By Patrice Nkrumah, Chicago Crusader
Fifty years ago, Marquette Park on the city’s South Side was a dangerous place for Blacks to walk or drive through, let alone try to buy property. It’s where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was pummeled with racial insults, rocks and bottles during a 1966 visit. The violence directed towards the man of peace, who had come to Chicago to march as part of the protests led by the Chicago Freedom Movement for fair and open housing, showed the ugliness of Chicago’s racial problems. Now Marquette Park is a racially-diverse community. But the memory of what happened to Dr. King and other marchers was immortalized in a sculpture that was unveiled last weekend at the park.
Hundreds of people recreated the march on Aug. 6. They paid homage to the sculpture, which is the first permanent memorial in Chicago built to commemorate Dr. King and the Chicago Freedom Movement. Many of those who were in attendance at the first march came out again for the recreation.
Silas Murray, from Wisconsin, said he grew up not too far from Marquette Park on the Gage Park/ West Englewood border. He lived there for 20 years before moving to Beloit. He attended Saturday’s rally with his son and two grandsons. He said it is shocking to see how the neighborhood has changed throughout the years.
“If today were 1966, I wouldn’t be able to stand here today and talk to you like this. That’s how hateful and vicious they were towards Black people in this neighborhood,” Murray said. “I will never forget the language that was directed towards us. They were throwing anything they could get their hands on at us. Bottles, batteries, small metal nuts it did not matter to them. It’s something you never forget.”
The violence was so intense that day it prompted Dr. King to say the following:
“This is a terrible thing. I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the south. But I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago.”
Those who were there that day said the mob of about 7,000 people were mostly young white thugs. But things were different 50 years later as marchers walked to the sounds of beating drums and carried signs saying, “We Want a Beloved Community,” as they retraced King’s footsteps. Chicago Police, along with private security, kept the event safe for everyone as there had been concerns there would be protests in wake of the release of the video showing police shoot and kill Paul O’Neal the day before. But while the O’Neal killing was on everyone’s mind, the march was kept peaceful.
“Dr. King would not have wanted for this march today to turn violent because of the recent sad and serious events that have taken place,” said David Anderson from Hyde Park. “But I think the police shootings of Black people around the country, but especially here in Chicago, show the racial problems we are still facing. How we try and solve those problems will show who we are as a people.”
The sculpture itself took 10 years to create and sits near the northernmost part of the park. Sonja Henderson is one of the sculptors. She said they did not want to depict the violence in the artwork. Instead, she wants the piece to be inspirational to multicultural families and show the potential of humanity.
“We got to a point where we thought it was really important that people know the history and we use that as our point of departure,” Henderson said.
Marquette Park is the largest park on the southwest side in the Chicago Lawn community. According to the U.S. Census, statistics show in the early 70’s, Chicago Lawn was 98.5 percent white, and zero percent Black. In 2010, the area is now just 3 percent white, 54 percent Black and 42 percent Latino.