The African American population comprised of 26 percent of Chicago’s population—Blacks only had five percent of the jobs. While the movement was organized around the schools and Daley was stonewalling on the education issue, we were exhausted by our marches,” said Deppe.
“Month after month, marching against the Willis wagons, marching for quality education—at the same time, Dr. King found a project for the churches which he had used in Atlanta and it was working effectively there.” Moving forward, the group hired Jesse Jackson, who was a student at Chicago Theological Seminary. The timing couldn’t be better. Jackson was the right person at the right time leading a group of progressive Black pastors. We went off on a roll with this concept of using the power of the pulpit.
“Going to our people in the pews and saying, ‘Pepsi Cola won’t negotiate with us, they won’t give us information about their employment, so we’re asking you to stop drinking Pepsi until they come to the table.’ It didn’t take long for them to come back to the table. We secured an agreement with the soft drink bottle industry at that point.”
Operation Breadbasket has become a model of success for churches and faith base institutions around the world in their outreach efforts—helping to provide viable resources to communities in need. Today, Rainbow PUSH Coalition is a direct result from the efforts of many who like Rev. Martin Deppe were brought together by Dr. King’s vision of community responsibility.
But as the men and women of the Civil Rights movement pass on from this world to the next—their hard work and individual sacrifice is threatened not just by President Trump’s administration but by extinction of strong Black leadership.
Nearly 58 years later, Rev. Deppe believes there is still a long way to go in the struggle for social justice and preserving democracy.
“We had our own movement going in Chicago in 1966 around the school issue. We asked King to come and help and he brought the Southern Leadership Coalition (SLC), which joined with other civil rights groups giving us a burst of energy. I think that era was marked by an incredible energy and leadership. King had an enormous group of people around him that are now all icons. Andy (Andrew) Young, CT Vivian and James Bevel along with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. Abernathy—just an incredible group around him,” he continues.
“That kind of leadership plus local leadership that we had at many levels across the country. I just don’t see that leadership today. That bothers me. I don’t see the leadership or commitment that helps to energize people.”
Preserving the history of some of the country’s most dedicated laborers has become a mission for Dr. Lynn Hughes at the A. Philip Randolph Museum located in the historic Pullman community on the far South Side of Chicago. Dr. King’s time in Chicago to organize young people was possible because the tireless sacrifice of the men and women before him. Part of King’s legacy is the power of collaboration across cultures, gender, denominations and age paradigms.
Bridging The Gap for Youth Today
Hughes says, “Something we are missing today is cross-generational relationships. We should pour into you…the younger ones—all that you will need in order to keep moving. We know we’re not going to be here when you go across the line. You have Black Lives Matter and others, but the missing key ingredient and the mindset of ‘they’re old and don’t know what they’re doing.’ Hell, how do you think you got where you are? You had to stand on somebody’s shoulders.”
A past Regional Director for the NAACP and Associate Editor of Chicago Defender’s West Side office Brenetta Barrett worked for decades fighting for those whose voice was silenced by racial discrimination and systemic segregation in Chicago. But, her deepest concern is the lack of education in civic engagement and voter education for school students in addition to publicizing more efforts in voter registration especially among seniors.
Barrett says, “One of the things that is missing, there are not enough of places and opportunities to register others to vote. I think one of the great places where there is such an opportunity is at senior buildings. It’s very well known that seniors will vote like no one else but there are so many of them that get missed, maybe because they relocated within the city or other places in the country or in the state. So, nobody necessarily tells them, you should do that. I don’t find very many faith based institutions do a well-publicized effort in that regard.”
At the time Dr. King and various church groups made it their priority to register voters for the right to exercise their rights as American citizens, but now Barrett feels it has fallen to the wayside to greed.
“I do know some West Side churches promoted the candidacy of current Gov. Rauner from their pulpits and in other ways. I don’t know what went along with those endorsements whether there was a real understanding of some of the consequences. Before he became governor, he ‘telescoped’ his plans and he got the endorsements from the Black clergy and faith base leaders,” Barrett recalls. “I would like to see them do real voter education and every Sunday for people to register to vote—providing they meet the other requirements.”
As a faith leader, author of “Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago 1966-1971,” Rev. Martin Deppe recounts the history and movement of Operation Breadbasket as the catalyst for bringing awareness to build economic empowerment, quality education, employment and building political infrastructure. But, much has changed and the dichotomy of leadership in the community has reversed.
“We went from people going to the communities to help them organize around their issues—not from the top down but from the bottom up. We don’t have the leadership to help organize that way. That’s distressing. We did have an enormous amount of energy during that time. It was just a gift of leadership. The gift of the spirit. The gift of the time that we were able to make significant changes in voter registration and the voter rights in 1965,” he said. “The Housing bill that came within days of Dr. King’s death, where they finally voted on that bill. Those are legacies from that group of people. It was on their shoulders that Jesse came along to run for President and Obama finally was able to secure the White House. It just takes an enormous energy from the bottom but from great leadership.”
For a full Chicago MLK event guide for listings of special King celebrations, please visit Pg.16 in this week’s issue.