Op-Ed: The Obama Presidential Center

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Reverend Dr. Leon D. Finney, Jr.

One freezing February night in 2015, I crammed into the assembly hall of Hyde Park Career Academy with 950 other South Siders. We were there to voice our support for bringing the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) to Chicago. Over the next 24 months, hundreds of loyal supporters like myself attended every public hearing held by the Chicago Park District and the City to show our dedication to making the OPC – and the economic benefits it would bring – a reality for the South Side.

Time and again, we’ve made our voices heard. As a result of the ongoing community support, a center honoring our country’s first African-American president will soon be adjacent to our beautiful lakefront and share park space with the world-class Museum of Science and Industry.

Unfortunately, self-styled “activists” are doing their utmost to stymie this project. Friends of the Parks, Jackson Park Watch, and others argue the OPC should sit on a less prominent site, such as 55th and King Drive. Some adopt the strategy of supporting the OPC officially but opposing all plans accompanying it.

It cannot be a coincidence that the vast majority of these OPC opponents are whites or non-profits controlled by whites. These relentless attacks on the promise and future of what the OPC will bring to our community may seem to be about maintaining the current park landscape. But I and my black sisters and brothers know better. We are not fooled.

We know that, in spite of the historic Obama presidency, America’s race problem endures. Sure, according to the law, we may technically be able to sit anywhere on the bus or in the restaurant; we are supposed to be able to move into any neighborhood and send our children to any school. But if you wake up and look around, you’ll see the race problem lives on. All you have to do is read the news. From Hyde Park to the White House, it divides us still.

How else can one account for white activists who oppose devoting a mere five percent of Jackson Park to honor our first African-American president, as well as the ordinary and extraordinary people who made the Obama’s story possible?

For us, the OPC is neither a pet project nor an abstract idea. It offers a chance to revitalize our neighborhoods, raise property values, and create learning and employment opportunities for our young people.

And yes, the symbolism matters: The OPC should be located in the most prominent, viable, and accessible place possible. Anything less shows disrespect to the legacy of President and Mrs. Obama and all of those that have come before them. Yes, the OPC should stand tall in the best location we have to offer, so that black and brown children from all over the city will see the OPC as a beacon of hope and understand that they, too, can be president someday. The OPC belongs in Jackson Park.

Daniel H. Burnham, the author of the Burnham Plan, said these words: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing.”

The future OPC is a “noble” and “big plan,” deserving of a prominent place where it can stir the blood of future generations of all races – to dream of becoming leaders of the next generation. We cannot – and will not – stand by while a few groups attempt to marginalize the life and work of the Obamas and black men and women throughout history.

Reverend Dr. Leon D. Finney, Jr.

Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church

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