By Erick Johnson
The trip began in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn off Lincoln Highway in Matteson.
I boarded a black Ford SUV. Inside was Jacqueline Jackson, wife of Reverend Jesse Jackson. With her were two friends and a driver named Murray. They were a sassy bunch of women who had an opinion about anything and everything.
From Matteson, we drove nearly 50 miles on I-57 to Pembroke Township, the poorest town in Illinois, where most of the residents are Black.
So began a weekend that turned out to be a sobering journey that brought me face-to-face with the harsh realities of the have-nots, a wrongfully-convicted man in prison and the grieving family of a fallen young Black man who died while serving his country.
Many celebrated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend with the usual ceremonies that highlighted his life, legacy and contributions to the Civil Rights movement. This year, my three-day weekend was unique as it focused on the realities of the Black struggle that Dr. King spent his entire life campaigning against.
I didn’t plan this special King-size weekend. Somehow, most of the itinerary came about on its own. How the plans came about is a story in itself. Today, I’m still talking to my friends and colleagues about it. It was truly special and made me think hard about the things we normally take for granted.
My special holiday weekend began after Jacqueline Jackson called the Crusader on January 14 asking if I would like to accompany her and a group to Pembroke, IL, a Black rural town that is so poor, many of its 2,140 residents are forced to cook food with propane gas tanks. The trip was scheduled for January 16, but was moved back a day for some unknown reason.
Our driver was Murray, who once lived in Pembroke in his early years. He was quiet as we drove south on I-57. The minute we entered Pembroke, Murray seemingly morphed into a different person and became a tour guide who opened our eyes to a world that many had forgotten.
Three faded clapboard houses were the first structures we saw. Owned by whites, they were the only homes where there was a Nicor gas line that provided natural gas.
Across the railroad tracks told a different story. We saw rows and rows of houses owned by Blacks that have large propane tanks on the side of the structures. It’s been this way for their entire lives. That’s only the beginning of the hardships for Pembroke’s Black residents.
Half are out of work, and some 200 workers lost their jobs when Nestle closed a plant in 2004 after the property owner demanded higher monthly rent fees. During our tour, we stared at a vacant, white three-story building located in a wooded area off a dirt road.
The nearest supermarket is 15 miles away, and the closest Walmart is 20 miles from Pembroke. We were told more Latinos are moving to Pembroke. Despite the town being predominantly Black, there are no soul food establishments, but there is a Mexican restaurant. We ended up eating at a Cracker Barrel on the other side of Kankakee County, the seat of Pembroke.
There are many crumbling trailer homes in Pembroke that use propane tanks. We saw some of them in wooded parts of Pembroke that resembled something out of a gritty Hollywood movie. With 54 acres, Pembroke is about as country as you can get.
Reverend Jackson is working with Nicor to install a gas line for Pembroke’s Black residents. It’s a move Pembroke Township Supervisor Brenda Miles said would not only make life easier for residents, but would also boost property values in the beleaguered town.
Formed in 1877, Pembroke is a Black farming community that was founded by former slaves. Seeking a better life, Black farmers moved to Pembroke during the Great Migration. The soil that could be used to grow corn and soybeans is not rich enough to reap a decent harvest.
Called the “forgotten” town, Pembroke’s extreme poverty conditions have made headlines and national newscasts. In 2005, then-talk show host Oprah Winfrey visited the town for a story called, “Invisible Lives.”
Back then, 40 percent of Pembroke’s residents lived below the poverty level and the average income was $9,700 a year. Pembroke had no bank, no drug store, no real medical facility and very few paved roads.
During our tour, we saw that not much has changed in Pembroke, which is pronounced, “Pem-Broke,” like the word that means having no money.
Pembroke doesn’t have a mayor. It’s a township where a supervisor and four trustees are elected by the residents. Pembroke doesn’t have a police department, and its fire department is run by several volunteers.
Pembroke used to get some police support from Hopkins Park, a predominantly Black, 42-acre village that sits in Pembroke. In 2009, Hopkins Park lost its police department after firing the entire three-man force when the federal government cut funding, accusing the department of misappropriating funds. Today, the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Department patrols Pembroke and Hopkins Park.
We spent a chunk of our time talking with Brenda Miles at the Pembroke Township Senior Citizens Center. Actually, the facility is located in Hopkins Park. That town annexed the land years ago, but the sign was never changed. Christmas decorations were intact and the smell of fried chicken filled the facility. After an enlightening tour, it was time to return to Chicago.
I arrived in Chicago around 5 p.m. during rush hour. Snow was coming down harder than it was on I-57. Despite the heavy traffic and bad weather, I stopped at the Doty Nash Funeral Home at 86th and Stony Island where the wake of Army Specialist Henry Mayfield from Hazel Crest was in its fifth hour.
It was a sacrifice that paled in comparison to Mayfield’s sacrifice. He was killed during an attack in Kenya on January 4. It was a closed-casket service. An American flag draped the casket as his mother was comforted by another woman. Two days prior, I had traveled to Hazel Crest where 50 police vehicles from different towns escorted the hearse carrying Mayfield’s body to the Hazel Crest City Hall for a brief prayer service. It was a stunning sight to behold as red and blue sirens flashed as the vehicles traveled along 183rd Street.
My King-sized weekend included some fun.
On January 18, I saw for the umpteenth time, “Too Hot to Handel,” the gospel-jazz-classic rendition of George Frederic Handel’s Christmas holiday classic that honored King’s legacy. This tribute is always a treat, but my unique weekend gave me a deeper sense of appreciation for this beloved Chicago tradition.
The final part of my four-day weekend was a trip to Canton, IL to see Roosevelt Myles, a wrongfully-convicted man who has served 28 years in prison for a murder on the West Side.
I originally planned to visit Myles at the Illinois River Correctional Institute on January 18, but an impending snowstorm forced me to move it exactly to January 20, the federal holiday that honors King.
I had decided to make the trip on January 12, after I saw the film, “Just Mercy,” at the Studio Movie Grill in Chatham. Actor Michael B. Jordan plays Attorney Bryan Stephenson, whose painful pursuit of justice led to the exoneration of Walter McMillian, a Black man who was sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl in Monroeville, Alabama, despite evidence proving his innocence.
The film reminds me of Myles’ experience in Cook County’s broken criminal justice system.
I’ve visited Myles several times before in Canton, which is 388 miles from Chicago. On this trip, I spent the night at his girlfriend’s family house in Peoria. It was in the same neighborhood where the late comedian Richard Pryor grew up. His house is gone, and new buildings dot the neighborhood.
The next day, we looked at some of the movie, “Selma,” before making the 40-minute trip to see Myles. The visiting room wasn’t crowded. About four other inmates with friends and family were there. Two of the four inmates were Black. Four hours later, most of the inmates were Black. Their loved ones came to see them with their children.
During our time with Myles, we played Spades (I won most of the games) and talked about his case. I sat next to the window where you can see the 10-foot fence with barbed wire behind a red-brick wall that encloses a patio that’s seldom-used.
The restrictions reminded me of the freedoms that had been taken away from a man who has spent half of his life not appreciating the day that honors the only Black man for whom a federal holiday is named. He did that day. What a weekend.