The 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive
By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader Special Section
If you’re going to the Auto Show this weekend or the Black Woman’s Expo in April, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive takes you straight to McCormick Place. The nation’s largest convention center sits on the west side of King Drive. On the east side of King Drive is the Hyatt McCormick Place Hotel.
Head further south on King Drive and you’ll find 67 businesses, 25 Black churches, 20 mansions, 24 fast food eateries and restaurants, 10 grocery stores, 8 landmarks, 7 monuments, 5 public schools, 5 gas stations, 5 massive parks, 2 iconic Black newspapers, 2 libraries, and 2 red light cameras.
Seventeen honorary street signs on King Drive salute prominent Blacks, their legacies all shared with the world’s greatest civil rights leader.
After decades of protests, parades and urban renewal, King Drive remains more vibrant than ever. Rich in history and revered for its beauty, diversity and social significance, the street that has been used by generations of Chicagoans is as relevant today as Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, Detroit’s Woodward Avenue and New York’s famed 125th Street in Harlem. That street is also called Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, along with some 730 streets in 39 states named after Dr. King.
But Chicago’s King Drive is the granddaddy of them all. Born out of politics, time and faith have developed King Drive into perhaps the most quintessential street fit for a King.
Former first lady Michelle Obama once lived on King Drive. So did Chicago’s first Black Mayor Harold Washington, journalist Ida B. Wells, Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott and Chicago Crusader founder Balm L. Leavell. The list goes on and on.
King Drive is Black Chicago’s main street, that leads to anywhere and everywhere on the South Side. This year, King Drive turns 50 and there is much to celebrate. It’s the world’s first and oldest street named after the slain civil rights leader and the undisputed bragging rights belong to Black Chicago, the crossroads to Black America.
Countless celebrities and politicians of all races, including Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Duke Ellington and former President Barack Obama have strolled down King Drive. The funerals of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon were held on King Drive. Since 1929 the annual Bud Billiken Parade, the largest Black parade in America, has been showcased along King Drive.
Both of the city’s historic Black newspapers, the Chicago Crusader and the Chicago Defender have their offices on King Drive. They are among 10 Black newspapers around the country on a street named after King. Now located at 6429 S. King Dr., the Crusader was founded 78 years ago in the Ida B. Wells housing project on 39th and King Drive, where Mayor Harold Washington grew up.
In 1973, Washington, then an Illinois state representative, introduced a bill that eventually made Illinois the first state to recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday as a state holiday.
For this special story for Black History Month, a Crusader writer spent hours walking and driving down King Drive, documenting the people, institutions, businesses and historic events that together, make Chicago’s King Drive one of the most colorful and fascinating streets in all of Black America.
The country will mark the 50th Anniversary of King’s assassination in the coming months, but Black Chicago will also reach a special milestone with the 50th Anniversary of King Drive, a street that’s closely linked with the tragic death of the civil rights leader. The connection is what makes Chicago’s King Drive so special and significant.
For 20th ward Alderman Willie Cochran whose ward meanders down King Drive from the 60s through the 80s, the turbulence of the time and Dr. King’s actions “molded my character and views of society and how I wanted to positively impact and change the world.” The renaming of South Parkway to King Drive he says, “was, and continues to be a fitting tribute to Dr. King. The street is as beautiful, vibrant and full of fight and spirit as he was.”
With so many stories to tell, there is not enough space in this issue to fully cover the rich history of King Drive, but welcome aboard for a special tour of the street that Black Chicago proudly calls its own.
King Drive goes through nine neighborhoods covering 13 miles, including the South Loop, Bronzeville, Washington Park, Woodlawn, Greater Grand Crossing, Park Manor, Chatham, West Chesterfied and Roseland. Politically, King Drive wanders through the wards of five aldermen, including those of Sofia King (4th), Pat Dowell (3rd), Willie Cochran (20th), Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Anthony Beale (9th).
