50 Years Since Marquette Park - A Broader View

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The memorial has been dedicated; the march through Chicago's Marquette Park honoring Martin Luther King's encounter with northern racism is over--another day consigned to history. While organizers, funders and the media focused on the day of August 5, 1966, when 1000 marchers for open housing were met by jeers and bottles and cherry bombs hurled by angry white men, it is not the day that I remember most about that summer. Rather it was the relationships forged that led to and surrounded the march that I think are most important to remember, understand and celebrate.

It was during that year that bonds of friendship were formed among a group of young organizers that I would argue changed the course of history--for Chicago and the nation--through the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, a little known and short-lived organization led by civil rights giant Al Raby which partnered with SCLC and Dr. King in the many marches and events of the summer.

At the time I was a college student and newly-minted organizer in Chicago's Uptown community at JOIN Community Union - one of the off-campus ventures of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that hoped to "create an interracial movement of the poor" - that would end poverty and the war in Vietnam. Amid a community of Appalachian whites, African-Americans, Native Americans, we walked the blocks and organized rent strikes against slumlords, sat-in at welfare offices to protest the enforced poverty of women, and took on police brutality and the City Administration behind it.

Founded in 1965, the Coordinating Council became the forum in which, for the first time, we began to seriously work with our counter-parts from other parts of the city. While the march was a focal point, for perhaps two years, we met and strategized with leaders like Bishop Arthur Brazier and Leon Finney of The Woodlawn Organization, Al Sampson and Dorothy Tillman of SCLC, Bob Lucas of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Cha Cha Jimenez of the Young Lords and Obed Lopez of the Puerto Rican community, and Art Vasquez of an emerging Mexican leadership in Pilsen and Little Village - those who as much as Saul Alinsky laid the groundwork for the robust community activism of Chicago today.

While we marched together in Marquette Park, what emerged was a united group of Blacks, whites and Latinos, who forged a common critique of capitalism, a shared agenda for change, and who had each other's back.

While Dr. King came and left, the Coordinating Council disbanded and a more militant Black Panther Party and student movement displaced the organizations and tactics of the past, the relationships endured and flowered.

These were the activists, joined by a growing on-campus anti-war movement that became the core of the 1968 demonstrations, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. King and at the August 1968 Democratic Convention. And again, while demonstrations died down and many 'leaders' left, the bonds remained.

15 years later when I returned to Chicago to work with Harold Washington in his third run for Mayor, I found many of these same men and women at the core of the campaign -- an organization called ProCan (Progressive Chicago Area Network) - being the forum for an even more expanded and robust network of social justice and community activists.

This time rather than petitioning power, we took it. We not only elected Harold Washington, but changed the face of the City Council and eventually elected a Congressional delegation that reflected the very coalition forged during the late 1960s--consumer advocate Jan Schakowsky; Black nationalist Danny Davis; advocate for Puerto Rican independence Luis Gutierrez; and Black Panther Bobby Rush.

While the deaths of Washington, Raby were great losses and activists turned to local battles around education, housing, the relationships were never frayed. Two decades later, on October 2, 2002 it was this core group of activists that worked together to convene the nation's first rally against George Bush's impending invasion of Iraq - the demonstration where Barack Obama declared his opposition to Bush's "stupid war"--a distinguishing position that helped propel him to the presidency six years later.

And when Barack - against all odds, embarked on his Senate candidacy, it was again this set of folks - now expanded, that formed the initial infrastructure of relationships on which his Senate campaign, and eventually his run for president, was built.

Why is this important? We are at a moment in history where events fade in two-day news cycles; where political activists 'resign' from parties and movements when they've not achieved their objectives within their imagined time frame; when young people have little chance to learn of or from what has gone before.

This is a tragedy that leaves us with little understanding of context or the process of change. Without a grasp of history, it is hard to know the power and lessons of the past. Without knowledge of the long arc of change, it is hard to know where to go or how to get there.

So this weekend, while I will remember the hot and dusty day, the cherry bombs and aching feet, I also know that what is most lasting, what is most important to tell, is the story of the people involved, the long march that we embarked on and the path that we continue to walk - together.

A shorter version of this piece was published by Chicago Sun-Times on August 11.