The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired many blacks to fight for their rights and their dignity during the turbulent civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.

His efforts led him north to Chicago in 1966 where he briefly rented a shabby West Side apartment to highlight poor housing conditions for blacks. Despite King’s intentions, he got little support from most of the citys pastors, in part, because of their ties to Richard J. Daley’s political machine.

But on Sunday, some of the city’s pastors, including from Austin and greater West Side, came out to honor and support King.

Renowned Chicago pastor, the Rev. Clay Evans, was among the few clergy who welcomed the nation’s preeminent civil rights leader to Chicago.

In fact, it was on this day, Jan. 17, that King announced his Chicago campaign.

King later spoke at Fellowship Missionary, and Evans was instrumental in forming Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, which fought to place Blacks in jobs in various industries around the city.

But Evans’s embrace of King came with a price: it would take Evans seven years to complete a new church for his congregation after the city interfered in the project.

Evans’ independent stance 42 years ago, and his work with King, were recalled this past Sunday, as Evans was the keynote speaker at the 1st annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, sponsored by the LEADER’s Network.

The network, led by Austin pastors Rev. Ira Acree and Marshall Hatch, is composed of Chicago pastors. Sunday’s theme was “His Sacrifice, Our Service.”

Evans, the 82-year-old emeritus pastor of Fellowship Church on the South Side, delivered Sunday’s sermon at Corinthian Temple Church, 4520 W. Washington. The packed church cheered Evans’ sermon, which was interspersed with gospel songs, dancing and chants.

“If you love your neighbor, you have to show it,” Evans told the crowd. “When you are a child of God, you can’t pick and choose. When God is in your life, the love of God will make you help people you otherwise might hate.”

According to leaders of the network -which stands for Leaders for Empowerment, Advocacy, and Disaster Relief – Evans was an appropriate speaker to celebrate King’s life.

At least in their rhetoric, the group does not shy away from the label independent.

The network of mostly West Side pastors unofficially organized around Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005. The network has since built an organization that has spoken out against police brutality, and for fair housing and empowering youth, amount other issues.

The organization wants to mobilize parishioners for a “new millennium civil rights movement,” said Hatch, pastor at Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, and member of the group’s executive team.

“We have a voice that’s not controlled by the powers that be, by party, politician, or power broker,” said Hatch, who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Isaac Carothers for the 29th Ward aldermanic seat in 2003.

Currently, 25 churches have signed up as members of the network, representing some 15,000 parishioners, according Hatch.

The LEADER’s Network tries “to do just enough of the hard-edge stuff to make enemies, but enough good stuff that people would want to join us,” Hatch said.

The group’s work has included raising money (more than $100,000, according to the group) for victims of natural disasters, fighting the closure of Bethany Hospital, and traveling to Louisiana on behalf of the Jena 6.

Hatch added that the group has been out front of police misconduct issues in Chicago, fighting to disband the police department’s Special Operations Section, and calling for reform of the “roundtable” review process after an officer discharges his gun while on duty.

In 2008, the group will focus on educational initiatives, home foreclosures and police issues.

The network plans on working on political campaigns as well, according to Ira Acree, another member of the executive team, and pastor at Great St. John Bible Church. Acree said the group already has a volunteer base of at least 500 people.

“We’re not here to make the mayor, governor, state senators happy, but we’re here to keep them accountable, ensure they live out and carry out their office with integrity and justice,” he said.

Acree added that the group is planning to back a candidate for the 28th Ward aldermanic seat. Incumbent Ald. Ed Smith is running for Cook County Recorder of Deeds. Acree declined to say who their candidate would be, but promised that the candidate would be “progressive and not a machine guy.”

The group is also monitoring 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts’ seat, and is planning to run one of its members, Stephen Thurston II, for Barack Obama’s senate seat if he’s elected president.

Alderman Smith, who attended Sunday night’s service, said of the LEADER’s Network: “It may not be partisan politics, but this is a strong force.”