On the state level, King Drive touches five Illinois House District seats held by outgoing State Representative Juliana Stratton (5th), State Representative Christian Mitchell (26th), State Representative Andre Thapedi (32nd), State Representative Nicholas Smith (34th) and State Representative Robert Rita (28th).
At the national level King Drive runs through the districts of Congressman Bobby Rush (1st), Congresswoman Robin Kelly (2nd) and Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th).
For Blacks, the story of King Drive begins with the Great Migration statue by Alison Star. Located just past the I-55 underpass, it depicts a gentleman in worn out shoes, with a suitcase. The statue greets thousands of drivers as they enter historic Bronzeville, where millions of Blacks migrated, to escape the segregated South.
The most historic part of King Drive lies between 35th Street and 51st Street. It is a wide scenic boulevard flanked by separate residential roads and beautifully maintained vintage homes. Further south, King Drive becomes a two-lane road, but still has more iconic businesses.
Alderman Dowell (3rd) lives on King Drive.
“It’s a regal street that flows through Chicago’s African-American community,” Dowell said. “I always wanted to live on King Drive. There’s a tremendous amount of history on King Drive.”
How King Drive came about is a story in itself. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968, Chicago was among 125 cities where riots followed. Tensions in the city were already building after police arrested comedian Dick Gregory and several protestors who were rocked by a mob as they marched in then Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Daley himself hated King, calling him a “troublemaker.”
Alderman Leon Despres (5th), a white King supporter, first sponsored an ordinance to rename a street after King. Despres wanted the street to be in the Loop, where King once held a march, but Daley wanted the street on the South Side, because he was afraid whites would deface the street signs, according to journalist Mike Rokyo’s best-selling book, Boss. With the Democratic National Convention scheduled to take place in Chicago in August, Daley threw his support behind the naming move, afraid that Blacks would protest and embarrass the city on a national stage. By a unanimous vote, the city council on July 31, passed an ordinance renaming South Parkway, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr.
It would be the third name in the street’s long history. First called Grand Boulevard, it was renamed South Parkway in 1923, before it was rechristened King Drive in 1968.
The decision to rename the street was the official coronation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Drive.
Matured over time, it’s a street that has been decades in the making, but the process wasn’t easy. Over three thousand Blacks living in mansions carved up into apartments were displaced before the massive Prairie Shores Lake Meadows apartments were built on 750 acres of land between 31st and 35th streets in 1960.
The Supreme Life Insurance Company, Gerri’s Palm Tavern–just east of South Parkway, the Regal and Metropolitan Theaters, the Savoy and Parkway Ballrooms, the Grand Terrace Club and the Keyhole Lounge, together established the street as Black Chicago’s main thoroughfare. All that was needed was the King Drive street name. As the nation mourned Dr. King’s death, the re-naming of South Parkway came at the perfect time.
Today, some businesses and institutions on King Drive still have Parkway or South Park as part of their identity. They include the Parkway Ballroom, South Park Baptist Church, Parkway Gardens Homes, Parkway Gardens Christian Church and the Parkway Supermarket. At 63rd and King Drive, there’s a King Discount Store and at 80th and King Drive, the remnants of the closed King Bowl bowling alley still remain. It was once called South Park Lanes. One year after King Dr. got its new name, the South Park Library at 3436 S King Drive, was named after King. The Green line “L” station was once named South Park but was renamed King Drive after the street was renamed in 1968.
The Regal Theater and many historic in-stitutions on King Dr. from the 1940s and 1950s have been demolished, but the Parkway Ballroom and rows of historic mansions and homes remain.
In 1919, Richard B. Harrison, a Broadway actor, was the first Black to purchase a home on King drive, which was then called Grand Boulevard. Harrison and his family were gone within a year after their 14-room mansion at 3624 Grand Boulevard was bombed twice, according to the Autobiography of Black Chicago, by Dempsey Travis. Chicago’s wealthy white, German, Irish and Jewish residents were reluctant to give up their neighborhood and the wide, tree-lined Grand Boulevard, a popular route for their fancy horse-drawn carriages.
Ferdinand L. Barnett, an attorney who in 1878 founded the city’s first Black newspaper, the Chicago Conservator along with his wife Ida B. Wells, a fearless journalist. They purchased the house abandoned by the Harrisons.
After the wealthy residents fled north of the city, prominent Blacks scooped up their mansions. Actress and contralto Etta Moten Barnett purchased a mansion that still stands at 3619 S. King Dr. Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbot’s mansion is a national landmark at 4742 S. King Dr.
An elegant French Victorian mansion still standing today at 4806 S. King Dr. was purchased in 1925 by Nathan K. McGill the general counsel for the Defender.
Few remember that dermatologist Dr. Theodore “T.K.” Lawless lived in a neoclassical mansion that’s still a few doors from his office building on the east side of 43rd and King Dr. In 1978, DuSable Museum founder Margaret Burroughs saved the 115-year-old Elam Mansion, named after Melissa Elam who turned the mansion into a boarding house for Black women. The next year, the mansion became a Chicago landmark, but in 2012, a fire ripped through the three-story structure; it has been boarded up since then.
Even fewer still remember banker Jesse Binga, who owned the first Black privately funded bank in Chicago, named the Binga State Bank. Binga’s house still stands at 5922 S. King Dr. in Washington Park. According to the Autobiography of Black Chicago, the house was bombed seven times during a period when residents of predominately white Washington Park used restrictive housing covenants to keep Blacks out of the neighborhood. Ironically, Alderman and Attorney Earl B. Dickerson had an office at 3507 S. King Drive. Dickerson successfully argued the Supreme Court case Hansberry vs. Lee, which outlawed racially restrictive covenants.
King Drive anchors five public parks, most of them well-equipped and offering a variety of facilities. They are Washington Park, at 55th; Meyering Playground Park, at 71st; Nat King Cole Park, at 85th; Tuley Park at 90th Place; and Potter Palmer Park (named after the wealthy Chicago tycoon) at 111th.
Washington Park was once called the Western Division of South Park, also Park No. 2). In 1881, the South Park Commissioners named the park in honor of former President George Washington. In May 1967, a group of Black protestors in Washington Park tried to remove the sign named after Washington, a slaveholder. They tried to replace it with a Malcolm X sign. Police broke up the demonstration and a riot ensued. Not many recall that Washington Park had a horse racing track for years before it was relocated to Homewood, IL in 1926. It closed in 1977.
Further up King Drive is Parkway Gardens Homes, a sprawling, low-income 700-unit complex, the first cooperatively owned African-American housing development in the United States. The complex, located from 6330 to 6546 is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. Former first lady Michelle Obama lived there briefly.
The complex is on the site of what used to be the White City Amusement Park and White City Roller Rink. Complete with a Ferris wheel, carnival rides and games, the park got its name from the white plaster used to build temporary neoclassical build- ings like the ones at the 1893 World’s Fair in Jackson Park.
But to Blacks, the name White City was fitting because the amusement park and roller rink did not admit Blacks. In 1949, a group of Blacks picketed and protested to force the rink to open its doors to people of color. The rink closed instead, and Parkway Gardens Homes was built two years later.
Three CTA buses travel along King Drive, but the major one is Route 3. That service started on December 26, 1926. A CTA spokesman said Route 3 averages 15,000 to 20,000 passengers per weekday and consistently ranks in the top 10 of the transit agency’s 140 bus routes. On 63rd Street and King Drive in Woodlawn is the Green Line “L” station. In 1970, the King Drive station became one of the few stations that allow passengers to board only on one side of the facility.
Illinois’ three major expressways I-94, I-90 and I-55 are all accessible from King Drive.
The southernmost portion of King Drive is lined mostly with single family homes. But at 95th and King Drive is Chicago State University, a 150-year-old institution that began in Englewood, but relocated to King Drive in 1972. The predominately Black school had four different names before it became Chicago State University in 1971.
Perhaps the biggest tributes to Dr. King on King Drive are the 25 Black churches that line the street from the north to the south.
The Civil Rights Movement was a preacher’s movement. But Joseph H. Jackson, a Daley ally and pastor of Olivet Baptist Church did not like King. In 1968 Jackson decided to use the church’s 31st Street entrance as the church address after the street became King Drive.
In 2001, members of the Metropolitan Apostolic Church at 4100 S. King Drive protested the city’s plans to demolish its historic Romanesque building. The city relented and the building became a Chicago landmark in 2007.
King Drive will also help one to locate other iconic Black institutions. Wendell Phillips Academy, Chicago’s oldest predominately Black high school, can be seen at Pershing near King Drive. The Forum, a vacant but historic auditorium used by famous jazz and blues artists is just west at King Drive and 43rd Street. On the next block on the east side of King Drive. is Louis Armstrong’s house at 421 East 44th Street. In the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, the iconic Lem’s Barbeque, and Brown Sugar Bakery are a few blocks off King Drive, on 75th Street. Just east of King Drive at 51st Street is Provident Hospital. It was once a predominately Black institution where Doctor Daniel Hale Williams, an African American, performed the first open heart surgery when the hospital was located at 29th and Dearborn. At 71st Street and King Drive is Emmett Till Rd, an honorary street named after the 14-year old boy who was brutally killed by two white men in 1955 in Money, Mississippi. His mother held an open casket funeral in Chicago that shock the world. Till’s body was handled by A.A. Rayner Funeral home just two blocks west of King Drive.
Chicago residents may still remember when Pastor Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church of Chicago in 2011 camped on the roof of a dilapidated motel at 66th and King Drive for 94 days, to convince the city to demolish the building, which sat across the street from his church. Entertainment mogul Tyler Perry persuaded Brooks to leave the rooftop by donating $100,000 to the church. Today the area is an open parking lot with several basketball hoops. Brooks’ church sits on the former location of Robert’s Show Lounge, 6635 S. King Dr. Herman Roberts owned the lounge from 1954-1961 during which time he booked top Black entertainers. Roberts is still a resident of the community.
One of the most significant churches on King Drive is Liberty Baptist Church at 4853 S. King Dr. This year, Liberty Baptist Church is celebrating its 100th birthday during the 50th Anniversary of King’s assassination and of course, the 50th anniversary of the renaming of King Drive.
Dr. King preached there several times when it was under the leadership of Reverend A.P. Jackson. On July 24, 1960 King held a massive rally there called “March for Freedom Now.” In addition to King and A.P. Jackson, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller; Ralph Abernathy; A. Phillip Randolph; Roy Wilkins of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and the man behind King’s famous 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, all attended.
Crowds spilled out onto King Drive for the event. Days earlier, author and businessman Dempsey Travis joined King, Abernathy, Rustin and Randolph at the Parkway Ballroom to plan the rally.
“There’s a long legacy and history that put me here,” said Damen Smith, associate minister at Liberty Baptist Church.
Today, King Drive is still thriving. Mariano’s Supermarket at 39th and King Drive is humming with customers. A Culver’s restaurant in the Lake Meadows Plaza has drawn long lines since it opened this month. Peaches, which opened at 47th and King Drive in 2015 is a popular breakfast place. It’s owned by prominent Chef Clifford Rome, who is also Chef at the Parkway Ballroom. South of Peaches, the façade of a vintage mansion is being restored and its interior gutted and rehabbed. Renaissance, a lounge that replaced the Jokes & Notes club last year on the east side of 47th and King Drive is hopping with business. Next to it is Popacorn Popcorn, which also open in 2017 in former Alderman Dorothy Tillman’s office space. A fourth Dunkin Donuts and a third Baskin Robbins will open soon on King Drive at 75th Street in the former J&J’s Fish and Chicken location. Just four blocks south, the Whitney Young Branch on King Drive is undergoing a major $12 million renovation.
“I think we in Chicago have tried to keep the spirit of Dr. King uplifted by King Drive,” says third ward Alderman Pat Dowell. “This is a street that’s genuine and true to King’s legacy.”